How do you do what you do?


I found myself with time to write, but a case of writer's block this evening. So, I went back through a file of questions I had saved. I haven't contributed to the question file for, oh, about two years. Don't know why I stopped filing questions there. It was a good idea, really. I think I'll return to that practice. And maybe this time, I'll be better about answering them promptly. Anyhooo, here's one from a few years ago:

For several years now I have been an ardent reader of your blog, message board posts, and various other articles, and I am just in awe of what you're able to accomplish in a given day. After reading your post this morning I called a good friend & said to her, "Okay, I have to know ... how does Elizabeth "do" all of this???  How does she stay motivated to declutter, take care of family, educate children, and do her writing?" 
I have a difficult time keeping my laundry caught up and often feel guilty that my baby is entertained by television while I try to get "caught up" around here.  So where do you begin?  Do you have a very rigid schedule that you adhere to, are your older children capable of and willing to give you a great deal of assistance with the younger ones? 
As a Catholic mom aspiring to be the wife, mother, friend, and educator God would have me be, I would be extremely grateful for any tips you could provide me on 'where to begin'.
Dear Elizabeth in SC,
Let's begin with the disclaimer: I do not feel qualified at all to tell you where to begin, which is probably why this post has lingered in my "question box" since March 2008. I really dislike didactic blog posts where the author sounds like she's got it all figured out and I often wonder just how old Paul meant for those Titus 2 women to be. I really don't know when I'll ever feel like I'm in a good place to advise. I do, however, like very much to share what works for me. And I live each and every day with the sure sense that there is never a bad time to shout the wonders of God. Whatever works, works because of His gracious goodness. Whatever fails, fails because I haven't listened well enough or been faithful enough to His commands. So, I'll share with you what works when it works and assure you that there are most definitely days--even seasons--of failure.
That brings me to the first part of your question: how does she stay motivated to declutter, take care of her family, educate children, and do her writing?

That's easy. I am motivated by the sheer joy of being alive and the awareness of what a fragile gift we are given with every breath. I know what it's like to wonder if I will live to raise my children. I have spent hours begging God for the chance to do His will with them. I had not one, but two extended periods of stillness in my life when all I wanted was to be well enough to be a good mom. And both times, when that gift of life was granted again, I resolved to live it to its fullest. I am eternally grateful just to be present in the lives of my family.

Today, I am often reminded of those hard days of stillness and fear. The reminders come in my inbox in the form of emails written by a dear friend. Many, many times those brief missives take the very last of her energy for the day. Sometimes, I read them at night and wake up in the morning with the resolve to do with the day not only what I had planned to do, but what she would do if only she felt well enough.
I don't know if this is at all helpful to you. I'm not sure you can take my experience and benefit from it. I think my experiences color every aspect of my life and because of them I bring different expectations to relationships and to duties. I am often surprised when I am misunderstood and I am increasingly aware that to live this way is almost like living with a sixth sense about life.

Now, let's look at the nitty gritty. I begin at the beginning. Generally, I have a grounded sense of why I'm here. I live to love my God and my family.  I'm not easily distracted by what's going on "out there." The one exception in my life was the wasted time I grew to regret last spring. That aside, I'm focused. With my husband, I prioritize and then I endeavor to live those priorities. I'll warn you, it isn't always a popular thing to do. And it's probably best to explain it over and over again (I don't do nearly enough of that--I assume people know). There are plenty of people out there who will tell you that I can go days (weeks?) without answering emails, returning phone calls, or nurturing friendships. I mean no harm and no disrespect. Quite the contrary, I simply mean to live simply inside the narrow parameters of my family life. I am very grateful for the friends who know and understand how I manage my time and love me anyway.

I start my days with exercise, the Divine Office and Morning Prayer. For me, those are critical to a day well lived. I put my husband before everything else. I carry him with me through the day and I don't hesitate to order my time and energy to meet his needs (and wants) as much, as well, and as often as I can. Marriage is a gift--to me, to him, and to our kids. I protect it with my very life. That means I don't always do some things one might expect me to do. Also, I prioritize according to his direction. I don't waste a whole lot of time thinking about it. I just do it.

For me, a good day begins in a tidy house. I have difficulty functioning in a house that's cluttered and disorganized. At different stages of my life, acquiring and maintaining order has meant different things. When we had three little children and only one car, my husband took a detailed list, three boys and his father, and went grocery shopping and to visit Grandma one evening every week. I power cleaned in the time he was gone. When I had seven children, was recovering from surgery and struggling with depression, we hired help to come in once a week. When I had three competent teenagers at home and someone to share driving duties and no one was nursing...oh, wait, I've never had that;-). You get the idea. Sit down with your husband; share your needs and your wants where your environment is concerned and figure out a way to get to order and to maintain order.

I do have a detailed, almost-to-the-minute schedule. I make a new one every season. And then I never look at it again. I just make them to see how it can all fit. If it can't all fit, something has to give. But once the schedule is made, I walk away from it. I have a general sense of what's to be accomplished in every block of time during the day and I hold myself to it, but I'm not a slave to tiny increments of time. One thing that is nearly non-negotiable in my household is naptime. If we have a napping baby, she gets to have her nap. That means I am really careful not to schedule outside commitments during naptime unless I have someone old enough at home to stay and make sure the baby sleeps.Usually, this means that we have a happy baby. We keep our eating times regular and our going to sleep times regular and then there is an expectation that everything else will fall in place. I paddle like crazy under water to be sure things swim smoothly on top.

I am usually  shy, but I am no longer afraid to say "no" in order to preserve order and maintain sanity. I am quite content with my community of eleven at home and in my heart. My focus is on them. I try hard not to assign too much baby and toddler care to my older children. An attachment parent to the very core of my being, I nurse my babies a long, long time (unless forced to wean around 2 years old by cancer or premature labor). Nursing means that my babies come back to me at regular intervals throughout the day for my undivided attention. It prevents me from delegating them too much, something that can easily happen in a household that has older children who love babies. I hold and hold and hold my babies until they squirm to get down. That said, my oldest daughter does do a lot of baby and child care. Much of it, she chooses to do herself. My kids practically came to blows this morning over who was to have the privilege of dressing the baby. In the end, Mary Beth won. Twenty minutes later, Sarah Annie appeared with a new outfit on, her hair in pigtails, and painted finger nails. Very sweet. For both of them.

In terms of education or household management, I make a lot of lists, think it all out. I'm very intentional. Sometimes, I get to attached to those lists and I start to bulldoze. But I do a lot less of that now than I did ten years ago. My motivation behind the lists is different now. I used to be motivated by keeping up appearances; I wanted everyone looking in to think I was capable and competent. Now, I'm motivated by peace of soul. I want to meet God at the end of the day and honestly tell Him I've been a graceful, good steward of the time He gave me. If my house isn't as tidy as I want it to be, it's probably not because I failed to do the important things; it's probably because I did do whatever was more important. And believe me, I think a clean house is important! It is not, however, a reliable measure of my worth.

I do have days when I feel all semblance of control slipping. And usually, those are messy house days or kids who won't do lessons days. Or both. Those are times I used to escape into the computer, because things stay tidy there. What I really need at those times is a little peace of heart--I need "quiet in a crowd."  You can get a fair bit of "alone time" to just think or pray when you hold in your hand a running vacuum. Now, when I'm tempted to go all "drill seargeant" on my kids because I want everything perfect right now, I vacuum and pray instead. If I get all the dog hair up and I'm still wanting to bulldoze, I do. The kids are probably in need of a good, honest nudge.

I'm a hands-on mom. I love to hold my children or to sit next to them and read aloud. Talking to them about big ideas or little mysteries is a happy thing. I'm fond of books and truly enjoy sharing them with the loves of my life. We are all blessed because I genuinely love education. When I face homeschooling, it's not with a sense of dread or duty. I truly delight in it (most days). That's such a blessing and I know it! I'm very grateful for the gift of that joy. I look at almost every encounter with the people I love as an opportunity to live a blessing. Once upon a time, I begged God to let me just read a story and then lie in the dark with a squirmy three-year-old while she drifted to sleep. He granted me the joy and I seize it as often as I can.

Oh dear! Is this any help at all? I do what I do the way I do it because it's the way God made me and how He continues to shape me through the people in my family and the experiences He's allowed me. At the end of the day--quite literally--it all comes down to getting on my knees and asking Him what He would have me do. And then, I compare notes with my husband and together we do whatever He tells us. I'm just happy He's given me such nice things to do.