Waiting with my family on the subway platform my teen aged son asked “what’s wrong mom?” I was doing it again. The verbal parrying taking place in my head had left a scowl on my face. I couldn’t hide it. We’d just come home from a fantastic evening with friends and my mind was filled with the question I ask myself any time I leave the presence of anyone who seems to have their domestic life together. Now I realize I’ve just spent a few hours with them and what I’ve walked away with is only a snap shot, but still the question begs an answer. How do they do it?
Sometime after our third child made her entrance into the world we stopped inviting people over, birthday parties became a quiet and private family affair and the thought of an uninvited guest was enough to send me into a panic attack. Everything about home and housekeeping became hard. I didn’t have the organizational skills and I didn’t have the extra funds for hired help. Held captive by 20 years of life as renters in NYC we lived the limbo of uncertainty. Why invest in something you don’t own? We put off redoing floors and never got around to enclosing our terrace. I loved our little family but my home didn’t make me happy.
Between never ending piles of laundry and long stretches of time in a minivan to accommodate the schedules of my growing children, I didn’t have time to make happy the home I’d imagined. And that’s just it, I was chasing the dream of a home I didn’t have.
My mother kept a tidy home. As a single mother of 4 children she didn’t have much but what she had, she managed well. With her image, style and way of being as a hopeful example I should have been encouraged but instead, felt like a failure.
When I shared my concerns, she let me off easily. Like women do with each other when they understand the real work behind a call to motherhood, she showed tremendous grace. Life, she said, was different. There’s more of everything now, except time. More clothes, more toys and every day we’re offered access to more and to that, faster. We’re expected to do it all. It’s no surprise I couldn’t keep up.
I loved her for the listening ear, but my motherhood dreams were wrapped in articles and images from a perfectly curated grunge ethic found in Mothering Magazine. I fell hard for the “you can be perfect too” message of Martha Stewart Baby and the fast track fashion and furnishings aesthetic of periodicals like Child Magazine and Pottery Barn fed my lust for a life “just so”. Mix that with a certain fondness for Charlotte Mason, an overly ambitious “rule of motherhood” and a growing presence on social media and you have the makings of a mama unsatisfied. My life, what I had in front of me, was never enough, for long enough for me to truly enjoy it.
Despite the message spoon fed to me through slick marketing and the most powerful advertisement of all – my friends lives perfectly framed and filtered through Facebook and Instagram – this lifestyle was unachievable and living as a woman /mother unsatisfied wasn’t sustainable.
It didn’t get easier with a 4th child but that’s when I realized I needed to bring my attention back to a concentrated focus on faith in the ritual and ceremony for the right now of family life. This creative reverence for the significance of the present, a faith centered respect for the way things are is how I choose joy – now.
So what I have, I care for. If all we have is love it won’t sit on a shelf. I’m learning to be satisfied, thoroughly satisfied with the gift of my portion. What I have is enough and it’s okay to invest in my home life – even if I don’t have a contract on its future.
It’s not settling, a word I resisted and often confused with being content. It’s holy contemplative contentment. It’s mindfulness and careful stewardship over the present. The sacred practice of rediscovering joy through a profound appreciation for the ordinary inner workings of my family actually helps me secure my future. Because of it, I live free from the pressure of perfection today.
It began with a mantra.
Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home.
I remembered this phrase and muttered it to myself when I felt my failure following me around like a love sick puppy. Saying it aloud as a centering prayer I’d turn the key and walk through the threshold of our apartment after a long day – truly happy to be at home. In spite of the dirty dishes, in spite of the unswept floor and the list of dos that never get done saying it helped me connect threads of grace and gratitude. This subtle shift in perspective helped me live my contentment.
And this as well,
I hid behind excuses – mainly a fear of lack centered around money and time. And here again, the example of my mother, who had neither but made do.
So minus the money, which comes and goes – and time which never changes – what could I do?
One particularly lean year a friend challenged me to instead of purchasing new homeschool curriculum – to craft our year of learning around things we already had. It’s the same principle I use in the kitchen when I make “waste not, want not soup.” It’s the simple but timeless wisdom that tells us to use what we have.Contentment means using what I have to pour into what brings me joy.
So little things, right? Baby steps. I began with the bare essentials of what makes me happy at home. A lovingly made bed and fresh flowers scream care and color. My favorite incense and a home filled with music are things I can manage on a daily basis. I’ve made curtains and pillowcases for the girls’ room from leftover fabric from my husbands’ studio and hung the artwork of my littles as a backsplash in the kitchen. I’ve even begun researching wood flooring for our living room and hallway – an investment I’ll make whether we live here another 2 or 10 years.
What we have here is far from perfection but what we have is good … and worthy of my continued service. The little things help me make and mark my space. It’s how I practice contemplative contentment with the life I love.