Saturday, June 27, 2009

"Intellectual Health--What's That?"

This spring, I was a participant in a Ministry of Mothers Sharing (MOMS) group at my parish. During one session, we spent some time reflecting on our health, as mothers, in various aspects of our life: spiritual, social, physical, etc. When we got to the topic of intellectual health and growht, one of my friends broke into a characteristic grin and laughed, "Intellectual health--I can't even remember what that is!"

How true it is that sometimes we mothers of young children, whether we stay at home or are employed outside the home, neglect our intellects. I have said before that I think lifelong education is vital for a woman, no matter her sphere or stage in life, but for a stay-at-home mother it has particular importance: a mother in the home is the primary educator of her young children. If she homeschools, this role takes on an even more profound character. Even when children are school-aged, they will glean from their parents an attitude about education: is it something relegated to the walls of a classroom that can be abandoned once they earn a degree, or is it something that is valuable at any stage of life--something their parents still pursue for their own benefit and enjoyment?

I'm not talking about taking classes, necessarily, though of course structured education has its definite place in the scheme of things and can be very valuable, provided one has the time, money, and inclination to pursue it. The sort of education I am refering to can easily be gained outside of classroom walls. I'm talking about being a student of life--thirsting for knowledge and seeking it at every turn. In this sense, we can all be lifelong students, even without much money, even from within our own homes, yes even with young children!

My intellectual health is very important to my overall health. I notice very quickly if I've let this area of my life slide. My emotional health, social health, and all the rest of it seem to landslide if I'm not intellectually stimulated. Apart from purchasing a few books a year, I don't spend any money on these pursuits. I also have a busy toddler and a newborn who take up much of my time. So, how do I still find time to feed my brain?

Reading! Perhaps it's because I'm the daughter of a librarian who would toss me a volume of Dickens' whenever the fateful words, "I'm bored" escaped my lips; I don't know. All I know is that if I don't have at least two books going at once, something is dreadfully wrong. When I was pregnant with my daughter, I had countless women tell me, "Enjoy it now; you won't be able to read a book again for years." Within the first month of my daughter's life, I had read three books. For the past two years since her birth, I have never had any trouble reading at least fifty books per year. Reading and being a mother of young children are not necessarily diametrically opposed! Here are some tips for maintaining a healthy reading habit while mothering young ones:
  • Read to them! Read them quality literature, not just "Spot" or some "Dora the Explorer" boardbook. Read them Grimms' Fairy Tales. Read them Caldecott Award winning picture books. Read them folktales and Aesops' fables. Read them the Bible--the real Bible, not just the water-down, cutesy kids' versions. Kids really do absorb so much more than we give them credit for if we'll present them with quality materials. And, we grown-ups can glean a lot from these classic works, as well.
  • Keep books in the bathroom. You know that one haven you have during the day when you can shut the door for five minutes and get away from it all...provided your two-year-old isn't acting like a human battering ram to get in to you. We have a basket of books in our bathroom at all times. I particularly like to keep volumes of poetry or devotional books there; this way, I can read short excerpts and not feel like I've been interrupted when I have to dash out again because I hear a little someone shouting from the other room.
  • Keep two or three books going at all times. I recommend at least a novel and a work of non-fiction. Personally, I usually keep something "light" on hand, as well--perhaps an easy-going novel or a fun, short book on crafts, a cookbook, or something else that doesn't take much effort. This way, you have something available for the various "reading moods" that might strike you and you never find yourself saying, "Well, I started such-and-such, but I'm just not in the mood to read that tonight."
  • Multitask. If I have to stir something for awhile on the stove, I keep a book open on the counter while I'm cooking. If I'm having my lunch alone while the kids are napping, I read at the table; books can be very fine dinner companions. I often read while I'm nursing my son. I will add a proviso, though, not to try multitasking with a book while your children need you. To really enjoy a book, you should be able to give it some real attention--but your children need and deserve your attention much more. I know it's hard to play Pat-a-Cake one more time when a thrilling chapter is calling to you. Just keep intoning: The years are short. Someday you will have plenty of quiet time to read to your heart's content.
Power in Numbers. Join a book club, a society for some hobby or pursuit that interests you (gardening, for example), or simply gather a group of friends on a regular basis to talk politics if that's your cup of tea. Sometimes we mothers really need to spend time with other adults who can get our intellectual juices flowing and keep us accountable to our own intellectual well-being. It doesn't have to be a huge time commitment; after all, what mother of little ones has the time or energy to be going out several nights a week? But, it does kill two birds with one stone: you get an intellectual jolt and a chance to socialize. I have a book club I meet with once a month, it's only for a few hours one evening a month, after Sophia is in bed. Brian gets a nice quiet evening to pursue his own hobbies and I come back refreshed and more able to devote myself more completely to my family. It is worth mentioning that finding the right group can be a bit tricky. Not only do you want to be in the company of those you enjoy spending time with, you want to make sure the group is neither too demanding nor too lax, that the other members of the group are as committed as you would wish to be, and that you are on the same intellectual plane as the other members of the group; otherwise, you will likely end up frustrated and cease going.
Self-Study. Start a list of some things you would like to learn. Add to it as other subjects peek your interest. Have you always wanted to learn the correct method of braising? What about studying the various species of birds in your area? Have you always wanted to read the Complete Works of Shakespeare? Or Tolstoy? Maybe you'd like to go back and study the Civil War now that you're over the age of fourteen and think you might have a better appreciation for it. What the heck--my husband takes out books on mathematical theory to stimulate his mind! (To each his own, eh?) Don't fall into the trap of thinking that just because you don't go to a classroom everyday and haven't got a teacher to lecture you that these doors of knowledge are forever closed. Do what our forefathers and -mothers did: read about it! After all, that's what teachers did to get where they are. Books can be the best teachers of all. (Yeah, there's my librarian blood speaking again; I'm such a literary idealist.)
The Public Library is your best friend. Don't think you have to buy out Barnes & Noble in order to keep your mind healthy: just get a library card. Get familiar with your library system's website. Whereas your branch may not have a wealth of books you are interested in (mine is nearly half full of rotten Harlequin romances--what does this say about the area I live in?), other branches in your system might be just up your alley. Many systems will allow you to put books on hold and transfer them to your branch free of charge. Some systems charge a small fee, or you can find out which branch has them available, place them on hold there, and pick them up for free when they come in. Many systems' websites will even email you to let you know when a hold is in or when your book is coming due, which can save you a bundle on late fees if you're as absent-minded as my husband and I are about things like library due dates.
Get the news. Can't afford the daily paper--or maybe the one in your area isn't particularly well-written or -edited? Don't want to watch the news at the dinner table? Just pop online and you can puruse the news at your leisure. You also have the freedom to get your news from sources that you might not be able to get in print. I'm personally a huge fan of the BBC for my news.
Consider it an investment. Do not underestimate the importance of intellectual health. While going for a couple of years without reading anything more stimulating than the nutrition on the back of a Cheerios box isn't going to send you to an early grave, it very well might compromise your health and overall well-being in the long run and even in the short term. You might find that your mental and emotional health benefits dramatically from a little investment in the old intellect. In addition, keeping your mind sharp is your greatest combatant against dementia--one of the most devastating conditions one can suffer. It's an investment in your marriage if you can keep yourself as mentally alert as you were when you both first met. It's an investment in your children: you are setting them a good example to follow, if nothing else.
The season of life that is young motherhood is fleeting and full--sometimes we don't feel like we could possibly squeeze in one more thing. Perhaps this is the case with you, and perhaps you have no interest in intellectual pursuits; maybe you hate reading (the literary idealist in me shudders and hates to believe this is possible, but I know there are those who claim it to be so). I'm certainly not saying that everyone needs to be a frequent patron of the local library or that you will be a bad, unhealthy woman if you don't read every night before going to bed. Hardly. I simply wish to encourage those who, like myself, are aware that they require intellectual stimulaiton to be their best, that such stimulation is possible even when one is busy with the demands of mothering young children, and even when one is a stay-at-home wife and mother. Where there's a will, there's a way.


  1. All very good advice. Like you, I have always found time to read. And I understand that people who continue to "stretch" their brains all their lives stay mentally healthy well into their old age.

  2. What more can I add, other than I am so very proud. And, once again, I am in awe. I have no children to care for and only an apartment to clean, but I think you read more books than I do! I have such joy knowing I raised a reader, I raised a life-long learner! It doesn't get much better...

  3. This is a great post. I have really enjoyed catching up on reading the classics I missed out on when I was younger. I almost always find time to read. It does get a little harder with more kids, homeschooling, and all that entails, but at the very least I am reading quality literature and history to my kids every day. I truly have learned so much from our homeschooling books alone!
    I was just looking at your book list, and I plan to jot down some of your suggestions to hunt for at the library the next time we go! I just finished reading My Antonia a few days ago. I agree with your four star rating!

  4. I really appreciate this post. Though I'm not yet a mom, I really feel strongly about the importance of adult companionship. I have a good friend who is a work-at-home mother of a one-year-old boy. While she loves her child dearly, she is smart enough to realize that every now and then, she needs some adult conversation with another woman. We try to make a date for coffee, antiquing, or fabric buying at least once a month. She often comments that occasional outings with other adults help her stay upbeat, which in turn makes her a better, more positive mother.

  5. Thanks for the reminder on this, Bethany, it's amazing how easy it is to neglect ourselves. One of the best things we did for me in this area shortly after the birth of our daughter was buy a Kindle - you can easily hold it with one hand while nursing or with a baby napping on you, it fits perfectly into most any diaper bag, and you can access tons of titles for free directly from the Kindle. (I'm not trying to bash the library, and I'm not trying to sound like a salesman I swear. It just really has been a life/mindsaver for me! I really don't think I would be reading without it.)

  6. The student in me longs to do this, but I'm too darn lazy. Many universities offer open courseware to people interested in learning without gaining college credit.... so it's free!

    There's several others too. As a former librarian, I came across an article in Time or Newsweek that talked about the different places to find these courses.


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