Contentment in Mothering

May 8, 2009 | 15 comments
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My mom sent me an LDS mothering book on contentment for a Mother’s Day present. (Yeah, I know. What’s my mom doing sending me a present for Mother’s Day? She’s really awesome like that.) I’m on chapter three and not particularly loving it, but I think the premise deserves some thought: am I content as a mother? Hmm. Let me see. I’ll review yesterday for you:

7 am: Yes. I’m sleeping while husband cooks breakfast (German pancakes) and wakes up the five kids. I wake and finish breakfast while he leaves to drive junior high carpool.

8 am: No. First (poopy) potty training accident of the day. Dishes. Laundry.

9 am: No. Mowing and watering the lawn, so I can spray it for dandelions. Husband should have done this last weekend. And cleaned the garage. And tilled the garden. Oops. How sexist of me. I repent. I am content. I will do it myself.

9:30 am: No. Waiting for phone to ring. Waiting to hear from principal of elementary school about yesterday’s incident—a very, very not-content mothering moment.

10 am: Yes. Littlest off to excellent neighborhood preschool. Afternoon kindergartner and friend come shopping. To buy a new shirt. For me. I will wrap it and write, “To Mom! From? Happy Mother’s Day!” Plus, I have a coupon. Extra content.

11:30 am: Yes. Shopping successful. Now visiting Grandma while kindergartner and friend play in basement. Grandma tells me about her hard childhood, and I feel rebuked. I’m a baby. My life is cake. Toting a few kids around in an carseat-filled SUV to errands is simple compared to what she went through.

12:30 pm: No. Little people not happy about cheese sandwiches for lunch. What’s not to like about melted cheese on bread? More dishes.

1:30 pm: No! Another potty training accident. How can I conserve water by “only washing full loads” when we have stinky clothes multiple times per day? Rush, rush to change one child, take that one to sitter, and rush, rush to take kindergartner to elementary school.

2 pm: Yes. Kindergartner has end-of-year reading test. Doesn’t miss a word. Good mom moment.

2:45 pm: Yes. Successfully resolved fight over DVDs. Kids watching “The Never Ending Story” while I do editing work on laptop.

3:15 pm: Yes. Big kids come home. Pick up mail and see new book. Love my mom because she loves me.

3:30 pm: No. Kids spill after school treats all over floor without even noticing. Hate sticky brownie crumbs. Hate left-open doors and bugs.

3:45 pm: Yes. Husband offers to take boys for haircuts. One less errand.

4 pm: Yes. Sit outside in sunshine and talk to my sister on the phone.

4:10 pm: No!! Another potty accident. So much for “turning the corner” yesterday.

4:15 pm: No. One son chokes the other over unexplained problem on trampoline in backyard. Lots of tears and yelling (theirs). I fight the urge to join in and lose.

4:30 pm: Yes. Boys gone to haircuts. Oldest child helping neighbor girl learn to sew. Youngest child playing outside. Me working on laptop again.

5:30 pm: Yes. Making dinner. Oldest helping nicely.

6 pm: Yes. Neighbors come to dinner. Eat outside. Talk to adults.

7 pm: Yes. Working more. Kids playing outside.

8 pm: No. Bedtime meltdown. Another potty accident. (Should I cave in? Go back to diapers?) Kids whining about going to bed. Husband gone. Last minute “forgot to tell you” about ten things that “have to be done” before school tomorrow. Three-year-old says she “hates and loves” me.

9 pm: Yes. Quiet.

9:30 pm: Yes. Reading. Alone. In bath. / No. New mothering book is annoying me.

10 pm: Yes. Decide to blog about contentment in mothering.

So, am I content? Yesterday I generally was. And, really, all jobs have “no” moments of discontent, so that doesn’t upset me too much. Potty training is like grading research papers: it makes for a terrible week or two, but the rest of the job is pretty enjoyable. I hate grading my 40th research paper, but I love teaching, class discussions, and interacting with bright, excited, college-age students. I love studying and reading so I can have something bright and exciting to say to the bright students. I love learning from brilliant colleagues. I love all of that, so it outweighs the grading stuff, just like little kisses and hugs outweigh the whining and potty training.

But, then again, mothering is not a “job”; it’s a calling. Eternal. Glorious. The highest and noblest thing a woman can do. (Etc.) I sometimes think that type of rhetoric does mothering a disservice. I get where it’s coming from—with all-too-little praise available for the SAHM, we feel the need to compensate. But overcompensation sets us up to feel let down by reality. If motherhood is all that glorious, then why am I scrubbing poopy Carebear underwear? If motherhood is my eternity, then why do I spend more time thinking about food, coupons, and cooking than salvation? Yeah, yeah. I know: that’s my own problem, and I could think about eternity while dunking Cheer Bear in the toilet, if I really wanted to.

But just consider this: if you told me that mothering was a job, I’d weigh the costs and the benefits and think it was a job well worth doing. I enjoy it far more often than not, and I feel like I’m making a difference—something that is important to me in my choice of occupation. I don’t find it highly intellectually stimulating, which is a big downside, but I love these guys. I love having (relative) control of my time. I love how this job is both predictable, even repetitive (I’m a big fan of stability) while also surprising and complicated (I’m not a big fan of boring). And, frankly, not many other jobs let me hang out on the back porch in the sunshine reading a good book while my “students” jump on the trampoline. On the whole, it’s definitely the best job I’ve ever had. I only feel discontented when you tell me that mothering is everything, my eternal role, my whole reason for being, my all. Then I can’t help missing some of the things I loved about my other jobs, things that are missing from this one. Like a break every once in awhile.

So this is my point: Mom, you’re the best. All those flamboyant adjectives everyone says about mothering? I apply them personally to the job you did (and do) for me and the seven others in your care. I’m sorry that I never once asked if you were content being my mother because I, like most kids, was a selfish little monster. I’m pretty sure you’re headed to heaven, and, when you get there, I hope you get a job that pleases you in every possible way and makes you more content than you ever dreamed.

11 pm: Yes. Rant complete. Read my scriptures. Say my prayers. Apologize to Heavenly Father for venting. Thank Him for my mom. Plead for potty training help from on high. Pray that the principal doesn’t call tomorrow, either. Go to bed knowing I stayed up too late blogging—and thinking how nice it is that my husband lets me sleep in while he fixes breakfast every day, not just on Mother’s Day.

15 Responses to Contentment in Mothering

  1. Julie M. Smith on May 8, 2009 at 3:40 pm

    I love this post. Thanks.

  2. Kylie on May 8, 2009 at 4:22 pm

    Thanks, Julie. Glad you made it clear to the end–it looks a lot longer in this format than it looked on my computer.

  3. Rosalynde Welch on May 8, 2009 at 5:23 pm

    Thoroughly enjoyable, Kylie, thanks. Your time diary reminded me of some research that made the rounds of the blogosphere last year, summarized here: http://www.newsweek.com/id/143792 In short, having kids does not seem to make people happier on a daily or hourly basis; on the contrary, in fact, even though parents report that their children are their greatest joy, etc. There’s probably some Darwinian false-consciousness going on, not necessarily a bad thing.

    I’ve tried to come up with the best way to describe my experience with motherhood (or at least with mothering young children, which is all I’ve done so far as my youngest is barely eight). Not bliss, not contentment; not resentment or misery either, however. The closest I’ve come is “arrival” or “telos”—the emotional intuition that reproducing and rearing young is what I was made to do. This is not some kind of ecstatic self-realization, no Oprah-style self-discovery; there’s a certain grimness, in fact, to the feeling that this—THIS, repetitive, utterly commonplace—is my raison d’etre. But still it’s the most compelling work I’ve ever undertaken—compelling to the point of unescapable.

  4. Kylie on May 8, 2009 at 5:43 pm

    Nice article, Rosalynde. Someplace I read something similar (perhaps based on the same research?): Parents consistently say their kids make them happy, but, when they were asked to keep daily journals, they listed time with friends, being alone, and getting away from the kids as what made them happy on any particular day. I walked away from the article wondering about the happiness I feel on any given day v. true joy (long term).

  5. Alison Moore Smith on May 8, 2009 at 7:06 pm

    Kylie, this was a fun read. But–without taking the time to actually tally this up point-by-point make a mountain out of a mole hill–I got this weird feeling that most of your moments of “mothering content” were when the kids were gone or otherwise engaged and you were shopping, on your laptop, or talking to adults.

    Being someone who–as a teen and college student–never wanted kids much, who after giving in to that command still didn’t plan to stay home, and then finally decided to stay home after President Benson dropped the Mother’s in Zion brick on my head when I was a few months pregnant with my first, I understand that sentiment. But I still think we really can learn to LOVE being moms. I don’t think I could stand it otherwise.

  6. Kylie on May 8, 2009 at 9:34 pm

    That’s funny, Alison. I thought I was saying that I loved being a mom. Most of the time. I seriously had fun shopping with two five-year-olds; they laughed their heads off in the dressing room next to mine. And the jumping and playing was fun, too. I don’t really mind the work of cooking, though dishes aren’t my favorite. Yesterday I had to do more work from home than I typically have; we have a press deadline on Monday. And, sorry, but I just don’t think I’ll ever LOVE cleaning stinky underwear and waiting for a call from the principal. Not my nature, apparently–no matter how much I love the little people who make the underwear stinky and who upset the principals.

  7. Starfoxy on May 9, 2009 at 12:10 am

    Potty training is like grading research papers: it makes for a terrible week or two, but the rest of the job is pretty enjoyable.

    Sigh. If only this were always true. We’re now into our 10th month of potty training- no end in sight.

  8. Jessica on May 9, 2009 at 12:40 am

    Thanks Kylie. I’m always glad to hear my exact thoughts from someone else. And I think what Alison failed to see in your post was that a lot of enjoyment in motherhood comes from seeing your kids happy (jumping on the tramp), successful (100% on the reading test), and content (teaching another child to sew). And if we, as mothers, in those moments choose to also do things we enjoy, everyone is a winner. How blessed I am to reap the benefits of both your motherhood and mine.

    I most also add that I’m sure Cheer Bear enjoys being pooed on and dunked in the toilet as much as you enjoy dunking her. :) All in due time…

  9. Naismith on May 9, 2009 at 12:47 pm

    I thought that you were just thinking about it when you were alone because, well, who has time to think about anything when they are in the midst of doing?

    I also struggle a lot with when to intervene when they are fighting amongst themselves.

  10. bfwebster on May 9, 2009 at 3:29 pm

    Plead for potty training help from on high.

    One of our daughters and her husband are pretty much at this phase right now. I think next may be putting their son’s name on the temple prayer roll.

    I have profound respect and sympathy for parents of young children, especially the moms, because it really is a demanding, never-ending, and to a large extent thankless job. The older I get, the more I marvel that anyone has more than one child, and I say that as someone who remarried at age 33 and found myself with nine (9) kids under the age of 14 (four mine, five hers). We’re both 56 now and have been empty-nesters for some time, and we like it a lot.

    Oh, and by the way — you still have raising teenagers to look forward to! Don’t worry — they’ll all come back to you and apologize for what they put you through when they hit their late 20s or so, particularly once they have kids of their own. Heh. ..bruce..

  11. Alison Moore Smith on May 9, 2009 at 4:44 pm

    Kylie, it may just have been the context. The only two times in your list that were identifiable to me as times you said you WERE content and when the kids were engaged WITH you were the 100% reading test and the help with dinner. (Couldn’t tell, for example, that kids went shopping with you.) But there seemed to be many instances of DIScontent when the kids were around doing normal kid stuff.

    As for the idea of contentment in mothering, I think it has a lot to do with expectations. Are, for example, poopy pants fun and sweet? No. But they are to be expected. So do they NEED to make us DISCONTENT? Probably not most of the time. I guess I see the idea of contentment very differently from being, say, thrilled and joyful.

    Some of my most satisfying parental moments have been at 3:00 in the morning with an emotional teenage girl, who actually wanted to talk to ME about the things weighing her down. Not fun, not ideally scheduled, but amazing moments of connection and a humbling amount of influence.

  12. Kylie on May 11, 2009 at 12:15 am

    Good point, Alison. I like how you are being precise in defining “contentment.” You’ve made me re-think the word and figure out how I meant it. I was being more vague and general–just “content” as in “wouldn’t want anything more or different right now.” I’ve had those moments driving carpool, of all things–when a perfect opportunity for a teaching conversation just happens, and I think, “I’d drive carpool every day this year just to have this one conversation.” Yeah, totally worth it.

    Believe it or not, I even had a contentment moment with another potty accident today (yesterday I gave in to diapers). We were marching into the house and I was saying, “Honey, I just barely asked you if you needed to go bathroom and you said you didn’t. Now you went in your pants . . .”

    My child interrupted me and said, “Yeah, Momma. Isn’t it sad?” I started laughing because she was so sincere. So funny.

    You might be thinking of discontent in a more negative way than I am. If I say that being content means I wouldn’t want things any different than they are, then discontent means I’d change a thing or two–not necessarily that I’m in the doldrums of despair.

    Because you expect highs and lows and mundane and exciting in mothering, do you feel you are always content?

  13. Kylie on May 11, 2009 at 12:18 am

    Starfoxy, I was very distressed by your comment! Because we are no doubt well on our way to following in your footsteps. And all this with my fifth child. You’d think I’d know how to do it by now!

  14. Starfoxy on May 11, 2009 at 12:26 am

    That is heartening to hear that seasoned mothers may have similar, erm, delays in potty training success. I find it so frustrating because he would *love* to be in a preschool. But there aren’t any around that will take him in diapers.
    My father-in-law says that my kid is like a cat. There’s no way to get him to do anything he wasn’t going to do anyways.

  15. Kylie on May 11, 2009 at 4:31 pm

    I’m afraid that’s an apt description of my “baby.” She is plenty smart enough to figure it out but she prefers diapers. Go figure. We’re trying again today, but I’m afraid that until she decides she wants to do it herself, we’re going to be stuck with multiple accidents per day.