A Note to Young Moms

On October 7, 2006, my daughter, Shauna Niequist, gave birth to her first child.  Shauna had recently turned thirty and Henry was a “planned baby.”  But planned or not, a baby radically changes life.  The week Shauna found out she was pregnant she also signed a book contract, and a month later she traded her full-time leadership position on a church staff for part-time church consulting and speaking. 
Shauna was overjoyed to become a mother, and willingly shifted the main focus of her time and energy to child-rearing; however, she knew that in order to be her best self she should continue to develop and use—to some degree—the full range of gifts God has given her.  The challenge of blending motherhood with serving outside the home increased on September 26, 2011, when Henry was joined by baby brother Mac.  While snuggling a baby who delightfully smiled all day—and (not so delightfully) much of the night too, Shauna was finishing her third book and schlepping Mac along with her to speaking engagements.
Now Henry is six and Mac is twenty months.  Shauna has intentionally slowed life down a bit now, but she’s still a mom with a diaper bag slung over one shoulder and a computer bag over the other.  She and musician husband, Aaron Niequist, negotiate daily how best to share both parenting and the creative life. 
As for me—Nana Lynne—I am enjoying my favorite era of life so far: Since Shauna was born almost thirty-eight years ago, I’ve rarely had a paying job.  But I’ve always been busy as a volunteer.  Currently my volunteer ministry world is as big as the Congo and the Middle East, and my heart has been captured by both regions.  My personal world is as small as two little boys who make me feel like a young mom again!  (And yes, ones heart can be captured by countries and by little boys at the very same time!)
Together Shauna and I examined my long-past experiences and her recent-past experiences and shaped the following five suggestions for women combining the realities of motherhood with...well, with anything!  We hope these are helpful.
Pay attention to your authentic responses to life.
Be honest with yourself. Listen to your soul, your emotions, your joys, your frustrations.  We are so quick to say, I shouldn’t feel like this; I should feel like that.  I shouldn’t desire this; I should be content with that.  But when we dismiss or deny our authentic responses and lose touch with our true needs, feelings, dreams and desires, we often end up frustrated and bitter.
We need to allow ourselves to honestly answer questions like these:  Am I pleased with how I’m living my life?  Or am I frustrated?  Angry?  Depressed?  What brings me energy?  What drains my energy?  What are my dreams for the future?  What needs in the world move me to tears? What activities and endeavors bring me joy?  What creative outlet brings me deep satisfaction? 
This type of honesty is not about self-indulgence.  It’s about dealing with what’s true inside us.  It’s about making thoughtful, prayerful decisions about how to live with joy so we can bring our “best selves” to the people we love.  As we pray about our honest feelings, or talk with trusted friends, our spouse, or a counselor, we can decide how to respond to those feelings constructively. 
Questions such as these can spark creative solutions: Are there activities I can eliminate from my schedule that will help me to feel less stressed?  Are there responsibilities I can give up that will give me more time for activities I prefer?  Is there a class I could take that will help keep my dreams for the future alive?  Is there a volunteer job I could do that would be fulfilling?  How can I creatively shape a life that’s more satisfying for me?
On the other hand, some of our feelings may indicate an area in which we need to grow in patience or obedience to God.  There may be life circumstances that we simply need to learn to accept as the reality of our life, either for a season or permanently. But until we become honest about our feelings, we can’t even begin to discern what we need to accept and what we have the freedom to change.
  
Make a commitment to yourself.
As you discover gifts, passions, or activities that breathe life into you, commit yourself to staying involved in them in some small way.  Don’t take an all or nothing approach.  Often we think that if we don’t have forty hours a week to devote to something, we might as well not even try.  That’s not true!  A few hours here and there can make a huge difference—both in terms of the impact we can have on others and on the health of our own souls.  Be willing to compromise.  Get creative.  Set reasonable goals.  Use the small chunks of time you have now as an investment in your future dreams.  
Remember the importance of play.
Vocation, ministry, and family life often bring challenges that drain our energy.  If we want to be able to face those challenges consistently, we need to discipline ourselves to recharge our energy in light-hearted ways.  So, what do you love to do?  If it’s been so long since you’ve considered having fun that you have no clue what you love to do, think back through the years. What did you enjoy doing when you were a child or adolescent? 
When I first considered this question, I remembered that as a child I had enjoyed playing the flute, sewing, swimming, walking in the woods, painting, and reading—but I hadn’t done any of those things in years.  So I began experimenting with these simple pleasures from the past—and a few new ones as well—and it changed my life!  It brought me joy and energy that I need in order to face the more difficult areas of life. 
If you’re not sure where to start, begin to experiment.  Is there something you used to do but gave up long ago because it seemed frivolous? Is there something you’d love to try but you think it seems silly at your age?  Try it.  Again, just a little bit of time spent in a soul-filling pleasure can increase the energy, passion, and joy that you can bring to the people you love. 
Partner with another woman in a similar situation. 
Shortly after Henry was born, Shauna set up a schedule with another young mom to trade childcare and food preparation on a weekly basis.  On Tuesday afternoons, Shauna cared for both babies, while Annette spent several hours on a work project and then cooked dinner for both families.  The next Tuesday afternoon they reversed rolls. 
When my kids were preschoolers, I had a similar arrangement with a friend whose son and daughter were the same ages as mine.  I used my “time off” for meaningful work, catching up on details, solitude, or play—whichever I most needed on a given day.  Too often women operate in isolation rather than working together as allies and making life easier for all of us.  Let’s change this! 
Communicate clearly and constructively with your family. 
One afternoon I sat down at the kitchen table with my husband and grade-school children and visually illustrated the reality of our family life.  On a big piece of paper, I drew a large circle in the middle with four small circles around it. The large circle represented the corporate life of our family.  In it I listed the tasks required to keep a home and family operating: cleaning, grocery shopping, carpooling, administrative details, etc.  The small circles represented the individual interests for each family member: friendships, meaningful work, ministry, education, recreation, etc. 
One by one, I filled the small circles with the personal activities of each person’s life.  But when I came to my small circle, it was empty.  I explained that I was so consumed with the responsibilities of our corporate life as a family and with helping each of them keep their little circles going, that I had no time to squeeze anything personal into my little circle. “I don’t think this is fair,” I said.  “I deserve a little circle too.” 
Both Bill and the kids realized that we had to re-negotiate responsibilities in our family life in order to allow me some of the same opportunities they had.  There was no easy answer to the division of labor and responsibility in our family, but that conversation opened the way for us to begin making small changes. 
All parents go through seasons of life when the large circle and the kids’ small circles require enormous amounts of time.  That’s necessary and reasonable.  But if we consistently feel empty—as if we’re shriveling up inside—we owe it to ourselves, to our families, and to God to work toward a constructive, mutually workable solution that will free us to offer our gifts and love to the world with greater strength and passion. 
Almost every positive change I’ve made in life I made too late.  I wasted unnecessary time floundering in frustration before taking the steps that could lead me toward joy.  I’ve tended to let myself get so desperate that I either had to change or die! (At least that’s how it felt.)  I don’t recommend that as a way to live.  But if you tend to live that way too, and you’re feeling a bit desperate right now, please view this blog as a wake-up call.  Take it seriously. Today, grab hold of just one suggestion, thought, sentence, or even a single word in this blog to help you move an inch toward a better future. Here are some possibilities:
  • Be honest.
  • If you're feeling depressed, frustrated or angry, admit it.
  • Talk to a friend.
  • Make an appointment with a counselor.
  • Pay attention to your energy level.  
  • Identify one activity you do that consistently drains you.
  • Identify one activity that consistently boosts your energy.
  • What are your dreams for the future?  Or, what were they before you gave them up? 
  • Do you have time-consuming commitments that you could eliminate?
  • Think of one activity/task/responsibility you could give up (and the world would still go on turning). 
  • Look at your calendar and find one hour in your week that you could devote to something you really want to do.
  • Discipline yourself to play.
  • Name one thing you love to do, even if you haven’t done it for 20 years.
  • Name one thing you’d like to do, even though you’ve never tried it.
  • On next week’s calendar find an hour where you can write, “Play.”
  • Use the next few days to think of what you’re going to do in that playful hour. 
  • Set aside 15 minutes—today—to enjoy a simple pleasure: a cup of tea, a few pages in a favorite novel, a walk around the block (or the apartment complex or the house), listening to music, writing in a journal, sitting in an easy chair and looking out the window, anything!
  • Pursue a partnership.
  • Ask a friend to “share kids” this week, providing two free hours for her, then two free hours for you.  Don’t make a big deal about it.  Suggest a one-time swap.  See how it goes.  (Or at least start thinking about whom you could talk to about sharing kids. Your default thought process might suggest that this would never work or I don’t know whom to ask. Please don’t listen to default negatives! Think about it. Pray about it. It’s really a good idea!)
  • Draw circles. 
  • Fill in circles for you and your family. What does that reveal?  Think and pray about how best to talk to your family about the circles. Maybe even practice by explaining your circles to a friend. (Don’t be impulsive with this. Seriously. You probably have something really important to say.  Don’t undermine it by speaking carelessly.)
What about you?  Can you relate?  Have other ideas or thoughts to add?  We’d love your comments!