JulieLeung.com: a life told in tidepools

pictures and stories from the water’s edge

JulieLeung.com: a life told in tidepools header image 2

Legend, lore and lie

March 22nd, 2004 · 1 Comment

This week it’s been fun to have a little lively discussion on the topic of the division of labor and family life on this blog. Thanks to everyone who commented. I’ve re-examined and evaluated what I thought and wrote.

One sentence I wrote seemed to get me in some trouble. Or at least create some misunderstanding. Katherine commented:

Julie, I absolutely CANNOT BELIEVE that you said, “My work doesn’t take a lot of time or energy.” …You must be the real wonder woman of legend and lore. I am still shaking my head in amazement.

In talking to Ted about this conversation, I realized that American mothers today feel an enormous amount of pressure for perfection in every aspect. There’s a myth of some “wonder woman of legend and lore” who does it all, bakes her cake and eats it too: on hand-painted plates while her loving children sing an accompanying acapella chorus in three part harmony in their homemade matching outfits. To say that the work is easy seems almost blasphemous. Would Martha Stewart approve of my decor? Would FlyLady approve of my dusting? Can I cook like Emeril enough to spice up our lives? And what about the chipped paint, stained trim and dents in the drywall? Everywhere one turns there are myriad experts ready to explain how to make cookies that lower cholesterol, how to weave placemats from socks or how to scrub the bathroom and rejuvenate ceramic bowls in record time. Home economics like a resurrected Godzilla has returned with a vengeance, and as in scenes from a horror movie, it’s crushing families beneath its feet. While I am writing as a woman, I do believe that men struggle with these issues as well.

And those are simply the domestic duties.

Motherhood itself looms large, its own monster. We women are insecure and unsure. Again multiple experts advise us on everything from how Baby should scoot to how Baby should poop. Every move Baby makes, every breath she takes is subject to scrutiny and judgment: Mom wonders if she is performing her job right. Brochures, books, friends, talking heads all have advice to give. Don’t make a mistake, Mom. Or else Baby will spend the rest of his life in therapy. Blaming you for every moment you messed up. So speaks the subtle voice of society.

I believe parents should be educated. Certainly babies should be put to sleep on their backs, as an example. Great care should be taken in the care of children. It is a lifelong commitment. It’s a powerful position. It’s intense. But I think it has gone overboard, creating a ghost of guilt that becomes a mother’s companion. Should she take a moment for herself to relax or consider a career, the ghost looms larger, whispering in her ear.

Mary Pipher writes in Reviving Ophelia :

Western civilization has a history of unrealistic expectations about mothers. They are held responsible for their children’s happiness and for the social and emotional well being of their families….

Wonder Woman is no longer Linda Carter spinning around in her jumpsuit on TV. No, wonder woman is Every Woman. She can bring home the veggie bacon, put it in the souffle, and serve her family a healthy homemade gourmet meal right after soccer practice. She’s fit and fashionable. Her home and garden belong on TV. She’s Every Man’s dream wife and Every Child’s favorite mother.

The more I’ve been thinking about this illusion, the more upset I get. We live in a society of lies. Statistics on cheating students to faking lovers verify this falsehood. So call Wonder Woman what she is. This legend and lore is a lie. It’s a deception to believe you can do it all. It’s a myth no mom can live.

How I believed the Lie

For a while I wanted to be Wonder Woman, seduced by her siren song.

During the first few years we lived in our new home, I’d spend my time after the girls went to sleep inspecting every new scratch, returning any stray toy to its place, scrubbing until it looked like the day we moved in. That’s a bit of hyperbole but not far from the truth. I wasn’t satisfied with our less-than-perfect picture; I wanted our home to look cut from a catalogue, our life to be one described in a dreamy magazine. I’d always had these desires and they had been growing for a while.

B.C., Before Children, I’d spend Saturdays making dim sum dumplings from scratch. When we got our first new car, we washed it for hours. After we got our new home, I read decorating books, envisioning colors and styles, making lists and shopping for fabrics and furniture. It was exhausting. This life of domestic intensity. I felt such responsibility for things. So much to do to be me.

A number of incidences in our life converged, including the arrival of our third child in four years and changes in Ted’s employment. I found myself re-working through priorities. I had to choose what was important to me. I’m still sifting: some days feel like time spent at the beach, throwing handfuls of life through the sifter and finding what remains.

All this to say that I’ve chosen not to worry about the home. I’ve minimized what I think I should do. If I dust once a week I’ve decided that’s fine. The rest of the week I don’t worry about it. If I have time to make dumplings that’s great. If not we enjoy fried rice just fine. The car is happy to get cleaned once a month in the summer. We own a white minivan that functions as penmanship practice. Few pictures hang on our walls, and today I finally changed the dusty red candles that had been on the mantle since Christmas. I’m no Martha. I’m no legend.

I want to live life. To enjoy my children, husband and home. While I believe in listening to the wisdom of others, no expert can tell me what life means to me. When I die, I want to remember joy not guilt. I want to remember relationships not objects. I want to invest in what will last.

Ted agrees with me in this. As long as the house is functional, we have food to eat and clothes to wear, he’s fine. So I feel I’ve relaxed my own standards of domestic order, traded them for tranquility instead.

And I’ve relaxed my standards for motherhood too, compared to what culture communicates. I feel I am merely one more mother in a chain of humanity. What I’m doing has been done for thousands of years by millions of moms before me. Most of those moms didn’t have anywhere near the resources I have. And I think many parents throughout history raised their children well. I hope that our generation is doing things better compared to parents of the past. But I imagine that we are also probably making our own share of mistakes.

What matters most to me as a mom is my child(ren)’s character. While I appreciate music lessons and gymnastics, as an athlete and musician myself, and I want the girls to have them too, I try to evaluate all choices in regard to how they will affect our daughters emotion and spirit. I hope and pray they will be people who are honest and loving, kind and generous, patient and faithful, disciplined and gentle.

Again and again though I find myself wrestling with Wonder Woman. Those ghosts of guilt that haunt me. That legend and lore I can’t live. I have to tell myself and shout it down: You Lie!

The Mommy Myth

Friday in my blog reading, as I was sorting through my thoughts about this blog dialogue, I came across a post that confirmed some of my feelings: a review of the book The Mommy Myth .

Jane Galt wrote in her post: Supermom: Hero or Myth?

There’s a tremendous amount of social pressure on women who are home these days.


The women we’re talking about have been raised, unlike their mothers, to be goal-oriented; even when they stay home, they treat child-rearing like a project that is supposed to be delivered with rigorous quality standards. The ones who do stay home also have a record low amount of housework to take care of, more disposable income than their mothers and grandmothers, and much greater mobility; this enables them to focus more energy on their children, setting a standard that’s ever-harder for working mothers to achieve.


Our grandmothers didn’t think that they were supposed to make their children the total center of all their daily activities. My grandmother never worked outside the home a day in her life, but she certainly didn’t spend all that time “interacting” with her children. As soon as they could walk, my mother and aunts were shoved outside to play, in snowsuits in the winter. My grandmother had a house to take care of, clubs to attend, and so forth . . . if you’d told her she was supposed to spend all day, every day, doing little else but attempt to maximize her children’s IQ, she would have thought you were crazy. And I think in large part that that’s because my grandmother was utterly secure in her role as a wife and mother.

She was referring to Laura’s review of the bookThe Mommy Myth :

The authors claim that a dominant ideology today makes women feel guilty if they don’t spend 24/7 with their kids bolstering their self esteem and developing every emerging talent.

This is true. Raising children today is a much different enterprise than it was in the 1950s or 60s. My mom didn’t strap us kids into car seats, which meant that it was easier to go places and to share carpooling with neighbors. She put us to sleep on our stomachs, which is much easier than putting babies to sleep on their backs. She gave us solid food much earlier and filled our bellies with formula, which meant that we slept through the night quicker. She shoved us out the backdoor and we amused ourselves in the backyard with a stick and a hole. We had no dance classes, music classes, or playdates. We cried in our cribs until we went to sleep. If we didn’t like dinner, we went hungry. She read us stories, of course, and sang us songs, but she didn’t do it all day. She had the house to clean and dinner to make for my dad.


As soon as you find out that you’re pregnant you are given a library of books on how to make the smartest child. (I wrote about it before here.) And we buy them. Parent magazines report on these studies and respond to the demand for information and publish detailed articles about how to do yoga with your 6 month old baby, how to sing to your fetus, and the dangers of one hour of TV a day.

Why do we buy this stuff? Why do we put so much time into parenting? Well, partly it’s because we love our kids. It’s natural to want to do the best thing for your kids. If a study shows that TV lowers your child’s IQ, we have to turn off Barney, even if it means that we don’t have time for a shower that day. Maybe, it also has to do with the fact that the middle class feels much more insecure than it did in the past. There are less career opportunities for those who fail to flourish in school and more income inequity.

This new style of parenting is much tougher on those who work. And this is the unstated point of the Mommy Myth. I’m home most of the time, and I’m pretty drained after a long day of parenting. How much worse is it for a women who picks up her kids from daycare at 6:00, makes dinner from scratch, cleans up the kitchen, sorts the mail, reads stories, gives baths, brushes teeth, and puts the kids to sleep? … It’s tough.

Here is Wonder Woman of our time described in all her glory: all the exhaustion, anxiety and responsibility. Mommy myth indeed.

Play Time!

What I feel motherhood is missing today is play! We play with our kids. But I confess for me it’s another responsibility. I need to play with my kids to help them develop. I get involved in their games due to guilt. If I don’t play with them, they’ll end up in therapy with only me to blame.

I am learning to play. Play was not encouraged during my childhood. I had to be responsible. I think this happened to me early, when my brother became ill, and only intensified as my parents divorced. I felt had to get good grades and work hard. I had things to do, tasks to accomplish, the world to change. Now all I have to change are diapers. And young lives.

Yet I still need to practice more play. Today after breakfast I went to dance with the girls in the living room. Abigail protested: “Sweep the floor, Mom!”
I felt disturbed. Was she putting me in my place, where she thought I belonged? Maybe all my daughters think I do is work!

The other day while I was reading books the girls had chosen, I came across this paragraph.

Work, even a little work, exhausts me, takes away from me. Play, even a little play, pours something back in. Work has to do with anxiety, with doing a good job. Play springs from inexhaustible joy. Since it is play, after all, what does it matter if it’s a symphony or a scribble? The point of work is to finish. The point of play is to not finish or at least to draw it out until bedtime. Work is rooted in a curse. Play comes closer to what Eden was all about.

Play usually begins with a gift: A toy. An empty box. A sheet of paper and some crayons. Or perhaps even a child and the eyes to see.

From Come to the Cradle by Michael Card

Work has to do with anxiety, with doing a good job. Play springs from inexhaustible joy.

What’s happened to play? Where’s the joy? Motherhood has become a list of to-dos, written by parents and dictated by experts who’ve studied everything from crying to coloring, magnified by media, creating an image, a legend and lore no woman can fulfill. It’s become anxiety.

Being a mommy has become a role in the economy, work, a job that must be done well. There’s too much I have to do. Tasks to finish. Books to read. Exercises to practice. Workbooks to write. Mathematics to teach. Art projects to paint. Recipes to try. If I’m going to be the best, I’d better be busy.

But the truth is that my “projects” are living human beings. They’ll never be finished. And neither will I.

Tags: motherhood

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 emily // Mar 22, 2004 at 1:16 pm

    Not to oversimplify, but only two eternal things matter in life, God’s Word and people (their spirits). Thankful to read your ongoing process of sifting through what’s important in your life. Seems like re-evaluation of what we do and why we do it never ends. A good process…