[Note: This article was originally published in June, 2003. It’s a reader favorite, so we’ve brought it over to the “new” LAF. – Ed.]
For the past generation, our society has tried to foist upon us the idea of the woman who “has it all” and “does it all.” We stand in awe of women who (we are told) run successful businesses, volunteer for community service, keep beautifully decorated homes, send hand-written letters, cook and entertain guests with style, attend artistic functions, bring up happy children and look like a million bucks to boot. As we stand gaping at these idols of domestic and economic success, we wonder exactly where we fell short of achieving their outstanding merits.
Was it when we had the third or fourth child and suddenly found ourselves lacking in extra hands? Was it when we burned supper on the stove while trying to retrieve the crayons from the toddler who has redecorated a wall? Was it when we checked the mirror and noticed (yet again) that the baby fat hadn’t magically melted away in the night? Was it when we sat down in the midst of a toy-strewn living room only to hear the doorbell ring and suddenly remember this was our afternoon to host the monthly ladies’ tea?
These are not the questions we ought to be asking ourselves. The real question is, “When did I buy into this myth that I can ‘do it all?’”
Superwoman is dead. In fact, Superwoman never existed except in our wildest imaginations. The whole notion that one woman can have it all and do it all is false from beginning to end. The amazing thing is that we are gullible enough to accept it as truth and feel guilty for not achieving what we feel we are somehow obligated as women to achieve. It is time to free ourselves from this false standard and start living as women who are only too glad they do not do it all and cannot have it all.
I’ve had many people ask me, “How do you do it all?” My first response is, “I do not ‘do it all!’” And there are two sides to this answer. The first side is the one of impressions from a distance. A stranger does not live with me or see me on a daily basis. She doesn’t see the sink piled with soaking dishes on days when dishes just have to wait. She doesn’t see the tub toys floating in the toilet – yet again! She doesn’t hear the baby crying to be picked up while the toddler is asking for a diaper change and the eldest boys are quarreling over a toy. In real life, this is what happens. In “virtual” life, chores magically do themselves, children float serenely and obediently through the day, and babies never need diaper changes! This is one of the great problems with a society that is plugged into television, magazines, and the Internet. We can “see” people who live across the world. Their perfectly polished magazine interviews or web pages show us glimpses of their lives – children smiling around a birthday cake; mothers planting flowers in a garden; fathers carrying toddlers on their shoulders – but they do not show us all that there is to living in that particular family. Instead of thinking, “They are real people just like me, and I bet they encounter problems just like mine,” we think, “Wow! They have really got it all together. I wonder how they do it?” But this is just plain blindness on our part. We are too ready to accept total strangers at face value and envy them for their “put-together-ness.”
I’m just as susceptible to this syndrome as the next person is. For example, I’ve gotten to the point where I do not want to know anything about the people who act in movies. Our family watches very few movies, and the ones we do watch almost always tell stories of people of honorable character with noble intentions. In my mind, I tend to associate the actors or actresses with the characters they play in the film. When I find out that an actress I’ve admired is a sorry person in “real life,” I am always so disappointed. Isn’t that silly? It is highly unlikely I’d ever really meet or interact with that person. Why should it bother me that she isn’t what she plays on the screen? It is because the reality shatters my lofty vision of what that person should have been. I have placed that person on a pedestal, only to see her come crashing to the ground.
Because we have this tendency to accept what we see superficially as deep-down reality, we need to be very careful that we do not idealize people we do not know. We especially need to be careful that we don’t make them a false standard and spend frustrated hours trying to achieve what we believe they have done. It’s time to allow our idols to step down and be the flesh-and-blood human beings that they are.
Choosing not to do it all
But I mentioned there were two sides to my answer of “I don’t ‘do it all.’” Because I can only come at this topic from my own perspective, I will use myself as an example. As I said before, strangers often ask me for my secret recipe for success in homemaking, child rearing, running a home business, keeping a sane schedule, making my husband happy – you name it. I understand why they ask these things, because I do the same thing! When we find someone who appears to have achieved what we’d like to achieve, we want her to give us a ten-step program so we can get to the pinnacle she has reached. More specifically, we want to know how we, too, can “have it all” and “do it all” so that others may look on in wonder and applaud. I admit it! It is always nice to have the pat on the back, the “good job!” and the admiring glances of others. But praise from strangers is a pitfall. Strangers do not know me. Strangers do not see what goes on every day in my home. What counts is what God sees – 24/7/365.
Here’s the key: No woman in history has ever done it all or had it all. We all must make choices about what we do. When you choose one thing, something else must necessarily fall through the cracks. Yes, I do run a small home business, and I do sew a lot of things for my family and myself. But let’s get some perspective here. First off, here is a small list of things I do not do:
- I am not a “soccer mom.” I do not run my kids around to various activities during the week, and I try to avoid spending time in the car if I can possibly help it.
- I do not belong to any women’s groups (book clubs, civic groups, etc.)
- I am not a gourmet cook. I like cooking, but I stay with fairly basic dishes and don’t do a ton of experimentation.
- I don’t send Christmas cards. If I remember birthdays, I am doing well!
- I don’t attend a lot of society functions away from home.
- I don’t knit or crochet.
- I don’t paint or draw (though I’d love to really learn at some point).
- I do not have a vegetable garden and don’t can my own veggies.
- I don’t go to the gym. My daily exercise consists of 30 minutes with a Pilates DVD (when I’m up early enough!), running up and down stairs in my own house, vacuuming, mopping, lifting laundry and children, scrubbing countertops and dancing with my boys when the music and the mood hits us.
Now, please don’t misunderstand. There is nothing wrong with these activities! I would not at all condemn or scorn women who did them. If they are able to fit some of these things into their lives, more power to them! But we have to understand that for each activity we add, something else must drop off the list. One woman may enjoy baking fancy cakes for family birthdays yet find no room in her life for sewing. Another may love to arrange flowers but have no time to weed a garden of her own. There is nothing wrong with this. What is wrong is feeling guilty that we aren’t able to cram more things into our already overcrowded days.
“But what about the Proverbs 31 woman?” you ask. “Isn’t that biblical ‘Superwoman’ supposed to be our ideal?” Well, yes and no. Yes, this woman is to be our model in all that we do or attempt to do as women, and, yes, we should strive to emulate her. But we need to be careful that we do not misread this excellent passage or misunderstand its application to our lives. The first thing most people say when they read this passage is “When does this woman ever sleep?” After all, she “rises while it is yet night,” but “her lamp does not go out at night.” But we miss the cultural context here. Back before the days of electricity, people used oil lamps to light their homes. In Old Testament times, a lamp was essentially a small dish with a wick lying down in the oil. A raised spout on one side lifted the wick high enough to keep it lit and to prevent it from “drowning” in the oil. The wise woman had to keep her eye on her lamps to make sure the wicks were trimmed regularly and to see that the lamp basin did not run out of oil. No oil, no light. No oil, no fire to kindle the kitchen hearth in the morning. When the Bible tells us that “her lamp does not go out at night,” it is saying that this woman remembered to make sure her lamp was full of oil before she went to bed. When she did this, she wouldn’t have to re-start a fire in the morning (remember – no matches in Bible days!). In other words, this woman is prudent and is taking care of the smallest details of her household. One application we can take away from this passage is to think about tomorrow before we go to bed so that we can wake up ready to start our day’s tasks.
“Well, then,” you continue, “What about that business she is running, providing garments to the merchants, buying fields and planting vineyards?” Again, we have to look at the context. The passage also tells us that her husband “takes his seat among the elders of the land” at the city gates. This is a description of an older man (past 60, usually), who has established his reputation by being a hard worker, good husband and faithful father. Young men just starting out in life with no fruit to show for their labors have not earned the right to sit with the elders in the city gates; they still have years of hard work ahead of them. It is the same for the wives of those young men. Their first responsibility is to help their husbands establish godly households and train up the next generation. That work must always come first.
We all go through “seasons” in our lives. Before we are married, we have a great deal more “free” time that we can use as we see fit (hopefully in serving others, caring for our church bodies and communities, working with our families or on a small personal business, etc.). When we are newlyweds without children, we are able to devote great blocks of time to big projects that wouldn’t be possible when children need our attention. As the children come, we find we need to drop things so that we do not overcrowd our days and end up neglecting our families. In my own case, I phased out of my home sewing business and went into pattern design and sales. When my second child was ready for phonics, I handed over order fulfillment to someone else. In the future, my husband would like our boys to run the order fulfillment end of the business, since it will help them learn good trade skills. I’ll be teaching my girls to design their own patterns when they are old enough as well. The current “season” of my life is that of full-time homeschooling, child training, and other home- and family-centered “projects.” There is no way I can “do it all,” and letting go of the order fulfillment side of my business while my children are small and need much more hands-on attention is a must. I may pick it up again later in life, but I’m not at that season yet, so I can’t say for sure! All I know is that my family needs all of my attention, creativity and love – to give them less would be hypocrisy. My home is the hub from which all my activities radiate, and this is a wonderful thing—not a restrictive killjoy.
Now, while I do not choose to participate in many activities away from home (besides church), I am absolutely not an isolationist. While I do not go out to do a lot of things, I do love hospitality, and our family has an almost constant stream of visitors in our home. I do not lack for friends and thoroughly enjoy time I get to spend with other ladies in my church and community. Many of my husband’s friends have kidded him, saying, “Don’t you ever let your wife out of the house?” Well, of course he does – the real point, though, is that home is my domain, and I never run out of things to do here. The “bored housewife” (if that isn’t just another myth) isn’t doing her job – there are always more projects to do than there are hours in the day.
We need to step back and ask ourselves what is the most important thing we are doing today? If you have children at home, they will take up the lion’s share of your time (particularly when they are toddlers!). This is the way it should be. The next generation is more important than anything else you can put on your “to-do” list. If the children are falling off your list so that you can run a full-time business, something is wrong. Diligently, lovingly training the next generation is more important than anything else we will ever “achieve” in this life. When you are 70 years old, you will not look back and sigh, “If only I had organized the cabinets more often.” The things that take up so much of our time will one day perish (and no one will miss them). But the people we train up and leave behind us will affect the world for good or ill for generations to come. They are the only lasting legacy we can leave. In all our striving to do and be, we must not forget our most important task in preparing young men and women to live beautifully and purposefully when we are gone.
If you are not married or do not have children, you are not left out of this picture! We all have a stake in the next generation, whether or not we have children. Who is going to care for the elderly in the next 50 years? Does that thought frighten you? When you look around at the self-centered, blasé culture we inhabit, do you worry just a little about how your needs will be met and how your wishes will be honored when you are old and feeble? Training the next generation requires godly, loving aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends just as much as it does good parents.
And what about the kinds of homes we make (whether or not we have children)? The Christian home should be the most loving, inviting, welcoming place on earth. This “job” isn’t one that can be pinned down to a “to-do” list, because it is more about heart attitude than about checking things off in their proper order. If your house is immaculate, but your children are worn down by outbursts of anger, you do not have a home. If your meals stun people with their artfulness, yet your family sits around the table sullenly refusing to talk to one another, you might as well be eating Spam©. (“Better is a dinner of herbs where love is, than a fatted calf with hatred.” Prov. 15:17) Who cares if we “have it all” when the “all” that we have is sadness, anger, disappointment, or bitterness? Making a house into a home and parents and children into a loving, nurturing family is not something you can just do in your sleep. You are going to have to drop some things and make others priorities in your life. [Obviously, you should not take this to mean that you can do nothing that isn’t directly related to keeping a home! Hobbies and avocations are great, and they can have their place; they just shouldn’t have first place.]
The truth is that the more we take on, the less we are able to do thoroughly and beautifully. The more things I put on my to-do list, the fewer things I will be able to spend time doing well. Is it better to have twenty things on a list that you can push through and get out of the way quickly—just for the sake of having done them—or is it better to have five things on the list that you can concentrate upon and do extremely well? This is the whole point of homemaking vs. housekeeping. I’ve heard from women who say, “All this stuff about keeping a house is nonsense. It only takes two hours to clean a whole house from top to bottom and only an hour to make a decent meal. What are you supposed to do with the rest of the day?” But this is a materialistic view of homemaking. This view considers only the material things to be cleaned up, prepared, gotten out of the way, or organized. The homemaker isn’t just the person who makes sure the house is neat. She is the one who sets the attitude of the home and makes home a starting point for learning, sharing, giving, doing, beautifying, enriching, and ennobling. Home isn’t just the place where we grab a bite to eat and lie down to sleep. Unfortunately, it has become that for millions of Americans who commute to work and do not have a meaningful home life. But don’t we need to rethink the whole idea of what we are living and working so hard to obtain? Surely it isn’t a “McMansion” filled with rich furnishings and trinkets we are never there to enjoy or use. That is materialism at its worst – things as an end unto themselves. Things are means to an end, not the end. If we are not using our homes to welcome strangers, show hospitality to friends and neighbors, enrich the lives of our families, demonstrate a love of beauty, share memories, and reach out to the hurt and the lost, then we do not have a home. We only have a parking place.
Here’s another key: There is no such thing as a self-sufficient woman. No matter how they want to spin it, the feminists cannot deny that every woman is ultimately dependent upon someone somewhere – a boss, a daycare worker, a welfare office paper pusher, a relative who pitches in with the children. The full-time working mother must give her children over to someone else to train and care for throughout the day. She relies upon that help. The single mom (whether a single mom by choice or by unfortunate circumstances) often has to rely upon charity or government welfare in addition to the day care for her child. The woman at home relies upon her husband to support his family so she can stay with her own children and train them on a daily basis. The problem is that those of us who stay at home often feel that we must justify our work by qualifying what we do: “I’m a stay-at-home mom, but I also run a small business on the side;” “I stay with my children, but I also head up the local homeschool co-op and coordinate all its activities;” “Yes, I’m a homemaker, but I also volunteer at the local crisis pregnancy center and participate in a community choir.” We fear to demythologize ourselves. We want to be superwomen. We want to be that amazing gal who can juggle so much without dropping a single ball. But it cannot be done.
“It cannot be done.” That statement should free us rather than making us feel we need to push faster, try harder, and climb higher. Why should it be shameful to admit that we cannot do it all? Why can’t we answer the person who asks by saying, “Yes, I’m just a homemaker.” No qualifiers. No aching need to prove ourselves. No feelings of inadequacy. Instead, we should respond with the secret smile of the woman who can say, “I am just a homemaker” and see the great joy of accomplishment shrouded in that word, “just.”
Living in Community
We need to get over the notion that the things we are supposed to do we can do without help. Our culture applauds the “rugged individual” – that person who can strive and achieve without assistance. But such a person is isolated from his fellow strugglers. Reaching a hand out for help doesn’t make us weak or incapable; it makes us human. We need one another. The social economy of the Bible centers around the covenant community – men, women, children, elderly, families – all living with and helping one another. Picture a society built around the Bible’s covenant model: The young women often volunteer to be “servant girls” in the homes of older married women, gaining as much as they give. While they are taking repetitive tasks like dishes and laundry off the hands of the mother, they have the opportunity to live in the “queendom” of another woman and see what is involved in managing a home, practicing hospitality, and caring for and training children. The older women whose children have grown serve as examples and inspiration to the younger women, teaching them directly and giving them loving guidance and encouragement when they need it. The older unmarried community members are not marginalized, either, but find themselves warmly welcomed into household fellowship and made a vital part of the community’s purpose. The men of the community pull together to provide a safe, nourishing environment for their loved ones and to protect them from harm. Children learn as they grow to help out with the tasks the entire community must shoulder. All come together for worship as members of a living body – not as detached, self-contained units vying for God’s attention. Such a community flourishes and grows strong, because the individual members see themselves as part of one another and are not afraid to ask for help. And because they live together in community, they see each other’s lives and know each other’s weaknesses. Confession is a much-overlooked part of Christian life, and trying to hide our sins is never healthy. We need to be transparent people, open and willing to admit defeat, asking for help and accepting the loving rebuke of those who know us best. We need to be less concerned with the front we put up to the world at large and more concerned with our daily conduct toward those closest to us, lest we become self-enamored hypocrites.
Learning to Walk the Path Set Before Us
When we make the decision not to be Superwoman, we make the decision to put other people before our own desires – desires that take many shapes. For one woman it is the desire to have a successful business career to which she can point. For another it is a classy wardrobe and impeccable appearance. For yet another it is the shining talent that must not be hidden. Accomplishments can and do have their place in life, but they must never replace our relationships with flesh-and-blood people. And while it is a wonderful thing to find kindred spirits over the Internet and through the mail, we must not neglect the people who are here in our own homes, churches and communities. The Proverbs 31 woman “reaches out her hands” – she doesn’t wait for someone to prompt her to serve the real people within her immediate domain. Living in close proximity to others who know us, see our faults and still love us is so vitally important to a healthy life. Being open and transparent, ready to confess sin and ask forgiveness is life giving. Trying to be Superwoman doesn’t help anyone. It cannot be done. It is a sure path to failure and disappointment. The path to life and health and peace is the way of humility, service and love for others – not seeking praise or recognition but being willing to work hard day after day and find our fulfillment in what God has given our hands to do. Let Superwoman die; put her superhuman accomplishments out of your mind. Instead, work hard today on what is most important and what will make your home a love-filled place for your family and your community. Do it beautifully! Do it without guilt. You are a keeper of the home, and that is a sacred trust that requires an ordinary human being who loves others more than she loves herself. Superwoman need not apply.
“To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven:” (Ecc. 3:1)