Museum life

August 15, 2012 | 43 comments

Back in July of 2006 I wrote a post marveling at a family friend who always managed to be cheerful and loving, even though she worked five times as hard as I did and had significant problems in her life. I didn’t have a take in the post; I just relayed the story, and promised at the end that I would write a Part 2 with further thoughts. I have never forgotten that I didn’t write that second post. By Grabthar’s Hammer, when I say that I will write a follow-up to a post, I SHALL DO IT!

…Sometimes it just takes me six years to get to it.

I was reminded of this subject last weekend when my husband and the four oldest kids took a weekend trip to visit his dad. The baby spent quite a bit of time visiting her grandmothers, and so I basically had the house to myself.

When they first pulled out of the driveway, I walked through the empty kitchen, the quiet living room, and took in the situation. This was the setup I had spent so much of my life yearning for: No commitments! No noise! No obligations! Just me in an empty house, free to do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted to do it. It was everything I dreamed it could be…for about two hours. And then it got kind of lame.

Back when I wrote that first post, this was still my ideal setup. I thought that a perfect life would mean having perfect autonomy. I loved my child and was glad to be a mother, of course, but I saw the work that came with it as a downside to be avoided as much as possible. As I said back then, I was acutely conscious of any effort I had to put forth, and the harder I had to work, the less happy I became. I fought and fought to resist any losses of freedom or control, making myself miserable in the process.

My husband calls that old ideal, the life of perfect ease and freedom, a “museum life.” It’s a good description. I didn’t think of it this way at the time, but I basically wanted to live in a museum: Everything in place, everything controlled, no noise, no chaos, nothing messy. Just a bunch of interesting stuff surrounding me that I could enjoy at my leisure.

But the thing about a museum is that everything in it is dead.

What I would eventually learn, that that friend of ours knew all along, is that a life lived to fullest will always involve service — and not just service like penciling in some volunteer work on your calendar, but melding your life with others on such an intimate level that you no longer have complete autonomy. Whom you serve may vary by your state in life (it may be family or your religious community or neighbors or a group of people in need), but whoever it is, if you’re doing it right, they will depend on you and you will depend on them to the extent that your life is no longer your own. When you think about it, it makes sense: Obviously there is no greater joy than unity with God, and we only need to look at a crucifix to see that the very essence of God is pouring out yourself for others.

On Sunday afternoon I heard the garage door open, and knew that my free time was over. An afternoon of toil was about to begin. Everyone would be tired and dirty and would need snacks and drinks and potty help and changes of clothes; the museum I’d had all weekend would be overrun by loud little people and transformed back into a crazy, chaotic home.

To be sure, it would be hard. I’d probably have to suppress the urge to scream “WHY CAN’T ANYTHING AROUND HERE EVER BE EASY?!?!?!” upon the second time I’d filled a drink only to have it spilled at the same time that someone knocked the tower of haphazardly stacked DVDs down behind the entertainment center. If my museum weekend meant experiencing pleasure on the surface but a dead hollowness underneath, this was the opposite: on the surface it’s sacrifice and challenges and the occasional feeling that I just might lose my mind, but underneath there is a glowing core of life-affirming joy. And as the kids came bursting through the door, tracking mud onto the carpet as they shouted, “Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!”, I was overcome with gratitude that I no longer lived in a museum.


  1. nicole

    Thanks for writing this. I keep longing for some quiet time, at home, alone. This reminds me that what I have is better for me.

  2. Monica

    This post made me cry. In a good way. I need this transformation…I know it in my head, but I’m banging that same head against the wall so hard I’m not allowing that knowledge to sink down into my heart and my hands. This is so so important. Thank you.

  3. Kim

    Beautiful, beautiful post. I’ve been thinking these very thoughts as my eldest child prepares to enter high school in a couple of months. I feel like time with my children is slipping through my fingers, and I can’t believe I used to get so upset at the “mess” in the house–soon enough, I’ll have a clean but empty nest . . . so I think I’ll enjoy the chaos that comes with the love while I’ve got it!

  4. Claire

    This brought tears to my eyes as well and really spoke to me today. Thank you.

  5. Jenny

    Just what I needed to read on this hard Wednesday afternoon. Thank God all these insanely needy people I live with exist. And thank you, Jen.

  6. Monica

    We’re currently packing to move. Tomorrow. We have four kids, one of whom is almost a year old. We had food poisoning issues with one of our kids earlier this week. The kind that makes me wonder why I’m being gotten by the Poop Fates — I have NEVER EVER laughed at anyone’s stories of poop running free in the house. We don’t live in a museum AT.ALL. But I have to say, houses that are like museums aren’t comfortable. I always wonder if I’m messing stuff up when I go to them. And I don’t ever want to live there.

    That said, when all of my non-museum pieces are in bed and asleep, I do enjoy that time!

  7. Cathy

    This almost made me tear up, too! I always enjoy (and need) those brief pockets of calm and quiet in my life, but I’m usually ready for the return of chaos. As my second oldest gets ready to go away to college this weekend, (oldest is a senior in college 7 hours away) and the “baby” of the family will be a sophomore in high school, I realize just how quiet life is going to be when they are all gone… ((sigh)) I’m sure it will make me appreciate the craziness of having them all home at the same time even more.

  8. MyFeminineMind

    Was this perfect or what? My kids have been camping with grandparents the last two days and are due back in a couple hours. I wasn’t sure if I wanted my free time to end yet, and I wasn’t sure even if I would be as happy and content now that I tasted some “freedom” for any length of time in six years, but now I think I’m ready. A break is certainly nice periodically, but we’re called to loving service.

  9. Ana Hahn

    So good, Jen. Thank you for the beautiful reminder.

  10. Christine

    I am clinching the sands of time as it seeps through my fingers. My kids are growing up so fast and I do not look forward to a quiet-clean home.
    I am hoping and praying already for bunches and bunches of grandbabies!!!!

  11. Patty

    I’ve had this experience SO MANY TIMES over the years. I needed a short break every now and then, and I took the time to clean and organize or paint a room or something without interruptions, but was always SO glad to have the silence broken by shouts, laughter, and even crying.

    I totally understand, and now that ours are older, I can’t wait for the happy chaos of grandchildren!

  12. LPatter


  13. Jane

    Never give up, never surrender. Thanks for the timely article! 🙂

  14. Becky

    Obviously 6 years is just the right amount of time to take for a follow up column. Some things just take time. And thanks for that link with Alan Rickman- I really like him.

  15. nancyo

    That crucifix again – glancing at it certainly does teach some valuable lessons!

  16. TRS

    But what if your whole life IS the museum existence – of getting up, going to work, coming home, doing laundry, makes some dinner go to bed (alone) – wake up (alone) and do it all over again?
    This is my single-life existence. And as much as I try to weave my life into other people’s lives – well, until they’re intentional about weaving others into theirs, nothing and no one gets woven.

    Families with kids don’t even know I exist. How I would LOVE to babysit (I’m 42) but they don’t want to ‘bother’ me with something as tedious as babysitting. (they think I’m having exciting dates every weekend – but trust me — first dates are only exciting the first 300 times!!!)

    I’m involved in 4 ministries at church – and still, I’m not impacting on anyone’s life. At least not to any degree that I know about it.

    All I’ve ever wished for (prayed for) is a husband and maybe a family of my own … but all I ever get is alone time.

    So – what do you do when you want to serve others and no one cares enough to let you? I’m the one who is always there for anyone going through a tough time, only to be forgotten when their life gets back on track. I have so many friends who refer to me as their sister — but no body ever calls to see if I want to do anything.
    How do you serve others when they won’t be served?

    • elizabethe

      I so feel for you. I just wanted to answer this from the other side.

      If you want to babysit, give times and days of the week and a plan for what you want to do. I’m a mom with a new baby and I’ve had 3 or four people offer to babysit, but I can’t help but think they are being polite. But yesterday someone said, ‘next week in the afternoon I can come and take your oldest for an outing, would that be okay with you?” and I said yes, right away.

      “Hey, I’d love to come and hang out with your kids on friday or saturday evening so you and your husband can get dinner” will get a yes faster than “let me know if you ever want a babysitter.”

      and then, keep insisting you mean it.

      If you want to hang out with people with kids, find someone you like and be honest with them, that you want to be their friend and that you are looking for companionship. I would be happy to hang out with single people if I were sure my kids were not tedious to them. My best friend right now is someone who said to me, point blank: “I like you, I’d love to hang out, when do you want to get together?”

      As Jen often says, the assumption is in this culture that kids are a tedious burden who have to be cordoned off from the rest of society. No one is going to assume you want to hang out with them and their kids. Same with older people.

      • TRS

        But also – get it through your heads… no one would offer to baby sit if they didn’t MEAN IT! Trust me, I have friends who take no delight in babies and children and they would never offer. Those that offer, mean it. If they only do it once, they actually learned it’s not for them! 🙂


    • Ed

      Hi TRS,
      I say the following as way of encouragement NOT criticism (!) – I, also, am single (male, nearly 40):
      Try thinking out of the box more about how to offer your services to others.
      Take more risks and be bolder in offering your services to others.
      And, above all, base all of the above on even deeper prayer.
      Also, as a single person, you have more of an opportunity to pray in general. Prayer is one of our most important tools, of course. In the increased time, energy and attention you might be able to give in prayer, focus, even more, on prayer on behalf of others (family, friends, enemies, neighbours, strangers etc).
      All the best, God bless,
      Ed (UK)
      PS, if you would like a single Catholic to chat with (about life in general, including Christianity), feel free to contact me (i’m sure Jennifer wouldn’t mind passing on my email to you)

    • Gina

      I just want to second what elizabethe wrote. When my husband and I had our first baby, we were all alone in a new city. A single woman from our parish offered to babysit–repeatedly–and we turned her down because we didn’t want to burden her, and, frankly, because we were so stunned by the sheer generosity of the offer we were afraid there might be catch.

      Thank God she didn’t take no for an answer–she kept insisting that her offer was for real, and that she would enjoy the opportunity to babysit for free (gasp. This in a neighborhood that usually charged $20/hr). We eventually got it through our numb skulls that she meant what she said, and she became a very faithful sitter and a beloved part of our family, invited to many events because we loved her company.

      So please forgive us young couples if we are too blind to see your generosity for what it is….and please don’t give up offering, with specific times and dates, as eliabethe suggests!!

      • Gina

        I just wanted to add: maybe another reason people don’t take you up on your offer is that they could never imagine making a similar offer themselves. When I was single, I absolutely abhored babysitting, and (I’m mortified to admit this) totally avoided my friends who got married and started families, because I had such low tolerance for kids. Even now, with three kids whom I adore, I have to fight my instinct to keep them away from singles, who I simply assume will find them annoying and tedious.

        • TRS

          I understand that… and my above reply to elizibethe is in part for you too!!

          I had the chance to babysit a toddler and a 5 year old with a guy I was dating last year, I was so happy to delight in the perspective of the 5 year old for that evening – – and reading her a bedtime story, settled on the bed with my arms around her – her warm body in my arms and sweaty hair in my face — well it was sweet torture… sweet because I knew that this was what my evenings ought to look like – compared to making dinner for one and cleaning the dishes —- and torture because it was that much more obvious that my life was going to continue without it ever being my daily routine.

          God, it hurts just thinking about it.


          • Ed

            God has a calling for you (and it might be with children as your love for children seems great).
            I don’t know (thinking out of the box). But it might be to look after children in your free-time (or full time).
            Children in orphanages, or in Calcutta. Children in particular need of strong motherly love. Your calling may lie in something like that (or maybe not).
            At the end of the day God is the true Father / Mother (and Creator) of all children. Earthly parents are really, at a spiritual level at least, adoptive parents, not the real parents.
            So be a mother / show motherly love, perhaps, to those who are crying out for one / for it. Could even be (and just as important) showing motherly love to tramps in your city or to people in general, vulnerable in society (perhaps you’ll meet your husband then, or perhaps God want you for Himself with no-one inbetween and He will bless you with new gifts you never imagined).

    • Dorian Speed

      TRS – first, you can babysit for me any time.

      But second, I wanted to reassure you that although you may never see the fruits of your volunteer efforts, it doesn’t mean you’re not making any difference. I have been involved in many service activities that didn’t seem to be doing a darned thing for anyone at the time, but later down the road I’d see that the benefit was in one particular friendship I developed or one person whose life I was able to touch in an unexpected way. Sometimes you’re only there to find out who you need to pray for and to hope for the best. Anyway – just wanted to provide vague encouragement.

  17. Mark L

    I lived in the museum for a whole month while my wife and son were in the States. Miserable. Pointless.

    Mark L.

    • Mark L

      They’re home now. Happiness.


  18. Natalie

    “on the surface it’s sacrifice and challenges and the occasional feeling that I just might lose my mind, but underneath there is a glowing core of life-affirming joy” LOVE that!

  19. Jill s

    Love love love this post. How did you know what I needed to hear today? God Bless you!!!

  20. Erin Franco

    I loved this post. How wise and how true that we are called to and made for service, to live intimately connected with others just like you said. I love how you bring a “deep” truth like this down to earth like this. Thanks and God bless 🙂

  21. Carmelita Baza

    Loved the nod to Galaxy Quest! Of course on a more serious note, I have found myself many times longing for the “museum” life. Having recently visited a few of our local museums lately, I was left with a feeling of a very cold place where you can only look but not touch. The art was indeed beautiful however after reading your post I realize that being in the middle of my messy, stress-filled family of five kids(minors NOT miners), one husband, an aging parent, two dogs and numerous fish is where I am meant to serve. Thanks!

  22. Nancy

    YES. My youngest is heading off to kindergarten next month, and our next-by-adoption isn’t here yet, as we thought she would be . . . and I’m dreading the museum life. I know it’s for a season, and I will try to make the most of that season with some part-time work and lots of volunteering at church and in school, but the empty house is not all it’s cracked up to be.

  23. lisa

    It’s quite a bit confusing as emotions run through you as the garage door opens here! But this sadness always change and bring smile to your face as you see your children! Great words “mommy”.

  24. Kallah

    “glowing core of life affirming joy”… Wow. That is the clearest, most beautiful way to put it.
    Praise God for that life to the fullest!

  25. Rosemary A.

    At my stage in life, I still needed to read this. I’m almost 65, married, with seven grandchildren. Yet I find myself still wishing for that perfect “museum” day, instead of being grateful for what I have. I pray that I will work at being more involved and connected. Thank you so much for this post!

  26. Amanda

    I wonder if this is something all moms struggle with or mostly us first-born introverts? I have definitely been guilty of just wishing for time alone in a clean and nice house with no little toddlers needing me for something or preschoolers asking me the 50th question of the hour. But you’re right, whenever I do get that time alone the truth is that I miss my family, it’s nice to get a break but I dread the years when the kids are all grown and a museum life becomes the norm. And I always feel best not after a day of taking it easy and doing very little, but after a day where I am exhausted but have the satisfaction of knowing I worked hard that day.

  27. Julie

    Jen, I hear ya, and as a homeschooling mom of 4, I get this on every level.

    BUT – now, hear me out!!! – BUT – those “museum life” weekends are so, so, SO very important, if only to remind you of the value of the chaos of your life. I have not done it nearly enough in my 15 years of parenting. Every few years, I become a sobbing, shrieky mess, and need to get out of the house and just have silence for a few days. Like everyone, I’m too “busy” to take care of myself. The problem is, being surrounded by people 24/7 – even people we love more than life itself, like our spouses and children – is so very draining for introverts.

    My priest once told me – we are called sacrifice, not to suicide. It’s so important to recognize when we are sacrificing beyond our means, be they financial, emotional, or spiritual.

    I am a big fan of the occasional retreat into the “Museum Life”. It’s a perfect metaphor, in fact. Going to a real museum makes me appreciate the wonder of art/history/science, etc. Experiencing a weekend of “Museum Life” makes me appreciate the wonder of the chaos of my home!!

  28. Amanda


  29. jkkseeks

    I’m so glad you wrote this. I have so much peace & quiet & me time as a SAHM to middle schoolers, it’s starting to short circuit my brain. I have a high need for solitude (introvert with a big ‘I’) but these days… its starting to drive me out of my mind. LOL

  30. Michelle Reeder

    Your writing is so perfect. It’s funny how things like quiet and peace and order are often longed for, but never as filling as we had hoped! Don’t get me wrong, I am stilled thrilled when DH takes kids to hardware or for errands or whatever LOL

    I truly believe with God as our center that we can choose or not choose to be a positive person. It is not easy – especially during seasons of life that require great sacrifice and suffering, but those we love need to see us smile. We anchor them!

  31. Tamara

    Very well written. I wrestle with the same thoughts. But I’m learning to appreciate spontaneity in its rawest form and, with effort, learn to articulate the value of life without autonomy.

    Your writing on this matter reminds me of friends who live and work in Riobamba, Ecuador. The mom, Glenda, wrote a book called “We’re Not Our Own”. If you get an opportunity, look into getting a copy – it’s an enlightening read. You can talk to Glenda here:

    I come to your blog when I’m low on energy and objectivity. You write faith-building words and they expand the borders of my heart every time.

    Thank you for writing humbly and candidly.
    -Tamara (plantingpennies’ wife)

  32. Christina

    Thank you for this, Jennifer. My parents took the kids this weekend so my husband and I could celebrate our anniversary. We spent considerable time looking around the clean and quiet house, noting all the objects that wouldn’t be there if we weren’t blessed with children. It made us sad. I’m a control freak by nature and parenting is not usually compatible with that. But oh, I would not trade my girls for the world.

  33. Tiffani

    Hey, I work in a museum and I am living proof that they are filled with living breathing human beings. And I have four children. Oh, how I love the museum.

  34. Anabelle@Written By the Finger of God

    Jen, I’m so glad you linked this to a recent post on the register. I can only stand the museum life for 2 hours because then I really do miss the little people. BTW, I’ve been sharing two of your recent posts on my FB page and am just about ready to share this, too. You really teach a bunch of us cradle Catholics who take our faith for granted a thing or two -and I said that on FB, too.

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