On Instagram the other day, I shared that I was re-reading A Mother’s Rule of Life by Holly Pierlot while waiting at park. A friend asked what, on the surface, was a simple, probing, question.
I’ve been wondering if I should read that. I can’t decide if it would be validating or fuel for my perfectionist fire. But you liked it?
I chuckled a bit as I recognized a fellow perfectionist and then thought for a while, responding:
Ooh, that’s an interesting question. I feel like I’m a recovering perfectionist in a lot of ways. I read this about two and a half years ago, kind of in the midst of absolute nuthouse medically; I wasn’t actually homeschooling at the time…I was, as she describes, feeling like I was working three full time jobs and failing at all of them. I think what has stuck with me the most since I read it the first time *is* the freedom and peace and a release from that drive to “get it all done”. I think it’s helped that I’ve spent a lot of time with monastic types since then, too. But perhaps the most notable thing I’ve learned from both the book and the monastics is the almost ruthless need to say no. My life now looks *very* different now (much much quieter, much simpler) than it did when I first read this book. If anything it’s taught me to measure carefully how my heart/mind and our kids are feeling in the given situations. I understand so much more profoundly now that if I don’t have time to pray my schedule is messed up. I hope that helps! I’ve found it to be quite a gift but I can see how the book could also be a burden depending on your situation…
It’s a thread of thought that my mind just hasn’t let go of since.
There was a part of me that wanted to laugh and say- perfectionism? Want to rid yourself of perfectionism? Have two chronically ill kids! That’ll cure it right quick. As much as it makes me laugh to think of it, it is absolutely true. Talking to one of my favorite priests whom I hadn’t seen in awhile, I quickly summarized what had happened since he had seen us last thusly: I needed some humbling. This too, was said with a chuckle, and he laughed right along side, but we both knew the truth underneath the words. Watching a child suffer from illness- flesh of my flesh– will bring into stark relief just how little control one has on things, show you all the things you need to let go of. Chronic illness will constantly throw in your face how what you think and what you want and what you hope for just might not be in the plans for the day, week, or year. There are many moments along the way where you just survive in a sleep-deprived fog.
I would never have learned to say no, ruthlessly and without apology, to the needs and whims of the world around me had we not walked this incredibly tough road of having two children with constant (and in Elly’s case, mysterious) illness. Hospitals have a way of stripping things to bare essentials. You’re not thinking about dirty laundry or crunchy floors. You’re not thinking about who won the Super Bowl. You could care less if your home was magazine perfect- you just want your kid to be able to come home. What is truly necessary and essential will often stand out starkly to you in a way that makes you wonder why you ever wondered about it in the first place.
You realize you need to say yes far more often than you have before: yes to reading another book, mama. yes, your picture is really interesting, why don’t you tell me about it? yes, I’ll snuggle with you while we watch a movie. Yes, my dearest Beloved, I love you. How could I do this without you? Yes, I will spend this hour in prayer because I don’t know what else to do. I’m so scared, God. Have mercy on us.
To say yes costs many a no.
No, I’m sorry, I can’t serve on that ministry in this way anymore. No, I’m sorry, we won’t be doing co-op this year. No, I will not work overtime. No, I can’t take that trip right now. No, this workload is too much. No, this is a beautiful dream, but it is not God’s timing for us right now. No, not right now.
I’ve watched a few dreams fade to near nothingness over the past three years, and in so doing, I’ve realized what really ignites my passion. It’s hard to sit on the sidelines when there are dreams setting fire to my bones that I cannot pursue, because to say yes to the dream would mean what little emotional, physical, and mental capital our family “owns” at the moment would be spent injuriously and far too quickly. How hard it is to learn patience. I will wait till I know we have the “capital” in reserves.
Sick children have taught me to pray first, instead of last. Often, walking maze-like halls of hospital corridors turns labyrinth for prayer because there is literally nothing else you can do; to sit and wait for news will drive you half-mad. Very quickly, prayer becomes an abiding comfort- the one place you can escape into peace.
The title of Holly’s book alludes to an idea called a prayer or spiritual rule, which is part of a monastic’s main job within a monastery. Of course, they work in the kitchens or the gardens or sing in the choir or scrub the floors, but a monk or nun first and foremost is called to prayer- unceasing intercession for the world. As they join the monastery and gain strength in prayer, their Abbot or Mother will work with them to decide on a prayer rule unique to them- a set idea of prayers that they will pray each day- the number of times they might say a particular prayer, etc, what disciplines they should engage in. This is to help them in their vocation, a way to order their days. As Holly explains in her book. there is a tremendous amount of overlap between what a monk or nun do and what mothers are called to do, daily, and considers what it might be like to take on similar paths within the vocation of motherhood. It’s truly a beautiful and life giving book, and I can’t recommend it enough.
However, as I said above, I can see where perfectionism and the idea of a rule might just cause a tremendous road block. I read the book for the first time just as our medical nightmare was just beginning. I was reading the first half of the book while sitting in the hospital with Ellianna that first time. Of all our hospitalizations before or since, that week was the most terrifying.
It was also the biggest mess for us, logistically, financially, emotionally- of all of them, simply because we had no idea it was going to happen and we had no routine in place for basic things. The refrigerator and pantry were empty. There had been an awful winter storm the week before and our pipes had frozen; the laundry had barely begun to get caught up, if at all. Everyone had to scramble to cover the other kids, take off work. Three separate adults had to figure out the food for at least two or three days….it took my mother almost the full week to get our laundry back under control, only to have every single child get very sick with a stomach bug towards the end of Elly’s hospitalization.
I was sitting in that hospital room going, oh my word, you want me to have this set time for everything? Time to pray? Chores reasonably done every day? Are you insane? My life just turned upside down. I don’t even know what “bare basics” would look like for my family. I was absolutely hyperventilating at the thought. My INFJ, first-born mind was so wrapped up in perfectionist thoughts “I’d never be able to do this [right][perfectly][the first time]!” that I had just about talked myself out of continuing to read, let alone even trying some of her suggestions.
But…I was pretty desperate.
I stuck it out, and I tried what I could. It probably took nearly a year and a half, but by the time Josiah went into and out of the hospital five times in two months the following Spring, I had (and have) a Mother’s Rule- one that I will probably keep in similar form for many years to come. It is like night and day.
There is a tremendous amount of freedom in a Rule. It’s the whole open space of a playground inside the bounds of a fence. In a counter-intuitive way, obeying a rule- a fence- brings death to perfectionism. You know what’s important- you learn how to do it well- you learn how to do without even thinking. You make space for things that bring you joy.
If there’s anything I’ve learned about perfectionism, it tends to rear its ugly head when we are experiencing a fish out of water moment. It’s not something we’re familiar with, usually. It’s a way of being and doing that usually runs counter to our personality. Perfectionism is pride. It’s the toddler saying “I do this myself” (and not properly tying his shoe because he hasn’t quite learned and won’t allow anyone to help him.) How many times do you fall flat on your face because of your shoe-laces before you consider something new? Maybe you need velcro shoes!
As one of my friends once joked, perfectionism happens when you are a pile-er by nature but you try to file everything in color coded folders. A perfectionist who is working against her nature would religiously keep that color coded file system for about a week. And then, little by little, the desk would get messier and messier. Till what? “I can’t do this right!” “I give up!” In contrast with an outside force, someone who has considered her personality and way of working would realize that instead of filing things, she needs to use open baskets that she can “see” at a glance. So it’s not what Real Simple recommends. Who cares? Are the bills getting paid on time? Yes. Does she know where to find important documents? Yes. Doe she know where to put paperwork when it comes in? Yes.
This is a simple example, but Holly talks you through far more complex thought processes. When forming a Rule, you’re going to learn to listen to your family’s (and your own) unique needs and temperaments and make space accordingly.
Any time you start to feel a ‘slave’ to the Rule- newsflash– it’s not your Rule, most likely- it’s your own attitude.
My yoke is easy and my burden is light. How I used to wonder at that verse! How could this be possible? Two and a half years of following a Rule, and I’m starting to understand how it is so. I am so grateful to be relieved of the burden of perfectionism and guilt that wasn’t mine to carry in the first place. Every once in a while it tries to climb back on, but my Rule helps me to kick it to the curb. Get back outside the fence, Satan. You have no power here.