There is a common sentiment, one which I shared as a single person, that the place where you live is simply a practical location to store food and clothing, sleep, charge your cell phone, and relax away from all the tasks and commitments of life. This was how I felt about my dorm room in college, a cinder block cube where I seldom worked and where I would certainly never have invited anyone for dinner.
Until recently, I never actually owned a home, so many of the spots I dwelled in were temporary and shared. This did not negate the possibility of experiencing these places as a kind of home, but I lived more of my life away from the home than in it.
It was not until I married and we started our family that I started to treat the place we lived as a place that meant something more than a cozy nook to eat and sleep in. The phrase “domestic Church” coined in the Dogmatic Constitution of the Second Vatican Council (Lumen Gentium, §11) establishes the home of Christian families as “the first school of Christian life” where all learn love, repeated forgiveness, and prayerful worship (see CCC, §1657).
When we first began our family life, I did not enjoy being at home all day with our new baby. I felt tethered to the mundane tasks so essential to motherhood and homemaking. My husband’s life in graduate school seemed enviable, going from classes to community gatherings to internships to meetings with professors and spiritual directors. I yearned for a chance to write papers again or take exams. I chaffed sitting at home nursing the baby, longing for interesting work that would occupy my mind and heart in a more stimulating way. As a college educated, well-traveled woman of the world, I could not believe how little I actually did in a day as a new mother. Although, I was generally overwhelmed by exhaustion, often feeling more like a servant than a queen in my own home.
I cannot say there is any easy answer to the difficult time of parenting when children are quite young. The home can feel oppressive, and it is essential that support and rest be offered by spouses, friends, and relatives. Part of the problem is that our culture does not value the work of parents in the home. I now can honestly say that I don’t believe there is any more important job, but at the beginning of family life, I was often restless.
For me, the real epiphany came much later, after a conversation with a close friend about motherhood. She offered the insight that I bring my whole self into my role as a mother, and that I put my creative energy fully to use at home. This may seem like a simple or obvious idea, but for me it came as something of a revelation. I realized that I had been imagining my time and talents better spent out in the world, constantly hoping for opportunities elsewhere to shine. Something in me changed gradually to seeing my life at home with my three young children as absorbing and creative, and as meaningful as the most interesting job on the market. I started to “bring my A game” to the home.
What did this look like? Well for one thing, I had to get off of the Internet. Ironic, I know, since this very piece places me squarely in the heart of an online community, but, my mind and heart were often elsewhere when going about my day at home. With easy access to social and news-related media, the world outside my home absorbed the vast majority of my mental and spiritual energy. By going off of Facebook and placing my whole self in the presence of my children in the place of our home, everything changed. I could see our family as we were, and I could love much better and more happily as a result. Prayer, according to Ralph Marin, is “paying attention to God.” I would add that, for a parent at home, prayer is paying attention to God in your children.
I also started to have fun with previously burdensome tasks such as making dinner. I love food, but honestly, cooking dinner every night can be so . . . repetitive. Seriously, I have to make dinner AGAIN? I started checking out quirky cookbooks and food magazines from the library or looking up new and exciting recipes. Having a meal plan for the week gave shape to my previously haphazard days as well as a creative outlet to my inner foodie. We began a meal share with our neighbors to be able to cook for not only for ourselves but also for them, and to receive a meal as well. It was also essential to our family rhythm that we gather every evening around the dinner table. This is often noted, but it cannot be overemphasized. A meal is a central act of Christian family life that must be treated as something sacred, a small “s” sacrament.
I changed the way I saw my role in my children’s lives. Maybe it was because my oldest son is now four and much more capable of a shared living experience, but I began to creatively imagine how the four of us could spend our days together. Routine is essential for children, but spontaneity is essential for me. I compromised by having some structured things throughout the week with wide expanses of unplanned time that could be filled with what we call “adventures.” We found a daily Mass that worked well for us, close to home and not at the crack of dawn. I taught the older two children to do many of the jobs of the morning themselves so we could all be working and playing together. I started thinking and imagining through their eyes, and things like building tree forts and making large cardboard boxes into rocket ships became essential items on our “to do” list. I try to always have music on hand, either singing or listening. Poetry, theatrical productions, and puppet shows are making their way to the fore.
Because, joy. If you don’t have joy as a parent, of course everything is going to seem incredibly exhausting and unending. Well, because it is. But if you can infuse your family life with joyful activities and ways to do work together in love, this is getting closer to the domestic Church we are all shooting for.
I still feel exhausted and overwhelmed most days. Being a family is hard. Creating a real home that is both clean and loving seems like a distant ideal sometimes. But it is not boring. It is not something I wish to get away from anymore. I find it incredibly absorbing and challenging intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally to raise children well, to be married well, and to learn how to be a thriving, caring community of people who are bringing about the Kingdom of God together.
Featured Photo: courtesy of the author.