I got a lovely Mother’s Day card from one of my daughters that brought tears of joy to my eyes, but it also highlighted one of the enemies of successful living.
Among other sweet words, she wrote, “I am only now starting to realize how much of your own life and time and personal pursuits you must have sacrificed to raise us…”
The gratitude is appreciated and the sentiment is lovely. It is also wrong. It is wrong, not only in terms of motherhood but also in terms of marriage, work and life.
My husband and I once sailed in the Caribbean. When we visited one island, the dock was not only extraordinarily narrow but also in ill repair. It shifted and rocked with each step we took. Being six months pregnant and not quite as nimble as usual, that posed a challenge. What made it even more worrying were the sharks swimming beneath the dock. Falling in the water was not really an acceptable option.
Imagine that there had been magnificent flower beds surrounding the dock instead. I would never have wanted to fall into them, crushing the beautiful blossoms. But my thought process would have been entirely different. I would have taken the same care walking as I did on the shark-surrounded dock, but instead of fear, pleasure would have been my companion.
Teachers often want their students to remain silent when walking down the hall. I once watched two first-grade teachers prepare their students for a trip past several other classrooms on their way to the music room. Neither teacher wanted her group to be disruptive. One teacher spoke about how important it was not to interrupt the other classes and how proud she would be if her students walked in a quiet and orderly fashion, two by two.
The other teacher spun a story, leading her students to picture that they were explorers going through the woods to spy on an enemy camp. One sound and they might be captured!
Both groups were quiet. First graders want to please their teachers. But the second group’s faces were filled with expectation and joy. They weren’t behaving well; they were having an adventure.
Our attitude towards what we are doing makes all the difference. Despite what my daughter wrote, I did not sacrifice to raise my children. That was my chosen vocation and the normal and inevitable consequence was that I had less time and energy for other activities. As a human being living in a world with 24 hours in a day, I can’t do everything and be everywhere. Among my friends I number social workers, CEOs, accountants, teachers, doctors and pilots. The same calculus applies to them.
There were days while my children were young when I couldn’t see how I could possibly cope for five more minutes. I distinctly remember hiding behind some dresses in my closet to steal just a few minutes of quiet. When I got married I could have chosen a professional business path. I could have had fewer children. I could have paid others to care for my children. I had the option of paying tuition at a private school or using the public schools rather than homeschooling as we did. I even could have walked out on my family, unshackling myself from my obligations and responsibilities. Would that have gotten me “all”?
Did I sacrifice by staying in my marriage and devoting myself to my family? Not at all. I made choices and reaped the benefits from those choices, while paying the associated costs. That is called reality.
It’s easy to imagine the life that we did not choose through rose colored glasses. We picture that other us as an executive wearing expensive, tailored clothing and jetting off to exotic vacation locales. We see ourselves saving lives as a surgeon or being feted as teacher of the year. Yet, somehow, we never picture ourselves as a bored lower level employee struggling to make ends meet or as an executive cowering in the ladies room steeling herself to fire an employee she likes. Nor do we picture ourselves as someone earning a great living and relishing the challenges and successes of her career who frequently has to force a smile while yearning to be home with her child or having more energy to devote to her marriage.
There is no job, career, vocation or life that has only sunshine. It is up to us to focus on the positives in the life we choose rather than focusing on those things that our choice excluded. Our attitude, not our reality, decides whether we are sacrificing ourselves or finding fulfillment.
A culture of entitlement bombards us. It is a culture that breeds envy, resentment and unhappiness. I find it amusing that the first person recorded who said he “had it all,” meant it in an entirely different way than we use the phrase today. In Genesis 33:11, Jacob asks his wealthier, stronger and more established brother Esau to accept his gifts, claiming that he, Jacob, has ‘everything.’ By objective standards, he certainly didn’t. In fact, he was fleeing from one home and not sure where he’d end up.
He was focused on what he did have including his relationship with God, his family and the ability to choose how to lead his life. Can we realistically ask for more?
So, my darling daughter who is understandably sometimes overwhelmed by her busy household. Don’t think in terms of sacrifice. Think of the life you have chosen and been granted; a husband, children, extended family, community and faith. Even when it is at its least attractive, acknowledge that you would choose it again. Take a minute to breathe, shed a few tears if you need to, but still be grateful for your life and know that the only way to “have it all,” is to choose that frame of mind. With a nod to the American poet, Robert Frost, we all face many roads that diverge in a wood, and how we think about the one we choose makes all the difference.