How Wonderful It Is (To Do Nothing?)

(In honor of my vacation week, here’s a little blast from the past: -Ology magazine’s May 2010 article. Enjoy.)

How wonderful it is to do nothing, and then to rest afterwards.

This little saying is needle-pointed on a framed wall hanging at my grandparents’ house. I didn’t have appreciation for it until 2.75 years ago when my first child was born. And now that I am pregnant with my second — a baby girl, who I’m sure will fill any holes of drama that Drew has not yet discovered — the phrase might as well be written in Sanskrit because I have no recent experience to inform my understanding of it.

But it’s not that I can’t imagine resting from a restful day — I can imagine going to the moon in a Lexus or visiting Target without spending $868. I just don’t have any personal, concrete evidence to help my accuracy. Ok, I take that back. I DID travel to St. Thomas this summer with two college friends, and there was one day in which we ate at a giant breakfast buffet, changed into our swimsuits (perhaps ill-advised), lay on the beach, ordered grilled-cheese, then took a sunset sail in which we were provided with hard cheeses intended for dipping into other, softer cheeses. But I didn’t sleep well that night, as you can probably imagine, so this technically doesn’t count because the resting after the rest wasn’t “wonderful.” What would make resting after rest “wonderful” anyway? I can only speculate but I know for certain it wouldn’t involve a dairy-induced colorectal event.

Now it’s really a well-worn joke that young mothers don’t get any rest, and like everybody else in Western culture I can laugh along too — not in a ha-ha way but in a desperate, slightly hysterical way — and I think there’s a measure of comfort in fitting into any stereotype; that of the tired, overworked mother for instance. If we are not tired and overworked, we are considered suspect among our peers, and rightly so. Nobody likes a show-off. But should exhaustion really be the hallmark of good mothering?

The thing about rest is: to rest, you have to work. Rest would be a non-term without its counterparts: effort, energy, accomplishment. So technically we mothers are the prime candidates for having the best rest of anybody out there. WE are always putting forth effort; WE expend enormous energy; WE accomplish unbelievable things — even if it’s simply keeping our offspring’s index fingers out of electrical outlets and feeding them carbon-based solids in order to keep them conscious, and in technical terms, “alive.” Not to mention those of us with jobs and fingernails to maintain. Or dogs. Or houses.

So why is it that the people who do the most work do not get the best rest?

Because we’re woken up at 3 a.m. by hungry infants and frightened toddlers. That’s why. That’s the answer at least to our physical exhaustion. But what about the mental exhaustion, which is much worse?

So on one hand we have a theoretical, faceless human who has been smiled upon by the gods and is capable of resting after rest (nobody with whom I presently associate), and on the other we have the haggard mother whose only respite is dipping cheese into cheese once every five years with old college roommates on sailboats. I hope — and I suspect with some degree of certainty — that there is a third way.

By the time this issue publishes, even on the very day it publishes, I will be in the throes of moving into a new house. I will be 6 ½ months pregnant, moving a toddler and his things, and our china and the books and rugs and picture frames and Christmas decorations and vases and wreaths and clothes and candles and fingernail clippers and old shoeboxes filled with old rose petals and photographs and clocks and random batteries and bug spray and whisks and shoes and bath toys and…I must stop. (If I don’t stop I will be forced to eat a king-sized Twix immediately. Or two.)

But I can pretty much guarantee one thing: if you are reading this on May 1, I will be up until 2 a.m. tonight until every picture is hanging on every wall and every toothpick is in its designated drawer. And then I will get up tomorrow, May 2, and do the same thing because there will no doubt still be one pesky, rebellious toothpick out of place. And the Herculean energy I will expend will be nothing short of miraculous and I will sleep like the baby who even now sleeps inside of me. Rest — good rest — comes to those who are doing something important and something they enjoy.

We mothers know our job is important but we do not always enjoy it. And sometimes we enjoy it just fine — especially in those profound moments of tenderness when your baby boy takes your face in his brie-cheese hands and kisses you — it’s just we sometimes think it’s not that important, what with the repeated cleaning off of muddy shoes and wiping away of snot.

It’s hard to ever find a day in mothering in which we are truly enjoying it AND feeling “fulfilled” (a very yuppyish term I think is rather obnoxious if you must know). But if these two things were combined each and every day, both enjoyment and a sense of valuable contribution, then the meager hours of sleep — or stolen naps at 3 p.m. — would most definitely be sounder and sweeter. Rest is only wonderful when there is something wonderful to be rested from. And that’s true if you’re a bus driver, a politician, a writer or a Dancing With The Stars contestant.

Oh that such a perfect storm should blow…

So the trick is: how do we experience both of the ingredients for good mental rest — enjoyment and significance — on a consistent basis? I think we must put our best mommy faces on and concentrate because it’s not going to happen magically like losing weight or becoming more youthful-looking. (What? Can’t relate?)

I know a lady who has painted Bible verses all over her house. Not in a frightful, graffiti-esque way but in a very classy suburban way. So she could be picking grime off the counter top with her fingernail, look up and read, “Do everything as unto the Lord.” Or she could be in the living room looking for a missing shoe and see, “You know when I sit and when I rise; you are familiar with all my ways.”

You might think this is a little too literal of a way to make yourself remember your calling and identity, especially if you’re of a modern, minimalist interior design sensibility; but in the dog-eat-dog or, more accurately, dog-eat-his-own-dog-vomit world of mommyhood, we need more frying pans in the face like this if we ever hope to keep our wits about us. That’s just one suggestion. As for the enjoyment part, well, I advise keeping a Twix handy at all times, especially for those emergency moments when your child absolutely repulses you. Perhaps you should store it in a glass fire extinguisher box on your mantel with a tiny red ax.

So the verdict is, at least for me: it’s really NOT wonderful to do nothing and then to rest afterwards. I have no hope of experiencing that anytime soon, anyway. But it IS really wonderful to do something important and enjoyable and then to rest after that. Otherwise all you really have on your hands is an unpleasant intestinal episode or worse, a sleepless night.

Now if you’ll excuse me. I’m off to pack me up some Spode.

Julie Rhodes and her husband once chased Jason Witten into a freight elevator.
(-Ology, May 2010)
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1. Is Jesus a Dude in a Waterbed?
2. Grumpy Old Me

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