After my last post, Amy raised some great questions around the practice of Sabbath. How do we do it, practically speaking, as busy parents? How can it become a relaxing rhythm in our week, rather than an additional source of stress? What works and what doesn’t?
For F and me, it has taken us a long time to get to a place where our weekends have become more relaxed, more restful, more sabbath-like. And we’re still on the road; we’re far from having it all figured out. But I think learning how to live the Sabbath well is important for all of us, not just parents.
As I dig through the research I’m doing on work and professions in today’s society, the literature – both secular and spiritual, both theological and sociological – is quick to warn of our dangerous trends towards overwork and under-rest. Employees are congratulated for not taking vacation time (“what a hard worker!”); boundaries between office and home have dissolved, thanks to the demands of portable technology; most people find it nearly impossible to unplug from work over holidays and getaways. When we don’t know how to practice leisure time, the rest of our lives inevitably suffer – our health, our family life, our spirituality – despite our desire to believe that harder work will only bring us greater comfort and happiness. So in many ways, professional and personal, I’m alarmed by the lack of healthy Sabbath practices in our culture today.
But even if we think that honoring the Sabbath is a good idea, it can be nearly impossible to know where and how to start. After all, in society at large, Sunday is just another day of the week: stores are open, people have to work, life continues as normal. Choosing to step outside of this norm is challenging and counter-cultural.
Here are some small ways that our family has started to practice Sabbath. Again, we’re no experts, but we want to get better at this, so we’re trying. I would love to hear others’ ideas and experiences around practicing Sabbath as a family, since I found myself inspired by a friend’s efforts to unplug on the weekends (check her thoughts out here, here, and here.)
1) Don’t work. Seriously. I know this is a tough temptation to resist. As someone who works from home and follows an untraditional schedule, I am often tempted to fit in a few hours on Sunday. But I’ve found that unless there is one day a week when I truly do nothing work-related, then work takes over and the days become an endless monotony. I work much better on Monday if I haven’t touched the laptop on Sunday; I feel rested, motivated, ready to jump back in. My mind is fresher and I don’t feel resentment towards the projects that keep me from family time. If I need to get ahead or make up time, I find do this during the week: sacrificing a little sleep to get up earlier to work is better than giving up a whole Sunday afternoon or evening.
So I don’t work on Sunday anymore. And F doesn’t either: if he has to bring home work, then we’ll work at the same time on Friday or Saturday (during S’s naptime or once he’s down for bed). I’ve found that working alongside my spouse is actually enjoyable, although it may be largely due to the fact that he does not care what musical soundtrack I concoct on i.tunes or Pan.dora to set the mood for working. I’ve found there is room for only one musical snob in a marriage, but I digress…
2) Don’t do all the house work. Seriously. Another tough one for yours truly. I used to use the weekends to catch up on all the housework that I couldn’t get done during the week. After too many Saturday evenings scrubbing the bathrooms, I finally admitted that this made weekends harried and frantic, not so restful and plenty stressful. So I am learning (slowly) to let routine housework go on the weekends in order to 1) spend Saturday tackling projects that never get done during Monday through Friday, and 2) celebrate Sunday in a real and restful way. It still grates on me to leave dirty dishes in the sink till Monday morning, and yet I’m also finding that it is freeing to say on Sundays, “I will not sweep or scrub today.” We do the bare minimum on Sunday to clean up after meals and take care of S, but we intentionally let some things slide so that Sunday is not spent in stressful clean-up mode, trying to get everything perfectly in order for the week ahead. That’s an impossible goal, and once I freed myself from it, I found that, ironically, Mondays weren’t much better whether we cleaned in a flurry on Sunday or not.
What has helped me significantly in regards to housework (and relates to point #3 below) is to divide up the housekeeping chores in a manageable way throughout the week. Perhaps this is an obvious approach to the type-A folks among us, but not being one, I am often very resistant to such schedules, preferring to fly by the seat of my parts rather than over-plan. But I quickly became overwhelmed by this slacker approach to housekeeping once S came along. So thanks to this blog which suggested this website, I was inspired to come up with my own (read: loose and flexible) schedule for cleaning during the week. Now F and I tackle one or two chores a day (admittedly I do a few more since I am at home more) and everything hangs together much better. This has helped to greatly reduce the stress formerly associated with Sunday pressure to get everything “done” for Monday; we’ve learned that we can get a lot done during a quick half hour or hour during weekday evenings, which frees up our Sunday for time together. Not doing housework on Sundays has also helped me to work on my temptation to keep a perfectly clean house – admittedly an impossible goal with a toddler underfoot, but one that I continue to feel pressured to live up to by some of the “perfect homemakers” I run into among the mothers I know. My call is to raise my child; my call is not to keep an immaculate house. I try to remember that.
3) Prepare for Sabbath the day before. We’ve learned that living our Saturdays well is the key to living our Sundays well. Once we had S, it quickly became apparent that the days of doing whatever we wanted with our weekends were over. We struggled with the shift to “who takes care of the baby on the weekends?” As his primary caregiver during the week, I automatically assumed that F should take over primary duties from Friday evening through Sunday. But much to my surprise, F also wanted to do other things with his weekend as well. (Go figure!) It took many months of bad moods by Saturday evening and frustrating conversations around who would watch S when to figure out that the current dynamic wasn’t working.
We finally came up with a healthier, happier alternative: rather than one of us “taking off” the whole day from caring for S, we now try to plan our Saturdays so that one of us is in charge of him during the morning and the other takes the afternoon. Or if one of us has an indoor project to work on and the other has outdoor tasks or errands to run, we coordinate who can stay home during naptime and who can take off. This doesn’t mean that we don’t spend any family time all together on Saturdays, but rather that we each know we can have some time to ourselves and our own projects. This requires some game-planning, lots of communication, and a willingness to compromise on each of our own agendas, but it has made for much happier and productive Saturdays round our house. And living Saturdays better has made for much better Sundays as well.
4) Get ordinary. I used to think that honoring the Sabbath was for holy people who prayed all day. I was not one of them; therefore, Sabbath was not for me. Then I started realizing that living the Sabbath well was not about spending hours in silent prayer. It was about giving the day to God through mindfulness and following a different rhythm for the rest of the week. I began to see how some of the ways we used to spend Sundays were in fact very sabbath-like, if I saw them in a new light. For example, F and I love to cook a big meal or two on Sunday. We’re often pressed for time during weekday evenings, so to alleviate the stress of throwing together dinner at the last minute, we try to cook a big pot of soup in the crock pot on Sunday afternoon, as well as another big dish (like lasagna or enchiladas) that will give us a few meals of leftovers to start the week. Once I came to appreciate this time spent together, talking as we cooked, laughing along to “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” on NPR, I realized that this was an essential part of our Sabbath practice as a family. Preparing food together is a meaningful Sunday activity, full of spiritual promise for reflecting on how fortunate we are to have an abundance of food at our table and loved ones with whom to share it.
So the ordinaryness of Sunday practices, when they are activities or pastimes we rarely get to enjoy during the week, can be an important part of Sabbath. Family walks. Catnaps. Baking. Quiet time for reading. Trips to the park. Meals with extended family. Phone calls to old friends. Sabbath practices are about the intentionality, the otherness, the mindfulness of being together in a different way from the busyness of the week.
5) Leave the house. Weekends can be a lovely time to relax at home. But we have found that part of our Sabbath time is best spent outside this space where so much of our day-to-day living takes place. Especially since S and I spend lots of time at home during the week (and I work primarily from home as well), it’s important for us to spend good chunks of time away on the weekend. This has become an important part of our Sabbath practice: getting out, going for a walk, spending time at the park, driving some place new. Obviously going to church is a central part of our Sabbath, and I have found that beyond the obvious fact that it helps us orient the day towards God, it also pulls us out of our home and into our community. Visiting with friends after Mass is a lovely part of our Sunday: we touch base, we hear about their lives, we share where we’re been. So even when the pre-Mass frenzy seems to run counter to the Sabbath peacefulness we seek, I’m always reminded that leaving the house and stepping into the wider world is an important part of Sunday for many reasons.
6) Let Sabbath spread. I firmly believe that F and I never would have been able to leave S for our recent getaway if we weren’t already in the habit of taking regular date nights. Yes, it’s hard to leave your child; yes, it requires lots of planning; yes, finding babysitters you can trust takes time, effort, and cold hard cash (though we are blessed with incredibly helpful families as well). But I have learned that all the work is worth it to have a few precious hours alone with my spouse, to reconnect, to catch up, and to just enjoy each other. We’ve worked hard to make these date nights a regular part of our family life and rhythm together – like a regular Sabbath – and without this habit, we could not have “crescendoed” (in F’s wise words) into the jubilee time of vacation we just enjoyed.
Once a practice (spiritual or otherwise) is established, it eventually infuses into the rest of your life. I have found that our efforts to live Sundays more mindfully have spread into the rest of my week as well. My yoga practice now feels like Sabbath time; my afternoon cup of tea has become a Sunday moment everyday. I truly believe that any small step you take towards living Sabbath – turning off the TV, setting aside the computer, getting outside to run around with your kids – will eventually trickle into the rest of your life in welcome ways. God’s grace works like that.
Jesus himself taught that we were made for the Sabbath, not the other way around (Mark 2:27). When we start to reorder our weeks and our lives according to this truth, surprising things start to happen…
I leave you with the wise words of Wendell Berry on the subject of Sabbath-keeping. Happy Sunday to you and yours.
The mind that comes to rest is tended
In ways that it cannot intend:
Is borne, preserved and comprehended
By what it cannot comprehend.
Your Sabbath, Lord, thus keeps us by
Your will, not ours. And it is fit
Our only choice should be to die
Into that rest, or out of it.
Sabbath Poems: 1979, II