Yesterday a homespun miracle happened: I cut our first artichoke. Artichoke plants take three years to bear fruit and the starts I put in the ground last April weren’t in good shape by this spring. One had died and the other was slug-eaten and sad looking. Another year, I told myself. If it lives. But now, only a few months later, the plant is flourishing and there are five artichokes on it. A perennial, it will bear fruit year after year. I was reminded of an article I once read encouraging gardeners to plant perennials in the fall. The plants use the cold months to establish roots and emerge hugely in the spring.
I had forgotten that there’s an alternative reality going on below ground-level where roots are growing deep and readying themselves for explosive growth, though the plant above shows no signs of vigor.
I feel like I’m living below-ground these days. I have stayed home with my two children for the past seven years. During this time, I’ve taught a few classes, tutored a few students, and written as much as I possibly could in stolen Saturday afternoons and pre-dawn mornings. But the bulk of my days have been spent changing diapers, playing bug bingo, and learning the lyrics of the Phineas and Ferb title sequence by heart. Not everyone needs to choose this path, but it was right for our family’s circumstances. I chose this. But as someone who orients around tasks and achievement, staying home has been intensely difficult at times. I feel held back from the many things I want to do creatively, professionally, and personally.
I remember a day, surrounded by piles of clean laundry to fold, feeling the utter futility of the task. These tiny socks will be covered in dirt in a day from now. This tee-shirt will have marinara stains in two. Like Sisyphus doomed for eternity to push a boulder uphill only to watch it roll back down and begin again, so felt my toil in motherhood: laundry without end, an unceasing procession of snacks ensuring the kitchen never stayed clean, and children whose parenting needs changed the moment I’d cracked the method that would reach them. I was stuck inside The Song that Never Ends.
I felt so deeply unseen. I was doing the hardest work of my life and no one could bear witness. My kids certainly weren’t my audience–they only noticed when I lost my patience or disciplined them (they thought) unfairly. My partner, despite his involvement and empathy, couldn’t fully see my struggle either. I would list all my daily accomplishments to him when he came home each night, but it was impossible to convey what a hard-won victory that empty sink had been. It sounded more like a request for absolution because three other things I was supposed to do that day never happened.
Modern motherhood can be intensely isolating. I try to counteract this. I invite mom friends over to spend the day together. My in-laws take my kids on outings all the time. And my husband is like the spokesman for involved fatherhood. But it doesn’t change the fact that we live in our separate homes and we have to actively reach out to others to include them in our daily lives. This is no tribal village where our livestock and the steam from our cook-pots spill into one another’s yards, and our children run in and out of every hut. In our highly individualized lives, we invite people in, or we venture out, but the boundaries remain intact, like our property lines and our personal bank accounts. We begin and end our days autonomous despite our best efforts at connection. Stay-at-home parents are constantly with their children, yet experience profound loneliness.
Surrounded by tiny rainbow leggings and superhero underpants, I felt like I was the only one who would see the value of my toil in that moment. I had been reading the book of Matthew around that time and a phrase floated back to me. Jesus was talking about people who gave to the needy, or fasted, or prayed—but did so loudly, announcing their good deeds with trumpets to get recognition. Jesus said to do these acts secretly, away from notice or praise. “And your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
This comforted me. It forced me to ask myself, “Who is my audience?” As a person of faith, it’s God, who calls me to love selflessly. My duty to people who can neither repay nor acknowledge my help is far greater than my need for recognition. In another way, my audience is myself. Because who I am becoming matters more than compensation for my labor. It is the compensation in fact.
Sometimes we’re in a season where we feel hidden. Unseen. But like the roots of a healthy plant, the unseen things can become this massive support system that becomes the hidden but necessary foundation for flourishing.
It’s so much easier to apply ourselves to things that bring accolade. But when we’re all leaves and no root, any hard wind or drought can destroy us. When we spend ourselves for recognition, we have nothing to revert back to in our character to know we are still enough when we don’t receive that attention. We cease to have a self beyond the opinions of others, so we are slayed by criticism and become a black hole of need for constant affirmation.
This is the temptation of seasons of sacrifice, like parenting young children, or starting up a company, or fighting hard to save a marriage, or being tied to a soulless job, or experiencing a tragic loss. We can either demand for all our hard work and sacrifice to be seen and so become a creature of resentment when it isn’t, or we can give anyway, believing the unseen things have a value beyond our imagining. That they matter in part because no one else sees them. They are transforming us into who we are meant to be. They are evidence of love that is willing to behold the beloved while freeing them from the demand for reciprocation. This is love that can change the world, change lives, change us. But it doesn’t work if we insist on being seen as a martyr for it.
I have a crazy-talented friend who has been slowly building her business as a new mom. She’s made a concerted effort to remain in a place of peace and not to bring soul-crushing striving into her ambitions. She and I talk often about the value of hidden things and slow growth. She remarked recently about her discovery of feng shui. One aspect of the practice divides a building into nine squares that represent various ideals. She joked about the irony that the square for fame and reputation in her current home is the closet space. She feels hidden right now, closeted, but she knows it’s just where she is meant to be, and she is leaning into this season where strength grows in secret places.
I’m going back to teaching this year. It’s a profession with immediate validation for me because I have the students for such a short time and can see the impact of our work together. I love teaching. It plays to my strengths and my natural proclivities. For a long time, the allure of that haunted me as I repeatedly chose to stay home with my kids instead of going back to work. Motherhood makes me feel inept and clumsy, impatient and uncreative. It exposes my own emotional insufficiencies and spiritual poverties. But as much as I believe that my showing up for my kids has been what they needed, the transformative work it is doing in me is what I have needed too.
I can’t pull up my roots to look at them or to show off their bulk. But I believe that this long season of hiddenness has forced all my energy into the deepening and strengthening of those roots. And when the season of outward growth comes, I will be ready to burst forth, knowing that the wealth in me is in the secret place where no criticism can take it from me, and no recognition can add to it. This is the place from which fruit will come this season and for many years to come.
J.M. Roddy is a freelance writer, a children’s author, and a pursuer of whole-hearted living.