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My husband can tell that my annual bout of parenting fatigue has arrived when I lock myself in our bedroom with the laptop and a half-pint of Starbucks Java Chip ice cream. I’ll sit on the bed crying into a soft old t-shirt from college, rattle around YouTube, and occasionally whimper, “I can’t do this any more.” It’s not my most glamorous mommy moment, but it seems to be inevitable. Once a year, my strength just runs out.
Don’t get me wrong. I adore my children. Their company is among the sweetest I have ever known, and this parenting fatigue has nothing to do with my enjoyment of them. My exhaustion results from an inability to meet impossible demands. There is a certain breed of discouragement that rises from never having enough to give.
No matter how hard I work, I can never get the laundry finished. (“Which one of you kids had the audacity to wear socks today?”) While I am making dinner, my sixth-grader needs help reducing fractions. The living room floor is covered in plastic cars. I need to schedule eye appointments, take the big kid for his permit test, and find four one-dollar bills for my daughter to use in the morning. (No, a five won’t work). Someone’s Raisin Bran has petrified in a bowl. The little one needs to learn his consonant digraphs. If it matters, I’d really hoped to finish T.S. Eliot’s The Four Quartets today.
These demands, and a hundred more like them, pull at me day and night. I can never conquer them all, even if I wake up early and fall into bed an hour past midnight. As much as I love being a mother, there are still moments when I ache for some part of myself that has been lost. There are days when I grieve, because I am neither sufficient nor satisfied.
Raising children in the era of Pinterest and Super Mom blogs can exaggerate this sense of failure. Within a few clicks, I am staring into carefully-staged photos of domestic goodness and mercy. “Wow. That mom makes monogrammed gingham book covers for every library book her children read. Wow. That mom has labeled every piece of furniture in French. Wow. That mom milks her free-range, gluten-free chickens every morning before grinding the heirloom, organic wheat she grew from seeds harvested in the Holy Land.” Cyber-perfection follows me all the days of my life, and I dwell in the house of my lack forever.
This guilt has fueled a thousand sterile launches. “I should clean.” I try. Cleaning is overwhelming, and I quit. “I should cook.” I try. Cooking is messy, and I quit. “I should set up the easel for the little one.” He was more in a play-doh mood today. “I should monogram something…”
I strive. I fail. I strive. I fail. I wear out. I cry into a t-shirt. I eat ice cream.
After an hour of meeting with my weakness behind a locked door, the fatigue usually subsides. It’s then that I creep out of solitude, wash my face with a hot cloth, and sneak into the rooms where my children sleep. Their beauty takes my breath away. I kiss their foreheads and breathe in the miracle of their nearness. Kneeling down by their beds, I feel these brief, close years rushing away like water to the sea. They are so talented. Their laughter is like music. They are creative in a world that is desperate for invention and beauty. Their potential humbles me. Mother heart made supple, I kiss them again, eager for morning.
Perhaps this cycle of fatigue and restoration will always be a part of motherhood. However, over the past year, I have realized that I have missed something in fifteen years of trying to do this. Oddly, this piece of truth didn’t come through the billion parenting books I’ve read, a women’s study, or mentoring. What I found was tucked in an unexpected place… art theory.
Several months ago, I finished a thesis on the nature of creativity. My research explored how authors write, how painters compose a canvas, and how a chef thinks while making a pastry. Lingering over the love and intentionality of these master craftspeople, I slowly began to realize that creating a home is just as much of an art form as any other pursuit. Because art is my native tongue, this idea began to unlock my daily labor almost immediately. I began to see poetry in the telling of a bedtime story. I began to see sculpture in bringing order to a messy bedroom. In the chopping and kneading of a family meal, I gave myself permission to delight in elements of composition and contrast. In the ten-minute lingering of listening to a child’s dream, a minuet is born. In a hot sink full of dishes waits a cathedral of worship.
For years, I have believed that the banal duties of parenthood compete with external creations that promised worth and substance. I have not seen that one integrates into the other. When the home is allowed to become sacred art, new purpose, strength, and meaning appear in the silent, unseen, undone things.
As I write these words, my house is still not perfect. There is laundry left to do, and my front flower beds are full of weeds. I’m hiding in a quiet room to revise this essay, and that room needs cleaning. Yet, I am starting to see that I sit in the midst of all of this need as a creator, surrounded by creative children. We are not slaves to some snarling enemy of duty, our home is simply one context provided for the freedom of our making. It is our canvas.
There are moments when I see this more clearly than others; but on days when I embrace the truth, it changes much. Over the next series of posts, I will share more specifics on home as art form. My hope is that as we walk into the sticky, the mundane, and the undone, we might find composition that rings of the hope of heaven. For there is an eternal beauty in the tender closeness of our days; and our Jesus, who spun the mighty rings of Saturn, also made a masterpiece of the dirty roads of Palestine. We, his children, are invited to make this life art in his image.
Image by Boekell/Boekell