Motherhood Mantra: The Harder Thing

The amazing and prolific Mihee Kim-Kort recently hosted a series on her blog called “Motherhood Mantras.” I’d been kicking around the topic for several weeks and finally managed to get something written, but… the series is over. Thankfully Mihee understands that the life of the mother-writer happens outside the bounds of conventional time and has agreed to post it. 

Incidentally, Mihee also has a book forthcoming from Chalice Press, called Making Paper Cranes: Toward An Asian-American Feminist Theology which looks to be excellent.

It was the witching hour, and my husband was working late. I’d managed to cobble together some semblance of a balanced meal for the three amigos and me. But there was no getting around it—we had to go to the grocery store after supper.

It had been an exhausting day of ministry. As I navigated traffic with the kids in the back, I was lost in my own thoughts about e-mails left unanswered and people who would need to be visited the next day. I was heavy with the burden of pastoral care, not to mention sermon preparation, which percolates underneath everything else, all week long. I love my kids, but I was counting the minutes until they were tucked quietly into bed.

A plaintive request came from the back seat: “Mommy, can we pretend we’re in a spaceship?”

The internal answer was instant and vehement: Ugh, NO! I was just too tired. I wanted to get to the store, buy what we needed, and get home—no muss, no fuss. I had expended all my creative energy during the day. Surely there was nothing left for spaceship play.

But a flat NO is a bit of a buzzkill. So I considered a middle ground: Go right ahead, kids! Be my guest. Why would I stop them? So long as they stayed strapped in, they could imagine whatever they wished. They’re happy, and I get a little introvert time. Win-win.

But something in me shifted. What if I went along with them in the game? What if I decided not to do the bare minimum? What would happen if I summoned up some energy I wasn’t even sure I had, in order to play along?

“Sure!” I heard myself say, and began barking out nonsensical orders. “First Officer Caroline: monitor our coordinates. Lieutenant Margaret: check the thrusters to see that they’re operational. Sergeant James: give us a report of weather conditions outside.”

A short growl came from the backseat. Oh yeah, James is in his I’m-a-dog phase. “Did I say Sergeant James? I meant Scruffy the dog. Scruffy, you lie down until we get to the moon, then you can help explore.”

The whole errand went this way. The Fairfax County Parkway became a giant asteroid belt. The grocery store became a space station where we needed to stock up on supplies. Our garage became a lunar docking station.

Miraculously, bedtime afterward went smoothly, even joyfully. I thought they’d be wound up from our game, but they were content, excited that they’d been able to do something out of the ordinary. What’s more, I was in a better mood too.

Later that night, I remembered a phrase I’d read as a young adult: “It’s easier to do what’s hard than what’s easy.” The author’s point (if I remember correctly) is that people often choose the path of least resistance in their lives, but that path can make life harder in the long run. (Doing the bare minimum to graduate, for example—it’s easier short-term but it can impact career success for a long time.) By contrast, if you put in just a little more effort, it can make a huge difference in the end. What’s initially hard becomes easier over time.

That phrase has evolved into a parenting mantra:

The harder thing is the easier thing.

It’s hard to summon the energy to play Minivan Spaceship, but it’s easier in the long run than dealing with cranky, bored kids, resentful at yet another errand, dragging their feet instead of skipping down the aisles, looking for provisions.

It’s hard to keep the house in a basic semblance of order, but it’s easier in the long run when you know exactly where the permission slip is on the morning of the field trip.

It’s hard for me to set aside time for Sabbath each week—a practice our family has been committed to for many years—but it makes life easier because it makes life more pleasant.

The harder thing is the easier thing.

It’s hard to have the tough conversation, or to respond to that angry e-mail with a phone call instead of another e-mail, or to tell the truth the first time rather than fudge it… but it is so much more freeing to be on the other side of it.

Sometimes we’re tempted to do the minimum to get by—in life, in relationships. And let’s face it: as mothers, we’re constantly playing triage. A bit more humor, a bit more kindness, a bit more intentionality, require a lot more energy up front. But these things pay dividends in the long run, through stronger relationships and a sense of well-being.

The harder thing is the easier thing.

Like every good mantra, you have to know when to embrace its inverse. Sometimes the harder thing is the harder thing. It’s possible to force things, to strive for a perfection that’s not only impossible, but exhausting and dispiriting. I’m a big believer in the good-enough parent. Sometimes getting everyone to the store and back in one piece is good enough. Surviving is a victory.

But other times, the harder thing really is the easier thing. And the more joyful thing.

6 thoughts on “Motherhood Mantra: The Harder Thing

  1. Hugs, Kisses and Snot

    I used this mantra today w/o even knowing it. My 7 year old wanted to make an elaborate marble run out of paper and pool noodles. It’s so easy for me to say “not now sweetie, mommy is tired” and continue reading my book. But I got up and we worked on it together and it was great time. It got him away from the Wii and got me off the couch. Suddenly I wasn’t so tired anymore.
    I’m really glad I chose the harder thing.

    Reply
    1. MaryAnn

      I love it! Thanks for sharing.

      In our house, screens (video games and TV) are definitely easier things that become harder things because prolonged screen time makes our kids SO cranky. We definitely let them watch stuff, and sometimes for reasons of our own convenience or tiredness. But we usually pay a price.

      Reply
  2. Bob Braxton

    Late evening was just hearing about “grit” and how, once one selects something that feels “easy” and fun, it is important to work hard and put in the ten thousand hours – “Outliers” concept – credit: Tavis Smiley show Public TV

    Reply
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