(I'm no Einstein, but parenting probably won't make you famous.)
Human beings love to get affirmation for their work. The icing on the cake for a job well done is often the recognition that follows a job well done. There is a real satisfaction in knowing that we have accomplished something for the good of others and that they have truly appreciated it.
In the realm of parenting, however, such affirmation for hard work is often wanting. Within the recesses of the home, the only people who witness the hard work of parenting are those little people who have very little praise and gratitude for the work of parenting. Sure, there are consolations of parenting. But the fact is that much of the effort that goes into parenting is unseen by the world. When parenting goes public - at the store, at Church, etc. - we parents are just as likely to find our parenting judged as we are to find our efforts supported.
It's no wonder then that so many parents enjoy and even rely on their work outside the home to provide life satisfaction. It is wonderful to have an excellent review at work, to receive a promotion, to get credit for great ideas, and of course, to have one of the major incentives for working, namely, a paycheck. That paycheck is the difference between being viewed as a "producer" who actively contributes to society and being viewed as an economic "dependent" confined to the "menial labor" of the home - childcare and domestic chores. At work, there is the respect that comes from other adults. There is teamwork. There is appreciation for overtime. There is a sense of success in the eyes of the world.
At home, there are piles of laundry and ironing. There are dirty dishes in the sink. There are toys on the floor. There are messy faces. There are soiled diapers. There are windows smeared by dirty handprints. There are tantrums. There are constant requests for food. There is homework that requires help. There are meals that must be cooked. And there is no end in sight to these tasks...or anyway, the end is so far away that it is almost unimaginable. Of course, there is often a genuine sense of satisfaction in caring for children and a home; sometimes it feels like parenting is worth all the sacrifices. But this is not always the case, and particularly in the beginning days of parenting, it can be difficult to deal with the lack of appreciation for hard work. The invisibility of our effort with children and home can threaten our happiness and even detract from our sense that we are doing God's will by living out our marriage vocation through caring for children.
At such times we may throw ourselves into our other work, the work we do outside the home. It is easy to put the bulk of our effort into this work where we are appreciated, respected, treated like knowledgeable adults. Back on the homefront, we are tired, having given our best to a different workplace. And we want to come home to rest and relax, not deal with defiant kids and a cluttered house. The invisibility of parenting can make it easy to become lazy and even selfish during the time we spend at home.
Likewise, for those whose primary responsibility is the house and children, there can be a tendency to seek affirmation in other activities, like those of a volunteer nature. People may not notice your great work at home, but they will notice your great work running the PTA bake sale. Your many sacrifices at home will go unnoticed, but people will admire that you are so involved with the parish. Volunteering is a great thing, but it can become an outlet for attention and affirmation rather than service, and this can especially be seen when the responsibilities of volunteering detract from efforts with children and home.
It is regrettable, truly regrettable, that the rearing of children and the service of domestic chores are currently so undervalued. It is a problem in our society that the value of family and home is constantly underrated and undercut by a consumeristic vision. But while this is regrettable and problematic, it is also a wonderful opportunity for parenting mortification. In fact, we might observe that many of our Catholic saints strove for just this chance to be invisible: to go about their work unnoticed and unappreciated by the world. Rather than seeing the lack of affirmation and recognition as one of the worst parts of parenting, we might see it as one of the best aspects of parenting. Not only do we have the opportunity to make numerous sacrifices on a daily basis (sleep deprivation, having our stuff destroyed, being insulted, experiencing physical pain), but we can make these sacrifices without anyone noticing or appreciating them!
Granted, it's not easy. As a mortification, there is a dying to the self that comes with this invisibility of parenting. Parenting is not about us in the sense that outside work can be about us. We won't win any awards for our expert home organization or frequent vacuuming. We won't be featured on a magazine cover for being awake all night with a vomiting child. We won't receive a trophy for the longest sustained toddler-holding during a church service. Since we don't get paid for parenting, we won't get a raise for the stupendous kitchen-cleaning or lunch-packing that we do.
But in the lack of recognition, the mortification that is a dying to self, there is an opportunity to live more fully for God. For when we make these unseen efforts, offering our work to God, and offering work that we know the rest of the world sees as unimportant compared to business, law, medicine or professional sports, we show God that we are willing to do his work simply to please him and not for our own fame or any other natural rewards. We can disappear in the eyes of the world, who sees our education and work experience wasted on such "menial" labor. The lack of attention and recognition for our work in living our vocation makes it more valuable in God's eyes, not less. Hence if we can mortify ourselves with respect to this invisibility rather than bemoaning it, then we may become more fully an instrument of God. We can decrease, so that he might increase.