A Not-So-Simple Life

I’ve noticed a trend lately, as I sit in waiting rooms of various medical offices with various children. There is a quest out there for simplicity. According to magazine covers, we want simple meals and simply cleaned homes. We want no stress and plenty of simple fun. And the rallying cry for simplicity reaches a fever pitch as the school year begins. I’ve stopped questing after simple.

My life is not simple. And I am not simple. My life is complex. I am responsible for the care and nurturing of 10 other people. They live under my roof. I feed them and clothe them and counsel them and pray for them. I educate them (well, one of them — my husband — I don’t educate, but I do explore new ideas with him). When they are sick, I nurse them back to health. Ten people. There is no way that can be simple. People are complex. All the people here are individuals. They all have individual needs and individual wants and individual personalities.

Running a household of this size is not simple — it’s complex. I can try to make it simple. I can try to pin down that elusive system that forces everything to march in a perfectly orderly manner so that it all looks as sleek and uncluttered as an Amish kitchen, but sooner than later I will be frustrated to learn yet again that there is no simple system that will work here. Even if each component is simple, the big picture is a complex tapestry. Life happens. In a family this size, life happens constantly and it’s never simple.

Sometimes, particularly when I’m tired, I wish it was simple. But then, I usually quickly recognize that I’m wishing away the very life for which I prayed. I begged God for the fascinating, complex man who is my husband. I begged God for every single one of these children. I begged God for the means to buy them the clothes that necessitate nearly perpetual sorting, washing, folding and putting away.

I begged God for the good job my husband holds, which provides ample food that requires extensive planning, shopping, cooking and serving (and also means an erratic work schedule and frequent travel). I begged God for this house, for the things in it, which He has so graciously provided and which I must clean and maintain. And I heard God when He begged me to educate my children at home — each one according to his individual needs and abilities. None of it is simple. Not a single bit of it.

This is my mission field, my apostolate. I am reminded of the woman who struggles to raise three small children while being a missionary in a Third World country. The life seems simple enough. The house is humble; the furnishings are sparse; the meals are plain. But I am assured it’s actually quite complicated. Washing clothes requires transportation and time and the cooperation of nature. Health care can be sporadic and inadequate. Personal safety is not guaranteed.

My mission is in suburban USA. My challenges, like the challenges of the foreign missionary, are often the challenges of the culture in which I find myself. But our missions are the same: to make believers of all nations, to bring the Word of God to the culture. My mission begins at home, on a cul-de-sac in Virginia, where the days are very full indeed. In a world that is increasingly complex. There is no doubt I am called to do it.

The only simple part is how I do it. I am called to do it diligently. I am called to do it wholeheartedly. I am called to devote my entire life to working hard for the glory of God in this complex household. I am called to do it — no matter how intricate and complicated “it” is — with love. Mothers love with all their hearts, minds and souls. It’s a pure love that God wants us to give to our families. Many, many times, this love looks like plain old hard work, work that requires heroic discipline and almost incessant busyness. Work that is softened by grace falling like rain, rain that sounds like music. It’s not a simple tune. It’s a symphony conducted by the Lord Himself. And in every family the song is different, each according to the score written by the Creator.

Mother Teresa lived a life of seeming simplicity. But was it really simple? She founded an order, traveled the globe, fed millions, saved lives, dined with heads of state, worked for the kingdom of God. This was a rich and complex woman. This was a deeply spiritual woman. And, I think, what made it all seem like a simple life was her agenda. At the root of it all, all she wanted was to love. She wrote:

“There is always the danger that we may just do the work for the sake of the work. This is where the respect and the love and the devotion come in — that we do it to God, to Christ, and that’s why we try to do it as beautifully as possible.”

We mothers are like that. We work. We work hard. And often, our work schedules are very complicated. But we can have the peace of simplicity that emanated from the tiny nun if we work those schedules the way she did: with love, and respect and devotion. With the simple purpose of creating something beautiful for God.

And now I’m off, to spend the day in an increasingly familiar circuit of orthopedist and physical therapist, grocery store and post office. I’ll come home to cooking and cleaning and laundry and maybe a little bit of writing. I sat last night and mapped it all out — I had to in order to be sure that I did the work that is mine for the day. It all looks a bit messy on my handwritten list. It looks absolutely nothing like I thought it would at week’s beginning.

And I know the list does not include all the things that I will do which will make me “Mama” to small people. Those go without saying. They are my very being. They are the simple part of me. And all the rest, all the chores, all the scheduling, those I plan as best I can. Now I give it all to Him — the simple part and the overwhelming part. I tell Him I will do the very best I can and I trust Him to show me what’s important, to make His will clear and to conduct the rich and joyful symphony that is my not-so-simple life.

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  • johnny o

    Elizabeth, you are a remarkable woman, it is truly great to read of your values, life, and your close relationship with God. You are a great example of woman/motherhood. Your children are blessed to have you for “MOM”.

  • Becky W.

    I am a regular visitor of your website which always inspires me to be a better mother with my own children. I am so glad to read an article these days about the true selfless and humble meaning of motherhood. In light of the latest Republican vice presidential pick of Mrs. Palin (Governor of Alaska AND mother of 5 children – youngest is 4 months old!), I was beginning to become a bit disillusioned about whether or not my choice of giving up my college degree and promising, lucrative career to stay home and raise and homeschool my children was not as important and fulfilling as being BOTH an ambitious full-time working career woman and a full-time devoted mom, if there is such a thing!! After all, that is what today’s society, the secular media, and even the Christian/Catholic media has been trying to convince me in the last couple of weeks by applauding the “wise” and “prudent” choice of Mrs. Palin for VP. Thanks to your wonderful article, I am again re-affirmed that staying home with my children and being their “Mama” devotedly and wholeheartedly is pure and not-so-simple and I don’t need a full-time decorated public or private career to add more meaning or value to my already God-given and noble calling of faithful motherhood. I just wish that more articles like this are written and discussed not only here but in other Catholic/Christian and mainstream media.

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