Six Months on a Desert Island

On motherhood and kingship.

Hannele Ottschofski's husband is senior pastor of the Tubingen District in the Baden-Wurttemberg Conference in the South German Union. They have four daughters between the ages of eight and 23. Hannele loves music, sewing and writing. She is on the editorial team of the local Shepherdess Journal, Team.

Some time ago we had special meetings at our church on the theme "Adventist Identity." The guest speaker mentioned something in one of his presentations that made a bell ring inside me. He spoke about education and nurturing and quoted Ellen White as saying, "Mothers ... bear a greater responsibility than does the king on his throne" (Child Guidance, p. 71). Wasn't that exactly the stuff I had been reading as a young girl? Oh yes, it was. In my thoughts I went back twenty-eight years and started musing about my life.

I had read many books by Ellen White while I was a young student. I was studying modern languages. Ellen White said a person shouldn't read novels. How can you study English and French literature and not read novels? I almost left the university because of the conflict I felt. I had already given up my dream of studying music because I felt Ellen White disapproved of a career as a concert pianist. I got the impression that ambition was a sin. If ambition was bad, I decided to forget all my ambitious projects.

I had taken Ellen White's remarks seriously and decided to be a good wife and mother and support my husband. I had said no to a career of my own. I was convinced that was the right thing to do. I had always wanted to do something for God, and since my husband was a pastor, I thought I was serving God in the role as his helpmeet.

We enjoyed ministerial life, and I hadn't felt anything was missing from my life. We had considered ourselves privileged to be able to serve six years in the mission field. Life was interesting and good. I had been a useful part of a team. The years passed happily.

When one of my daughters went to kindergarten, a get-together for the parents was planned. We were supposed to draw a picture of ourselves and answer a few questions so that we would get to know each other. We were asked questions about our favorite food, color, etc. The last questions was "What is your greatest wish?" I didn't have to think much, I knew what I wanted most: six months on a desert island! I was a busy wife and mother and life was just getting a bit too much for me. There were so many things I would have liked to do. But I didn't have enough time or energy. Oh yes, I did a lot of things, but somewhere deep down inside me there was this secret wish to get away from it all, at least for a while.

I didn't want to go to that desert island in order to do nothing. I wanted to write a book, learn to paint, practice the piano for hours without being disturbed, do all the crafts I longed to do, maybe even sew a beautiful quilt. But most of all, I wanted to find myself.

I had been happy as a pastor's wife for so long, placing God's cause on the top of my priority list, but somehow I wasn't quite sure any more if I was satisfied with my life. I felt bound to the turf as we still had a preschooler when the oldest of our four daughters was leaving the nest. I was getting restless.

By now I was not so sure any more if my decision had been right. More and more women had careers of their own, and I was just a plain "house-wife." When I visited my friends, I realized that I was a completely archaic model. Nobody stayed at home any more. Everybody else was working outside the home. I was still quite content but started wondering if it was such a great deal after all. People would ask, "And what do you do?" and I would feel embarrassed when I had to say that I was just a stay-at-home mum.

My husband took the call to become an administrator and spent each Sabbath in a different church. I didn't know what was going on in all those committee meetings and I had no idea what his administrative duties were. We had been used to working together, and now he didn't need me any more. Somehow every­thing I had built my life on started crumbling. To compensate for this, I became more actively involved in our local church work while my husband spent his energies on conference business. We practically started living separate lives.

It took me quite a while to realize that I was in the clutches of a mid-life crisis. I hadn't thought my physical malaise had anything to do with an approaching menopause. I had always been a cheerful and optimistic person. Now I didn't recognize myself any more. I was physically and mentally exhausted. I would sit down at the piano and not be able to bring up enough energy to play seriously. I took a day off to go and see my sister who was in transit at the airport. We spent the day talking, and I could hardly keep the tears back. When I told her I couldn't play the piano any more, she was aghast, "But that's your soul!" she exclaimed. "What has happened to you?" But it helped to be able to talk to somebody.

I was able to put some pieces of the puzzle together again. I had been so bewildered because I didn't know what was happening to me. I started reading books on the subject and realized that what I was feeling was normal.

A friend who was a few years older invited me to come over for an afternoon. She knew just what I was going through because she had been there too. We went for a long walk and talked and talked. It helped. I felt much better.

One day I decided to do some­thing for myself. I got a part-time job teaching music at the local music school. I need some recognition from outside my home and enjoyed teaching. It helped soothe my discontent.

Finally my husband and I decided to move back into pastoral work because we both wanted a more rewarding experience. We had to move and that meant I had to leave my teaching job. But by that time, I wasn't so keen on teaching music to untalented kids any more! I had realized that working outside the home is not so much better after all. But I was happy to have had the experience. We moved into a new home that had plenty of scope for new experiences: landscaping and planting a garden, carpentry, brick laying, and so on. I was quite surprised at how much fun it was to do new things like that. I decided I would not yet look for another job. Life was becoming a challenge again. I was busy. I didn't have the time to mope around. But the main difference was that I was enjoying life again. Once more my husband and I were doing things together.

I sat there in the meeting and wondered. Somewhere along the road I had thought that Ellen White had betrayed me. Of course, she hadn't. She had only said that the work of the mother is more important than that of a king. She had not promised that we would be rewarded for it in this life! But it would be so much easier if you didn't have to face this pressure from society that your worth is only measured by the money you earn. Of course, my worth is more what I am as a person than what can be measured in my achievements. But we need some­body to tell us that now and then. Somebody who will support us and lift us up when we are discouraged. And that means more than just presenting a fine program for Mother's Day once a year.

When my family was away for a week, and I was all alone, I thought I had arrived at my desert island at last. First of all, I had to catch up with all the things I had not had the time to do previously. I worked like mad and didn't have the time to enjoy my solitude. After three days I started missing my family. I realized that six months would be much too long on any island! I could still do with six months extra time to complete my many projects. I would like to have more solitude now and then. But I think I've got my life back into balance. There are things I still have to work on. But I do not now regret not having a career of my own. I appreciate the freedom I have to plan my activities with­out the stress of rigid working hours. I have indulged in the life­long luxury of working without pay and have found my rewards, although not in financial form. Of course, I realize that I probably belong more to my mother's generation than to this modern world. My mother just said a few days ago: "We were told the Lord would pay for our efforts. Now I realize that I never will be paid for all the work I did for the church as you can't earn your salvation in any case!"

My six months on the desert island may still come some day, but right now I am in no hurry to get there.

Hannele Ottschofski's husband is senior pastor of the Tubingen District in the Baden-Wurttemberg Conference in the South German Union. They have four daughters between the ages of eight and 23. Hannele loves music, sewing and writing. She is on the editorial team of the local Shepherdess Journal, Team.