20 Sep Mission Possible: Putting Family First
Barbara is the mother of eleven children. She has given many talks on parenting and motherhood. She kindly wrote this article for our website. Please check out her blog for moms called Mom At Large
If you’ve ever found yourself five minutes past a doctor’s appointment, still a thirty-minute car ride away, at your driveway struggling to strap in a very unhappy two-year old into a car seat while your five-year old starts to whine – well, my friend, you are normal. You may not feel like it, but you are. Trust me: I’ve been there many, many times and the good news is that you and I are not alone. There are others mothers (and fathers, for that matter) that do feel the same way, which is…..tired, frustrated, irritated, annoyed, panicky, anxious, slightly confused, overwhelmed, helpless….(Did I mention tired?)…..and most likely very alone.
Motherhood is not on the top ten list of “Great Jobs for the Modern Woman!” these days. How can it be if one is expected either to be able to do everything and anything at all (a.k.a. the Superwoman), or to have no personal opinion, idea, thought, interest, personality or identity (a.k.a. the invisible one)? It is not a very appealing prospect, to say the least. Both extremes share similar insecurities created by the challenge to perform according the expectations of modern society and culture. We are made to believe or at least feel that we should go with the flow of this modern world that simply does not value and uphold true motherhood. Little by little, we mothers are made to feel that the tide is too strong and our efforts to put our family first are useless and senseless. What are given priority in today’s world? For the most part, they include: things over people (materialism), conspicuous consumption and a “born-to-shop” attitude (consumerism), and a kind of truth that is really not true unless you want it to be so (relativism) because really and truly – “It’s all about me!” (individualism).
LOOKING INTO THE FUTURE
However, as parents we must remember that we are in this for the long haul. We are not about to bail out at the first opportunity. No, sir. We are in this for the good fight, the kind that does not blink or scare easy because what is at stake is of the utmost importance: our children. We must take to heart what our overall mission as parents is: to raise adults, not children. (This is according to James Stenson, a well-known educational consultant and author of many good books on parents and whose no-nonsense and straightforward approach has encouraged many parents worldwide.) What’s the difference? When we look at our children and see the adults that they will become, our goals and hopes for each one reach far into the future with a view to a generation that is yet to come. When all we see are irresistibly cute little kiddies that cannot seem to do any harm – we limit our vision to how they are right now and do not account for the consequences of what is to be.
We as parents need to be aware of what is out there in the world: trends, social fads, technological and cultural developments, fashion and current ideas being floated around by the media and propaganda. This is not out of sheer curiosity, but in order for us to be prepared and know how to counteract, if and when it is necessary to do so. We are our children’s primary educators: their first teachers, their first examples, their role models. In order to achieve the overall goal of raising good adults, we must put our families first. And if you’re thinking that this is a nice option to consider later on when you have more time, I must emphasize that we arenot talking about a lifestyle choice. This is not an option for we who care for our families. This is, after all, not just any job. It is our life’s work. It is worth doing well. We will never be too busy for the people and things that truly matter in life. How do we do this? Well, we start by going back to the basics.
According to Andrew Mullins (author of Parenting For Character, contributor www.mercatornet.com and headmaster of Redfield College in Sydney, Australia), a good parent has three priorities. The first of these priorities has actually evolved into the one of the two most overlooked in many families: your spouse.
YOUR BETTER HALF (IN SO MANY WAYS)
A very prevalent misconception states that, “Family is all about kids.” The truth is that from the moment you and your spouse exchanged vows before God and man, your family started to exist. The beginning of your marriage marks the start of your family life. It is afterwards that the children come. At the risk of being called a throwback to the fifties, I believe that your spouse completes you. Although it sounds trite and fairly Hollywood-ish, it is true. Your spouse forms a very intimate part of our vocation as a parent.
As a married woman, I realize that I need to take care of my husband and my relationship with him. I am not forced to do so – I choose to do so. After all, who else will? Let me repeat what I said in the beginning: we are in this for the long haul and not just while the getting is good. This is all worth it, and what we do makes a big difference. When we as women take care of our husbands, we are taking care of our family, building on the foundation of our marriage.
We need to remember that we are still individuals with interests and personalities. Men and women are very different from each other in many ways, but as human beings, we all share the need to connect with those who are closest to us. When a husband and wife start to have children, there may be a tendency to think of each other as “just mom and dad”. It would be a big mistake to disregard and neglect your husband because of this desire to focus on the children. We must realize that loving our spouses has absolutely everything to do with loving our kids.
How do we prioritize our spouses? We need to set aside time together to talk, relax and just be together. We need to develop the skill of listening, without always voicing our opinion unless asked to do so. As with any human relationship, but especially for familial ones, quality time equals quantity time. There is no substitute for it.
We must recall with fondness and appreciation how we fell in love and began a life together as husband and wife. Certainly, we must not live in the past. Rather, we gain strength from the passion and fervor that led us to make this leap of faith into marriage. The past helps us to appreciate and be grateful for what we have in the present. It also leads us to be hopeful about the future. We should hold fast to our spouses’ good points, hopes and dreams. Mothers must take note that it is especially good to talk to their children in a very natural way about what they admire about their children’s dad and his good traits. As Australian educator Andrew Mullins puts it, “Put your spouse on a pedestal in your child’s eyes…back up the other’s decisions.”
Our good memories of our time spent together as husband and wife will help us get through bad patches (which every marriage has) and inspire us to persevere. They become a comfort and reminder of what is at the core of our marriage during difficult times. It is during these trying times that you must remember with conviction that your spouse is the one with whom you are most intimate and who is closest to you. Adversity is an opportunity to pull together and give each other support, courage and strength.
A good marriage does not just happen after many years. Even after twenty-five years, quite unfortunately, there are those who find themselves these days in a marriage that has fallen apart. We need to work on developing and maintaining a great relationship that can withstand the challenges and difficulties that any married couple can face. We work at it together one day at a time. The marriages that last are the ones that mature and develop, with each one growing into an even better understanding and appreciation of each other.
Husband and wife need to respect each other. Another great quote from Mullins’ Parenting for Character: “It is a great skill to develop the habit of being able to apologize; it can save relationships. Adults need to learn to be the first to apologize whenever there is an argument.” Our marriage, then, becomes a good example to our children of how to love.
Part of the respect spouses have for each other must be the recognition of their differences as man and woman. This is not about superiority and power-tripping. It is about accepting each other’s differences as individuals and embracing these for the contribution each one’s uniqueness adds to the quality of the marriage and the family. According to Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse, we must “learn to say ‘Yes’.” I say we need to choose to say “Yes”. We must not focus on our spouses’ shortcomings or faults. Rather, we work with what we have, striving to bring out the best in each other.
According to Theodore Hesburgh, priest and President Emeritus of the University of Notre Dame: “The most important thing a father can do for his children is to love their mother.” The same, I am certain, can be said of women as wives and mothers.
LOOK INTO THE MIRROR – WHO DO YOU SEE?
While in a ladies dress store one time, I happened to overhear a remark made by a lady whose friend was encouraging her to buy a dress she had been admiring. In a slightly dejected tone of voice, this lady said, “I don’t go anywhere.” I finished my business in the store and walked out feeling not just a little sad for that lady. Do we not feel like this too at times – that making the effort for ourselves is not worth it? When you look into the mirror, do you really see yourself? Have you given yourself a label that discourages you from appreciating yourself as an individual with a personality, style and interests?
We as mothers are doing profoundly meaningful work raising and taking care of our family. This is not just a life experience – this is our life’s work. If we are convinced of this reality, then we must be mindful of the need to take care of ourselves. We do this, not in order to pamper ourselves and over-indulge, but so that we may be truly effective in our roles as wife and mother. And so we come to what is the second priority of a good parent, according to Andrew Mullins: yourself.
This is what I believe to be the other overlooked priority in most families. As we previously said, the concept of putting family first is understood by most people to be all about the children. Logically, though, how do we take care of our family if we do not take care of ourselves? If you’ve ever been on an airplane and sat through an explanation of what to do in an emergency, you are instructed to look to your needs first and then to assist those around you, especially children. It makes sense in that scenario, and it definitely makes sense in speaking about families. What is involved in taking care of yourself? To begin with, let us remember that we, as human beings, are made up of body and soul. In considering this fact, it should be clear that our needs are not just limited to the physical, emotional and mental. We need to take care of our spiritual needs as well, and this is something that touches on every aspect of our lives. We are concerned for the care of our whole selves. We should not be leading a double life, but one life in which all dimensions of our person-hood are involved.
ANY BODY LISTENING?
We start with the very basics: be healthy and keep healthy. That means eating good food and eating right. So, that really rules out – among other things — binge eating, snacking when we feel like it, eating just whenever we can, eating on the go (like while driving, maybe) and thinking that eating our children’s leftovers constitutes a proper meal. Taking the time to eat the right amount of good food is not a luxury. We need the energy and nutrients afforded us by a good diet.
We need to exercise and keep ourselves fit enough to climb the stairs and not be out of breath afterwards. This doesn’t have to mean signing up with a gym (unless you want to and find the need for this) or joining a boot camp. Our efforts to be more physically active – walks around the block or to the corner store when necessary, taking the stairs instead of the elevator when possible – translate to a physical well-being that makes a difference in all the other aspects of our life.
Most of us will also need seven and a half to 8 hours of sleep at night. Again, this is not a luxury but a necessity. Of course, when it isn’t possible to get this much sleep, for one reason or another, then being physically fit (See how it’s all connected?) will help us that much more to still get up in the morning and do what needs to be done. But we do need our sleep and we need to give importance to this by learning how to relax in the evenings an hour before bedtime. We put any thoughts or worries aside for the night. Tomorrow is time enough for us to deal with what tomorrow brings.
A LITTLE HELP FROM MAC AND MARY KAY
Since we believe that our work as mothers is important, we need to also consider the importance of our appearance, especially for our self-confidence. We do our family a great disservice when we appear sloppy, untidy or just plain worn-out when we go through the motions of our every day family life. Besides that, it is a real downer to feel sloppy, untidy and worn-out. You just know you don’t look your best, and that makes a difference in the way you deal with others, including your family. It will make a difference in your relationship with your husband as well.
The idea is not to use make-up as a clown would. Our aim is not to disguise ourselves. Make-up should only serve to highlight and enhance our features. We should learn how to apply it with finesse and a light hand, and not as if we were appearing in a stage play. Our clothes should reflect our sense of style without foregoing dignity and élan. We must use our common sense and self-knowledge when shopping, without succumbing to the latest fads in fashion. Clothes, after all, are a necessary part of what we need to function and do our work effectively and with dignity, whether we work outside or within the home. We must not begrudge ourselves the need to replenish make-up supplies and to update our wardrobe when necessary.
THE INNER YOU
Do you know how to rest? If you’re thinking white, sandy beach and you with a drink in your hand sitting under an enormous umbrella – that’s not what I mean by “rest”. The problem we run into with the foregoing mental image is that it limits us to if and when we can actually get to that white, sandy beach, have the drink in our hand and sit under the umbrella. What if it only happens once a year? Or even two years? Are you really going to wait for two years before getting any sort of relaxation? There is a need for us to rest – to take a break, so to speak. That’s the reason behind the need for a certain number of hours of sleep at night. Within our day, we also need to know how to rest and relax, without needing to a spot by the shoreline.
To rest means to have a change in activity to give our brains a time to re-charge. This could mean half an hour to read a book for pleasure. It could mean a weekend afternoon or evening spent watching a good film. For others, it will mean ten to 15 minutes of doing a crossword or Sudoku puzzle. (A note of caution: Sudoku is very addictive. I speak from experience.) Still for some, it will be a craft, like knitting, or scrap booking, or even a sport they engage in for fun. This is a break from whatever it is we do that is work-related in the course of our day or week. It gives us a chance to do something that relaxes our brain and yet does not involve whiling away hours snoozing away doing nothing. After all, rest is necessary; doing absolutely nothing is just idleness.
KEEPING IN TOUCH
Another great way to re-energize yourself emotionally and mentally – and others in the process – is to make time to be with friends. I do not mean engaging in bouts of mindless chatter or gossip. Rather, let it be a coming together of kindred spirits (as Anne Shirley would say). Good friends are not easy to find, they say, and if this is so then we should make an effort to foster the friendships we have. If we care for our friends, we will keep in touch with them and keep abreast of what is happening in their lives. This is not for idle curiosity, but because we care about them as friends.
We can talk about how things are going and be able to confide (if necessary) in them. Do we need to spill the beans on every single thing happening to us? Of course not! You only need to turn on the television or read a magazine to find out completely unnecessary details about this or that person’s life. A lot of people nowadays seem to have lost their sense of privacy. When we get together with our friends, we are interested in them as people, and not as “topics”. We ask for advice, if we believe their judgement to be sound on the matter, or give advice (with great care) if and when we are asked. We will laugh a lot and encourage them to persevere in areas of life in which they are finding difficulty. We will feel encouraged to share our hopes and dreams.
When we talk about taking care of our whole selves, we very much include the spiritual part of our being. A healthy spiritual life is the touchstone of our core strength as women, especially as wives and mothers. Why so? As women, we assume many different roles in the family and even outside the home that need us to be more than just physically, emotionally or mentally prepared. Being spiritually healthy helps us to keep everything going and moving on, whatever happens: bad hair day, unexpected (or expected) weight gain, physical discomfort, tiredness, lack of sleep, illness, difficulties at work or with others, and financial setbacks. We know to expect the unexpected but we do not lose hope. We realize that the world we live in is not perfect, but we make the most and the best out of what we have. What we do is important and makes a difference, but we know we are not alone in all of this.
Different people may have different spiritualities, but the need to pray is universal. We need to take care of our relationship with God. When God becomes our bottom line, things fall into place and work out, even if it doesn’t seem like it from a merely human perspective. We are at peace even in the midst of chaos. Our hope does not falter.
So are we talking hours and hours spent feverishly reciting prayer after prayer? Truthfully, if we live in the middle of the world as ordinary people, we cannot do this. Moments to pray here and there during the day, built into our schedule much like we factor in meals, breaks and appointments – this is a way for us to constantly be aware of God and to foster a relationship with Him. This provides us with more strength and is more effective. It also works well for those who work outside the home and those who stay at home. If we spread these moments throughout the day, we will find ourselves more at peace than we can imagine. If we do this with love, it will not be burdensome. Rather, it becomes liberating.
LEADING BY EXAMPLE
In taking care of ourselves, we thus become an example to our children of how one should treat oneself and others and why; how to manage our work and handle stress; and how to be a good friend. We are our best examples to our children of the kind of adults which we are trying to raise them to be. We can, after all, admonish our children all we want but it is that which they see us do that they will emulate. This leads us to the third priority of a good parent: the children. We must, however, see this order of priorities not so much in place value but in the light of the fact that the children come because of husband and wife.
It is the children that really benefit from the strength and soundness of their parents’ loving marriage. The family, thus, becomes the child’s refuge of learning, nurturing, education and loving.
IN THE WORLD, NOT WORLDLY
Our goal, as parents, is to love, nurture and teach our children to become responsible and loving men and women of character in the middle of the world. We don’t want them holed up in some bubble, ignorant and clueless. They are members of the human race and should be part of the rest of the world. The only difference is that our family and our home is within which they are taught about life, people and the world, and where they can find solace and a true sense of what it means to love and be loved. We should not coddle them or hide them from the world.
We need to get to know each one of them as individuals, with unique personalities and characters. To be genuinely interested in them does not mean being obsessive or stifling in our attention. We, as mothers, should remember not to smother. They do not have to and should not be stuck to our side as if they were super-glued on. They are separate persons and certainly not our clones.
We pass onto them those things, which are important to us – our values, wisdom and faith – through our traditions, customs and rituals within the family. We should make the effort to share our life with them and not just “manage” or order them around. They will get to know us on a deeper level when they learn of our childhood memories, our joys and sorrows, hopes and dreams and how we have overcome adversities. In allowing them to get to know us, they realize that their parents are not just these people they call “mom” and “dad”. They see our struggles and what we do in order to overcome challenges.
We need to spend time with them, doing both ordinary and special things: to pray together, celebrate together, to share good and bad times together. We cannot put off time with them as if we will always have tomorrow. When the opportunities we let pass by go the way of yesterday’s what-ifs, we would have foregone chances to get to know and to love these most special people who have been entrusted to us as our children. Our children need material things much, much less than they need our time and love. We must make every effort to take this to heart because the world is full of propaganda aimed at convincing us of the need to get more money to buy more and more things and indulge in pleasures.
Our children need to hear us say that we will love them no matter what – that there is nothing that they could ever do that would make us stop loving them. This is a powerful statement that speaks to them about the kind of love that does not impose conditions or sanctions. It will act as a beacon to them in those moments when they find they have fallen, made mistakes and feel helpless. They know they can always turn to us, their parents, for our love.
LIFE LESSONS WORTH LEARNING
It is very easy to feel lacking as a parent when it seems like every kid on the block (and their cousin) is enrolled in this or that after-school class or activity. I know it because I have struggled with it many times. Are our children really any worse for not having been able to take piano, singing, soccer, hockey, swimming, ballet or art lessons? Are we much less for not going on vacations or to the cottage every summer? I can assure you that while these extra-curricular activities and trips may very well be educational and beneficial, they are not the be-all and end-all of character formation. In fact, if we stop to consider the really important things we need to teach our children, we will soon realize that the ordinary circumstances of life already provide us with ample opportunities for these lessons worth learning.
These are some of those life lessons we should teach our children about:
- To appreciate the world and be grateful for it, without subscribing to the selfish values promoted within it: materialism, consumerism, individualism;
- How to use our freedom well and to make decisions by using critical thinking and a sense of responsibility;
- To do our work well, to serve others through the work we do and that to serve is a good and honourable thing to do;
- To foster an attitude of gratitude and a spirit of true generosity;
- To be sincere in all things;
- To foster true hope – not just optimism – and to inspire hope in others;
- To treat every person with dignity: young and old, rich or poor, male and female; With consideration for the child’s age and experience, we do not shy away from talking about these realities which are a normal and necessary part of life;
- Love is not just about feelings, hugs and kisses, but more importantly it is an act of the will – a verb, an action word;
- To know how to forgive, which is an act of the will, and to ask for forgiveness, which is an act of love and humility.
It’s fine enough to talk about the things we want our children to learn and what we want them to be when they grow up. But how do we do it? Is there some super sophisticated mathematical or scientific formula that we apply to our family situation to make everything happen automatically and perfectly? The short answer is no.
There is nothing automatic or even perfect about families because we, as human beings, have a free will to decide and act on our decisions. We are not robots; our lives are not pre-destined. The beauty of this is that we can do something and not just sit back consigned to our fate. In getting to know and understanding each and every member of our family, we are able to create a framework of traditions, customs, rituals, routines and rules that are founded on our family’s unique identity, character and dynamics. It is within this framework that we are able to establish and impart those values, which are important to the family.
Far from being tiresome, boring or dictatorial, this structure will in fact liberate and empower us to do achieve our goals as a family. It enables us to move forward with purpose and direction, rather than haphazardly and indecisively. It allows us to say no to those things that take us away or have nothing to do with our family’s overall mission.
These traditions, customs and rituals within the family – whether those from when we were children ourselves, or newly-established ones – have the power to strengthen the ties that bind the family together. These give each member of the family a sense of what is familiar, thereby providing a sense of security. We human beings are creatures of habit, after all. These rituals can be as simple as the making and serving of coffee in the morning, or spending some time with each child by their side at bedtime.
This framework of family life provides many chances to be together as a family while helping and being with each other. A history is constantly being created on which the family builds a stronghold of loving support and nurturing to draw upon in moments of adversity. Loving traditions and customs create good memories on which to look back to with fondness and encourage us to hope for the future. Birthdays become a time to recognize and appreciate a unique member of the family. Anniversaries mark important milestones in the family’s life. Special occasions, such as Christmas and Thanksgiving, family trips and vacations are cherished moments to celebrate together.
Even the family meal — in which the preparation of the meal, the setting of the table, the consideration for preferences and manners at table, and the conversations that many times will seem to almost flow into each other — all make up what has become an important family ritual. By doing all these things as a family, we create an atmosphere for our children and ourselves that is alive and vibrant, considerate of each member of the family and the family as a whole. In teaching our children about unconditional love, we don’t just tell them we love them – we are showing them so.
POSTSCRIPT: REALITY CHECK
Having said all this, we must be aware that in life there are no real guarantees. The story of our lives is still being written – by us – and lived out day by day. We must learn how to live one day at a time. We have enough cares for one day without having to worry about tomorrow and the day after. And although there are no guarantees, the ending has not been determined or set. It is still to come in due time.
In the meantime, we must learn to live our lives to the fullest, living in the moment and doing our best. Now is the only moment we can really do anything about, for the past if over and done, and the future is yet to come. When you are with your husband and children, be with them completely and unreservedly.
Mistakes happen and we must not be surprised at all when they do. It is not wasted time or useless effort on our part. These are the learning moments from which we pick up ourselves and simply begin again. We are human beings, and therefore imperfect. We cannot do everything, but we can do a lot. And what we can do, we must do well. As Josemaria Escriva said, “A lot depends on what you and I must do.” (The Way)
In July of 2006, our family suffered a second miscarriage, which made my next pregnancy (in November 2006) that much more special. When I shared the special news of the baby-to-come with our seven-year old son and asked him to just keep it within the family for the moment, he looked at me with a clearly concerned expression on his face and said, “But shouldn’t we be telling people so that they can pray for the baby not to die?” Right there and then, I knew this young son of ours loved his family and every single member, young and old, seen and unseen. He knew what mattered, what was important and the power of coming together as a family.
So, when you find yourself — at any given time of the day, but especially at night — tired, frustrated, anxious, worried or stressed out – take heart and do not lose your peace. There will be days when you feel as if nothing is going right. There will be nights when you can hardly sleep for worrying about a problem. There will be times that you feel so tired and worn out. Know that if you are doing your best and giving yourself fully to the tasks and moments at hand, then ultimately everything works out for the good. It may not seem so, but it does.
As successful American businessman Lee Iacoca put it, “The only rock I know that stays steady, the only institution I know that works is the family.” We must not ever lose hope. Our efforts are worth it. And there is always hope for those who love.