Jennifer Fulwiler is a writer and speaker who converted to Catholicism after a life of atheism. She’s a contributor to the books The Church and New Media and Atheist to Catholic: 11 Stories of Conversion, and is writing a book based on her personal blog, ConversionDiary.com. She and her husband live in Austin, TX with their five young children, and were featured in the nationally televised reality show Minor Revisions. You can follow her on Twitter at @conversiondiary.
A friend who’s a mom of multiple young children recently emailed me about her New Year’s resolutions. She told me about an exciting nutrition and fitness plan she’d undertaken starting January 1, and then talked about some of the obstacles she’s facing, in particular how to find the time for this project. I dashed out a knee-jerk reply: “You may want to hold off on this until the kids are older,” I counseled her. “It’s going to be tough to do this in this phase of life!”
Then I looked at what I’d written, and deleted it.
My response prompted me to think back on all the times I’d made a “you can’t do that because you have young kids” comment to other women, and all the times it’s been said to me. When I added up all these messages, the picture it painted of motherhood was bleak:
While you have young children, you cannot expect to:
- Be physically fit.
- Take care of your appearance by wearing flattering clothes, applying your favorite beauty products, etc.
- Enjoy even the most basic hobbies.
- Put special effort into your marriage.
- Keep your house tidy.
- Have any kind of dedicated prayer time other than the occasional shout-out to God in the midst of chaos.
And so on. Those are just a few of the “truths” I’ve heard stated (or, umm, stated myself) in recent months. There’s this idea floating around, even in some Catholic circles, that moms of young children would do best to hunker down and live in a sort of survival mode.
The idea comes from a good place: Certainly the “trenches” of motherhood are a time of sacrifice, and a woman in that phase of life can drive both herself and her family crazy by trying to have the same lifestyle as her neighbor whose youngest child is 12. It would be hard for, say, a mom with a baby and a toddler to do everything on the list above. But I think we’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak, and in many cases the message has morphed from “you shouldn’t try to do too much when you have young children,” to “you shouldn’t try to do anything when you have young children.”
And I think that that’s a problem.
For one thing, it validates some of the key ideas behind contraceptive culture. One of the big reasons women in our society feel like they “need” contraception is because of this notion that it’s impossible to thrive during the baby/toddler years. I can’t even count the number of articles I’ve seen in secular media where women joyously reported that they’d taken steps to end their fertility, and thus finally had begun to explore a hobby or spend quality time with their husbands. There’s this pervasive notion out there that the diaper-changing years are a season of putting all life improvement activities on hold—and, understandably, many women are terrified by the idea of living like that indefinitely. They feel like they need the certainty that (supposedly) comes with contraception, so that they can completely move on to a phase of life where they’ll be able to start thriving instead of just surviving.
Aside from the witness to the culture, the most negative impact that I’ve seen this message have is in the day-to-day lives of moms. After I almost sent that discouraging reply to my friend who was undertaking the fitness project, I saw how much this endeavor was blessing her and her family. She reported that she already has more energy to bring to each day, and she’s excited to be working toward a goal that she’d put on the backburner for years. After gushing about how inspired she feels, she said that she almost scrapped the whole idea because quite a few people told her it would be too hard with young kids around. I cringed to think that I was almost one of them.
As a homeschooling mom of five kids under age eight, I’m no stranger to the difficulties of this season of life. I’ve spent weeks at a time in what I call “bare minimum mode,” when I consider the day a success if only one of the kids’ meals consists entirely of Goldfish crackers and I change out of my pajamas sometime before sunset. During those times, I’m always grateful that I live in a culture where that kind of thing is accepted, and I don’t feel pressure to live up to unrealistic standards. But I’ve also seen the benefits of carefully selecting ambitious but achievable goals that bring a burst of energy and inspiration into our household, and send the message to myself, my family, and my sisters in the trenches that I haven’t lost my zest for life just because I change a lot of diapers. And often, the reaction I have gotten from well meaning fellow Christians has been: “Stop trying.” Put all that aside until the kids are grown. It’s just too hard.
Again, I think that when people discourage moms of little ones, their intentions are good. An older mother might be motivated by regrets that she didn’t savor enough moments when her own children were young; a husband might worry that his wife won’t have enough time to relax if she takes on something new. I know that in the case of my friend and her exercise program, I wanted to save her unnecessary stress. But, as people who want to build up a culture of life, I think that we should be careful about the messages we put out there about what the childbearing years are like. And when we hear a mom of young kids mention that she’s set her sights on a challenging life improvement goal, we should spend less time telling her how hard it will be, and more time saying, “That’s great! How can I help?”