A Mother’s Rule of Life

I’ve asked it before: How do you decide what of all possible things to go deep in, when, as a stay-at-home mother, you’re a jack of all trades?

It would help to have a job description. As it is, I almost always have the nagging conviction I should be doing something other than whatever I’m doing at that moment. Last winter I read the Rule of St. Benedict and this winter I fell in love with the cloistered world of In this House of Brede — its quiet peace, and sense of purpose, and hard work, and order.

This reading primed me, I think, for A Mother’s Rule of Lifewhich is a pretty divisive book in my tiny microcosm of Catholic married mothers who are home full-time. Some friends worry it’s a temptation to rigidity; the one who lent it to me found it tolerably helpful in prioritizing; an Insta friend adored it. In it, Holly Pierlot promises to walk you through developing your own Rule, if you happen to find yourself a Catholic married mother at home rather than a nun in a convent.

Pierlot defines a Rule as “a reflection of the aims and mission of vocation,” and much of the book led me to fruitful consideration, as I followed her advice and took notes. Eventually I decided this: Our aim, as a family, as a household, is to progress in kindness and holiness through love of God, love of each other, and love of learning. From there, you take the tasks you believe are most essential to your vocation, prioritize them, and slot them into a schedule. If you were a Brede nun, it would involve singing the liturgy, working at your talent (translation or writing or gardening), common labor, prayer. For me, in this stage, it involves less liturgical singing and more laundry.

If my aim is to progress in kindness and holiness, I need to not over schedule, but I do need to keep things clean enough that I don’t flip out on my sweet family. I need to practice discipline so I’m not always fighting fires, but build in time for the seeming non-essentials of learning and reading. I need to take breaks from the fun (the latter) and the challenging (the former) to play with my children, to do nothing much with my husband. If I can just remember that, I feel like the rest will fairly fall into place.

The book has obvious weaknesses. I think it’s ordered badly, so that the rationale for a Rule comes at the very end, instead of as an argument before launching in to the nitty gritty of scheduling errands and drawing up monthly rotations. The writing style also isn’t my cup of tea, but Pierlot does have a knack for crystalizing a lot of the ideas that have been kicking around in my head while bringing in pretty compelling authorities. She also seems to assume the existence of bigger kids to share the load, which is hard when I only have littles, but it does remind me to be on the lookout for places Pip can help — putting away silverware, running the vacuum extension hose thing, which he adores.

I was surprised, reading, to discover just how much of a schedule we’ve already drafted toward, my routine-loving children and me. And writing that schedule down started to show me some gaps where maybe, after all, I could choose to be still, could choose to give to prayer, could choose to use for writing or frivolous reading or napping without guilt. It’s also, unexpectedly, giving me permission to let done be done, helping silence the guilty conviction that there’s always something I should be cleaning, or something noble I should commit to, because there I have, in writing, what my priorities are, and what qualifies as “done.”





Ethical Groceries Outside the Farmer’s Market

So, everyone knows we should be shopping local. But what about when the farmer’s market is closed, or the grocery budget is tight? Here are some strategies to consider:

  • Closeout grocery stores.

Back in Massachusetts, we had one of these that sold all shelf-stable stuff, mostly organic, often dented or about to expire. It’s where we got almost all of Pippin’s squeezy foods so he could live the infant good life on his parents’ grad school budget. Here in Virginia, there’s a more full-service grocery with lots of baking supplies, an unpredictable stock of fresh and frozen food, and horse-and-buggy parking. To make this kind of shop work best, you really need to either a.) keep completely flexible on your grocery list or b.) shop two stores. I usually opt for the latter.

Another point in favor of closeout grocery stores is that, as with shopping second hand at thrift stores, you’re not directly profiting producer, so (maybe?) you don’t have to worry as much about whether the meat is ethical and the farming sustainable. (Unless you’re really committed to eating organic for health reasons, of course.)

  • Ownership of the grocery store.

Is it locally owned? (Do you care?) Is it Christian? (Do you care?)

  • Employment practices of the grocery store.

Costco is a great place to workWal-Mart, less so. When we lived in Massachusetts, I liked shopping Aldi because the savings were all about shifting the labor to the consumer: you bagged yourself, you rented and returned a cart, etc. It felt better than saddling the employees with the same amount of work for less pay, as some businesses do.

  • Donation practices of the grocery store.

In some places you’ll only have the choice of big box stores and multinational chains, but consider, if you can, whether the grocery store donates its surplus to local food pantries. This may take some digging, but in Massachusetts, where J spent a stint driving the food donation truck, some grocery stores donated and some trashed their surplus. We tried to support places that supported the poor in our community.

What other rules do you apply in grocery shopping?

I’ll Be Home for Christmas

You’re pretty burnt out by this point. You have one or two or five little Christmas elves actively undoing all you clean. Or you’re packing to go out of town and someone’s velvet Christmas dress doesn’t fit, nor will everything cram in the car.

Either you have your Christmas presents ready to go and are trying desperately to find places to hide them, or you don’t have them yet and don’t know when you’ll shop without the recipients riding around in your shopping cart.

Maybe your car is accumulating snow melt water on the floorboards as you drive from errand to errand. Maybe it’s not snowing yet, but the 40 degree rain is as bad. Maybe this was supposed to be your quiet, contemplative Advent.

On the radio, in the car, in the stores, at your kid’s lame Christmas concert, are fairly ridiculous secular Christmas songs. They jar in your head hours afterwards. But some of the lyrics linger:

“I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams.

I’ll be home for Christmas, where the love-light gleams.”

Why are so many Christmas songs about home? It’s something I noticed while driving around snowy Western Mass a couple Advents ago, morning sick and homesick. Pip was in the backseat, J on a multi-state interview tour, Scout a tiny Charizard in my belly, and everything was in flux. The radio played, I drove to Target for pregnancy-craving beef jerky, I cried. There’s no place like home for the holidays, indeed.

Maybe you’ve had Christmases like that, where nowhere in particular felt like home, or you longed for Christmases past. (“They’re singing ‘Deck the Halls’ but it’s not like Christmas at all…“).

And now you have a home where the love-light gleams if only you could find it under half-written Christmas cards and cookie sheets that still need cleaning.

Advent is about making room, in practical ways, in lofty, interior ways. We give away toys, carve out space for the tree, try to find a little extra time in our day. We make space for the people, like Mary and Joseph, who needed a comfortable place to rest.

Embrace hygge. Embrace the shabby hospitality Mary extended to shepherds and kings alike. All you can do is what you must, as kindly as possible.

Advent can’t always be contemplative and slow, or picture-perfect, either, and Christmases can’t always be white. But if we look real hard, I do believe the love-light is there, in our homes, in our churches. And our work, as homemakers, to amplify that light, to keep it alive, is nothing short of the work of story and song.

“Make your house fair as you are able,
Trim the hearth and set the table.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the guest, is on the way.”

Advent: candles, wreathes, take out, pajamas.

Google Drive for Life

I first encountered Google Drive in library school. A lot of my program was distance learning, and so when I’d collaborate with a classmate who lived in New Hampshire or Rhode Island, it was helpful to be able to pass projects back and forth using Google Drive. Later, working a tiny job when Pippin was a baby, Google Drive allowed me to collaborate on a grant application from home during nap time. Now that I’m footloose and fancy(/job-) free, I still love Google Drive for a variety of tasks:

  • Thanksgiving spreadsheet: master shopping list of what is being served, who’s making it, when to make it, and ingredients to shop for. (I break that list up by stores, because I am insane.)
  • Christmas and birthday gifts spreadsheet: track your purchases, and record ideas when you don’t have a chance to shop, or links to items you’re considering.
  • Addresses: I have a master list of everyone and then a separate one I cut and paste onto for Christmas cards. This also helps with travel, because I can easily send a postcard, look up the address of a friend’s house we’re visiting, and get a thank you note mailed promptly.
  • Party prep: I learned this from event planning for library programs. Include these categories: food, activities, RSVPs, do/make/buy/borrow, etc. You can also cut and paste photos and URLs. It’s not as pretty as Pinterest, but it’s very handy.

How do you use Google Drive to make homemaking and hospitality easier?



Insourcing and Outsourcing 

I really like checklists. I like knowing concretely that I’ve done my work, which is one of the reasons I liked menial tasks like shelving even once I had my MLS. I like report cards.

And that’s one of the hard things about staying at home full time.

Because I can fill my day with any combination of tasks, but I’ll never be able to do all the things.

I make my own bone broth, my own granola, my own pizza crust. I don’t make pickles, or yogurt (though I’ve tried), or hummus. I can embroider, but I can’t knit. I’m not much of a gardener, though I might like to be. I mend shirts that need buttons, but the other day I threw out a cookie sheet because whatever was on it (baked-on potato starch???) was so thick and unyielding that I refused to scrub anymore. I like to bake and I don’t like to iron, so I do a lot more of the former than the latter, and people might be able to tell. (Wrinkles, waistlines.)


Most of the jobs I have had centered around scheduled hours and specific tasks. If I showed up for the scheduled hours most of the time and performed most of the specific tasks, I was doing well.

I like doing well.


Stay at home motherhood is not that way. I need to take care of the kids, keep them safe and tolerably clean and reasonably happy, and it would be good if, barring illness and crisis, I made sure we had regular meals and enough clean laundry to limp by.

Beyond that, it’s kind of up to me, and it’s kind of bewildering.

I’m listening to Shauna Niequist’s Present Over Perfect right now, and while that’s helping, I’m also remembering my reflections years ago on her essay, “Things I Don’t Do.”

My question, I guess, is this: How do you, as a homemaker, choose? Frugality? Interest? How do you know if you’re doing a good job? How do you feel good about the decision to hire a cleaner, or buy your produce at the farmer’s market instead of growing it yourself? When you can do almost anything, go deep on any one task, which ones merit your lingering attention?

Fairly typical, honestly.


Snug Places I Love

My parents were visiting this week and I kept telling them that though we’ve lived in this house for about six months now, we haven’t really lived here very long because we were gone five weeks this summer and one this fall, we battled about a half dozen moderately awful illnesses from ear infections to not-flu to worse, and, you know, two mobile, destructive children.

I kept telling them, but mostly I was telling myself. I know I said I wouldn’t rush to “finish” the house, but that’s hard to remember with pictures still unhung even as the dog hair drifts grow lush and bold, creeping out from behind furniture to flaunt themselves. (We call them “dust bonnies.”)

So I appreciated Nell’s recent piece over at Whole Parenting on places in her home she loves. She points out that pregnancy is a particularly difficult time for her when it comes to loving her house, as she notices all its faults without the energy to correct them, and I remember that being the case for me, too, but babyhood and early toddlerhood frankly aren’t much more productive. So I went looking, on a hushed recent afternoon, to find the spots I already love in our work-in-progress home.


We just moved Scout into Pippin’s room this week, and not everything’s hung and we’re just using the pack-n-play until J can take apart and move the beautiful crib the kids’ Uncle Tom made them. But the room is so sunny and sweet and I love to imagine the kids becoming friends between its fresh white walls.


I bought this pillowcase on a whim recently from Amazon and I am completely embarrassed by how much I love it, but relieved to learn J is a big fan, too. Why is it so funny? It just is. (Witness all the beautifully illumined dust bonnies in the bottom right of the photo.)


When my parents visit, they always help me knock out a lot of house projects with their superior knowledge and child-chasing abilities, and one of those things was getting stuff hung in my office. The counters are still a wreck (and thus not pictured) but I’ve loved getting to choose things for the bulletin strip J made me a couple years back.


And a final shot of some desk stuff, including an engagement photo; a photo of one of my best friends and me when we were in Montreal five children ago; a banner another best friend helped me make for Scout’s first birthday; a picture from my parents’ wedding and a bunch more whimsical but very sentimental junk.

How do you focus on the good spots in your house without feeling crazy frustrated at all you can’t yet tackle?

Thoughts On Communal Living After Lurking at My Godson’s for a Week

Last week, I had the opportunity to spend the week with my godson, his mom, sister, and newborn brother, while J was in New England for a conference. While C’s husband cheerfully called us “sister wives,” doing the stay-at-home-mom thing with another stay-at-home-mom got me thinking about communal living. I lived with maybe ten different roommates in my single days, and while J and I have talked before about the possibility of living in community, since we married in 2008, we’ve only had one housemate. So this was an interesting mini experiment.

Tiny frenemies

While our golden-autumn week wasn’t a perfect taste of life in community — we were guests, not residents, and I was sans husband most of the week — here’s what I found:

  • When there are two parents home during the day, you get to go to the bathroom by yourself. (Or run in and stir the pot. Or carry a load of laundry upstairs without also toting a toddler.) This is not to be undervalued.
  • When there are five kids five and under, there are a lot of brawls. I didn’t get a picture of Pippin’s face, scratched up by repeated run-ins with the two-year-old, but it was a sight to behold.(C and I fared better, even in discussing tricky subjects like the Tridentine mass.)
  • The workday is just as long, but you can delegate to strengths. My kids wake up at 6:30; C and her kids sleep in till almost 8 — pretty essential when she’s up at all hours with a newborn. This meant I could fold laundry and unload the dishwasher before she woke up, and that she’d often run a load of laundry after I went to bed in the evening.
  • Loading five kids into five car seats is a feat and will make you into homebodies. (Presumably installing the car seats is even worse, but we were able to delegate that to the menfolk.)
  • Cooking for twice as many people isn’t much harder, except for figuring out what everyone will eat. Doing laundry for twice as many people isn’t much harder, either, and you can get by with fewer clothes because you’ve always got a full load ready to go.
  • Staying at home all day without leaving the house is easier and more fun with more company handy but snagging introvert time is even harder. My quietest moments were sitting in the yard keeping half an eye on the three or four biggest kids and going on the occasional evening run.

Besides soaking up time with one of my very best friends, the week was most valuable for getting to observe up close and talk shop with another woman about how she runs her household. (She isn’t a dish glove wearing pansy like I am! She makes fewer baked goods, and more stir fry! She has a different system for fitting in newborn naps!) Over the week, I got to see homeschooling up close as my godson did his kindergarten, and in return, I brought up the kids’ old cloth diapers and taught C how to use them on the new baby. We explored the big yard thoroughly and ventured out occasionally for ice cream or apple picking. It was a week of working together with C, talking kids and faith as we wiped down the dinner table or sorted hand-me-downs.

The best part is we’ll get to reverse it next month when C’s husband has a conference in a city nearby to us. I can’t wait!

Battle of the bedheads