I was a total and complete basket case. When I first decided to embark on the LifeWays training in the winter of 2007, I was right in the middle of a full-blown authenticity crisis. A new second-time mother with a 7-month-old and nearly 3-year-old daughters, I was experiencing the very difficult learning curve of acclimating from parenting one child to parenting two children of different age groups. My life was a constant whirlwind and although I seemingly moved through my days in a somewhat orderly fashion, I was an exhausted, unhappy, overwhelmed, confused shell of a person stuck in a soul-sucking well of despair. Who was I? What happened to the “me” who used to be—was she gone forever?
For the decade before I had children, I enjoyed a successful career as an editor for several medical education companies. I was in charge of preparing the content for educational programs for physicians and was steadily moving up the editorial ladder. I was well paid, traveled often, and had the immense privilege of working closely with some of the world’s great thought leaders. I took pride in my work and in the fact that I was able to “talk shop” with the doctors. I was well organized and on top of things. I was fit and well put together and enjoyed books, music, opera, and the outdoors. My husband and I lived an exciting, privileged life in which we could essentially do as we pleased. But something was missing.
I longed for a child and was so overjoyed when I found out that my first child, Flora, was on the way. I immediately shifted into “mommy mode” and began reading about the best cribs and strollers and things for baby. I was also very committed to a natural lifestyle, something that had been very important to me since my teen years. I sought out a midwife and hired a doula (I had always known that I wanted a drug-free birth) and read extensively on natural family living, vaccines, and nutrition.
However, I floundered as a new mother due to a difficult and painful birth, as well as my desire to do everything just right. In retrospect, I also had trouble finding my voice as a mother with my own mother living just downstairs from me (we share a two-family house with my parents). In the face of her zeal to help and protect mother and child, my own spark to forge a new way for my little family was subdued.
I eventually found my footing within the first year. I became happy, comfortable, and confident in my parenting. Soon I felt like another soul was looking to join us. A year later, Zoe completed our family. She was happy and healthy, a relatively easy baby who ate well and slept a lot.
Six months in, I began to feel sick with what was later diagnosed as a thyroid condition. In addition, I had a punctured uterus and spent months bleeding almost constantly. I experienced all sorts of debilitating symptoms and I could not seem to get well. My home routine suffered and I began to feel overwhelmed, confused and unable to manage the children and myself successfully through the day without one or all of us having a meltdown. I simply could not cope with the demands of both children. The Pandora’s Box of motherhood had been opened.
I knew there had to be a better way. My mother had always joyfully and contentedly run a very smooth household. We were never rushed, we had freshly cooked meals daily, and the house was always in order. I have beautiful memories of my childhood, my home and my mother, and I was determined to recreate that for my own children. I wanted my girls to have an uncommon life filled with beauty and truth and a mother whom they would always remember as kind, patient, nurturing and graceful. I looked at the images of mothers in my daughters’ Elsa Beskow books and longed to be one of them.
As mothers, we hold so much and in such an intense way. When children come through us, there is a different meaning to life. Suddenly, everything has significance and substance. Everything becomes spiritual. But, what holds the mother? How do we know where we are in reference to our children? Where are we? Where is our spouse or partner? Where are our parents? How do we stay connected? Where does the energy come for all of this and how can it be kept going?
I loved being a mother and wanted that to come through in my parenting. I wanted to be the mother my girls deserve to have, to be someone worth emulating. As Sharifa Oppenheimer stated simply in her book Heaven on Earth, “Be the Sun.” My mistake came in thinking I needed to do everything “just right” all of the time, for that to be true. If I missed something—for example, taking long nature walks with the girls, making handmade gifts and cards, not feeding them 100% organic food from scratch all of the time, being off rhythm—I flagellated myself and punished my soul with guilt and anger. I also manifested this as resentment towards my family for expecting too much of me and not being cooperative in letting me run the household the way I saw fit. I was no longer the person of faith I had always been, viewing life through the lens of the spirit.
In truth, it is our children who teach us the way in being the “sun,” always forgiving us and connecting to our intentions on a most elemental level. Hence, even if the end result is unsatisfactory to us, if it is taken up with a gesture of joyfulness, our children see little beyond our striving.
Through a summer CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program, I came to know one of the mothers at our Waldorf school who had completed the LifeWays training a couple of years earlier. I always admired how she handled her three children (then aged from infant to first grader) with grace, patience, a kind heart, and a firm (though not obviously so) hand. She still worked part-time, and was often alone as her husband works as a surgeon. She seemed to me to manage everything well, easily juggling several balls at once and remaining full of light. (In fact, she later became my LifeWays mentor). When I saw the description for the training on the LifeWays North America website, I knew I had found my answer:
“The LifeWays Early Childhood Training is a comprehensive training to give you the understanding and skills you need to transform your living…with young children. It will help to deepen your parenting…The curriculum is designed to engage you as a whole person, not just intellectually. It is a very hands-on approach. Along with the study of child development, there is an emphasis on the student’s personal development.” So, really, a lot of this was about me, the mother. This was back to basics: care of the home and family, the kind I imagined our grandmothers implemented without training. The opportunity for transformation, and quite possibly redemption, was staring right back at me from the computer monitor. I applied immediately.
After the first summer session in Maine, I realized that the art of domesticity involves maintaining a delicate balance. I needed to change the energy in my house. I needed to find a way to look at my life from a different perspective. Food preparation needed to become cooking meals to nourish body and soul of everyone in the home. Cleaning, instead of drudgery, needed to be viewed with satisfaction at releasing the Elementals [nature spirits] and changing the energy in the house. Rhythm became the guidepost for breathing in and out during the days, weeks, and seasons, where opportunities to stop and examine, adjust, refuel and forgive manifested. This was life—lived fully, viewed creatively.
In her book, The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy, and “Women’s Work,” Kathleen Norris writes, “Laundry, liturgy, and women’s work all serve to ground us in the world, and they need not grind us down. Our daily tasks, whether we perceive them as drudgery or essential, life-supporting work, do not define who we are as women or as human beings. But they have a considerable spiritual import, and…the way they come together in the fabric of faith, is not often appreciated.” For the women who came before us, there were no choices about what kind of life to live or questions of self. It was assumed that girls would grow into women who would marry, have children, raise them, and run the home. Later, they would become grandmothers who would help their daughters with their families and become the wise elders of the clan. However, these women rarely experienced identity crises and were the anchors for their families, much beloved by their neighbors and villages for their strength and contributions to the larger community. Strong of faith, these women performed their daily tasks slowly and deliberately, living in the moment of each facet of family life, immersing themselves in an almost meditative way that made those in their care feel loved and nurtured. Norris writes, “A mature feminism recognizes that subjects such as cooking can be difficult for women to address, as they have so often been seen as insignificant ‘women’s work,’ but it also asks us to recognize that their intimate nature makes them serious and important.” Is this not perhaps feminism in the truest sense – simultaneously birthing the babies, carrying the home, and making a mark on the world around you while remaining rock solid in your sense of self?
Another lesson to be gleaned from generations past is how the women of the village always worked together whether it was communal washing, harvesting, butchering, preparing for festivals, or just plain watching out for each other’s children. When did motherhood become a competitive sport of Darwinian proportion? As women, we need to stop insisting on martyrdom as the barometer of judgment for success as mothers. We need to be kinder to each other. First and foremost, we also need to be kinder to ourselves.
Some months ago, I came across a website called FlyLady (www.flylady.net), which was started by a North Carolina housewife ten years ago to help maintain the home using daily and weekly plans and simple steps (“baby steps”) to keep the home running smoothly. I enjoy her various acronyms, e.g., “Are you living in CHAOS (Can’t Have Anyone Over Syndrome)?” I had implemented many of the principles in my daily and weekly rhythms. However, the most important one, FLYing (Finally Loving Yourself) did not truly speak to me until recently. Using this system, you set your timer for 15 minutes, and work on a task, be it cleaning or decluttering. The point is wroking quickly and efficiently and looking at your progress when the timer goes off. Then, you walk away knowing that you have done something good for yourself and your home and family, what FlyLady calls “Blessing your home.” Included in these daily routines are liberal opportunities for “blessing yourself,” such as remembering to drink your water, 15 minutes of “Loving Movement” (exercise), resting after each task, or getting to bed at a reasonable hour. When you are FLYing, keeping your household running smoothly with daily routines, you are FLYing – Finally Loving Yourself. The trick is not to exhaust yourself, to always counter work with self-care, as well as to enter each task joyfully, knowing that every little bit helps towards the transformation of your home, and ultimately, of yourself. As stated on the website, “You can set your timer and bless the heart of your home with a positive outlook and love.” Motherhood, then, can be viewed as an opportunity for personal transformation. Each small task we take up with joy and openness of heart contributes to blessing ourselves and our families. For myself, I now recognize that every moment has the potential to inform me of my family’s growth and well being so that I can make the best possible choices for all of us in each situation.
Nearly three years after I began my LifeWays training, I look at how I can bless myself and my home each and every day. There is a space for me in all of the chaos of daily life, and it is a priority. Does everything always happen that needs to happen or in a way that I would like? No. Sometimes, the laundry stays where it is, not everything is handmade, and some days, we are late for school. But, that’s okay. By giving myself a break – blessing myself with the gift of understanding – I am helping myself and my family so much more than if I were to beat myself up for something that could be done tomorrow…and missing a moment of grace – what Kim John Payne calls “Sabbath Moments”- in the meanwhile.
“When it comes to the nitty gritty…God has commanded us to refrain from the grumbling about the dailiness of life. Instead, we are meant to accept it gratefully, as a reality that humbles us even as it gives us cause for praise. The rhythm of sunrise and sunset marks a passage of time that makes each day rich with the possibility of salvation…”
Adrienne Nagy lives with her family in Bayside, New York. She attended the LifeWays Training in Maine in 2007-8.
- Rhythm of The Home website (www.rhythmofthehome.com)
- FlyLady website (www.flylady.net)
- Norris, Kathleen. The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy, and Women’s Work. Paulist Press. 1998
- Oppenheimer, Sharifa. Heaven On Earth: A Handbook for Parents of Young Children. Steiner Books. 2006
- Payne, Kim John, M.Ed. Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids. Ballantine Books. 2010
- Schmidt-Brabant, Manfred. The Spiritual Tasks of the Homemaker. Temple Lodge. 1996
- Warner, Judith. Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety. Riverhead Books. 2006