I posted yesterday about the email I got asking for advice. Thanks to you readers who already left comments with your ideas and suggestions. I knew you were wise. Feel free to add more to the discussion, since I’m sure there will still be some holes left to fill after my answer. Here’s the original question:
Stephanie,I feel like something is missing in my life. I’m taking care of the kids, exercising, reading — I don’t know what it is, but I just feel pretty empty. I’m kind of going through the motions, but I don’t have a sense of direction. So it makes me wonder if moms like you feel fulfilled.
Do you? Do you feel complete/ whole? It probably sounds dumb. I don’t know that I necessarily need something else in my life, but that I need to figure out how to find the substance in the life I already have. Do you have any perspective on this?
“Not Feeling It”
Dear “Not Feeling It,”
(Warning: I tend to go overboard on this advice thing. Get a comfortable seat. It may take a while.)
Fulfillment is an elusive thing. Women are multi-faceted creatures, and while we can usually multi-task quite well, it’s kind of impossible to nourish every side of ourselves at once. This is especially true for mothers because we have so many demands on our time and attention, and often those demands don’t line up very closely with our own “wish lists.” I’m beginning to learn that “fulfillment” is fool’s gold. Magazines, talk-show hosts, self-help authors, and other mothers at the playground tell us we should seek fulfillment and that our lives are incomplete without it. However, I think that if we spend too much time looking for it, we’ll find ourselves none the richer, and in fact, even when we go to great lengths to fill all our personal “needs,” we still come up empty because the focus of that kind of treasure hunt is simply too self-centered. Perhaps this is a little controversial, because while women are meant to be nurturers, we obviously must nourish ourselves enough to function properly. Elder Ballard said, “Water cannot be drawn from an empty well,” and we serve best when we have reservoirs of energy, talent, and Spirit. I’m learning to work less toward fulfillment and more toward contentment. Contentment, by definition, implies a certain sense of satisfaction and happiness on a very simple level. It is independent of circumstance. After briefly mentioning that the Phillipians had failed to take care of him, the apostle Paul wrote, “Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content.”
Happiness, joy, and deep satisfaction all make appearances on the stage of motherhood. They do. Some days and weeks are better than others. My own experience has taught me that they do not come in a continuous-release dose. Contentment, however, seems to be something we can work toward on a more consistent level. Perhaps it is possible to go through moments in life where our joy is squelched, our happiness is tired, and our satisfaction is hanging on by a thread; and yet, we can somehow manage to feel content, to feel some kind of assurance that we are alright and that things will work out as they should, and we simply must keep doing our best. Sometimes I have really bad days and I have a cathartic vent session as I climb into bed. My poor husband will say something like, “Sorry you don’t like being a mom,” and the mother-lion in me gets all defensive. That’s not it at all. I am perfectly content with my decision to be a mother; I’m certain it was the right choice and exactly what I should be doing with my life. But some days just bite, and some stretches are hard.
You wrote in your email: “I need to figure out how to find the substance in the life I already have.” I do too. We all do. And I don’t care how boring and mediocre a mother’s daily life may seem on the surface, I’m pretty sure that there is some deep substance in there waiting to be gleaned. I could go on and on about the powerful Christ-like symbols that exist in all the “boring” stuff we do every day, but I’ll just say: it matters. I have to remind myself of that often, and I think that’s normal.
I had an experience earlier this year that is probably different to your own situation in many ways, but the lesson I learned from it may be universally valuable. I was struggling with a similar feeling to what you’ve described. A “something’s missing” feeling. I was not as diligent as I needed to be with my personal scripture study and prayers, and I knew that played a certain role, but I could feel the Spirit functioning in my life, and I felt in pretty good standing with the Lord. But still. For me personally, I had been prompted over the past year to work on certain goals for myself and my family. Many of them played themselves out in the day-to-day routines. I had spent a lot of time thinking about those goals, putting everything in place, and I even finalized and announced them. I started out pretty strong, but things just kind of fizzled out. It was hard work, and not really that enjoyable, so when it was time to do what I knew I should do, I just couldn’t do it. I had no motivation. Result: guilt, frustration, and self-doubt. It got to the point where I felt perpetually angry with myself: Why can’t I discipline myself to do these things? Matt wondered if I was depressed. I’d never struggled with depression before, but he thought my lack of motivation (and accompanying irritability) could be symptoms. And while depression is very common and not the least bit shameful, I knew that wasn’t what I was dealing with. It was hard to put my finger on it, but I knew it was spiritual. I knew the Lord wanted me to figure out a way to change my motivation. After all, I explained to Matt, I hadn’t lost interest in my hobbies or motivation to do any of the other things that I loved to do. Read books, blog, go out to lunch, talk to girlfriends on the phone, etc. was all I wanted to do. I just didn’t want to do the stuff I should do.
Anyway, I prayed about it. I think I asked for a blessing. (If I didn’t, I should have.) And one day, my answer came in an unexpected, so-simple-it’s-stupid kind of way. I attended a class at Women’s Conference. I don’t even remember what it was about, but I felt the Spirit and I knew God was aware of my struggle. And there was a phrase. It came in the middle of a paragraph that I don’t remember, but the phrase jumped out at me and hung over me like a florescent message: “Pray to love what the Lord loves.” It was my answer, and I knew it. That’s it?, I thought. That’s it. And for the next several minutes, my brain and my heart processed it. It would not be hard to do the things I knew I should do if I loved them. In fact, if I loved the same things that God loved, I would enjoy them. I would look forward to those things the same way I look forward to anything else I love.
Simple. I know. Not earth-shattering in any way, but it has made all the difference for me. I pray regularly for Heavenly Father to help me love the things He loves, to value the things He values, and to find joy in the things that bring Him joy.
“At the heart of misery from the days of Adam until today, you will find the love of wrong things. And at the heart of joy, you will find the love of good things.” ~President Dieter F. Uctdorf
This is not a catch-all answer. The other ladies who responded have other ideas that might be more suited to your particular situation, but my conclusion is to strive for contentment over fulfillment and to tap into your Heavenly Father in as many ways as you can to find the deeper substance and His love in your daily life. His love is so real, and does come in continuous-release. And sometimes, that’s the best fix.
Some other reference material:
Sister Bonnie Parkin: “In my morning prayers I ask Heavenly Father to fill me with His love so that I can do His work with more heart. I know that I have been blessed because of this daily petition. As Relief Society sisters, we must strive to manifest the love of Christ, who always sought to please His Father by doing His will. Sisters, we must make every effort to follow His supreme example—to demonstrate such love through our thoughts, our speech, our actions—in all the things we do and are. We must not allow pride or vanity, selfishness or personal agendas to displace our reaching out to others in love. Quite simply and profoundly, we must first allow ourselves to be encircled by God’s love. We do this best by embracing the Savior’s eternal Atonement. Then we can expand that circle to include our family and all others. Such a circle is indeed heaven.”
Sister Susan W. Tanner: “In the Book of Mormon, Nephi speaks often of delight. He delights “in the things of the Lord,” “in the scriptures,” and “in the great and eternal plan” of our Father in Heaven (see 2 Nephi 4:15–16; 11:2–8). Notably, Nephi often remembers his sources of delight in the midst of affliction, serving to lift and focus his spirit on eternal blessings. We too should delight in the things of the Lord for it will “lift” our hearts and give us cause to “rejoice” (2 Nephi 11:8).”
Neal A. Maxwell, “Content with the Things Allotted unto Us,” Ensign, May 2000, 72: “Thus, developing greater contentment within certain of our existing constraints and opportunities is one of our challenges. Otherwise we may feel underused, underwhelmed, and underappreciated—while, ironically, within our givens are unused opportunities for service all about us.” (Whole talk is great.)
Sister Julie Beck: “A good woman knows that she does not have enough time, energy, or opportunity to take care of all of the people or do all of the worthy things her heart yearns to do. Life is not calm for most women, and each day seems to require the accomplishment of a million things, most of which are important. A good woman must constantly resist alluring and deceptive messages from many sources telling her that she is entitled to more time away from her responsibilities and that she deserves a life of greater ease and independence. But with personal revelation, she can prioritize correctly and navigate this life confidently.” (Love this whole talk, too.)