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Tuesday, July 25, 2006


A few days ago I was at a party and met a middle aged woman who said, “I want to do something really important before I die!” She listed some possibilities, like going to jail to end the war or restoring America’s democracy. I understood her sentiment. With so many problems in the world, I often wonder if I should be doing more to make an impact on it. But as I said to her, I’m not sure what to do. I know people who have gone to jail, and the war is still going.

Later I remembered something my mother said to me at least a year before she died: “If I hadn’t had you, Eileen, I don’t think my life would have been worth anything.” I was sad that she felt that way about her life, while also being touched at what, for my mother, was an unusual amount of sentiment. It was clear that her other work never meant more to her than a paycheck.

I’ve thinking about both my mother and the woman at the party as I’ve been sorting through what kind of work I’m meant to do next. I do have a drive to achieve something, though it’s not necessarily fame or fortune. It has more to do with wanting to make a difference in the world, whether through my writing, my teaching, or my activism. I have a sense that I’m meant to do something, I’m just not always sure what it is. But the past few days I’ve been questioning whether this is a calling or just ego. We live in a society that tells people that the worth of their work can be measured in dollars. Mothering, therefore, is worth what we get paid for it.

Perhaps part of what I’m called to do is affirm the value of the work I do as a mother. There have been a few things lately that have reminded me how important this work is. One is seeing a cousin fall into a snake pit of problems that I think can more or less be blamed on the extremely poor parenting she received as a child. Now that she’s twenty, she is responsible for her own choices, but I can’t help thinking she might be making better choices if her parents had made better ones. It’s reminded me that creating a safe, nurturing home for my children is important work that makes my life worthwhile, even if I never publish my writing or end the war.

On the other hand, what good is a safe, nurturing home if my children inherit a dangerous, debilitating world? From the rising murder rate in Philadelphia to the destruction in the Middle East, it’s clear that many children do not have a safe, nurturing environment. What is my responsibility to them? Or to my cousin, for that matter, who I have tried to help, but not nearly as much as she needs? Volunteering at the local prison to help strangers (as I used to do in Scranton) is much easier than helping a relative who may be entering a life of crime herself. It’s easier to keep your boundaries as a do-gooder volunteer. Trying to just do good in your life is a bit messier and not as gratifying for the ego.

Speaking of the mundane, the newest part of my work is walking the dog at lunch time. At first I thought it was a waste of my work time, but as I walk I chat with neighbors and thus build community in an ordinary kind of way. I get a little exercise and spend a little of the dog’s abundant energy so that he can (hopefully) play more gently with the children when they get home. It’s clear that they are learning a lot from having him, so I’ve just added the dog to my list of things I’m doing because it’s good for my kids. It’s not romantic. Maybe it’s not enough, but it is important.


Blogger Michelle O'Neil said...

Love this post! We had our worth the day we arrived and nothing on the material plane can ever change that. Love that you are able to call your life and simple tasks (walking the dog)meaningful. Lovely for you to be so present.

8:35 AM  
Blogger rachel cletus said...

Hi. Love yr posts...we're thousands of miles apart but we share the same worries as mothers. Will be visiting often.


7:07 AM  
Blogger elise said...

I've been away and am working my way down through your posts - this is another great one!! I especially like the part where you were questioning whether it was a calling or ego. I've noticed that you ask yourself the tough questions. When I volunteer I try to do things that I'm happy doing but I try really hard to NOT do it for the recognition I get from others. I find it tough because everyone wants to be appreciated including me. I know I do take the easy way out a lot of times because I find its tough enough for me to raise my kids and I don't want to be overwhelmed with commitments. For me, I've always felt like my greatest contribution to society is to raise good kids and in that area I do feel as if I'm succeeding.
Very thoughtful post!

9:08 AM  

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