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.
Finally, October is here! For many of us, it's the month of trying to get our acts together: We cut corners during the long days of summer; in September we just try to survive the shock to the system of all the activities and schoolwork that Fall has dropped on us; we know that November and December will be packed with holiday activities...so that leaves October for getting things in order.
Along these lines, a big topic of conversation among my mom friends has been the issue of self-discipline:
I've come up with a great schedule for my family, but how can I work up the self-discipline to implement it?, one homeschooling friend remarked recently. I was hoping that with the kids gone at school all day I'd be completely on top of household stuff, but I end up spending half the day procrastinating, another stay-at-home mom commented.
I too have been on a long quest for more self-discipline. I've gone through phases where I get up early and have the house tidied and breakfast on the table by the time the first kid rises. The results are always amazing: The kids' behavior is better, homeschooling and other household tasks are easier, and well into the evening there's a lingering feeling of purpose and energy. But I'm not a morning person, and, despite all those great benefits, it takes only the slightest disruption to knock me off my entire schedule. I get a cold or have to stay up late a couple of nights to hit a deadline, and before I know it I'm sleeping until the last possible minute, waking to a trail of crackers and snack food in the living room that the older kids foraged for breakfast, and our days are plagued with a feeling of purposelessness and chaos.
I've been fighting this battle for eight years of parenthood now, and I'm starting to think that what I'm asking of myself is harder than it seems. In fact, it may even be unnatural.
What got me thinking about this is that I finally found something that brought structure and routine to our daily lives: Signing our two toddlers up for the parish Mother's Day Out program. Even though only two of my five children attend this preschool, it changes everything about our days. Suddenly, there's somewhere I have to be at a certain time, multiple days per week. I'm motivated to get homeschooling and desk work done during the hours that the toddlers are out of the house, and I stay uncharacteristically focused to get as much done as possible before I have to leave to pick them up. I leave at the same time every day to collect them, not out of my own amazing powers to stick to a routine, but simply because it would cause problems for others if I were late.
A neighbor commented the other day that I must have tremendous discipline to stick to our household schedule each week. I don't at all (in fact, I'm probably one of the most naturally lazy people I know) but having our family schedule anchored to the external schedule of the parish changes everything. There may be some small amount of self-discipline involved in rising in time to get everyone ready to leave for Mother's Day Out, but the pressure of having external consequences if I sleep late gives me the push I need to drag myself out of bed, even when it's the last thing I want to do. In other words:
Exercising the self-discipline to follow a routine is vastly easier when it's done in the context of a community.
Farmers don't rise before dawn only because they think it's a good thing to do: There are often workers arriving who need direction, not to mention cows waiting to be milked and animals needing to be fed. People in the military and parents of children who go to school outside the home rise at the same time every weekday -- not necessarily out of their own personal willpower alone, but because they need to be somewhere by a certain time, or else it would cause problems for others. In each case, there are community consequences to veering from the set schedule.
Especially when staying with a routine involves a great amount of effort (for example, getting multiple kids to transition from one activity to the next), it requires an almost inhuman amount of willpower for one person to make it happen over and over again, day after day, with no external pressure for her to do so. When the consequences for veering from the schedule are confined to your house and won't impact anyone else, it's all too easy to decide to forgo the pain of keeping it up with it all, and ride a wave of inertia for a while.
This realization has made me see the importance of anchoring our family schedule to a community schedule. I look out for opportunities to get involved with regularly recurring events at the parish or with other families, in ways that aren't too stressful for us, but will have consequences if we veer from the plan (for example, next summer, when Mother's Day Out is out of session, we might make standing plans with another family to meet for daily Mass on a certain day of the week).
However, it must be said that arranging this kind of thing is rarely easy, and sometimes it's not even possible. We live in a highly disconnected society where geographically-based communities have been shattered, and there are not often obvious opportunities to connect our daily lives with others'. Especially for families with multiple babies and toddlers, the seemingly simple prospect of getting everyone in the car and driving 10 minutes to the parish church can be an endeavor of epic proportions. In my own life, I've been through plenty of periods when it was too difficult to break out of our suburban isolation, and I'm sure those occasions will arise again. But the realization about the role of community connectedness in my quest for self-discipline has at least helped me go easy on myself during such times. Instead of beating myself up for my failures at sticking to a clear routine, I congratulate myself for whatever successes I have in that department, acknowledging that the battle I'm fighting is a difficult one, because it's tremendously hard to achieve high levels of discipline when you're doing it in isolation.