“So, what did you do today?”
It seems a harmless question, but for a long time as a mother of little children, this regular inquiry from my husband (simply a kind gesture of showing interest in my day) was enough to cause me conniption fits. When it came right down to it, life as a mother of young children didn’t translate well into a clean list of accomplishments I could proudly report to him. And often, there wasn’t something tangible that he could see. (You know, because the books had been emptied from the shelves for the tenth time that day right before he came home or something like that….)
This was a difficult reality for me to adjust to. I met my husband when I was in my later 20s, so by that time, I had gotten pretty used to living my life by doing. I studied hard. I got good grades which helped me get scholarships. I graduated with a college degree, and then a Master’s degree. I had leadership positions in my graduate program. I started a career, and received pay raises and promotions and perks and pats on the back for a “job well done.”
I confess that I got very comfortable with the world of external validation of my worth and my work.
Having a baby turned that world on. its. head.
When my husband would ask me that question, I honestly didn’t know how to answer. Should I count the number of diapers I changed? The number of times I nursed our son? The number of minutes the baby slept? The number of times I cleaned up a mess?
Don’t misunderstand. I was so very grateful to be home with our baby, grateful my husband was employed and that I had that option. I felt strongly that home was where I needed to be. I was all the more grateful for that blessing as two other children joined our family shortly thereafter. I felt my babies needed me, and I needed them. I loved being there for the milestones and other precious moments.
But still, I struggled to not feel like I’d somehow lost a large part of who I’d become — that do-er part of myself. The sheer repetition of the daily tasks of homemaking was draining. There was so little to show for what I did all day. Besides, nothing was ever really done. Laundry and dishes got dirty again. Food was eaten. Clean diapers needed changing. Toys that were put away were dumped out. (Again?!?)
Let me say that I think it’s possible (and important) for stay-at-home moms to find creative and appropriate ways to nourish themselves and to keep some of their personal skills and interests alive along the way. That will be a topic perhaps for another time. But here, I would like to focus on truths I wish I had learned earlier in my mothering. They have changed the way I see my roles as a nurturer and a homemaker.
Elder Neal A. Maxwell wrote the following:
Repeatedly God has described His course as reiterative, “one eternal round”…. We mortals sometimes experience boredom in the routine repetition of our mortal tasks, including even good works; and thus vulnerable, we are urged not to grow weary in well doing (Galatians 6:9; D&C 64:33; 84:80; Alma 37:34). (Neal A. Maxwell, Not My Will, But Thine, p.53-54).
The divine delight in what seems to us to be mere repetition is one clue to the sublime character of God. Since we must, at times, accept what appears to us to be routine, repeated experiences, we too, if we try, can find fresh meaning and fresh joy in the repeated experiences. God’s course is one eternal round but it is not one monotonous round. God is never bored, for one who has perfect love is never bored. There is always so much to notice, so much to do, so many ways to help, so many possibilities to pursue (Neal A. Maxwell, A More Excellent Way, p.84-85).
I always knew that being a mother was doing God’s work, but these truths have significantly influenced how I view the day-to-day routine that is central to motherhood and homemaking. I understand more that it isn’t just for my babies’ sake that I have felt strongly that I need to be at home. It’s also not because I couldn’t do important, valuable work in the workforce or elsewhere. (Promotions and pay raises and such had already proven that my work was valuable.) And it’s not that I didn’t love my career (I did!). I also don’t believe that prophets have pointed women to our roles at home because they don’t care about our personal dreams and talents. (That’s probably a topic for another day as well.)
My experience has been that my willingness to give my heart to this role, and to sacrifice for it in some ways, is as much for me and my spiritual growth as it is for the benefit of my children. As I learn to “find fresh meaning and joy in the repeated experiences” I can let those experiences help me learn to become more like God. As I turn my heart to my children, He changes my heart. I am learning more about myself and what really matters to me — and, I believe, what matters to Him.
Some of the most meaningful experiences of motherhood have come along with the most routine tasks: cooking a simple dinner so my family can gather together around the table and connect; taking care of a sick child even when I myself am exhausted; tucking my children in bed every night. The Spirit touches my soul at the most unexpected times, telling me that this matters. All of it. Not just the sublime, super-memorable motherhood moments, but the messy, mundane, monotonous ones, too. (And we know there are a lot of those!)
I’m not as threatened as I used to be by the question, “What did you do today?” Let me be clear that I still have lots to work on as a mom and homemaker. And of course I find satisfaction in listing some of the measurable tasks I may tackle each day: the loads of laundry completed, the bills paid, the cans of food storage added to the shelves, the personal projects tackled. But I know those things really are part of a much larger picture, about God’s plan to help me become more like Him, as I work in partnership with my husband to try to guide His children back to Him and to create a home in the meantime where His Spirit can dwell.
I love this from President James E. Faust, who was a member of the First Presidency for many years. He said (with my emphasis added):
Some of you sisters may feel inadequate because you can’t seem to do all you want to do. Motherhood and parenting are most challenging roles. You also have Church callings that you fulfill so capably and conscientiously. In addition, many of you, besides all this, have to work as well as care for your family. My heart goes out to the widows and the single-parent sisters who bear so much of the responsibility of parenting. In general you noble sisters are doing a much better job of holding it all together and making it work than you realize. May I suggest that you take your challenges one day at a time. Do the best you can. Look at everything through the lens of eternity. If you will do this, life will take on a different perspective.
I also like this from Sister Julie B. Beck, given last year at BYU Women’s Conference:
We [need to keep] our focus clearly on the blessings of eternal life. … The Lord said, “This is my work and my glory — to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39) …
We know that we are involved in God’s work every day, and that changes everything. It changes the way we think. It changes our decisions…. It changes the way we live.
Measuring motherhood on an eternal scale makes all the difference in the world for me.
How grateful I am for living prophets and other inspired leaders like Sister Beck who help me keep an eternal perspective on what I do every day. When I look to their teachings of eternal truth, rather than seek external measures and reinforcement of what I do every day, I find an inner peace and perspective that intensifies my gratitude for the blessing of being a mother.
p.s. I think I’m going to rethink how I answer that question my husband still lovingly asks me….