By Chris Little
One of the things I’ve loved about being a stay-home mom, and then a stay-home “off the merry-go-round” writer, is getting to stay home! I love it when the kids are shambling around the house doing their own thing, being a little loud and making a mess. And I love it when I’m home alone and the house is tidy and quiet (except for the washing machine, always the washing machine …).
That said, one of the things I’ve really struggled with as a stay-home mom and writer … is being home so much! It can be lonely, especially when the kids are off at school. Sometimes, I’ll admit, I wish I had a full-time job to go to, just so I’d have access to a water cooler to stand around and chat with coworkers! So when I’m alone a lot, I create my own water cooler—I force myself to have ten real live conversations a day with friends or extended family members—emails and texts don’t count!—as a way to reach out of my isolation. It never fails to make me feel better.
But every downside has an upside, right? I like to think that my bouts with this largely self-imposed solitude give me a greater appreciation for the people in my life. I mean: I don’t spend a lot of time wishing people would leave me alone! And I don’t typically crave the opportunity to get away by myself.
So this article by Emily Esfahani Smith in The Atlantic offered me some reassurance that I’m on the right track, as I lean less on my work and more on my family and friends for my happiness. Smith describes journalist Rod Dreher’s book, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life, in which he relates the life and untimely death of his sister Ruthie. Dreher contrasts Ruthie’s choice to work as a schoolteacher in the small Louisiana town where their family had lived for generations with his own decision to leave town to travel the world in an ambitious pursuit of career success.
As Dreher accompanied Ruthie through her struggle with terminal lung cancer, he came to appreciate the beauty of her network of friends: How her neighbors pulled together to take Ruthie to her doctor appointments and cook meals for her kids. How they raised money to help cover her medical bills. How they were there for her husband after her death. Ruthie’s life may have been small, even invisible, compared to Dreher’s comparative fame as a respected journalist. But her life was deeply, richly interconnected with the lives of the people around her. And she wasn’t the only one—Dreher saw that anchoring sense of connection to family, friends, and neighbors in everyone he talked with back home in Louisiana. It was something he was lacking in his own life—and he realized it was something he missed. Dreher and his wife eventually decided to move home to Louisiana with their three children.
I love this story—it’s a good antidote for those days when I question my decision to step away from a career-centered life. In her article Smith cites a study that finds that ambitious people, perhaps not surprisingly, tend to seek more education at more prestigious schools, and to make more money at more prestigious jobs, than less ambitious folks. But, she notes, the study fails to find a similarly clear correlation between career success and life satisfaction. In fact some studies suggest that the pursuit of money and social status can lead to a lower overall sense of well-being, she writes.
It seems that it’s not our careers but the strength and number of our social ties—those messy, compromise-ridden, sometimes-difficult relationships like marriage, family, and close friendships—that best predict our happiness, our satisfaction with our lives, even our physical health.
Now certainly, we can work full-time and have those rich relationships. Having a spouse or children aren’t prerequisites, either. The most important thing is probably the simplest one—just recognizing how deeply satisfying it feels to be held in a web of relationships. To have those ten conversations (or more!) each day. After that, placing a priority on sustaining and enriching those ties comes naturally.
So how about you? How do you feel most connected with your family? With your friends and neighbors? Do you find that you intentionally create opportunities for those connections? Or do you struggle to find the time and energy?
News flash: This week National Public Radio ran a fascinating segment on Rod Dreher discussing his sister Ruthie, their home town’s practice of community, and his new book. You can listen to it here.