Wasting Time, or the Real Point of Life?

The other day I caught Lydia ripping papers out of our filing cabinet. As I sorted through them to put them away, I came across this, written two years ago. If you’re doing the math, that’s before I was ever pregnant. I’m still pondering this question . . .

canning tomatoes

A professor-friend of mine once told me that she and her husband—also a professor—had a euphemism for doing things that distracted them from their academic work. They called it “canning tomatoes.” “Canning tomatoes” could refer to any activity that kept them from doing their real work, whether it was weeding the flower bed, baking unnecessarily elaborate desserts, picking the dead leaves off the houseplants, whatever. All those things constituted distractions, wastes of time.

Years later, after having a child, she confided in me that she often despaired over the fact that parenting was keeping her from her real work: her writing.

Her cry of despair is not uncommon. This is how we’re taught to understand life: that we’re put on this planet to accomplish certain goals. We’re put here to publish books or solve big problems or discover cures or start important businesses. We’re put here to make an impact on the world. Anything that gets in the way of these tasks takes away from our purpose. Getting distracted with unimportant things like dusting the bookshelves or baking muffins or trimming the hedges is one of the great hurdles to fulfilling our purposes. And we’re always getting distracted.

When I told my professors (different ones from the friends I just mentioned), near the end of my Master’s degree, that I was not going on to do my PhD but instead planned to be a mother, I could sense their disappointment. What a shame, they said with their looks. A bright student like you. You could have been so successful as a scholar. You could have done great things. What a waste of talent, education and potential.

And I can’t blame them. I feel all the time that that’s true. Cleaning my windows and cooking complicated dinners and having lunch dates with my friends are holding me back from my real purpose.

Sure, all of these things are much more satisfying, good for my health, and great for fighting off depression, but they keep me from doing my real work, the important stuff: writing for publication. Advancing my career.

But lately I’m wondering if our real purpose isn’t to “can tomatoes,” so to speak. I’m wondering if we’re not put on this earth to plant gardens and sweep floors and read stories to children. I’m wondering if our careers aren’t getting in the way of our real lives more than the other way around.

Maybe, at the end of our lives when we sit down with God, and we tell him, “I wrote a book that was read by millions, and influenced people’s thinking on the subject for decades;” or “I was a CEO for a large company — I led thousands of people in a very successful enterprise;” or even “I found a cure for cystic fibrosis;” God will kind of look at us and go, “OK.” And then he will look at us more sternly and say, “OK, sure, you did all that. But you hardly made any time for your daughter, often letting the TV do your parenting while you pursued your career. And you took shoddy care of the body I gave you. And you didn’t watch a single sunset that I sent you, and never reveled in the pleasure of a well-baked loaf of bread or a tidily-swept floor. What were you so busy doing that you missed out on all the important stuff?”

He’ll probably say it nicer than that, being God and all, but you get my point. Maybe from God’s point of view, we’re missing the point of life entirely.

Lately I’m wondering if the real living isn’t in the long phone calls with your brother, the birthday parties, the made-from-scratch breakfasts, the moments spent staring out the window, watching the squirrel on the roof of your shed. I’m wondering if all the projects and career goals are the distractions.

I could sense that my professors thought that it would be a waste of my highly-trained, analytical, linguistically-adept brain to spend my time breastfeeding babies and hand-grinding wheat for homemade bread. But lately, I wonder if it’s the other way around. Maybe, by going on to be a full-time scholar, I’d be wasting my nurturing, feminine soul, my God-given compassion and healthy young uterus, writing useless academic papers that would only encourage other perfectly good bodies to write more academic papers. Don’t my fertile body and sensitive nature run the risk being tragically wasted, too?

Since leaving university just over a year ago, I feel as though I have discovered life. I have discovered that I have a body. I mow lawns and make blueberry pies and practice yoga instead of writing essays. And it feels real for once, and meaningful.

I’m wondering if I’m only now getting to the important stuff.

What do you think?

Photo courtesy of devlyn.
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  1. I used to think like your professors, too and had the same epiphany. Of course there are some people who are really made to do all those amazing things, and some of them are made to have families at the same time, but there can be real beauty in a normal, simple life for many of us and we shouldn’t feel as if we aren’t accomplishing equally great things.
    Molly Makes Do recently posted..Great Girls Your Daughter Should KnowMy Profile

  2. Thank you! Just thank you! :)

  3. This is a great perspective, Kathleen! When in grad school, I did plenty of “canning tomatoes”, or jams or anything but the work at hand. And this first year and a half of parenting, my identity and definitions of success radically shifting under my feet,I sympathise with your professor who felt distracted from her work. But you are exactly right: we cannot fall into a gnosticism that wastes the wonderful bodies God has given us. No matter how “inconvenient” or “inefficinent” or anything else our bodies are (even how our fertility/infertility determines us) they are a precious gift.

  4. I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE this post! I seriously want to print it and frame it because I think it is so meaningful! I truly believe it is important to evaluate what really matters most in life, like the time we spend with family and friends. I think it can be easy for us people with our inherent human nature to become depressed and anxious about not achieving the “big” things in life…but the conversation with God in this post totally puts it all into perspective and leaves you with a feeling of peace :) Did I say how much I LOVE this post?!!!! :)

  5. My girlfriends in college called it being “life productive.” (We’re so obsessed with productivity, aren’t we?!) I really liked that, because it made you remember that even though you weren’t being school-productive or work-productive or whatever, you were still doing things that were important. And now I’d classify pretty much everything I do in a given day as “life productive” :)

    Anyway, I like this pondering. It makes me think of our vocations – what is our calling in life? For example, if you asked my husband he would say his primary vocation is to be a husband and father and Christian, and being a scientist is his secondary vocation. All things he’s called to do, and needs to balance, but lucky for me he knows how to prioritize!

  6. This post was a blessing to me. I am almost done with a masters degree and I have found myself longing for fulfillment as a wife and mother and child of god. I had already made my choice to stop my career with a masters, but it was so affirming to hear this from someone who has already done it.

  7. “Don’t my fertile body and sensitive nature run the risk being tragically wasted, too?”

    Yes. This really resonates with me. *This* is the question that rattles me right now, being a graduate student myself trying to hurry my program along so I can become a mother sooner, and being married to a doctoral student whose program makes us live thousands of miles from our families. I’m not ready to abandon our career-related pursuits prematurely, because I see their value, but I do worry sometimes that these career activities *are* actually getting in the way of real living. Thanks for the post.

  8. Thank you for this post. I am a new reader…found your blog after doing some Google searching when a Mennonite family I recently met awakened in me a desire that has been brewing for a long time to simplify my life. In this post you said exactly the thoughts that have been percolating in my soul for quite some time. Over the years since I became a mother, I have slowly worked myself towards being home and present with my family more and more – now working on being healthier in what we do, consume, use, etc. And I love it. It isn’t without it’s challenges, and it certainly doesn’t bring the accolades and esteem that my previous career did, but I believe that if I made all sorts of strides in a career but failed to properly teach my children, nurture them, and grow them into kind, loving and helpful adults, then I would have failed my purpose in life. I know my focus is changing to support an alternative mindset, a different view – as you shared in this post. Thanks again – I’ll be bookmarking this one to read again and again when my own resolve falters.
    Holly recently posted..The year Mami became (more) weird…My Profile

  9. Thank you for this post. Beautiful thoughts.

  10. I love this post! maybe my all time favorite. I have had similar thoughts swirling in my head and this was the biggest transition for me when deciding to NOT work outside the home right now (although I realize that was entirely not the point of this post). the way I came up with it is that so much of my life has been DOING for doing’s sake, whereas now I’ve realized that BEING is doing in and of itself. these things have infinite value, how you treat others and what you make time for as we’re on this journey of life. when our neighbor met our child for the first time, she confessed that she never got around to that part of life, and I had so much respect for her. she was and is a civil rights lawyer and activist and made great differences in our city/nation by the hard work she did, that she sacrificed having a family for. and I respected her even more for it, that instead of just trying to squeeze a marriage and family in there as something to check off the list, she knew her life’s passions and work well enough to make that the priority. I guess that’s another angle to consider and I really respect people who make their career their focus and purposely do NOT have a family, since the world needs cancer beat and things invented as well.
    Anyway, great thoughts!
    Alison recently posted..Holy Family Support GroupMy Profile

  11. This is something that has been on my mind a lot as well. I don’t have a fertile body. We started trying not long after my 22nd birthday and I’m about to turn 26 soon, still childless. As sad and hurtful as it is to watch some of my friends announcing or having their second child now, it is almost more painful to hear women tell me that they have plenty of time to have kids when they are in their 30’s. I know this may be true for some of them, but knowing the infertility statistics for the modern American woman and my own personal experience, I know at least a few of them will find out they missed their only chance.

    I also told a few of my friends what your professor friend had said about being a parent and they were all upset and a few started crying. They all felt like that was the most horrible thing a person could ever say about being a mother. While I do get your friend’s point and I know that many mothers feel like that, I think my mom said it the best, “There is nothing more important that raising another human being.” Knowing that my chances of ever getting that opportunity are next to none, I am on the other side of things. I have had to struggle with the feeling that my life has no value because I can’t be a mother no matter what other good I do with my life.
    Joslyn recently posted..No Poo Method – One Month UpdateMy Profile

    • Oh Joslyn — I’m so sorry about what you’ve had to go through with infertility. I know a little what it’s like, having endured two years of it (which at the time seemed like an eternity; now, feels like I was too quick to assume I’d never have a child). I know a little what it’s like to feel like my life wouldn’t be worth anything if I couldn’t be a mother. Nothing could be further from the truth; but when you ache for a child, it sure feels that way.

      I don’t have any wise words of comfort; I just want you to know that women struggling with infertility hold a special place in my heart. I want to give you a long hug and let you know that I’ll be saying a special prayer for you tonight.

  12. Beautifully written! I sometimes need to forcibly remind myself that it’s ok to slow down and enjoy the meaningful tasks in life which are truly fulfilling! I’ve always felt that there’s a pressure for people like stay at home moms to feel apologetic for their choice, and that’s just plain sad! Even though I understand mentally that it’s ok that I don’t have major career aspirations I still have trouble being assertive about that sometimes.
    Carolyn recently posted..Organized!!My Profile

  13. YES. This is oh so very convicting, as a person who has always found altogether too much of her self worth from her achievements. Recently, in a bout of frustration due to my lack of job (I got married four months ago and uprooted my life to be with my husband, who is in the Air Force. Careers for spouses are possible, but difficult) I complained to a friend, who told me that she personally wasn’t thriving in her career— but that she was thriving in her friendships, her spiritual walk, her mental/ physical/ emotional health, and her attitudes. Wow did that put things into perspective!

  14. Thank you for this. At this time I do work outside the home, and I routinely lament that it gets in the way of the stuff that is really important. I can only imagine this feeling will increase when (if) we can start a family. The lack of enthusiasm for my work is compounded by the fact that it is completely unrelated to my undergrad or graduate degrees – making both the work and the degrees feel like a waste of time. (Don’t get me wrong, I *loved* school. But the benefit of hindsight just makes me feel like I should have used that time toward a more productive course of study.) It is only though independent study that I have learned many of the skills that I now value most.
    Lily recently posted..Minimalism, Simplicity, and St*ffMy Profile

  15. This is a helpful reminder! I wonder if, in some ways, modern society hasn’t fully adjusted to our greater longevity. We feel that we have more time to fit in things like family and children, because we live longer, and don’t seem to grasp that our natural fertility doesn’t last any longer than in the past (I’ve seen a secular commentator remark that the biology of human evolution hasn’t caught up with our social evolution [to have children later]). Every era poses it’s own challenges/temptations, and you’ve highlighted one that besets this era. Even people who want to begin on the “important things,” people who would love to marry and have children young, may not be able to find a spouse who also wants to marry early.
    Anna M recently posted..Poem: Salty ValentineMy Profile

  16. I keep coming back to this post, wanting to say something, because it’s so important and struck such a chord with me, but I can’t quite find the words for what I want to say. I wanted to make sure you knew how much it resonated, though. Thanks, Kathleen. ^_^
    Katie recently posted..I am resolved.My Profile

  17. Both of my parents have a PhD. Both are professors. One is the head of the department that they teach. They have 4 children. 2 boys 2 girls. One of the girls went to Berkley. None of us children felt abandoned by our parents. There is a time and a place for everything. You can have both a PhD and Children. Don’t sell yourself short. Homey home making things are a wonderful way of avoiding burn out and provide a space to think out problems but remember that every second of a work day that a doctor is sweeping floors is a second of the work day that they are not saving lives. Balance is key.


  1. […] another article that confronts a major issue in our society, Kathleen asks the question: wasting time, or the real point of life? As someone who is frequently confronted with choosing between spending time with my son and […]

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