A Family, Not a Factory

January always brings with it discussion of time management and family organization. There are entire bookshelves in libraries and bookstores devoted to managing the time and materials of a family, each promising ultimate order if only you follow three steps or seven steps or eight steps.

The system usually involves listing all that must be done, assigning a priority to it according to one’s value system and determining how long it will take to accomplish that task.

Once that is done, it is supposedly very simple to live according to the plans and so to reap the benefits of order. The theory is interesting, but really I think far more print should be devoted to what my friend Jen calls “The Human Factor.” The human factor is what we must figure when we want to live those plans in a world where we interact with and respond to real people, particularly if those people include children.

Sometimes, a chore which has been assigned 15 minutes takes 30 or more because I must stop and instruct again about how it is to be done or because the chore itself was more complex than I first thought. Sometimes, the bedtime routine takes less time than planned because everyone is physically exhausted after a day outside and so they fall asleep before the first story is read. Sometimes, it takes a very long time because a little girl wants to discuss the complexities of friendship as soon as my head hits the pillow next to hers.

Almost all the home management strategy books I’ve read are written by people who are very good at managing businesses. Even one of the earliest glimpses into an orderly large Catholic family, Cheaper by the Dozen, was the model of a family conceived by an industry efficiency expert. But a family is not a factory. And I am not at all certain we should attempt to run it like one.

I love home management books. I read them; I shelve them; I refer to them again and again. I can’t tell sometimes where my ideas end and those I’ve read begin. But I do know that there is a certain disconnect between what is in those books and the way I live my life. That contradiction used to trouble me.

Now I recognize that the very things that didn't fit into my neat time management strategies and drove me crazy when my first children were babies are the things that define my motherhood and I find most enjoyable and meaningful now. For instance, when Christian, who is now 12, was little, it drove me nuts to have to stay with him while he fell asleep. I never knew how long the process would take. I would lie beside him, tense and chafing to get going again because I knew how many things remained on my list for the day. Now, I look forward to a lengthy bedtime routine. I don't think twice about turning down all outside invitations for evenings because I am indispensable at home between 6:30 and 9:30. I won’t miss that time with my children because it is important to them, but it is also important to me. Nursing my babies to sleep and, later, reading with them and staying with them for as long as they want me, has been a cornerstone as I’ve built relationships with them. As far as the list is concerned, I know that whatever remains to be done will still be there tomorrow.

It is not a failure on my part, nor does it make me a poor manager, to leave the list unfinished. Instead, it makes me a better mother and a better person. If we could live our lives according to the neat little boxes in a planner, if we never had to make a decision or a sacrifice that wavered from our plan of how to spend our time, why would we need God? When we look at the face of a child and see Jesus and then make a decision about how to spend our time, we grow in holiness.

So often, we are led to believe that if we are just efficient and organized enough, we can have wonderful family lives and we won’t have to give up our personal time and space and order. This is a lie the culture tells. Women’s magazines shout their messages of self-fulfillment and self-indulgence. It is precisely when we give up our personal time and space, when we die to ourselves, that our lives are filled with a light we couldn’t imagine when we sat with our planners and their tight little squares.

It is in doing the uncomfortable things that we are genuinely fulfilled. When we die to the comforts of our bodies, our environment, our idea of perfection, we become more like Christ. Often, this approach to life looks messy. Almost always, it is physically and emotionally demanding. Some days are exhausting and frustrating. But they are so worth it. We don’t contemplate giving up this lifestyle. Instead, we pray for more patience and a better understanding of selfless love. And we grow. To trade this kind of life for one that is intolerant of the human factor is to sacrifice an opportunity to raise great kids on an altar of perfection, comfort and convenience.

When we allow ourselves to be weak, to lose the illusion of control that the industry model might promise and instead allow God to make us strong — as we stoop to serve again and again — we begin to understand vocation. Family life has a rhythm of its own. It’s not the monotonous chug of an assembly line, but the happy harmony of individual souls stepping together toward heaven. A family isn’t a factory and parenting isn’t a job. Instead, a family is a domestic church and parenting is a calling.

Elizabeth Foss is a freelance writer from northern Virginia. Real Learning: Education in the Heart of the Home by Elizabeth Foss can be purchased at www.4reallearning.com

(This article courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.)

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