Parenting Article: Zen and the Art of Household Maintenance


“Do you work, or do you just stay at home?”


I have been asked this question—phrased just this way—no less than one hundred times since the birth of my first child six years ago.  My reaction to this question depends upon any number of factors including, but not limited to, how much sleep I was able to get the night before, whether or not I was able to shower and brush my teeth before the time the question was posed, the decibel level of screams from my toddler or urgent demands for play-doh from my three year old, or whether or not I had been able to eat since the previous night’s dinner. 

Generally a polite smile through gritted teeth and “Yes, I just stay home” is my response.  Thankfully, I am not dependent upon others’ views of stay-at-home parents to know that the multitudes of us who choose this path are in fact very present in the work force and on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

It is because this job is so demanding around the clock that many of us burn out and become frazzled easily—but finding the peace and meaning in the middle of the chaos is not as difficult as one might imagine.  Keeping in mind and practicing some of the simple tenets of Buddhism have helped me through any number of otherwise trying situations, and have helped transform the seemingly endless, mindless, ceaseless parade of tasks I once thought of as menial into tasks that are meaningful.


          Mindfulness is a meditative way of being wholly present in any given moment—thinking and reflecting upon a task while it is being performed.  As one of the guidelines of the Eightfold Path of Buddhism, ‘mindfulness’ stands out as a way to extract meaning from the mundane chores associated with keeping the home.

As Tara, stay-at-home mother of three kids ages 4, 2, and 1 points out, keeping an organized, clean home with three young children is a massive undertaking that often leaves one less than mentally stimulated.  The laundry, dishes, cooking, dressing, cleaning, and diapering recur in an endless cycle.  For Tara, living in the present moment helps her find meaning and even joy in household chores. 

Thinking of the good health of her body that allows her to carry heavy loads of laundry up and down stairs, the little chubby bodies that will fill the clean clothing she folds, and the happy stomachs from the food she prepares are just some of the reflections that leave Tara feeling fulfilled.  Looking at each task as a piece of providing a safe, clean environment for raising happy, healthy children makes them much more tolerable than thinking of the chores in isolation.  Gazing at the finally sleeping baby in the cozy, freshly-laundered jammies, after the warm, sudsy bath is great compensation for a long day of chores. 


          One of the Buddhist marks of existence is impermanence:  nothing will last, and all is subject to change. To illustrate this concept, Buddhist monks spend hours painstakingly creating intricate and beautiful sand mandalas to be literally swept away.

 As a mother of three young boys, I often find my nerves frayed until I remember that nothing is permanent.  It is sometimes hard to remember that this is true while nursing a one-month-old, growth-spurting baby for the eighth time in eight hours on the floor of the bathroom in a threadbare robe whose shoulder is crusted over with spit-up, while waiting for a potty training two-year-old to relieve himself for the sixth time in two hours.  But it is at these moments when the phrase “nothing is permanent” glimmers with the most beauty.

          When a young mother chasing a toddler slippery with sunscreen and sticky with peanut butter and jelly cheeks around a community pool asked Caroline, an older mother of two teenaged boys, if she was glad to be lounging with a book instead of constantly having to supervise a little one, Caroline replied that she would go back to the baby days in a heartbeat.  Instead of spending her nights pacing the halls holding a newborn who would only sleep in her arms in an upright position nuzzled against her chest, Caroline was pacing the halls as the minutes past curfew ticked by, wondering where her licensed drivers could possibly be.

          As our children grow they will need us less and less, and we will crave those moments when we had them close and dependent upon us. This is not to say that some measure of personal freedom, say—being able to go to the bathroom without an audience, or being able to hold an entire phone conversation without interruption—will not be cherished; but time attains a warp-speed quality once children enter a household. 

          So repeat over and over to yourself that “nothing is permanent” when all three of your kids are vomiting in the middle of the night, or your baby is teething, or the barking dog has woken up the child who you finally got to stay asleep in the crib after two hours of trying.  But also keep it in the back of your mind when your baby first sleeps through the night, or your finicky toddler has cleaned his plate, or your kids all want to pile into your bed for cartoons and tickle-fights on a Saturday morning.


          Finding a dark, silent room and sitting upright while chanting unusual sounds may not be everyone’s bag.  Who are we kidding anyway?  How many of us have a dark, silent room or the time to chant unusual sounds?  In our culture meditation, prayer, contemplation, or whatever one may do to think carefully and reflect, have to be grabbed on the go.

Karen, mother of two children ages 2 and 4, uses CDs in the car to meditate. Prayer CDs and Classical or New Age music help Karen find peace and balance in her otherwise hectic existence.  Her children also benefit from seeing their mother meditating, and have even taken to verbalizing their own intentions and prayerful thoughts. 

“It’s also helpful to be in the middle of a meditation CD while being cut off by bad drivers,” laughs Karen.  “It keeps the road rage to a minimum.”

Meditation brings tranquility to a tumultuous mind, and frees it from clutter and tedium.  When one returns from a productive exercise in meditation or prayer, one is better equipped to handle problems and situations that would normally cause stress. 

*        *        *

My son carefully stacks his blocks in a tower that reaches his nose, his mouth whispering the colors of the blocks as he builds.  He surveys the tower, his eyes sparkle, he pulls his arm back, and he destroys the tower with a single blow—spilling the blocks over the room in a maelstrom.  He surveys the scene with a look of complete satisfaction. 

Mindfulness, impermanence, meditation.




One thought on “Parenting Article: Zen and the Art of Household Maintenance

  1. Tracy H says:

    I added some Buddhism for Mom books to my Amazon wish list a few weeks ago! Hopefully, I get some for x-mas. Great post!

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