There’s a Charlotte Mason quote that’s often used when delving out expectations to a homeschool mom, or when an exhausted, overwhelmed mom says that she can’t possibly fit one more thing into her already over-crowded life. This is the part of the quote that is often mentioned:
mothers work wonders once they are convinced that wonders are demanded of them…” Home Education, page 44
It’s used as an encouragement, but I can see the tired mom’s shoulders dropping at the utterance of these words. She already has a million expectations resting on her, but somehow she’s supposed to live up to a million and one. If you are that exhausted mom, take a deep breath as we examine the textual and cultural context of this quote.
Charlotte Mason’s Context
While this quote often is shared when a mother is worried about All The Things that she has to do once formal lessons begin, it’s actually referring to outdoor time during a child’s early years. I once heard a pastor say that every verse in the Bible, except for two, has a verse behind it and in front of it. This is the case with Charlotte Mason’s volumes, too. When we look at the context, we’ll see that she’s not at all talking about doing All The Things.
Here are the sentences before the line in question:
And long hours they should be; not two, but four, five, or six hours they should have on every tolerably fine day, from April till October. Impossible! Says an overwrought mother who sees her way to no more for her children than a daily hour or so on the pavements of the neighbouring London squares. Let me repeat that I venture to suggest, not what is practicable in any household, but what seems to me absolutely best for the children; and that, in the faith that mothers work wonders once they are convinced that wonders are demanded of them. A journey of twenty minutes by rail or omnibus, and a luncheon basket, will make a day in the country possible to most town-dwellers; and if one day, why not many, even every suitable day?” Home Education, page 44
Looking at the context, we can see that Charlotte Mason is telling us that 1) we should get our children outside four to six hours each day 2) that it seems impossible, but it’s possible 3) and that if we can make one day in the country possible, we can make every day in the country possible. She is not telling us that when we feel like we cannot possibly do more for our children, we should stretch ourselves because we are capable of wonders or miracles.
When I hear the outward expectation to work wonders, I can’t help but think how different expectations are today than they were in Charlotte Mason’s day. Mothers of today face so many pressures, not just from inside the home, but from out as well. It’s argued that most people of the Victorian Age did not have nannies and housekeepers, but I think it’s safe to say they had more help. People often lived close to or with family members who could share in childcare duties and help with chores. Even if they did not have hired help, Charlotte Mason said that women of the educated class would not want to be with their children all the time:
Very likely it would not answer for educated people to have their children always about them. The constant society of his parents might be too stimulating for the child; and frequent change of thought, and the society of other people, make the mother all the fresher for her children.” Home Education, page 18
I am an educated woman. I am with my children ALL the time. The hours that I get to myself are few and far between. This is a cultural difference. So, when we are “expected to work wonders,” most of us are running on three cups of coffee and feeling overwraught. When we’re feeling stretched in every direction, we are already making wonders happen because we are doing the majority of the work of child-rearing by ourselves (I am not trying to discredit helpful husbands! Even with a very loving and very helpful husband, I am on my own ten out of twelve of my children’s waking hours!)
There’s running an entire household, but we also have more external commitments. Even if we are intentional about not being too busy, we still have to do things. Church things, social things, obligatory things. Friends, we have A LOT on us right now. Don’t let an out of context quote make you feel like you have to do more things.
You are Not a Miracle Worker
The literal meaning of “to work wonders” is to perform miracles. But friend, you are not a miracle worker. I am not a miracle worker. There is only one Miracle Worker, and we are not Him. I often hear people quote Phillipians 4;13: “I can do all things through him who gives me strength.” This soothes my anxious thoughts about working wonders or miracles. I don’t have to strive to DO more. What I should be striving for is a greater dependence on Christ. He gives me strength, He works through me. But, like my pastor friend taught me, Phillipians 4:13 also has context. In verse 12, Paul says, “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”
This verse is in the context of contentedness.
We can endure trying circumstances, even feel content in them, through Christ who gives us strength. I can feel certain that I am doing “enough” for my children. I can feel content with trusting the Holy Spirit, the Divine Educator, to guide me in making educational decisions for my children, instead of relying on external expectations.
So, the next time you see this Charlotte Mason quote about working wonders, I pray that you will take a deep breath, and feel content with the beautiful quiet growing time that you’re giving your children.