I was doing a little light reading today: Evagrius Ponticus’s The Pracktikos & Chapters on Prayer. Eew, I know. It’s research for a new book project—or at least the beginnings of ideas for a new book project. We’ll see. Anyway, Evagrius (from henceforth to be known as E-Vag in order to prevent you from growing totally bored by this post. No, wait, that sounds gross if you read it wrong. How about just E?) was a monk and wrote about it a lot. One passage in particular caught my attention:
The demon of acedia—also called the noonday demon—is the one that causes the most serious trouble of all… First of all he makes it seem that the sun barely moves, if at all, and that the day is fifty hours long. Then he constrains the monk to look constantly out the windows, to walk outside the cell, to gaze carefully at the sun to determine how far it stands from the ninth hour, to look now this way and now that to see if perhaps [one of the brethren appears from his cell]. Then too he instills in the heart of the monk a hatred for the place, a hatred for his very life itself, a hatred for manual labor. He leads him to reflect that charity has departed from among the brethren, that there is no one to give encouragement. Should there be someone at this period who happens to offend him in some way or other, this too the demon uses to contribute further to his hatred. This demon drives him along to desire other sites where he can more easily procure life’s necessities, more readily find work and make a real success of himself. He goes on to suggest that, after all, it is not the place that is the basis of pleasing the Lord. God is to be adored everywhere. He joins to these reflections the memory of his dear ones and of his former way of life. He depicts life stretching out for a long period of time, and brings before the mind’s eye the toil of the ascetic struggle and, as the saying has it, leaves no leaf unturned the induce the monk to forsake his cell and drop out of the fight. No other demon follows close upon the heels of this one (when he is defeated) but only a state of deep peace and inexpressible joy arise out of this struggle.
I started thinking that if you replaced the word “monk” with “mom,” “cell” with “house,” and “brethren” with “babies,” then this might describe my situation pretty accurately. This is probably why there are at least a few writers out there who have equated the two (like Glennon Melton and Micha Boyett, the ladies behind the blogs Momastery and Mama: Monk, respectively).
As you know, I’ve been trying to incorporate the use of prayer beads into my life. It has been going… well, it’s been going. I can’t say that I’m “good” at ye olde prayer beads quite yet. In fact, I’ve found myself internally berating myself for either not using them enough or for getting distracted so easily when I am using them. Internally berating yourself is not conducive to the upkeep of a meditative spirit, it turns out.
So the first thing I’ve been hearing from God is this: be kind to yourself. Be patient with yourself.
These two things do not come easily to me—especially when the recipient of the kindness and the patience is supposed to be me. I’ve written about this period of life, where it feels as if everything is a loose end, an elusive loose end that refuses to be tied up nicely. Things are left undone or half-assed all the time. I never used to be a half-assed person. I used to be the kid who would do the whole group project and it would include glitter and moving parts and it would get an A. Now I am the person who fudges on book deadlines, forgets to change her kid’s diaper before an outing to the grocery store, ignores her blog for an entire week, nukes a frozen pizza for dinner.
So lately, I’ve been trying to remind myself that caring for a baby is hard work. That writing a book is hard work. That having a blog is hard work. That being a friend and a daughter and a wife is hard work. That meditative prayer is hard work.
Sometimes, the reminders work and I believe myself. Sometimes not. Sometimes I wonder if the demon of acedia is getting to me.
The last time I wrote about being a stay-at-home mom in search of solitude, some of my friends who are working-moms felt left out of what I was saying. I thought a lot about whether or not I was being unfair. But perhaps I was just being incomplete.
Like you, Maria, and probably many of our readers, I’ve been both. And I think the thing that I was trying to express was a particularity of stay-at-home moming. (I hate the labels “stay at home” vs. “working” mom, too, by the way, but I can’t think of a better distinguisher. I’d love to hear suggestions in the comments section!) Being at home full-time with children is a lonely business sometimes. It’s not more or less difficult than working outside the home. It’s just different.
You wrote once about how the drive to work was a place of solitude for you. I agree—and I was lucky to have a forty-five minute commute to work. I had small breaks during the day, and though my college students demanded much of me, they never demanded that I change their diaper or carry them down the stairs. They never hung on me during a lesson or cried because I left the room. Perhaps this is just a difference that I notice between working and staying home—solitude is difficult to find at home because, on one hand, I am lonely for lack of adult conversation, but on the other hand, I’m bombarded with never feeling alone.
At home, I have to work harder to make parts of the day feel different. To make parts of the day mine.
My major struggle right now is with acedia. If you’ve never heard the word, here’s the definition (from thefreedictionary.com):
acedia – apathy and inactivity in the practice of virtue (personified as one of the deadly sins)
Deadly? Yes. It feels like such an apt definition—practicing motherhood is a virtue. I’m not saying that when you work outside the home you stop practicing motherhood (no, no, no—not that at all). I am saying that you shelve the action part (not the internal, being part) for awhile and let someone else do that while you go about whatever task you’re paid for. (In the comments section of a post detailing the day of one stay at home mother, someone wrote something like this: “I am a working mother, so I do all of this plus work an eight-hour day.” No one called her out on this bullshit, but I will. Saying that you do both of those things is very unfair—it totally cheapens what caregivers have to do. That woman didn’t do all of those things. She couldn’t have. She certainly had a lot on her plate, but she paid someone else to do the important work of caregiving while she was at her job.) So the challenges of what a mother occupies her day with are different. When I was working outside the home, I struggled a lot with stress and restfulness. Now, I struggle with how to handle boredom and loneliness, with how to value the slower toddler’s pace at which I exist.
So the actionable, caregiving part of motherhood is a virtue that I often feel apathetic and frozen and slothful in the midst of. Some days feel exactly as E described: “that the sun barely moves, if at all, and that the day is fifty hours long.”
I’m looking for balance in all of this, especially as my days are spent at home caring for my kids. I must learn to be patient with myself, to give myself grace sometimes. I must learn to stave off that blasted demon of acedia so “a state of deep peace and inexpressible joy arise out of this struggle.” And I must learn when to apply the grace and when to struggle against apathy.
I’m interested in hearing others’ experiences with acedia. Has it gotten to you, in whatever particular circumstances you find yourself? Does my distinction between mothers who hold an outside job and those who spend the daytime hours at home seem legitimate? Are you still thinking about how I almost called that monk E-vag?