With this Nail Polish, I Thee Love

I feel like I have walked through every emotion known to woman – or at least most of them – since becoming a mom, but my very lowest points, when closely examined, all seem to be centered around one common theme:

to be a mom is to be a servant.

You always hear these funny sentiments – probably penned by women whose children are grown and can help with the laundry – about the mom being the “queen of the house” and, while I WILL admit that my children do gaze at me with worshipful eyes some of the time, especially when they are under the age of 6, when I look around our house, I don’t see a throne.

I see a mop and a broom and a line-up of hungry kids who want me to make food out of the ragtag ingredients in our pantry.

Now, I don’t love making the following known, but it’s just a fact: being a servant isn’t something that I came into this world naturally equipped to handle in a gracious and joyful manner.

In fact, I daresay that being a servant goes directly against every fiber of my sin-natured being.

You would quickly figure that out if you could see me on my worst days, in my favorite cry spot on the floor of the master bathroom toilet closet, sobbing my eyes out because…

well, because I spent this entire day doing what I did ALL day yesterday, cleaning up messes I didn’t make, wiping bottoms, changing diapers, making meals and cleaning up the kitchen so we could do it all over again, answering questions, finding lost toys-shoes-socks-pencils-books-notebooks-YOU NAME IT, and what I’ve realized that it all comes down to is not so much the cleaning and the wiping and the changing and the making and the answering and the finding, but the deep-down, crushing weight that a lady can feel when she simply doesn’t want to be a servant today.

My ability to handle it all with ease and optimism comes to a screeching halt when I start resenting my calling and pining for that throne.

But that’s one of the most beneficial things about being a wife and a mother…

it pushes you to be something that might have taken you much longer to become.

You see, when you go from being the star of your own story, a person who can go to Starbucks if she wants and stop by the shoe store to try on some new sandals and then come home and watch girly shows on Netflix, to having your life bound up in another’s…and then another’s…and then another’s…until your life is tied directly to, say, five other people, people who need you, people you are called to love and serve, people you are inextricably yoked to, well, it will CHANGE you from the inside out and back again.

Whether you thought you needed changing or not!

And here is one of the most important things I’ve learned about serving, and it continues to surprise me to this day…

the want-to of serving and the JOY of serving come not before you serve, but AS you serve.

This point came up recently, and it was eye-opening for me.

My little girls had been begging me for days to do their nails.

But here’s the thing. I don’t LIKE doing nails. Especially when they are the size of a tiny button. Painting little girls’ miniature toenails is like being the detail artist for the fine china company!

And…I’m busy!! Did you not just read about the cleaning and the wiping and the changing and the making and the answering and the finding?!

Therefore, my first internal instinct when they ask me to paint their nails is usually something akin to “I don’t WANNA!”

But late Saturday evening, after they came in from the little swimming pool in the front yard (and after I stain-treated their swimming clothes and towels and put them in the washer and then bathed the kids and then clipped their nails and brushed their hair, but who is keeping track?) I got them sat down with their supper at the kitchen island and…

I just did it.

I sat myself down on the floor, I gathered a foot at a time in my hands, and I applied the nail polish to their tiny, little nails.

Did I really want to do this? Not necessarily. Did I have time to do this? It never feels like it. But how God manages to bring reverence and awe in such a moment is proof of how amazing He is and, as I sat there, bringing such simple happiness to the little hearts that love me so, a sort of resounding joy began to well up inside me.

You see, I didn’t necessarily go into the act of service with joy, but AS I served, joy most certainly followed.

It’s another of those incredible paradoxical principles in the Kingdom of God.

We have these opportunities to push ourselves every day of our lives, chances to serve and to not only meet the basic needs of our family, but to nurture them. To show them sacred dignity. To prefer them over ourselves.

It might be painting toenails.

It might be changing that diaper right away rather than putting it off until it’s about to explode.

It might be brushing the tangles out of a little girl’s bed hair and gathering it into braids at first light.

It might be ironing the wrinkles out of a pretty dress for church.

It might be whipping out a favorite recipe for the boy who is hungrier by the day, a recipe that only he likes.

These are the kind of above-and-beyond things my own mom has built an entire life upon.

The kids and I stayed at her house while Mr. Gore was in Africa last month, and I noticed when I went to tuck the kids in every night that she had turned down each of their covers and put a special book and stuffed animal on their pillow.

Do you know who else noticed this simple little gesture?

My 3-year old.

“A BOOK!!!” he would exclaim, every single night, looking in wonder at his neat little bed with the unexpected treasure at its head.

It sank in deep as I watched this display that our acts of kindness and servitude are not at all lost on the littlest among us and that, yes, the time and the effort are absolutely worth it.

And when you are like my mom and have daily practiced this sort of loving service, it just starts to come naturally.

Her ministry oozes out of her rather than being forced, and oh my goodness, it gives me so much hope. Because it’s exactly who and what I want to be for the Kingdom of God.

And so my prayer today is that I’ll just keep choosing to serve, whether the joy is there at the forefront or whether it comes in the act.

Maybe someday, if I keep practicing…if I keep painting those toenails…I’ll find myself at the beds of my grandchildren with a special book and a stuffed animal to leave on their pillow…

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The Upstairs and Downstairs of Modern Housewifery

 

The Upstairs and Downstairs of Modern Housewifery: How to be the lady of the manor AND the scullery maid without going Edith on everybody

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Every Sunday night when the season is right, you will find Mr. Gore and me, after banishing…er, tucking in…the children upstairs, settling down into our favorite living room chairs to catch up on the latest drama at Downton Abbey.

This historically-trenched soap opera thoroughly entertains me, and the characters are often referenced in our house.

A lover of history, it is just pure fun for me to see a page from the past come to life on my television screen, and the opportunity to visually become better acquainted with the practices and lifestyles of years gone by is a gift, of sorts, even though the propagation of modern beliefs can be laid on pretty thick, at times.

I can overlook that, though, for the pleasure of hearing Lady Violet’s latest display of side-splitting drollery.

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But as I was anticipating a new season of Downton this week, and daydreaming about the maids who work downstairs and the ladies of society that live upstairs, I realized, maybe for the first time ever, how many tasks I am personally responsible for as a homemaker, in general, and a homemaker with children, in particular, in my home.

The same is true for you, I’m quite sure of it.

Ignore the little fact that Downton is a vastly larger estate than many of us will probably ever even visit on this side of heaven and that our own houses are surely elfin in comparison, and just stay with me for a minute.

For starters, I literally go upstairs and downstairs a lot. We built a two-story house five years ago because I thought it would be “fun”, and when I’m not hauling baskets of stuff from the downstairs to the upstairs, I’m hauling baskets of stuff from the upstairs to the downstairs. And when I say “baskets”, I mean baskets.

But those aren’t the only “upstairs and downstairs” I’m talking about, the literal ones.

I’m talking about how, as homemakers and mothers, we juggle the upstairs and downstairs of an entire estate.

We are the “lady of the manor.” The event planner. The scullery maid. The chamber maid. The housekeeper. The chef. The nanny. The chauffeur. The lady’s maid. The butler. Add homeschooling to that, and we’re also the governess!

And I’m not pointing these things out to whine – puh-lease don’t get me wrong on that! – but, rather, to present a realistic picture of what we’re up against.

Mostly so I can get to this single question: Why in the WORLD are we continually heaping all this crazy guilt upon ourselves?!

What is with the insane, superhuman expectations?

Why do we continually feel like failures because we can’t “do it all”?

Tell me, if Mrs. Patmore was teaching George and Sybbie their lessons and giving them their baths and tucking them in at night and keeping the entire house clean and all the laundry done, do we sincerely think she would have time to make a fancy, gourmet meal even ONE time a day? No way! PB&J for lunch it would be, no problem.

Could Lady Grantham arrive at her nightly dinner party, perfectly coiffed and at ease after a hectic afternoon of cleaning out the automobiles, weeding the rose bushes and dusting the ceiling fan? I’m going to pretend like she couldn’t.

And so, while this silliest of blog posts is in no way grounds for entitlement or pity, it IS a light-hearted attempt to wake you up, woman.

In today’s culture, we ARE the upstairs and the downstairs of our life and we have a LOT on our plates, which calls for some very practical wisdom.

Namely, this: Pick a lane, m’lady.

We cannot “do it all”, every day. It’s impossible.

So instead of habitually trying, and then crashing and burning into sizzling heaps of frustration, why don’t we just start picking a few things to do really well in one day and call it good?

It’s simple, really, especially if you think of it in terms of the Downton staff…

Let’s see, who shall I be today? Will I be Mrs. Patmore, and make a really delicious and beautiful and painstaking meal for my family? And a homemade three-layer cake, perhaps, for dessert? Wonderful! But this means I can’t also try to pull a Mrs. Hughes and orchestrate a deep-cleaning of the house.

Or, if I DO want to be Mrs. Hughes and get all of my rooms tidied and oversee the organization of the entire house, I CAN’T be Mrs. Patmore. I will give myself and my family grace and order a pizza instead! (Or at the very least, pull out a Crock-pot.)

Shall I be Mr. Carson and get all of our affairs in order?

Shall I be Lady Grantham and host some friends for the evening?

Shall I be Tom (circa Season 1) and shuttle us hither and thither, running errands?

Shall I be Mrs. Crawley and fill up my day with good deeds toward the community?

Shall I be Lady Edith and…um…gaze worriedly into the distance? (Poor Edith. God bless her.)

Shall I be Anna and tend to the ones I’ve been entrusted with? Shall I gently brush their hair and groom their fingernails and see to their winter wardrobes?

Or who knows? Maybe I’ll be Mrs. Hughes on Saturdays, so we can start the week with a clean house. Then I can be Mrs. Patmore on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Or maybe I’ll be Mrs. Hughes in the mornings while the big kids do their independent schoolwork and be Mrs. Patmore from 3:00 – 5:00 in the afternoon. But then I can’t be Anna or Tom or Mr. Carson, too.

Or maybe…just MAYBE…I’ll be Lady Mary Crawly and I’ll put on my fancy clothes and I’ll go out to dinner.

Even better? Maybe I’ll be the Dowager Countess and sit in my favorite room with tea and scones and read a BOOK if I wanna!!!

(Okay, you’re right. There’s only ONE Dowager Countess. Forgive me for trying.)

Obviously, I could go on and on with this crazy string of mathematics, but you get the point.

How about we stop trying to be Downton-Abbey-in-the-flesh and simplify things a bit?

How about we work hard at whatever it is that we set our minds to, give it our very best, love the people we’re doing it for, commit the whole lot of it to our Creator, and then…

well, RELAX.

Mistress of the manor, why in the world would you shame yourself for the Mrs. Patmore meal that your friend just described cooking on Facebook??

You’ve been Mrs. Hughes-ing it all. day. long.

Dear lady, how could you possibly feel like a loser to come home to a messy house today? You got a houseful of kiddos ready and chauffered them around from morning till evening! And brought groceries home, to boot!

So here’s what I think you should do, and this is a gentle, Mrs. Hughes-esque order. (Because, really, why would ANYBODY, in their right mind, argue with Mrs. Hughes?)

You’re going to stop pretending like it is possible to be an entire household staff all day, every day. You’re going to put in your hours as one who is working for the Lord, and at the end of a long day, you’re going to focus on what you’ve DONE rather than what you HAVEN’T done and you’re going to feel good that, though things will never be as sparklingly perfect and well-run as Downton, you do a pretty bang-up job at manning the upstairs and the downstairs of your own personal estate.

And then, just for kicks, you’re going to fix yourself a treat, you’re going to set yourself down, you’re going to put up your feet, and you’re going to enjoy a couple of hours of mindless television.

May I kindly recommend PBS?

Sunday, 9:00 p.m., Eastern time.

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Thanks for reading!

Special thanks to the blog Austenprose for helping me get my Downton titles right: A Downton Abbey Etiquette Primer: How to greet the Earl of Grantham and other British forms of address

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The Dollhouse Effect

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I was tidying up the playroom at my mom’s house and had sat down for a minute in front of her giant three-story-plus-an-attic dollhouse to put the furniture back where it belonged and straighten up the mess.

“How ironically funny,” I thought to myself. “This is basically what I do all day, every day, but on a teensy-tiny miniature scale…”

Put the chairs back in place. Straighten up the slipcovers. Gather up all the tiny bits and pieces and put them in bins or buckets or baskets. Move the porch swing out of the master bathroom and put it back on the porch…

just kidding. That last thing only happened in the dollhouse and has never taken place in my actual house. Yet. 

But, you know what I was really struck by as I sat on my bottom in front of that precious particle-board construction?

If I’m being completely honest, sometimes I can flip this dollhouse anaIogy around, treating my homemaking duties just like I’m a silly little girl arranging her toys.

Meaning, everything must be in its place and look a very certain way or I will go to bed that night concluding that I am a failure on the housekeeping front. And, sometimes, on my most controlling days, after I deep-clean and tidy everything up “just so”, I will have this desperate urge for us all to just leave the house until bedtime so we won’t mess it up again!

“Let’s go drive around, kids,” I’ll be tempted to say. “We’ll, you know, go…look at stuff?…until it maybe gets dark outside?… and then we’ll order take-out and eat it in the car before going home and going STRAIGHT to bed. Yay! Fun times! Family togetherness!”

All because I have arranged my dollhouse how I want it and I don’t want anyone else to play with it for the rest of the day. 

Now, I don’t know if this is a natural inclination that women have wrestled with for centuries, or if it is a new issue that we have picked up in the age of catalogues, television and, oh yes, you KNOW I’m going to say it, Pinterest, but it really does cause a girl to wonder…

When did we start seeing our homes as dollhouses?

When did the roofs we live under become anything other than a shelter to keep us warm and dry and safe from the outside world?

Did Father Abraham’s wife, Sarah (who ALSO had many sons), get bent out of shape when her tent was messy? Did she stay up late arranging her silk, tasseled floor pillows and dreaming of a day when no one would sit on them and smush them out of shape? Did she think her tent looked its very best when it resembled a showcase tent, or a tent-hotel that no one had checked into yet?

And when it boils down to it, is this a neatfreak issue or a “keeping up with the Jones’s” issue or a materialism issue?…

You know, I honestly don’t know the answers to those questions, but I DO know this. Regardless of its origins or motivation, the dollhouse effect feels so very wrong.

It is one thing to express creativity in our homes and work hard to produce a place of beauty to please our eyes, but we can get so weird about it.

For example, while knowing it isn’t true that houses really look like the ones we see on television, we fight for such a house, anyway. And even though it is obvious to us that the dwellings we admire in magazines are nothing but gussied-up dollhouses that have been “staged” for a photo shoot, we continue to compare our homes to them, allowing a needless root of discontentment to spring up in our hearts at how miserably our own castle holds up.

And before you know it, we’ve gone and modeled every room in our home after houses that somebody else told us we should have…

There should be five perfectly fluffed pillows on the couch and a basket of neatly folded throw blankets nearby, and there should be shoe cubbies that keep all of our footwear organized, and the dining table should be gleaming and featuring some sort of gigantic seasonal centerpiece, and the sink should be glistening with nary a dish in sight, and the laundry baskets should be completely empty, and all the clothes in the closets should be organized by color, and there should be a line-up of bright, shiny rainboots at the backdoor, and the toys in the playroom should all be in labeled bins, and there should be three blankets of varying textures and prints layered on the master bed (along with a gazillion shams and throw pillows artfully arranged at the headboard), and the bathroom should be completely untouched with a shelf boasting a giant glass canister of bath salts that we never use because they make the bathtub feel icky and gooey and another canister holding twenty bars of soap, and oh!, then another one filled to the brim with those natural-looking sponges that look so darn pretty in a jar (even though no one in our family uses sponges!), and…

and…

and in the midst of all this stagery, I think we can somehow forget what the purpose of a house is.

To LIVE in, you dummy.

(Sorry, I was talking to myself there, but feel free to include yourself if it applies).

And all the stuff that is inside a house is supposed to make the living more enjoyable and/or comfortable, not become the source of our insanity and stress.

Now, before I go on, I have to assure you that I am not advocating laziness or carelessness, nor am I bashing home decorating and organizing; I deeply value hard work and I love beauty and I crave order and I believe in taking good care of our things and I want to continually teach my kids to respect their loved ones by helping and doing their part around the home.

But I also never, ever want to forget that my family does not live in dollhouse.

We live in a people house, and we’re kind of supposed to live here. And if houses are for living in, then…

couches, by golly, are for sitting on.

Pillows are for smushing up into a ball to make the small of our back feel more comfortable on the couch.

Throw blankets are for unfolding and curling up in.

Dishes are for eating spaghetti on.

Napkins – even the cloth ones! – are meant for wiping our messy spaghetti mouths on.

Tables are for catching the extra spaghetti that falls off of our plate.

Floors are for walking on (and catching the spaghetti that fell off the table).

Beds are for sleeping in.

Laundry hampers exist to hold dirty clothes; no dirty clothes in the world? No laundry hampers.

Bathrooms were created to be the epicenter wherein every manner of our dirtiness is purged and cleansed.

Closets are for hiding our piles of clothes.

Toys are for playing with!!!

And this precious lil’ white farmhouse we built five years ago and moved into with our budding family? This is our home, one that, for the love of Pete, I want to live in and let my family live in.

Which leads me to what I set out to write about today in the first place. With all these things in mind, by the grace of God, I am learning to see the difference between a lazy mess and a beautiful mess, a dollhouse and a real house. Lazy messes are sickening – they make your stomach turn because you know that you can do better and that your family deserves harder work than that.

But beautiful messes, once you learn to let go of that stinky quest for magazine-quality perfection, cause your heart to quicken inside of you as you realize that this…this!…is the reason you work hard as a homemaker in the first place, to give your family the room and the freedom to live.

Beautiful messes happen around good food and lively conversation.

They happen when siblings are taking a splashy bath together.

They happen over art supplies and blank canvases or an empty table and a couple of jars of Play-doh.

They happen over movies in the living room, throw blankets and pillows and popcorn all over the floor.

They happen in a room full of toys that inspire the imagination to soar, where dinosaurs can play with Calico Critters, even though they don’t match.

They happen in sandpiles and mud puddles and snow-covered yards.

They happen when all the decorative pillows are off the bed and families are cuddled up to sleep together.

They happen when we are living life with the ones we love.

And, sometimes, they happen over afternoon cookies and coffee, inspiring you to sit down and share what you’re learning about homemaking with the world.

Grandmother (or “Mother Bear”, as 3-year old Betsie has dubbed her) had come over for the afternoon, and the three of us had sprawled out in the schoolroom to enjoy a snack together. We talked. We laughed. We read books. We lounged. We made crumbs. We made spills. We lived!…

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It was beautiful.

And it reminded me that this is why I buy pretty decorations and sweep the floors and keep dishes clean and fluff the pillows and wipe off the table, not so our home can look like a dollhouse or the latest issue of the best home decorating magazine…

but that I might make room for the next beautiful mess.

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p.s. If it makes you feel any better about your life, this is what our shoe cubby looks like. I just don’t know where we’d put that one flip flop if we didn’t have it. I’m super glad we paid money for it.

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