“How are you doing?” people ask me. It’s a common question that precedes an equally common response: “Fine.” For me, the answer is always complicated. How most of us are really doing is the opposite of fine. Those of us who are mothers, especially of young children, share an unspoken understanding that we almost always feel beyond overwhelmed – drowning, suffocating, defeated.
These are not exaggerations. Over the course of six months’ time, I’ve shared many a conversation with other moms of young children, who have used these words to explain how terribly they are struggling to raise a family these days. I share their sentiments and tell them so. But the question that has been nagging me is, what are the main reasons moms feel isolated and alone as they attempt to take care of their children?
The answer, of course, varies as much as the responses to the question, “How are you doing?”
Challenges to the Modern Family
“Be a person who listens to what people need, communicating not only to grieve or tell others about your own problems. Listen in order to intercede and help out.” – Pope Francis
Although there are myriad reasons, some individual, that contribute to the difficulty of raising a family in our modern culture, here are five that I’ve personally experienced. My hope is that these will provide at least a foundational understanding of the challenges we face, followed in the next section by how we can rebuild a sense of community.
Lack of familial support
Families no longer live in close proximity as they once did one fifty-plus years ago. Globalization has its advantages, but when one is raising a family, the bad clearly outweighs the good. We live fifteen hundred miles away from my in-laws, which makes it impossible to have the necessary help in caring for infants, toddlers, and a daughter with special needs. The individualistic mindset of Americans only contributes to the reality that, even if extended family lives within reasonable driving distance, they have their own lives and are a) too busy or b) too selfish to help.
After our fourth child was born, I noticed something striking. It was unspoken, yet understood almost everywhere I went: the “perfect” family is comprised of four people, usually a mom, dad, boy, and girl. On the rare occasion we ate dinner out, the family meal deals included four of everything: drinks, main course, and a side dish. Ditto for trying to find a larger vehicle than the Dodge Caravan we owned that barely held enough room for three carseats.
Unfortunately, most members of society believe that children are either a burden or commodity and that smaller families are ideal. When you and your spouse become outnumbered by your children, you face major hurdles in finding simple solutions to problems, two mentioned above.
We’ve all heard of physical, or manual labor, but the concept of emotional labor is a newer one. It is the idea that one head of the household (usually mom) bears the brunt of caregiving and managing calendars, schedules, arranging babysitters, etc. In a business sense, emotional labor is related to balancing emotions in order to fulfill a specific task.
Women, being considered the heart of the home, are often naturally expected to carry most, if not all, of the emotional labor of the family, and this invisible burden contributes to the difficulty of raising children.
Division of responsibility
Before Ben and I married, we discussed our expectations of how chores around the house would be divided. Both of us were raised in very traditional families, in which our dads dealt with yardwork and tinkering with broken doorknobs or other fix-it projects, and our moms cooked, cleaned, and ran errands. We agreed to divvy responsibilities according to talent rather than traditional male/female roles, which is why I am in charge of the family budget and pay the bills.
Sometimes, especially when a mom works outside the home, she is still expected to pick up the kids from school, take the dog to the vet, do the laundry, grocery shop, cook, and scrub toilets. Wouldn’t it be easier for spouses to share responsibilities in the home?
By and large, families feel isolated from others, because everyone is busy. Everyone. We are overinvolved at church, volunteer for various groups in our kids’ schools or extracurriculars, work full time, and then crash at the end of the day. When we have any down time, we are usually plugged in to our technology, so few of us thoughtfully consider who around us might need our help or benefit from a visit, a handwritten card, or a homecooked meal.
Reclaiming Our Sense of Community
“Community is first of all a quality of the heart. It grows from the spiritual knowledge that we are alive not for ourselves but for one another.” – Henri Nouwen
Community is the essence of what it means to be a practicing Christian – to welcome the stranger, feed the poor, care for the widow and orphan. In our situation raising a medically complicated child, the simple touches of the heart are what have made the most significant difference in lowering our sense of isolation, loneliness, and burnout: meals following Sarah’s surgeries; gift cards to supplement fuel used while driving to the hospital; care packages with books and healthy snacks; offers for free babysitting or house cleaning.
Above all, the personal visits from neighbors and friends have been the greatest gifts. For families, especially those of us who have unique circumstances (like children with disabilities or many children), to feel loved by neighbors and church, our relationship with God must first be strengthened so that we are more aware of what we have to share with others. Community begins with cognizance of other people’s suffering, which is often borne from a deep prayer life.
When we each listen to the promptings in our hearts, we notice things and people around us more keenly, and we respond in only one way: to love them, to perhaps suffer for and with them.