To Be Or Not To Be: Maybe Parenting is Only Hard Because We Make It So

Motherhood Can Be Exhausting--maybe we should give ourselves a breakThis week I wrote a column specifically on Ontario and the teachers’ rotating strikes, and I didn’t think that it applied to all my readers. So I thought I’d reprint one from 2005 that made it into my book, Reality Check. I really liked this one! And if you enjoy my columns, make sure not to miss my favourites from the past decade in Another Reality Check.

When I was a kid I hated swimming lessons, and I made sure everyone knew it, including my two little cousins. Whenever their parents tentatively brought up the topic, they fled in horror, certain that there was nothing so vile as the local pool. Yet though I hated the lessons, I took them and became quite a good swimmer. My cousins, however, never did.

For Danielle, the youngest, this caused some difficulties. She is a marathon runner, a wilderness hiker, a canoer and a kayaker. Her life is outdoors. But her front crawl stinks. So now, at the age of 28, she is taking swimming lessons at the Y to make up for her childhood neglect. I gave her a rotten picture of what learning to swim would be like. It just wasn’t worth it. And for a long time she believed me.

Scanning women’s magazines and books, I can’t help but feel that we’re being given the same story about parenting. Almost every article I read has to do with all the difficulties women face. I have to admit I’ve been the author of several such articles, columns, and even books myself. It is difficult to be a mom. But lately I’ve noticed a subtle shift. Instead of the theme, “sometimes it’s hard to be a mom, but you can do it! And boy is it worth it!”, we’re now stopping the sentence after “it’s hard.” End of story.

Newsweek had a major article a few weeks ago about how impossible it was to be a mom today (though I’m not sure our great-grandmothers, who lived without the benefit of convenience stores, take-out, or even washing machines, would feel sorry for us). And now debuting is the book “Perfect Madness: Motherhood in an Age of Anxiety”, which portrays mothers as stressed out, depressed, and close to the breaking point, as if we’re all potential Andrea Yates waiting to kill our children.

When these writers talk about the desperation of motherhood, they lament about how difficult it is to fulfill all the mothering duties: to pull off a birthday party for toddlers where no one throws up; to give kids the proper “neurological stimulation”, including Mozart CDs, flashcards, and foreign language tapes; to make perfectly well-balanced meals that include vegetables that children eat gratefully and politely. Parenthood has become a giant to-do list.

But though parenthood is a lot of work, I wonder if we are concentrating on the wrong kind of work. Parenthood isn’t just do this and do that in a giant contest to see who can produce the best baby. It is also just BE. Be real. Be loving. And, at its most basic, be there. All of these be’s are probably more important than the do’s anyway.

Over the last week I spent time with a dear friend, as her husband died of cancer. He chose to spend his last days at home, away from the impersonal hospital and surrounded by his wife and children. Human touch, and human connection, is what matters. We understand that when it comes to the end. But at the beginning of life we sometimes forget it, as we judge the quality of our motherhood by how much we can get done, rather than by the quality of our relationships. Sometimes just sitting there, doing nothing but cuddling, is worth more than anything else on your list, even if the vacuuming doesn’t get done, or you have to eat cereal and apples for dinner again.

When we use accomplishments as our yardstick, I fear that we turn more and more people off of parenthood. Today’s moms don’t feel adequate unless they can construct a model 747 out of toilet paper tubes and felt. No wonder people are going mad. We just need to be with each other; we don’t necessarily need to accomplish great things. After all, being a loving mom is great enough in and of itself. Danielle eventually got smart enough to ignore me and learn to swim. I hope that today’s media negativism will likewise be ignored, so that we will again discover that “Mommy” really is the nicest word in the English language.

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  1. Comparison is the thief of joy.

    I see young mothers at church trying to keep up with the social model of child-rearing and coming up short all the time. Society tells them to focus on their kids, giving them all they can (materially), nurturing their self-esteem (false praise) and treating them like small adults (applying “respect” to children as if they have adult capabilities). Society tells them they need “me time” and that drives them to do very un-motherly things in order to get it. Farming children out to grandparents, daycare, nannies, and babysitters at alarming rates and spending less and less time at home ravages their lives.

    I used to mentor a young mother’s group and felt a deep sadness for their lack of perspective. Theirs wasn’t an outlook of nurturing and following maternal instincts with some guidance from those who have gone before (Titus 2 women). Instead, they embraced List Checking. Go to the zoo, go to Build-a-Bear, go to the playground at McDonald’s, schedule play dates, plan elaborate birthday parties, buy all the new kid-friendly gear, baby-proof every space my child enters, enroll in preschool, enroll in dance class, enroll in karate, enroll in sports, enroll in music class … and leave no time to spend learning how kids tick or spending time at home learning to be a family. These young ladies neglected need and focused on want. They skipped bedtime rituals for more television and passed up a home-cooked meal and messy kitchen for a bag handed through a drive-thru window. If it’s quick and serves the same purpose, they want it, no matter that the means lack quality.

    They march to the beat of the world, rather than dance to the melody their families play, if only they would stop to listen.
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  2. This is extremely encouraging to read — I have been a bit freaked out lately by what I have seen both from the media and from parents I know who seem to be constantly and unpleasantly exhausted by parenting. I know my own parents really quite enjoyed having children, and have been rather confused by what has brought about this change. Also, it reminds me that I may have to stop using the internet after I have kids — it might make me a little crazy! 😀

  3. Thank you for this article! Finally a realistic view of parenting. My wife and I have 2 children under 2.5 yrs old. We love our children and care for them attentively and lovingly. However, we feel like an outcast among our friends with children now. There’s a new school of that if a child receives an ounce of formula before the age of one you might as well be feeding them poison. If you give a child a passifier when they’re crying then you must be a weak parent. “My child slept through the night at…, They crawled at…” Not to mention over the top birthday parties for 1 and 2 year olds. We had friends over the other night and the mother is still nursing. She took a bite of shrimp with cocktail sauce and the husband told her to put it down because it would make the breastmilk too spicy and the child would be cranky. Really!? What spawned this new movement?

  4. Think mothering is only tough when you try to do what the world dictates you should be as a mom – and that basically falls into the supermom category! Carziness!! I took a very active role in not conforming to that and though many looked down their noses at me (and still do) I am glad with my decision. Kids are limited to two activities, we have family time together, try to have a good block of time together on the weekend, and as you stated, just be with your kids.

    Quality time is a mis-nomer. Kids do need quantity time to build memories and so much more into their lives. I am also very, very aware of the need to disciple my children in God’s ways, and the high calling motherhood is to be a soul shaper. Yes, it can be crazy, and stressful at times, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world :)

  5. I think there are some difficulties with parenthood that apply even if you don’t buy into the consumerism and busy culture. Some kids are more anxious, frustrated in school, emotional, etc. Others are more even keel and easy going. The challenge is to always love, to use discipline and consequences even when it’s not convenient, and to be the adult when emotions and words aren’t easy to hear or experience. Sometimes it’s a battle every day, other times it’s a total joy. But it’s always worth it, and it’s certainly the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.
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  6. My firstborn, in three short years, has taught me so much about this topic. While he is perfectly healthy he did have a ton of “milestone” delays, and being surrounded by this kind of parenting culture made that so hard on me. I felt like a failure as a mother. I wondered constantly if I was doing everything right, or if I had done something differently maybe he wouldn’t have these issues. I have learned over time that the most absolutely important thing I can do is to love him just as he is, and learn what makes him tick. Through a series of things, I realized my kids could remember their childhoods as Mom stressing out over why we weren’t like everyone else, or they could remember that Mom cared enough about them to get to know them as individuals and make the best decisions I could for them, not based on what society or the trends say.

    And I stopped reading parenting magazines and books. I’ll read the occasional article or blog post that comes up on Pinterest if it seems relevant to my situation, but that’s about it. I came to the conclusion that all of these experts might be experts on children in general, but they are not experts on MY child. It is MY job to be an expert on my child.

    Furthermore, the best advice on childrearing I’ve gotten has not come from books or magazines or the internet. It came from my own mother. I’d put her up against those experts any day! :-)
    Melissa recently posted…Aging GracefullyMy Profile

  7. I have to relearn this lesson to a certain degree every day. I made the decision way back when we decided to start our family that I was going to do things that focused on us just being together more than just doing stuff. At first it was easy. I quit my job to be a stay at home mom, and I kept our schedule relatively free of “stuff.”

    Fast forward 12 years and five kids later. . . it’s not as easy as I thought it was going to be to keep things simple!! My older kids participate in one activity each & that’s it. And it still feels like I’m running constantly down a to-do list every day trying to make sure that everyone gets the basics taken care of. Even though I know better I’m still comparing myself to other moms, wondering if I’m shorting my kids somehow. I think most of that comes from my own negative thoughts. Like Melissa above, I found I had to quit reading most parenting magazines or books or websites. It made me feel even more anxious.

    There is no doubt though that being a mom is the one of the greatest blessings and joys in my life, as well as one of the most challenging. I hope I convey that to people around me. I may need to express it more often– motherhood is a beautiful, amazing, fulfilling experience!

  8. Thank you for this! I’ve been married a little over a year, and being the only married person I know without at least 1 kid, I’ve of course felt the “baby fever”. But at the same time, I never, ever hear anyone say good things about kids. It’s always negative, and it always seems like if parents can just have some time away from kids their lives are much happier. Sure, we all need a break, and kids are exhausting, but it would be nice to hear that not every parent wants to just “get the heck away from these kids!” all the time.

  9. Is your Ontario column up at another link?
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  10. Thank you Sheila! I needed this article today! I’ve been struggling recently because my children don’t meet the “standards” set by society. I’ve been battling PPD as well which also makes me feel like an incredible failure. But this article has reminded me of the truth that just because my 6 year old is still having difficultly reading and my 4 year old doen’t know her letters doesn’t mean I’m a bad mom. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

    • Hi Liz! I’ve struggled with PPD and wish I could hug you.

      I do NOT think you’re a bad mom because your 4-year-old doesn’t know her letters. (She’s going to learn them, I promise.) But, I thought I’d pass on the way my preschooler learned his letters without me even meaning to make it a big learning thing, is the Leap Frog Letter Factory DVD. You can find it cheap on amazon, and both of my boys (3 and 7) like to watch it, and it’s taught my younger son his letters. It’s also short and not overly annoying, which is a bonus. 😉

      Hang in there.

  11. Well, I agree and disagree. Sometimes it’s jut hard. This week felt hard to me, and I don’t struggle too much with the temptation to keep up with the Jonses (or whoever).

    Overall, I adore my kids and love my life and would encourage people to marry and have kids young if they find that special someone – kids make marriage even better!

    But there are still going to be weeks when you fall into bed on Friday and think, “Whew. I get to try again next week.” I had one of those this week. (My PMS and my root canal probably didn’t help.)

    Hey, I did actually think to myself as I was standing in the toy aisle at Target while my adorable 3-year-old wanted to “push buttons” and my sweet almost birthday girl played with a straw, that God needed me to have a day like today to remember that I HAVE to ask for His help because I often try too hard to do it by myself. If everything was easy all the time, we wouldn’t need Jesus. :)

  12. Jesus-in-the-City says:

    I loved this article and sent it to a few of my young mom friends. I am a new wife (less than 2 and 1/2 years) and mom of an 18 month old with one on the way. I also am a homemaker, and I didn’t grow up with mom as a homemaker.

    Motherhood has its challenges, just like most other things in life, but I often think that there is this conspiracy in the media to make women feel like being a mom is undesirable and so hard and, as a Christian, if you are a Christian, I believe that goes against God’s will, which is for children to be a blessing. Jesus warns in the Bible that one day people will say you are more blessed if you never had kids, but that couldn’t be further from the Truth.

    I was raised as an only child, and now my husband and I want a large family (4 kids), hardly anyone encourages it. Most don’t or seem dismayed, including people fom church, although there are some older moms who encourage us that the more kids, the better.

    When I first became pregnant with this second child, I was so excited that God was blessing us with another baby and spacing apart exactly as I prayed for, but within a few days, as morning sickness set in, my husband left for work (he is away more than 50% traveling), and my little one wasn’t getting the fresh air and attention I was used to giving her everyday, I started to feel guilty and attacked by the enemy. “you don’t know how to be a mom to siblings, you’re going to be a terrible mom, you’ll probably miscarry because most of your friends have miscarried, you’re not organized enough….” And my new found blessing seemed much more like a curse than anything else.

    I really had to pray a lot and trust God to get through that and now I am back to the place where I can fully accept and be excited about God’s blessing, leaving Him in control of molding me into His picture of a great mom to the holy seed He has entrusted my husband and I with. Our role is to be a testimony to the world, to attract people to what a godly, God fearing, loving family is…. Not a perfect one, but one that depends on the love and perfection of Jesus the Christ.

    So, I encourage all the moms out there to embrace the blessing, the brokenness, the opportunity to call upon the Holy Spirit daily, that is entailed in motherhood and family hood, whatever that looks like for you. Learn to hate complaining! Enter His gates with thanksgiving and His courts with praise everyday and let Him make your family a signpost that points to Jesus! Don’t let the enemy and your own selfish desires for worldly perfection get you down and deceive you. Take every day, day by day and invite Him into every struggle that works to overcome you. He is able to change your family to something better than you could ever imagine or even hope for!

    God bless you on your journey and hope to see you in heaven! And, Sheila, thank you so much for this article!


  13. Burned Out says:

    Parenting a special needs child is hard. It’s very hard. There are a lot more kids with problems today than there were in my mother’s day. I’m in this alone. My husband seldom comes home from work (he’s a workaholic, he works 7 days often 18 hours a day), my family lives several states away, my mother died. I’m not chasing materialistic things or approval from society. I’m just trying to get through every day getting him fed, dressed & hoping to get him washed and out the door to school on time.

    Now that my boy is older I don’t have things in common with other moms. They’re interested in talking about baseball & soccer & the prom. The things I have to talk about are physical therapy, speech, occupational therapy and how today I didn’t have any stray food fly across the table & into my mouth during dinner. When my Dad & step-mom came to visit my step-mom complimented me on all I’m doing she said she would’ve lost her mind in my place. The truth is, I don’t know how I haven’t lost mine. Sometimes I feel like I have.

    Sometimes parenting IS hard. I try to make the best of it, I stop to smell the roses ALL the time but I’m alone in this. My child is a teen, he doesn’t want to snuggle or play games. He’s just angry and sometimes antagonistic.

    I think one reason we think parenting is so hard today is that so many of us are doing it alone. We weren’t meant to do it alone. I think my son was a gift & I remind myself daily that God chose me for his mother. He knew I was up to the challenge… but still I wish I wasn’t so alone.

    This year I am embracing Isaiah 40:31 I know that is the key to getting through this trying teenage period.
    Today is a very down morning. I’m trying to remember that by noon my very bright boy will probably have said something profound & funny and if I’m very lucky I will have been able to make him forget himself & laugh.

    Isaiah 40:31
    For they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.

    • Jesus-in-the-City says:

      Burned out,

      I was reading your comment and really felt drawn to pray for and respond to you.

      Wow! Your experience as a mom is so different from mine, and yet we can both take comfort in the fact that God had this mysterious plan set out for our lives individually, and communally as a church, before we were even created! How awe inspiring it is to know that He had a special place as a mom, for both you and I, with such different lives and experiences, but in His wisdom we know that His vision for us is nothing less than perfect, even when we don’t understand it.

      I wanted to ask if you have any support in your church for parents of special needs kids? Is there a ministry or church group of other parents that you could get involved with for support and encouragement? I watch a lot of Christian programming and one of my very favorite shows is one you can find online by Joni Erickson Tada. It is called Joni and Friends. She is a Christian, a quadrapalegic, and an artist and her ministry is for those who suffer with special needs and their loved ones. Maybe you could get inspiration from one of her shows. They are also on podcasts if you have iTunes. You may also research and see if they have any ministries in your area. One I watched recently regarding parents of children with autism focused on a church that has a ministry specific to special needs kids and parents, but I didn’t catch where it was. The parents in that episode also talked about how difficult it is to parent a special needs child and how often, being a member of the church disappoints more than it actually helps.

      Not that you were asking, but I would encourage you to pray and ask God for the things that you need, including godly, Christian friends around you who can encourage you and share your needs as a mom and trust God with them. When I first got saved three years ago, I prayed for friends because I didn’t know any other Christians besides my, now, husband, and the one thing I have never been in need of is Christian friends, and I know that is simply because God answered this desire of my heart. He can and wants to do the same for you as His daughter. He doesn’t desire for you to be lonely or burned out. He can meet every need that you have as a mom and that is one amazing supernatural gift that we have as believers that those who are parents in the world don’t have.

      Finally, when I was reading your comment, Paul’s writing in 2 Corinthians 11 (the 2nd half) came to mind. It is when he talks about all the crazy, insane, unthinkable trials he suffers constantly as a Christian and how he thanks God not only for the trials but for the weakness they highlight in him so that he can rely on the ultimate Strength and Creator to be strong in him.

      Anyway, Burned Out, I pray for you and thank you for your honesty. You’re right, being a parent is hard, so many things in this world are, because of its fallen nature, but the Bible also says that those who look forward to Jesus’ return are blessed and I’m sure you can say, on these tough days, that one abundant silver lining is that one day, our Savior will return and all of this will be over!

      God bless you, your son and your family! God is close to the brokenhearted!


      • Burned Out says:


        Thank you for stopping to pray for me & answer me!

        My church really doesn’t have any support. They’ve gone to a small group format where most everything other than sunday morning service is held in homes… which is very not-friendly for someone without a child-care option… and really we have fallen away from attending at all.

        I’ve been thinking about what you said about finding someplace with support. It got me thinking & realizing that I need to be extra vigilant not to become disconnected. The Bible study I attended stopped meeting & various similar things & I hadn’t taken the time to seek out new connections to replace those important connections with fellow believers.

        Yesterday I was talking to another mom in the lobby at physical therapy & she recommended a church where her special boy is thriving and which is very welcoming & supportive of families with special needs and this church is right down the street from my house so we are going to give that a try.

        I know of Joni Erikson Tada (from the movie I saw of her life back in my teens) but I did not know about her program. I will seek it out.

        Thank you for your encouragement & your words of help and wisdom!

        • Jesus-in-the-City says:

          Wow! I was so blessed to get your reply!

          Isn’t it amazing how quickly God works?! One day you were commenting on this blog about your need and in the next days you’re meeting a woman who recommends a program at a church super close to you! My husband and I have always said, “there’s no coincidences with God!” I think it’s psalm 37 that says “He delights in EVERY DETAIL of our lives,” so don’t let it go unnoticed how much God loves you guys and is such an able and doting Abba Father to those who call on Him…. “as we believe, so let it be done to us..” :)

          The Joni Tada website and podcasts are so highly recommended! I really LOVE them! I think you will REALLY be blessed by them and I’m willing to bet they will have something in your area. They seem like a really well run organization. And they also have summer camp programs and stuff for kids, all ages, and adults, with special needs that I’ve seen her feature on the show. That might also be a place where you can expand your network of support!

          I will pray right now that the church works out for you and your son and also that you are able to get plugged back into a Bible study/ prayer group. A girlfriend and I, both with wee ones, meet every two weeks for ours and the husbands take the kids, so, while our circumstances are different, I can understand the importance of needing the child care/ support for your son while you’re meeting.

          Another thing, that may sound kind of weird, is that my husband and I and a small group pray over the phone together on a conference call prayer group every week. I would’ve never thought it would be something I’d be into, but because its run by a really godly, spiritually mature friend who has been part of one before and had a leading from God and an understanding already how to run it, it really works for us. We just call into the conference call number at the same time every week (in the mid evening, once kids are sleeping and adults are home from work) and get right into praising The Lord and then meeting and trusting Him with our prayer needs. To be honest, it’s only been about three or four weeks, but it’s been one of the most helpful things I’ve done in a long time. Right now we are just focusing on the Holy Spirit and consistently and unrelentingly seeking Him to overflow into each person’s specific need. We all pretty much came to a point, in each of our individual lives, where we just knew there was no other answer but to beseech and trust God for our needs, so that’s exactly what the prayer group is about, no muss, no fuss, no socializing, just praising and seeking and petitioning God and it is AWESOME! So, maybe if it’s something you’re interested in, you could bring it to God in prayer and something like that might open up for you. Like I said, my husband and I had really no inkling about it and then our friend’s mom came to us out of nowhere and said God had been speaking to her about it, and now, four weeks later or so, and it is going strong and we are wishing we did it more than once a week! Anyway, just an idea because it doesn’t entail anything more than having a phone and a need!

          Well, I will be praying for you! Keep me up to date when you have your awesome praise report to deliver, and don’t forget to stand strong against the enemy at all times, who sometimes likes to come against us in whatever way He can when we find soemthing new and promising on our Christian journey!

          Lots of love and God bless!

  14. The title of this post caught me off guard. At first, I was thinking, “Wait. Parenting is hard. And not just b/c I make it hard.” But then…the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I do make it harder than it needs to be. I look at FB and see other moms and then feel insecure. Why can’t I do all the fun things I see my friends doing with their kids? When we try to fingerpaint, my kids just end up crying. Or I read blogs and think I need to do more and more. Or I look at Pinterest (and I am not crafty), so this obviously leads to insecurity. More trying to be perfect…more failure. God didn’t design us moms to all be the same. He gave us each unique personalities and gifts. So why do we try so hard to be just like our friends or those we see online? Thanks for this post, Sheila. It was eye-opening for me.
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  15. This is an example of why my husband and I have such a hard time deciding whether or not to have children. We’ve been married two and a half years and just are not convinced that having children is “worth it” when all we hear is how awful and horrible and difficult parenting is. It seems that as soon as couples have kids, all they want is to spend time away from them. Ask a mother what she wants for Mother’s Day, and it’s time ALONE. While I realize parenting isn’t always easy, it would be nice to hear more positive feedback about it. If it’s so awful, why have children at all?

    • That’s what I was saying earlier (you just worded it much better). I think we feel this way because sometimes a parent just needs to vent, so 90% of the time all we hear is the bad. “Little Jimmy hit his sister”, “Susie used Sharpie all over my couch”, “If I just had some time away from these KIDS I’d be so much more relaxed!”. But I also have a friend at church (right around 30) who has 4 kiddos 7, 5, 4, and 2, and the oldest 3 are boys. She’s an at-home, home-schooling mom with a youth minister husband, and she loves having kids. She’s even talked about a 5th (though her hubby didn’t seem as keen on it…), and she’s the one around them 98% of the time. So there is some hope out there! Kids are absolutely worth it, and I can’t wait to have kids, but sometimes just trying to push past all the negativity we hear from parents makes us really question things!

  16. Followed Lindsey Bell over…

    Thank you for presenting this. I’m a Mary in a Martha (Stewart) world; I’d much rather read a book with my kids than do some fancy activity with them. My house is always cluttered with toys and papers, but we are all happy.
    Right now I have 5 kids, with my youngest being 2 1/2. When he got to be 18 months with no younger sibling following, I almost got bored with how easy life was. So, God had me start blogging!
    The idea that raising children is a terrible burden is a lie from the Enemy: he hates children because God loves them so. We have turned God’s blessings into curses (Isaiah 5:20).
    Thank you for shining God’s light on us so clearly. :-)
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  17. Lateefa says:

    I will say that this article is really good. It can open up the dialogue amongst moms everywhere. Honestly, I think that many moms are not fortunate enough to be able to focus on home alone. Even though I am married, I work full time as a nurse because I make more and my husband (for whatever reason) can’t find work or hold a job. He cares for our children. So I have 2 jobs: Outside and inside the home. Even though my husband is home, when the house is a mess, I take the hit because I am the woman of the house. I wish I could be home with my kids. I know I am better suited to be home with our children (he agrees) To top it off, our oldest has autism and I make his appointments, am his advocate with the school and try to reinforce what he has learned in school (when I can). Our circumstances are what they are for now. But not a day goes by that I don’t feel guilt or inadequate because I don’t have enough of me to go around. It isn’t just the world’s standards that have me feeling this way. Even the church’s standards feel like it is too much.

  18. True, our great-grandmothers didn’t have a lot of our modern conveniences — but in some ways their lives were a lot easier. They did a lot of hard physical work, but they weren’t under the pressure our culture puts on us to do everything and do it all perfectly. Think about it; no one can be a top performer at work, raise perfect kids with Pinterest-worthy rooms, solve world hunger, cook gourmet meals, stay in great shape, maintain a gorgeous house, be the perfect supportive friend and family member, and blow their husband’s mind in the bedroom–all while working in ample “me” time. It is literally impossible, and yet this is what our culture expects. It’s time we admitted that our culture is nuts, picked our two or three highest priorities, and forgave ourselves for not being able to do the impossible.

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