Sunday, May 10, 2009

Happy Mothers' Day! or, Happy Overworked-underappreciated Day!

To my Mother, my three dear Sisters, and to the Lighter Half of the human race,

Please read these two articles and give yourselves a pat on the back. I realize the first is in specific reference to Christmas, but work with me. It's still a good article.

Merry and Martha, by Kristine, at

There is one story from the scriptural account of Jesus’ life that haunts and troubles me, like a Zen koan–the story of Mary and Martha hosting Jesus. It is a good story and a useful corrective to (Mormon) women’s tendency to privilege the meeting of others’ physical needs (real or imagined) over the sating of their own spiritual hunger. And yet I find myself wanting to defend Martha from the Savior’s gentle rebuke. Particularly at Christmas, I’m inclined to assert the value of hustling and bustling and busy-ness.

If our church services hadn’t been snowed out Sunday, it’s likely there would have been talks decrying the commercialization of Christmas, urging more thought about the reason for the season, pleading for a return to the simplicity and wonder of Christmases past. “Keep Christ in Christmas,” pundits urge, fearing, perhaps, that God might be outmuscled by Santa Claus. To all of this well-intentioned sermonizing, I say bah! humbug.

At Christmastime, we long for the kind of simplicity Thoreau achieved at Walden Pond with his mother dropping in daily to bring him food and clean laundry (!) (!!) Those Norman Rockwell scenes of contented, well-scrubbed families at church or around the table–the pictures we invoke to remind us of the “real” meaning of Christmas–they require a great deal of behind-the-scenes work by someone! (Even the paintings of the stable where Jesus was born suggest that a great deal of cleaning had occurred before the poses were struck). My least favorite part of the season is the well-intentioned (often male) voices urging us to keep our celebration simple, to not “overdo”, to slow down. This message creates yet another impossible double bind for women, who now feel pressure to make a magic, wonder-filled holiday for their families AND make it look easy. It is not easy, and there’s no sense pretending that it could be. Ordinary housekeeping and cooking and childcare are plenty of work; the imperative of extra-special homey-ness and glitter for the holidays inevitably makes more work. But, as Kahlil Gibran says so perfectly, “work is love made visible.”

The spirit of Martha broods over the holidays, a troubled ghost yearning for Jesus as much as her contemplative sister, pouring her love into cookies and trinkets and overwrought centerpieces. Her work is unnecessary only when it is unappreciated, redeemed when it is received with the gratitude due all lovingly intended gifts. Work joyfully undertaken and happily received is among the deepest satisfactions of human existence. Loving those around us will, of necessity, entail being “careful and troubled” about some things, at least. Perhaps Jesus’ words to Martha were less rebuke than acknowledgment. Perhaps we would have seen, if we had been there when he spoke those words, his great love and tender gratitude for her fussy gifts, and his yearning to give her that which he had to give which could only be received after the hustle and bustle were through.

I would like to think it was so. Part of the wonder of the scene at the creche is the image of the baby patiently receiving the wise men’s ridiculous gifts. Surely they were no good to him, but they were good for the givers.

. . . [edited for length]

And second, Not-so-great-expectations by Judith Warner, New York Times 5/9/2007

The father of one of Emilie’s friends stopped by last Sunday morning to pick up his daughter from a sleepover.

His phone rang. He spoke for a moment, then hung up, looking peeved. His wife was mad at him, he said.

“What did you do?” I asked.

“Nothing!” He threw up his hands. “I offered her pancakes!”

“You must have done something else,” I said, settling eagerly into a chair. There is nothing more enjoyable than listening in on other people’s marital squabbles.

“I did not!” he protested. Then conceded: “I offered her pancakes, when she’s on a diet.”

“Ah,” I said, sympathetically.

I am on a diet, too. Every time I move the scale from the tiled bathroom floor to the rug in the hallway, I lose two pounds. The same two.

“At our age, it’s really hard to lose weight,” I said, peace-makingly.

“At our age,” he replied sharply, “maybe we just have to adjust our expectations.”

This was a very radical idea.

I mulled it over all week. I realized that this very same not-so-great expectations theme had also come up, not long before, in a conversation I’d had with my father-in-law.

We were talking about sleep. I was ruing the fact that I need it – nine hours’ worth sometimes.

I was telling him about a woman I know who gets up at 3:30 a.m. every day to do yoga. She’s on her computer at 4:30 and on a train to work at 7:30.

At 7:30 I am usually spilling my first cup of coffee down the front of my bathrobe and screaming at my children that if they don’t get out of bed they’ll never again eat anything sweet or watch any TV or have anything they want in the world for the rest of their lives.

“I wish I could get up early,” I said, explaining all the gracious, relaxed, self-improved Simply Being I would do, if I had an extra hour or two in the day.

I was saying I wished I needed to sleep only six hours a night. Or five, or four – like the really successful people you read about.

I would wake up my children, showered, teeth-brushed and smiling, the way the magazines tell you to do. I would exercise and garden and pay bills and reorganize the kitchen cabinets and make photo albums and …

My father-in-law looked at me with genuine befuddlement.

“Why,” he said, “would you want to do anything more than you already do?”

What a question! What a mind-bend! What a culture-clashing, anachronistic, out-of-this-world concept this had seemed: Know your limits. Acknowledge them. Deal with them. It had struck me as a revelation.

But upon reflection, I’ve come to think that perhaps this is what it’s all about. “It,” of course, being this experience of life-on-the-cusp-of-middle-age to which I keep returning, rather obsessively, week after week.

If one were to be highbrow about it, one could see the desire for self-surpassing – the refusal to accept, for example, a muffin top, or a greater need for sleep – as a refusal to accept mortality, which is of course the ultimate self-limit.

I never had any sense of my own mortality until I was pregnant with Emilie, my younger child, now nine. It was just a twinge then. But it accelerated when Emilie started school, and suddenly – as my waist thickened and hair thinned – it dawned on me that someday all too soon both my kids would be gone from home for good.

(“What is it like to have older kids?” a mom of toddlers I’d just met asked me outside a moon bounce, at a birthday party recently.

“You realize that your time with them is limited. That soon it’s all coming to an end,” I answered.

A moment later, as I stood there suddenly alone, I wondered why people always seem to run away from me at parties.)

The timor mortis explanation is really the only way to account for all the lowbrow concerns that have increasingly crowded out my higher thoughts as I advance in my forties. The weeds choking the garden. The hundreds of digital photos that no one has ever seen. The kid-art that hasn’t been hung. All these undone things, all these instances in which I Fail to Meet Expectations (according to the imaginary report card I update every day), derive their urgency for me from the sense that, if did meet performance standards, then I would be living my life to the fullest. If the photos could be put in albums, if I could sit down with the girls to look at them, then time would somehow slow down, perhaps even freeze, like the images on the page.

Every night, for as long as I can remember now, I’ve been swearing I’ll wake up early the next day.

Now, though, I am thinking of giving myself a reprieve.

For on another Sunday recently I had yet another important conversation, this time with the mother of one of my best friends. She was telling me about how her mother had kept all kinds of family memorabilia. It was wonderful, she said, to have bits of personal history going back for generations.

“I’ve been meaning for so long to make photo albums,” I said guiltily. “At least for five years.”

“Oh, that’s nothing,” she said, folding her hands. “I’ve been waiting 50 years.”

And then she laughed. She had her husband and children and grandchildren all around her.

“Nobody makes photo albums,” she said.

There are far more important things than photo albums - your sanity included. And roast beef for Sunday dinner. But maybe we can pull that off.

With a little help.


Claudia Peterson said...

I love you Bryce, mom

Ann-Marie said...

I loved the articles and I loved this post. I'm officially now homesick.