On Work, Idleness, Sugar Snap Peas, and Family Pranks

I ran across this quote by Anna Garlin Spencer, a turn-of-the-century educator, which kept my mind busy as I worked in my garden this afternoon.  (And yes–doesn’t that sound lovely?  I planted sugar snap peas!)

Here it is:

“No book has yet been written in praise of a woman who let her husband and children starve or suffer while she invented even the most useful things, or wrote books, or expressed herself in art, or evolved philosophic systems.”

Here she is, Mrs. Spencer, herself, pondering.

Hmm.  I must say, this quote gives me pause.  To me, it’s interesting to note that Mrs. Spencer was not only an educator, but was also an author and was married to a minister, who early in life had health problems that led to his being an invalid.  Besides caring for her husband and family, Mrs. Spencer wrote books, and taught, and she was a leader in the women’s suffrage movement.

Mrs. Spencer did important things outside her home, and yet she still was outspoken in her opinion that a woman’s first obligation was still to care for her husband and children.

I have no difficulty in agreeing with the educator about the necessity of providing food and comfort for my family, before diving into creative pursuits. It would be easy enough for me, as an artist and a writer and a person who enjoys many creative things, to strain against this expectation, but the truth is, if I didn’t take care of feeding and comforting my family, who would?  I enjoy this role, truth is.  There’s really nothing more satisfying.  And (frankly) I enjoy the fact that there are many, many ways to exercise creativity in keeping my family warm and fed, and our home neat (ish) and cozy.

The spent the day yesterday with my little sisters, both whom have creativity oozing out of every pore, and also both who have families that tend to be just as hungry and needy as my own.  Both had a knitting project in hand to show off (I had none, but I determined–secretly–that the next time we got together, that I, also, would have a lovely knitting project in hand) and they talked about quilting projects they were working on, as well. My little sister Mollie directs her community theatre and is a fabric artist, and Anne makes lovely quilts and sews fantastic dolls.

Coincidentally, as I mulled over the quote above, I was out in my garden planting the first seeds of the season, and my 6-year-old Malachi was calling me from the garden gate, insisting that he really was hungry, and Amalia was calling from the house, reminding me that it was, indeed, nearly past lunchtime, and that if I hurried, the brownies would still be hot for me.

I am blessed.

Does the typical stay-at-home mom (not that I am typical, ahem, mind you) really have a choice, I wondered? The hungry bellies always rule. The dirty faces beg to be washed, the filthy clothes must be dealt with, and the feverish brows must be sponged, gently, mama, gently. I’ll meet some resistance, here, I’m sure, but paintings do not necessarily have to be painted, and music does not have to be made. Nobody insists that he’s starving for a new philosophic system.

Well, in theory.  I like to imagine that we creative types can become so much more efficient and smart about our domestic work, that we can get to the creative stuff before our eyes are crossed from tiredness.  Our modern appliances and helpmeets (the dishwasher, the crock-pot, the clothes washer and dryer, the computer) make this all possible, and I would guess that poor Mrs. Spencer, unless she had servants to do all the daily domestic chores, could only dream of having a couple hours in the middle of the day to paint a picture or write a story.

Honestly.  I have no excuse!  I don’t have to haul my own water, or scrub my family’s clothing on a washboard, or make my own candles to light my little soddy on the prairie.  I have it awfully good.

When I have a creative project on the back burner, I find that I work so much harder and so much faster on my “necessary” jobs caring for my family, so I can take a little time while the littlest, noisiest, hungriest ones nap, to write a little, or paint a little, or invent a most useful thing.

My chickens in their daily pursuit of the best morsels in the chicken yard.

My chickens in their daily pursuit of the best morsels in the chicken yard, from the scraps that I throw to them every morning.

But, back to the sugar snap peas. Here’s another reason, if you are a creative type, to dig your hands into the soil, so to speak, and work: for a few moments, especially if your children find themselves conveniently busy when you head out to your garden, or whatever, and so you are alone, your mind is usually free to wander.  This freedom, of course, can only improve your later creative efforts. As I dropped the seeds into the moist furrow, while my chickens watched me on the other side of the fence, it occurred to me that my mom, in her wisdom, did my brothers and sisters and me such a favor in teaching us how to work.

How else would we all have turned out so creative?

Idleness was not an option at our house. Mom employed a brilliant mothering technique which might, these days, be titled Behavioral Modification Through Mind-Numbingly Tedious Work, or BMTM-NTW.

No matter what the behavioral problem might have been (usually perpetrated, of course, by certain sibs and not by yours truly) it would be taken care of, instantly, by Mom’s finding us a job. There was no shortage of work to be done at our house. We had a big house, a big garden, and there were lots of us messing it all up.  The naughtiest kids got the most work training, I guess. I won’t go into who got the most jobs. (Those of you who know my sibs probably can already guess.)

Here I am with my sibs–Anne, Mark, Mollie, and Matt. See, don’t they look ornery?

Bickering? The parties involved had too much time on their hands. “Go clean your rooms, and don’t come down to supper until you’re done–take the vacuum with you, mind!”

Depressed about something? “You’re spending too much time thinking about yourself. Go weed the strawberry patch!”

Whining or constantly underfoot? “Obviously you don’t have enough to do! Here’s the grocery list: go do the shopping, and make it snappy, supper’s in an hour.”

You get the picture. Music practice was used in the same way, to modify behavior, and there was that added benefit of actually learning an instrument, if our behavior was particularly odious for long enough. Consequently, we all learned how to play one instrument pretty well, and several of us, (the naughtier ones) play at least two.

General contrariness? You just needed something constructive to do. “Go practice your piano for an hour. Make it an hour and a half. Now.”

I’m quite certain all this naughtiness-inspired industry by us kids contributed to the fact that our mother was a living legend in our hometown of Nelson, in the amount of things she got done every day.  Also, I have no doubt that it is what spawned the prank culture that we grew up in and, in fact, continue to live within today. When your hands are busy at menial tasks, after all, your brain has this tendency to wander, and to think up naughty things you can do to get the sibling who got you into this mess in the first place, back. Right? Surely our family is not the only one that operates this way.

Mark did more than his share of naughty things when he was a kid. He and I used to secretly squirrel away newspapers for weeks every spring, and then we’d shred them into black trash bags, and hide them until the night before April Fool’s Day.

That would be, I guess, April Fool’s Eve. Then, during the night, Mark would wake me up, and we’d very, very quietly dump them all on top of Anne, who would sleep soundly through the whole episode. That angry and bewildered wail in the morning emitting from Anne’s room was the most satisfying sound in the world, to me . . . and worth the consequences: extra chores after school.

You two have way too much time on your hands.  Go paint the house this instant, and don’t come in for supper until you’re finished.  And don’t forget the space under the eaves.”

Believe me; I still try to stay on my brother Mark’s good side. He is still a most sophisticated prankster, and utterly without fear.

I admire that, and it scares me.

12 thoughts on “On Work, Idleness, Sugar Snap Peas, and Family Pranks

  1. Regina Walker

    I love this post! My mom kept us busy, too. We had horses and sheep and goats and rabbits, cats and dogs, too. There were always chores to be done, and that was the first thing we would be sent to do if we were arguing, bored, annoying, or hiding in our rooms. Mom believed in keeping us busy, and I’ve learned so many things from that! We weren’t pranksters though, Mom never tolerated pranking well, and we didn’t want to be on her bad side! Thanks for sharing!!

    1. dramamamafive Post author

      It sounds like our mums had much in common, Regina! I understand why she employed these techniques–now!! 😉

    1. dramamamafive Post author

      Come visit us in Nebraska any time from December to March, and we’ll acquaint you with snow! My chickens don’t seem to mind the snow, as long as it’s not too deep. I always spread hay or straw on the snow so they can get their footing and of course their coop is nice and dry!

    1. dramamamafive Post author

      Haha! Yes, Chef, I do sleep with one eye open around April Fool’s Day, but it’s usually my children I’m watching for. They’re all very ornery. Don’t know where they get that from . . .

    1. dramamamafive Post author

      Well . . . I’m not sure about the “doing it all well” part, Alessa. SOME things I do well. I do not, in fact, EVER get my house as clean as I’d like it to be! Thanks so much for your kind words.

  2. Anita-Clare Field

    Brilliant. I am also quite the practical joker, so I appreciate this muchly. DO all Moms have these stock phrases in a book somewhere? I recognise many of them. Although I have to say quite ashamedly I was not that naughty as a kid, in fact quite the opposite. Boooo. My siblings on the other hand? *coughs* and hides under the bed till April 2nd.

    1. dramamamafive Post author

      haha! You’re just like me, Anita-Clare, always the innocent party in a family or ornery creatives. *coughs*

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