“May I do my work out of love, and not out of duty.”
I say this every day as part of my morning prayer. I added it in a few years back, when homeschooling Saoirse and Ula was at its most challenging. Like every over-achieving mom, I was having a hard time sorting out what I thought I was supposed to do from what I wanted to do. In the homeschooling arena, acting out of duty and not out of love creates a serious mess. It can leave a mother shrieking at her children that they’re ungrateful for the opportunities and sacrifices that have been made for their benefit while a tear-stained math book lays open on the kitchen table. It doesn’t make for good math times, and it sure as heck can lead to a bitter mom. On a family farm the failure to sort out love and duty can lead to built-up resentment over the perpetual work and the minimal pay. Dinner plates can be slammed on the table, Christmas holidays become an onerous chore, morning coffee can be sipped in silence…All while telling the broader world that you chose this path “for the quality of life.”
Thus, asking this prayer of the divine and of myself daily has made for an important energetic shift. I saw it straigthaway at the kitchen table while homeschooling the girls. I sorted out that conventional scholastic benchmarks achieved at certain ages was something I thought I was supposed to do. But it wasn’t what I wanted for my kids. I wanted them to love learning. I wanted to spend time with them. That’s why we were sharing the homeschool space together. While we still have our moments of angst, for the most part, our homeschool hours have grown into a source of renewal and energy.
With the farm, that simple prayer also led to a big shift: toward Bob and me admitting that chasing pigs or cleaning maggots from a lamb’s hind end wasn’t our highest and best use, much less our happiest moment. It led us to change the way we ran the farm, focusing on the aspects of it that presented the best creative challenges for us, and dramatically improving our bottom line.
But this year, for my birthday, I took this prayer one step further. I decided that focusing my work on love over duty was great, but I needed to think more broadly. I needed to give up guilt all together. Guilt, I realized, played out in more than just homeschooling and farm life. Guilt made me say “yes” to social engagements when I desparately needed more quiet time to nurture my introverted soul. It led me to agree to driving my kids places when I felt I was falling too far behind on my own work. It led me to answer the phone when I was trying to focus on writing. And because I did those things, I became bitter. I’d weedle out of social engagements and assuage my guilt by saying mean things about the hosts. I’d take on the kid-driving tasks and then bite everyone’s heads off when we got home and I had to work late. I’d bark visciously at anyone who called while I was mid-sentence on a piece of writing.
So giving up guilt has possibly made me more of a jerk in the eyes of others owing to my heavy use of the words “No thank you,” but I feel, overall, it has made me a much kinder, gentler person. If I don’t need to justify the things I choose to do to keep myself sane and happy, then I don’t feel compelled to cast judgement on others. And while giving up guilt has not been an overnight achievement (I’m still working on it), I can feel yet another energetic shift as friends and loved ones accept my loving smiles and no’s. The people who populate my daily world understand that I have my own culture, my own way of loving, my own way of giving, and my own way of taking care of myself.
Thus, it has been interesting this past month, playing host-mom to our foreign exchange student, Martina. She has had to get used to our culture: that we will choose to spend a day off scrambling down steep ridges to sit at the base of a waterfall rather than drive to a shopping mall; that we’ll concoct a mystery soup from leftover broth and vegetables rather than order a take-out pizza; that we don’t make a daily habit of dusting and vacuuming, and we expect our children to help with the cooking, cleaning and operation of our family business; that I have a tendency to lose my cell phone a few times each day, that I have about 8000 undread emails, that we can’t afford to fix the air conditioning in our car.
But our family, also, has dealt with severe culture shock. Agreeing to host a student has meant agreeing to cooperate with other fellow Americans who are also hosting. We are supposed to deliver Martina to appointed locations several days each week for scheduled events. Pick up and drop off times can range anywhere from five in the morning to nearly midnight. We are supposed to be following the group through a special Facebook page, uploading photos of our adventures, communicating with other families to help each other out with scheduling needs, reading our emails, packing endless bag lunches, and worst of all, participating in group social activities (a.k.a. PARTIES: the bane of my existence).
Martina isn’t stupid. She can tell this is a struggle for me to adjust to. Perhaps she picks up on my sublte cues, like the eye rolling that happens every time she receives an update from her trip monitor about the schedule, or the panicked look on my face when I learn the night before an event that I’m supposed to send a bag lunch when we keep neither bread nor cold cuts in our house….Or, on this particular morning as we’re waiting at her drop-off point, the way I pull a face when she mentions the going-away party this weekend. In my ongoing practie of guilt-free living, I tell her, “I’m not going.”
She just laughs at me. “Why did you decide to host an exchange student?”
I look at her, and I think about my prayers: to act out of love and not out of duty; to give up guilt. And I wonder: was it guilt and a sense of duty that led Bob and me to make this choice?
I examine the recesses of my heart before I answer her. “I don’t know,” I tell her. “We just saw the sign that said students needed places to stay. We didn’t really have a reason. We both just thought…well….that we could do it.”
“Did you get to choose me?”
I didn’t want to tell her the truth. I didn’t want to tell her that she wasn’t specially chosen. But I don’t lie well. “Not really. Dove just sent us your application. I think she was working through a list, and she needed to find someone for you, and we joined late, and your application was on top.” Quickly I added, “Then she offered us the opportunity to select from some other students, but we just felt, …well, we had seen your face, and we already made a promise to you.”
“I’m glad you did,” she says, “because I think you are a really good family. Will you do it again?”
Love or duty? If we are a good family, then we should do it again, right? We may be quirky, but Martina had fun. She had a good experience, I think. We could offer the same to other foreign exchange students.
“No.” My voice is resolute. I check in with my heart. I don’t feel the least bit guilty. I privately congratulate myself.
Martina’s eyes open wide. She looks hurt. “Did you really not like it?”
And that’s when my eyes get cloudy. I’m not very good in these moments. In recent years I’ve gotten pretty good at saying “No.” I’m good at blowing off silly things that I think are unimportant, sorting out love from duty.
“No,” I say that word again, and she backs away a little bit, visibly hurt by that word. “I did like it. We all did.”
“So then why don’t you do it again?”
I pause. I need to tell her the honest truth. “Because then someone else would be sleeping in your room. And what if you needed it?”
She is so different from us. She knows brand names and loves sales. She adores make up and Netflix. She loves a party, thinks nacho cheese and Burger King are amazing, and is happiest in the city.
And out here, miles from a shopping mall, where the only fast food you can get is cold leftovers, she has a bedroom. She has become one of my daughters. Our home is her home.
I say this out of love. Not out of duty.