Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Goal of a Godly Home and the Frustration of Never Attaining It

“I have told you these things, 
so that in me you may have peace. 
In this world you will have trouble. 
But take heart! I have overcome the world.” 
John 16:3

A friend posted this passage to her facebook today and I thought it fit well with the direction of this particular post I've been working on seemingly forever (really, the post editor shows I started it on October 7.  My, my, am I ever pokey!).  This passage admits that this life will have its struggles, but clearly tells us where to find the comfort we need when things get hard.

As a stay at home (formerly homeschooling) mother of a large family, arguably the most basic part of my identity goes against the grain of mainstream society.  I am first and foremost a mother.  And I have lots of kids.

In that sense, I am a rebel.  That in and of itself is not a problem for me, since I've struggled with a wayward and difficult personality all my life.  My dad used to say that I intentionally chose the most different, or unusual, or even argumentative stance on anything.  Just to be difficult.  And some might say this big family thing is another example of my penchant for troublemaking. 

But I don't think so.  Yes, in this day and age, a large family is somewhat unusual.  OK, very unusual.  And it does take a certain amount of chutzpa to go against the societal grain.  But in the larger historical sense, within the Christian tradition, children have always been considered a blessing from God; they were desired and prayed for; and a large family was considered a bonus.  And historically speaking, letting God decide one's family size was assumed.  It was, simply put, the right thing to do. 

Joe and I didn't set out to "have a big family," although being the second oldest of eight children, I certainly grew up knowing the value of a large family.  But we do believe that God knows better than we, how many children we ought to have, and how far apart we ought to have them.  It's so much less stressful that way.

I've read that there is a trend toward larger families, especially among conservative Christians.  And I've seen a bit of that myself.  During our homeschooling days, among other homeschool families, it was not at all unusual to know others who also had a larger than average number of kids.

But within that trend, there is a bit of a problem.  Most people today are not from large families.   So if they follow the path of fully embracing God's blessings and His plan for their family, and if God chooses to bless such a couple with a large family, they may not know quite how to go about the logistics of it all.  Most young people who are starting a family today did not grow up with any example of parenting a large number of kids, or of managing a large household. Periodically, I find myself in the role of "elder matron" to a younger mother, providing her with mentoring and advise on how to make things work.  And quite frankly, I don't always feel up to that task.  Just ask my kids.  I'm not really a picture-perfect kind of mother.  And I'm a horrible housekeeper.

In this role of elder matron, I often talk to women who seem weighed down with a sense of failure.  And I have often felt this same way myself.  We mothers so want to do everything right for our children.  We want to give them the very best opportunity to become responsible, moral, and God-pleasing adults.  We want to provide a healthful and peaceful home life.  We have admirable and God-pleasing goals.  So why doesn't it work?  Why can't we get it together?

One reason I've seen, in both my own life and the lives of other women, can be brought on by these same very noble and God-pleasing goals.  It is easy to lend such goals or ideals a sense of near-idolatry.  We so ardently want a certain kind of Godly home, that the type, or ideal, takes on an import that is out of proportion with the very same God-pleasing lifestyle we are trying so hard to achieve.  And when that goes awry, as it often does in this sin ridden world, we can easily become frustrated or even depressed.

One of the biggest challenges in my adult life as a wife and mother has been letting go of the man-made standards I had imposed upon myself.  I have sometimes struggled to be joyful, or even just content, with who I am as a woman of God. And one of the biggest hurdles to contentment and joy that I've seen, both in my own life, and in the lives of other women I speak to, is coming to peace with the things I am realistically able to accomplish, and the standards I am able to hold up for my children and family.

What do I mean by man-made standards, or ideals?  One of the ways we make decisions for our families is by listening to and emulating those parents or families we respect and admire.  A husband and wife each has a different example of parenting from his or her own upbringing, but also brings into a marriage any ideas he or she has picked up along the way. 

We also see how our friends are making their homes and raising their families; we read about a variety of philosophies and practices in magazines, on blogs and internet groups, through parenting groups or homeschooling groups, etc.  We hear radio interviews and attend presentations.  With today's global communication and transportation, we can find examples of various lifestyles and parenting methods just about anywhere. 

And so we must glean.  First and foremost, we must examine everything through the lens of God's Word.  But we also use our common sense, instinct, and unique personalities to come up with a personal style of parenting and homemaking that works for us.

But remember, everyone is different.  I can't say this often enough.  Everyone is different, every couple is different, and every family is different.

Each couple's children inherit the genetic make up of their parents.  We pass on to our children parts of our personalities, some of which are great and wonderful, but others which are not so much so.  Some of what they inherit from us will be a constant struggle to them, just as it is to us.

But not only that, they also see and emulate both the good and bad behavior of their parents.  This all adds up to a particular flavor of family dynamic that is unique to each couple's home.

When I started out parenting, I really wanted to do the Laura Ingalls thing.  Back to basics, and old fashioned rules.  I inherited from my upbringing a, "Hard work is good," ethic, and also a good share of the somber German attitude, "If it's fun or pleasurable, it's bad."

I was raised in a very regimented family.  We had clearly defined rules and punishments and formulas for everything.  And I always imagined that I'd follow in my parent's footsteps in those ways, too.  Follow the formula, and everything's all right. Right?


God has laid out my life for me.  He showed me through many struggles and failures and feelings of beating the proverbial head against the wall, that,  "What worked for your mom and dad does not work for you and Joe."

Firstly, I am not my mom.  In fact, I myself am adopted, and so I don't even have the genetic personality or gifts that my mother has.  Secondly, I married a man very different than my dad, and so another flavor was brought into our home.  Along with that, yet another mix of genetic code was passed on to our children.  Joe's and my personalities, Joe's cultural background, and our kids' new and unique dispositions didn't seem to go well with the "formulas" I had been holding as the ideal.  Hard as I tried, I couldn't make it work.

It was a very painful process to have to let go of those ideals.  God definitely put me through the crucible, until I let go of the false god I had built up in such ideals.  And yes, I mean false god.  The ideal had become the god.  Living up to the standard was more important to me than simply loving my children and making a home.  If I didn't do it "well enough" or "the right way" then I felt as though I had failed, and I was not a happy Mama.

But when I found that those rules or standards I wanted to use in my home, which I had totally expected would work in my home, weren't working with the particular family with which God had blessed me, with what did I replace such standards?  How does one leave off what one has held to as an almost Biblical ideal, and find something of equal value with which to replace it?  How does that work in practice?

What has worked for me is to keep in mind a set of long term parenting goals.  Joe and I set these goals many years ago.  It was part of an exercise for short, medium, and long term homeschooling goals which I did back when my youngest were just reaching school age.  I very highly recommend every young family write down a set of such goals.  In busy life, the short term goals will change frequently, and may not get written down.  But having something on paper, especially for the long term goals, to which one can return time and again, is a very useful thing. 

My long term goals are very basic.  And when taken in the light of such long term goals, many of the daily rules and strictures and formulas loose their ability to overwhelm or imprison.

For instance, consider some of the things I strive for and struggle with: I want to have order in my home.  I want to teach my kids to be orderly.  I want to punish when needed in a reasonable, timely, and consistent fashion.  I want to have a happy, joyful home.  I want to read to my kids nightly.  I want to have wholesome and nutritive meals, and clean, well-organized clothing.

These are all things I desire for my home and family.  But none of those things are part of my long term goals.

My long term goals go more like this.
  • I want to raise God-fearing children who are able to confess their sins and turn to their Savior for forgiveness and for the mantle of His Righteousness.
  • I want my adult children to be able to be responsible citizens according to their abilities, who have the skills to provide for themselves and whatever number of dependants God gives them.
  • I want my adult children to be well enough versed to be able to communicate the hope that lies within them.
That's about it.  Simple, huh?

Would I like the kind of "ideal" family with all generations working together, which I used to hear about within the homeschooling community?  Yes.  I like to think so.  But is that kind of family the only God-fearing model?  Nope.

Would I like to be more organized with my household tasks?  Yes, absolutely.  But is it necessary to my long term goals.  Nope.

Would I like to not have to periodically rummage through the dirty laundry in order to find those "not so dirty" things in which to clothe my children for an outing?  Yep.  But not a necessity.

Would I like my children to be able to work together to do dishes without bickering?  Oh, boy, would I ever!  But more than that, I want them to know where to bring the sin of their bickering and harsh words, and how to forgive each other as Christ forgives us.

Why am I rambling on about this?  Because this is exactly the type of thing that can wear a mother down.  We easily see the very many things we are not accomplishing.  We readily feel the weight of the enormous responsibility we face day by day and minute by minute.

We, many of us, have very high expectations and standards with which we'd like to run our families.  But things don't always run the way we'd like to see them run.  We aren't always able to incorporate the various formulas we are lead to believe will work well.

But if we have long term goals to which we can refer when things seem to be going poorly, we can cast our heart to those goals.  We can refocus on what's really important, and let everything else sort itself out in time.

We are all still wonderful women who have many things to offer the world, both in our parenting, and also in every other interaction we undertake daily.  We may always struggle to want to do things a certain way, by a certain set of lifestyle, parenting, or homemaking standards.  And that's OK.

Other times we may decide to strip down our life to the simplicity of those long term goals.  We can remember those goals at their most basic, and see how our particular personality can accomplish such goals in a way that is more in tune with who God made us.  It's not a sin to be disorganized and flighty, for instance.  It's a challenge.  But not a sin.

And so with many of our daily struggles.  There will always be things we wish we could do better.  There might always be those standards or ideals we wish we had better maintained within our family.  We may feel as though our children will never learn to get along and work together.

But we must never become envious of women and families that seem so much better at it all than we feel.  And we must not covet a skill set or personality profile we or our children don't possess.

By living each day in our baptismal grace, and holding to the eternal truths and things of eternal import, we can learn to forgive ourselves of our failures, just as our heavenly Father has forgiven us.  We can find contentment, peace and yes, even joy, in the singular women God has made us, and the unique family with which God has blessed each of us.

For I know the plans I have for you,” 
declares the LORD, 
“plans to prosper you and not to harm you, 
plans to give you hope and a future.
Jeremiah 29:11


JennaT said...

Bravo, Mary. What an important article.

Monique Miller said...

This is wonderful, Mary. Thank you so much. I wish we were neighbors.