Motherhood Mantras: The Harder Thing is the Easier Thing

This post is an encore to the series – “Motherhood Mantras.” To read more about the series, and the full list of writers, click here.

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 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 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 simply 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.

20120607-102749.jpgMaryAnn McKibben Dana is a writer and pastor in the greater Washington DC area, where she serves Idylwood Presbyterian Church, a small and growing congregation. She is the author of Sabbath in the Suburbs: A Family’s Experiment with Holy Time, coming this fall and available for preorder at Chalice Press and Amazon. She is married to Robert Dana and her three astronauts are 9, 6 and 4.

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