I believe mothers home with young children face unique circumstances in our culture today. They are often educated and trained for something other than what they are doing, the work at home is often seemingly thankless and tiring, and they can feel removed from the rest of the adults in their lives. In some ways, this stage of motherhood can be seen as similar to a monastic season in fact.
Just as monks centuries ago struggled greatly with acedia, moms today may, too. Here are some reasons why:
1. The work can feel mundane. No one ever claimed motherhood would be glamorous --well, maybe June Cleaver made it look that way -- but some of the things we moms are asked to do are just downright boring. Matching socks. Emptying the dishwasher. Telling the 2-year-old to get down off that high stool for the 27th time. Reminding the teenager to put a sweatshirt on for the 227th time. Making oatmeal again. (“This time maybe I’ll get really crazy and add raisins while it’s cooking!”)
We can feel very underwhelmed in our daily tasks.
Meanwhile, we watch our husbands get dressed each morning (in clean clothes!), and go off whistling to work where they will likely get to talk to other adults (!) and finish some task that will not get undone immediately. They may even get told they are doing a good job by their bosses, and they may even get to have lunch at a restaurant on a table that’s not smeared with peanut butter, and… ok, I’m digressing. The point is, we moms long to have more stimulating work and more stimulating conversations sometimes.
Did you know, though, that the ol’ monks actually embraced the banality of the work they did? They believed that the simple rhythm of mundane tasks actually helped shape them into the people God wanted them to be. They saw it even as a form of prayer and worship.
As Kathleen Norris points out in her book, Acedia &Me, it is acedia that urges us to brood or fantasize over circumstances in which we would be affirmed and admired by more stimulating companions.
2. The work is redundant. Much of a mother’s day, especially when her children are very young, can be primarily about doing something that is about to be undone. Changing a child into clean clothes. Making meals. Washing dishes. Washing clothes. Putting the couch cushions back onto the couch. Putting the toys away. It all needs to be re-done almost immediately. It can begin to feel like the mythological Sisyphus, pushing the boulder up to the top of the hill, only to have it roll back down again.
Norris tells a story about a monk centuries ago who lived in a cave far away from all civilization. Every day he would do his work – which was weaving baskets out of straw. When his whole cave was filled up with finished baskets, he would burn them – because he lived too far away to carry them somewhere to sell. Then he would start all over again. If that’s not the definition of mundane work, I don’t know what is. I imagine he was not unfamiliar with acedia.
3. We have more “solitude.” I almost chuckle every time I remind myself of this because at my current stage of life, I am never alone for longer than 20 seconds at a time – even at night, it seems.
But, the fact reminds that for many of my earlier years as a mother, even though there were other warm bodies in the house (warm, that is, IF they were wearing their sweatshirts), I often had no one to converse with – other than, “Hey baby, want some milk? Milk? Milk milk?” which generated no intelligent response.
So, we moms are “in our heads” a lot, as they say. And so we blog. And we journal. And we process. And we think about ourselves. And our plight. And we wonder and analyze and conclude. And sometimes we find ourselves despairing because of our plight. And sometimes we want to escape our plight. And sometimes we’re tired of caring. And all of that is acedia.
Monks had long periods of silence, too - and they thought about acedia a lot.
4. Our work is long-term. Some of our tasks are not mundane, and they're not redundant, and they are important. In fact, the very heart of motherhood is raising new humans to do what is right and good and true and to follow their Savior. But that is a looooong road. At least, it feels long when you’re in the middle of it!
Even though what we are doing is extremely meaningful, we can find ourselves looking forward or backwards, looking at what else is out there. As the early monks discovered, acedia’s special dislike is staying alone in one place. But that is what moms are called to do – to stay here and embrace the now.
Norris tells us that when acedia tempts us to reminisce about the past (those happy, golden years when we could sleep in on weekends and spontaneously go to a movie with friends!), or dream about the future (someday I’ll be able to go to the beach and read a book all by myself!), we are unable to see the grace available to us here and now.
Like monks, we moms have some lifestyle challenges which can make us extra prone to acedia.
Tomorrow I'll share some of the common traps this can lead to....