“The life of the mind,” Miss Mason said, “is sustained upon ideas.” Ideas are more than just facts, in the same way that homemade lasagna is more than mac-n-cheese from a box. We work to find our children books that are so full of these ideas that they can be called living books -the best books. We feed our children’s minds on the best books that we can find.
But what about Mother?
Do we take as much care with the care and feeding of our own minds and hearts as we do with our children’s minds and hearts? What lessons does our treatment of our own learning send to our children, particularly our daughters? Are these lessons that we want to be teaching?
Mother must have time to herself. And we must not say ‘I cannot.’ Can any of us say till we have tried, not for one week, but for one whole year, day after day, that we ‘cannot’ get one half-hour
out of the twenty-four for ‘Mother Culture?’–one half-hour in which we can read, think, or ‘remember.’
-Charlotte Mason, The Parents’ Review, vol. 2 “Mother Culture”
We must feed ourselves while we feed our children.
I find it interesting that Miss Mason used the term “mother culture” to describe mom’s education. In sourdough bread making and cheese making a mother culture is a “start” that you use to get the process going. You use some, but keep the rest and add to it so that you’ll have a start the next time that you want to make bread or cheese. I have a sourdough start that I got years ago from my aunt. She got it from one of her girlfriends who had had it for 40 years, and her friend said that the start was descended from start that had been carried across the plains with the pioneers on their way to Utah. In that time, the start has probably been split and shared thousands of times, and probably baked into bread tens of thousands of times. The key to that longevity is constantly tending the “mother.” I think that this idea of a “mother culture” is an apt metaphor for what happens when a mother tends her own education. To consider the effect of our education as a “starter culture” across generations is humbling — and compelling.
I urge each of you young women to get all of the schooling you can get. You will need it for the world into which you will move.
-Gordon B. Hinckley, April Conference 1996, Stand True and Faithful
The tendency is to think of education as being formally acquired, measured, and certified in an institution, but this is not the only way to become educated. “Character”, David O. McKay tells us, “is the aim of true education, and science, history, and literature are but means used to accomplish the desired end.” When we are actively working to improve our own character, we are becoming more educated, and this can be done at home for us as well as for our children. Let us not fall into the trap of thinking that, while an elementary education can be done well at home, we must enter a university or other institution for continuing education for ourselves!
Fortunately, educating ourselves and our children can often be accomplished at the same time, and in complementary ways: the idea-rich books that feed our children feed us as well, as we read them aloud to younger children or the whole family, or when we preread them before our older children’s studies: the same literature that helps them to grow will work on our souls, too. This “counts”. When we make time to read the scriptures daily, and even to dive deep into topical or other study from time to time, then we are feeding our own minds. When we make learning a new language a family study, and we spend five minutes doing flashcards, we are feeding ourselves — and our growing skills support our children’s growing skills in the new language. If it’s not a flashcards kind of day, then when you put Frozen in for the 1383725953th time, switch the language: it comes with Spanish and French tracks on the standard disk. If that’s your language, then changing the language not only supports your study, but it also makes it less annoying when you are listening yet again. You do not have to always be actively paying attention to the media for there to be benefits: you are creating an immersive environment that will benefit everybody’s accent, and help you recognize new words when you meet them in your lessons. Ten minutes on that instrument you’ve been wanting to learn, only a couple of times a week, soon yields a growing repertoire of songs you can play. A few minutes working on our own memory work will go far to cure “mommy brain” — and it sets a great example, seeding the next generation with the ideas that will lead to continuing growth.
Not every day is going to be a day when you have the mental energy to read heavy, challenging books. But cultivating the habit of reading for yourself, even only a few minutes, will yield great results over time: small and simple things, done consistently, accomplish amazing feats. Five verses a day, 365 days a year, is many verses. In the same way, a small amount of reading or study, done consistently over time, adds up in wonderful ways.
The wisest woman I ever knew–the best wife, the best mother, the best mistress, the best friend–told me once, when I asked her how, with her weak health and many calls upon her time, she managed to read so much, “I always keep three books going–a stiff book, a moderately easy book, and a novel, and I always take up the one I feel fit for!” That is the secret; always have something “going” to grow by. If we mothers were all “growing” there would be less going astray among our boys, less separation in mind from our girls.
-Charlotte Mason, The Parents’ Review, vol. 2 “Mother Culture”
If we follow Miss Mason’s friend’s example, and have multiple books of varying difficulty going at once, then we can reach for the one that fits our day and our energy level, whether that means that we’re reading over a nursing baby’s head, prereading ahead of a middle school or high school student, or snatching a few minutes after bedtime for something that is purely our own interest: all of them are valuable. All of them feed our own mind and soul, and all of them can help us progress a little at a time over time. If we are “only” reading something easy that keeps us in the habit of reading, that is still worth doing: time not protected is soon filled with other things.
In bread making, if you neglect the start, the mother culture, it gets icky, and will eventually die — but for all that, it’s really remarkably resilient: when my daughter was born, she had a pneumothorax (basically a collapsed lung) for reasons that we never did figure out, and she spent 9 of her first 10 days in the NICU. When she finally was well enough to come home, she was on the NICU’s rigid feeding schedule: every two hours on the dot, around the clock. This took some time to normalize. Needless to say, sourdough bread was the last thing on my mind for quite some time, and my start sat on the counter for probably 3 months before I had brain space for it. It was pretty nasty. I threw nearly everything away, cultured it, and then threw that one away as well before it looked and smelled right and I felt good about baking with it again. It was work to bring it back, but it wasn’t irretrievable and neither are we. No matter how lost in “mommy-brain” we feel, we don’t have to stay there. Like I needed to get rid of the old start, we may need to drop old habits and bring new ways of thinking into our lives. But we are at least as resilient as a sourdough start; we can do this, and the Lord will help us to know what is most needed in our lives so that we can serve in our families and our circles.
DoriAnn Haskins is a wife and a mother of three. She has been using a Classical/Charlotte Mason approach to homeschooling for ~8 years, since her oldest started doing preschool. You can find her blogging at Baby Steps, where she primarily posts about homeschooling life, educational philosophy, and the Gospel.
*Painting is Charles West Copley’s “A Life Well-Spent” (1862)