Pondering A Mother’s Rule of Life

Today I saw someone recommend the book A Mother’s Rule of Life in a comment thread on Abigail’s excellent post about the problem with advice and the need for the life of grace. I sort of cringe whenever I see someone breathlessly recommending A Mother’s Rule of Life to a struggling mother. Although, the book has many nuggets of wisdom to share, I think it also has some problems which make me hesitant to give it a glowing endorsement without also handing out a few caveats. I’ve been pondering it in my heart for the last few years and I’ve been very glad to have it to chew on. I love the idea of a rule, the idea that as mothers, dwelling in the heart of domestic church we are called to find a way to make God the center of our lives, to find a way to serve our husbands and our children and to take care of our own needs. These are the beautiful heart of the book and what make it worth reading. But for too long I was far too caught up in all the incidental details that Holly Pierlot shares in her book which threaten to overwhelm the true heart of her message.

Frankly, when I first read the book in the first year of motherhood I found it both inspiring and at the same time demoralizing. When I started reading it I had one child and, I think, I was pregnant with number two. In the next couple of years I had two more children in quick succession, not to mention a miscarriage, two house moves and several job shifts for my husband. I was on a roller coaster and much of Pierlot’s experience was just beyond my grasp. All that talk of charts and schedules seemed completely foreign and unhelpful. Chore charts! It would be years before I had children who could be signed up on chore charts. All the weight of chores is still squarely on my shoulders.

While I think the book has much wisdom; it was written by a mom of older kids and I think she’d kind of forgotten how hard those first years are and didn’t really know how to address the new mother as distinct from the experienced mother.

How hard it is to know yourself as a mother in those first few years! So much of the book was completely inaccessible to me as a new mom when everything was new and overwhelming and, worst of all, constantly changing. Only after child three did I start to understand how to recognize recurring patterns, to expect the unexpected, and to go with the flow.

It seems to me that what the book misses is that the perspective one must have in order to write an effective Rule for yourself comes only after much time and experience. When the rules of the game were changing every few months as my children’s needs changed, I simply didn’t have the knowledge to know what was mutable and what was fixed. I didn’t have a sense of the ebb and flow of motherhood’s seasons, how to weather the tides of pregnancy exhaustion and the frustrating—but beautiful—postpartum season when a nursing infant really ties me down.

I am glad I read the book because it has given me so much to ponder and it has guided me in my discernment of my vocation; but I’d only give it to new moms with a huge caveat about giving themselves time, time, and more time before they feel like they should have a polished Rule worked out. When all your children are under five and none of them can really help with chores, Holly’s chapters on chore charts are only going to make you feel inadequate. Rather, you should spend several years in discernment, watching and taking notes and perhaps trying out provisional mini-rules. But the idea that a new mom can write a Rule, especially without the aid of a guide or spiritual director, seems to me a recipe for disaster.

When you become a mom you become a new person. How on earth could you possibly know yourself well enough to write a rule for yourself when you are still learning who you are as a mother?

Also, I suspect Holly’s book would work well for certain temperaments and personality types and not so well for others. I know some women thrive on charts and schedules and that kind of order. Others of us would absolutely wither under such a regimen. I think you have to know yourself and know whether you’re the kind of person who needs a schedule to be most fully herself or if you are the kind of person for whom a schedule becomes a too-heavy yoke. I’m not saying that you should give in and let anything go. But that a looser kind of order may be what you need.

It’s funny but I discovered a yearning for order and schedules and housekeeping at the same time that I had any ability for actually imposing order and schedules and fine housekeeping torn away from me. My entire experience of motherhood has been a sort of vicious see-saw between soaring expectations and crashing realization of my own limitations.

In fact what has become more and more clear to me is that these early years of motherhood have been a sort of crucible in which my need to control my life is being burned away. I am realizing that all of this feeling of helplessness is in fact a part of God’s plan for me. There is no way I can make a schedule and keep it because as soon as I think I’ve grasped a child’s sleep schedule it changes. As soon as one bedtime routine seems to be working suddenly it doesn’t. No sooner do I seem to get the hang of meal planning than I’m pregnant again and all semblance of control goes out the window as I battle morning sickness and exhaustion to get the simplest things done. I cannot conquer the laundry and the dishes and the meal planning and the housekeeping all at once. There aren’t enough hours in the day or the week or the month.

Rather, God is teaching me to be dependent not on my own abilities but on Him. I am learning to embrace the chaos of family life, the being out of control, outnumbered, overwhelmed. Learning to cry out to Him in my weakness and exhaustion and despair. The back cover promises that I can get control of my household. But I think God has other plans. I think he wants me not in control. I think God wants me to recognize my limitations and my inability to do it all. He has made it impossible for me to plan my life out in neat little charts and graphs because if I could plan my life on my own terms then I wouldn’t need to turn to Him. I wouldn’t need his grace to walk from moment to moment.

So yes, I think it is very important for mothers to prayerfully consider their priorities in life. To be sure they are all being addressed and in the proper balance. But… remember who is in charge.

For me Katherine’s post about expectations has helped to provide a good counter balance to A Mother’s Rule. She writes:

I�m not a rigid scheduler. It�s just not my personality. I crave order and set a rhythm, but the cadence of our day is meant to serve a greater good. I can�t be a servant to a color-coded train wreck of iCal schedule boxes, dictating my every waking moment. And with regards to both a rule of prayer and a rule of home life, I think the important thing to keep in mind is that the true meaning of the word rule is lost in translation.

Rules bring to mind things that are either kept or broken, deserving of reward or punishment. The word rings with an off-putting legalistic and obligatory tone. As Elder Sophrony once said of prayer rules, they either puff us up with pride when we keep them, or cause us to despair when we can�t.

But we need these rules to find our way.

Interestingly, the word that we translate as rule is the Greek word canon, taken from the Hebrew word qaneh which is a reed. This particular weed grows straight enough to be used as a measuring stick. And the context of this word in the Christian tradition is a matter of a standard or norm by which we should measure ourselves. We need this standard in the spiritual life, not so we can feel prideful in our achievements or despairing in our weakness, but so we aren�t constantly trying to discover or reinvent the path that has clearly been laid out for us by the Fathers.

The same applies to the home. The daily expectations within the life of the home are not a matter of training a child to follow a rule, but a matter of forming habits that teach the art and love that go into keeping a home. It�s about learning to live as a family. This is how we serve one another. This is how we live in community. Because it is not good for man to be alone and by His blessing, it is in the context of this community that we labor in the spiritual life so that our hearts may be healed. A clean home is just the beginning.

Her analysis of the word “rule” really helped me to break out of the feeling that I just didn’t measure up to Holly Pierlot’s charts and schedules. First, I realized that like Katherine I’m not a rigid scheduler nor am meant to be. But more I also realized that a rule is not about legalism but about a norm to tell when I’ve gone too far astray.

More, Katherine wrote a note about this time of parenting little ones at a time when it was just what I needed to hear and which still touches my heart and serves as a touchstone:

I think this particular season of mothering, when every aspect of serving others is on your shoulders, it�s the most intense period of the asceticism of motherhood. I don�t know if I would have the patience to bear the weaknesses of my children as they learn to contribute to our home and serve our family had I not first had the opportunity to die to self and completely serve them. (I have much more dying to do.) God knows what He�s doing and it�s beautiful to look back in hindsight and see how He�s working to save us.

It’s about dying to self and for me a necessary part of that dying has been this struggle, this yearning for order and control and the recognition that I can’t do it all. I’ve had to learn to accept imperfect help and to ignore the dirt that is driving me crazy because I can spend all day chasing dirt but only if I ignore my family. I know those ideas are in Holly’s book too, the idea of priorities and of giving it all over to God; but for me they got lost in the details.

 

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