Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Happy with What I Have Done

One night at dinner, Olivia made a departure from her usual grace. Instead of "Thank you for my family and friends, everything I have and the bunnies and birds," she said this:

"Dear God, Help my mom to be good to her kids and happy with what she's done. Amen." 

I honestly don't remember what kind of day we'd had, or what prompted this petition on my behalf. I jumped up from my chair and wrote it down immediately so I wouldn't forget a word of it. Because it's exactly what I would, or should, be praying for myself on a daily basis. 

The Hypocratic oath that doctors take begins with "First, do no harm." And pretty much every fair-to-good mother I know took the same oath the moment she looked in her baby's eyes. "I will try, dear one, not to do you any harm." And pretty much every mother I know is aware that she has done her child harm. We will pass some of our issues down to our kids, no matter what.

But in the meantime, we will also be good to them. I'm good at kisses, stories, food, band-aides, explaining the unexplainable (or attempting to), building their vocabulary, and  doing creative projects. I'm trying to be good at boundaries, modeling kind and gentle words, and teaching them to be responsible. The toughest part of being good to my kids in this second way, however, is that it doesn't immediately feel good to them. It therefore might have been a day of boundary setting that prompted Olivia's prayer.

This week I told my husband that I appreciated how hard he was working at his job and everything, but he actually liked his job whereas I hated being a housewife. Hormones may have been involved at this juncture. I don't actually hate housework. But there are elements of being a housewife that I hate.

I know I've said it before in this blog, and also dozens of times to my friends, but it's hard to be "happy with what I've done" just about every day at four thirty, because the house looks like I've done nothing.

Meanwhile, my young charges who have been kissed and fed and taught all day are often now tired and cranky and pushing every boundary I have set. The only way to be happy with what I have done in that moment is to remember I'm playing a long game and hope I come out on top in 15 years or so. And I'm tired and hungry too at 4:30 so I'm not likely to be so philosophical. 

What helps me, oddly enough, is Louisa May Alcott. Every year, I reread Little Women around the holiday season. The novel was published in 1868, but it is so full of truth that it resonates to my core. It is also simple, wholesome and good, and its heroine Marmie, is the sweetest mother possibly ever penned in fiction, based on Alcott's real-life mother. I want to be Marmie when I grow up. When I read her little lectures, I feel that my role as wife, mother and homemaker is beautiful, even transcendent. Here's one of my favorite, given after her four daughters have tried a week of all play and no work, which went horribly awry. 

"Don't you feel that it is pleasanter to help one another, to have daily duties which make leisure sweet when it comes, to bear and forbear, that home may be comfortable and lovely to us all?"
"We do, mother, we do!" cried the girls. 
"Then let me advise you to take up your little burdens again; for though they seem heavy sometimes, they are good for us, and lighten as we learn to carry them. Work is wholesome, and there is plenty for everyone; it keeps us from ennui and mischief, is good for health and spirits, and gives us a sense of power and independence better than money or fashion." 
"We'll work like bees, and love it too; see if we don't!" said Jo. 

So far, I've never delivered such an eloquent lecture, nor had it received so enthusiastically by my little women. More typical of my lectures is what happened yesterday: I tried to teach the girls to help me carry the little burden of laundry folding. They ended up putting panties over their faces like luchador masks and running around the house twirling pajama pants above their heads, eventually spilling a whole glass of water on half of the laundry and the living room rug.  

But with my mind filled with Alcott's prose which extolls feminine virtue and housewifely arts, I still feel hopeful that my attempts are at least honorable, if not yet successful. And I continue to pray that I will do good, and be happy. Amen.

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