I’m a Proverbs 31 Failure

“A wife of noble character, who can find?”

Recently, as my husband read aloud from Proverbs 31 over the breakfast table, I wondered if maybe that was a rhetorical question. As in, “can anyone find this woman?” She has an extensive list of accomplishments and abilities. She seems to be able to “do it all,” with skill (check out all the details here). Am I really supposed to be like her?

I have this vague notion that the modern Proverbs 31 woman stays at home with her (many!) children, educates them at home, makes all their (organic!) meals from scratch, enthusiastically serves her church community, and, after all that, is still (frequently!) romantically available to her husband. And while there is certainly nothing wrong with any of these endeavors individually, I personally cannot live up to all these expectations at once.

Thankfully, my husband has a firm belief that “nobody does it all.” “Something always gets dropped,” he often tells me. He believes this because he watched his mom choose not to “do it all.” He was never under the impression that one woman could — or should — do it all. His mom did stay at home with her eight children, and homeschool them, but she was not involved in church ministry, nor did she have a home business. The meals she prepared for her family were exceedingly simple. Sometimes it was cereal for supper. Other times it was baked potatoes, with nothing but cottage cheese as a topping. Her home, however, was a place of joy and peace that others felt drawn to.

(Incidentally, when my husband closed the Bible that morning, he sighed, “I don’t think this woman exists. And if she did, I don’t think I’d like her.”)

IMG_1223aI have never been one of those women who could juggle several responsibilities at once. In college, I took a mere 12 or 13 hours each semester. With the remainder of my time, I tended to my marriage, and together, we volunteered at our church. A couple times, I tried to extend my summer job into the school year. Each time the attempt ended with me quitting that job.

I recently had an opportunity to admit to myself yet again that I cannot do it all (and retain some semblance of sanity). I decided I should study Khmer during my short summer break. It was so hard, I about had a breakdown. Or . . . maybe I did have a breakdown. Ask my husband. On second thought, don’t ask him! It was he who suggested I quit studying, after noticing that I had absolutely no energy left over for the family. I was adamant that I continue – because a missionary wife should know the local language. It’s, like, a requirement or something.

I know so many missionary wives who do speak Khmer well, and I thought I was such a failure not to be like them. But if I am to listen to my husband’s wisdom, I must accept that I can’t do it all. I must drop something. And at this point in my life, I am choosing to drop further language learning. I’ve got five people in my family who need me – to laugh at their jokes, to care for their troubles, and to be engaged with what’s happening from day to day. I couldn’t do that when I was studying language.

Truth be told, language learning is not the only thing I have dropped. I’ve also dropped ministry outside my home. I used to be active in ministry with my husband, and I loved it. Right now, though, the focus of my ministry is my home – my husband and children. But the truth of the matter is also, that homeschooling all day pretty much takes everything I have to give. I need the help of a lady to do basic cleaning tasks each day, and to cook our noon meal. I have clearly failed in this whole womanhood thing. I mean, wives should cook, and stuff. Right?

But, if I hadn’t dropped the cooking and cleaning, I would have been forced to drop other things. Things I didn’t want to drop.  Like adequate school time for my children. And adequate sleep for me (perhaps transforming me into the classic Proverbs 31 woman who wakens early and works late into the night??).

My husband doesn’t want me plus language fluency. He just wants me. My children don’t want me plus gourmet meals. They just want me. My friends don’t want me plus a clean house. They just want me.

The best way for me to stay me is not to pretend I do it all and do it all well. Because I don’t. And I can’t. I very deliberately drop many things in my life, so that I may whole-heartedly embrace the things I haven’t dropped.

I don’t get it all done. I am a Proverbs 31 failure. But my family gets a happier me. A nicer me. A more likeable me.

If I didn’t fail as a Proverbs 31 woman, I am convinced I would be far less successful at loving people. The greatest command of all.

39 thoughts on “I’m a Proverbs 31 Failure

    • I laughed out loud, that just reading it makes you exhausted, Mom! A friend shared on my facebook wall a link to a blog by Jen Hatmaker, with a different approach to Proverbs 31 than the one that usually makes us so down on ourselves. You should go check it out 🙂

      • thanks for sharing that with me, Elizabeth. i sit here on my laptop crying after reading it! Miss you and your sister! Can’t wait.

      • Love you Mom. As only someone who lived in your house can know, I’d say that whatever you dropped, was just fine to drop, because the things you kept were so valuable 🙂

      • of course, my last comment, I’m sure you realized I had a typo and meant “sisters.” and Thank you dear for you for sweet comment. I value you greatly! 🙂

  1. I don’t have any children yet, but I understand your sentiments! In this country especially, the “wifely” tasks seem to take much more effort and require being done much more often! I am trying to learn not to expect so much of myself in every area and instead try to do a few things well. Thanks for this post!

  2. I knew the Trotter family many years ago, when they were a real blessing to our ministry. They ministered to us in very rich, singular ways, which encouraged us to persevere. I am thrilled to have found these posts recently; reading them allows me to think about things in ways I didn’t permit myself to consider at the time, especially since my family is no longer in fulltime ministry. This post particularly speaks to me. I have always tried to be that Proverbs 31 woman. My husband even had that scripture reference engraved on my wedding band. He meant it to be a joy to me, knowing he valued me far above jewels. I sa it as an indictment every time I couldn’t do all things well. Even now, I find it hard to give myself permission to simply do nothing except to spend time – I feel I must always be busy. Thank you for sharing these thoughts, and my prayers are with you.

    • Thank you for sharing that, Janice. I would love to know more about the connection between you and the Trotter family if you ever feel like private messaging us on our facebook page, trotters41. My husband enjoys hearing stories of his parents and meeting the people who knew them 🙂 I am sure your husband did mean that to be a blessing to you and not a burden. In fact, someone just explained to me that in the Hebrew culture it was the men who memorized that passage, so they could praise their wives when they served their families (which I did not know). It’s a pity we women have always been so down on ourselves!

  3. I am glad you have learned that it is impossible early in life. I lost a marriage and most of my sanity …or was it the loss of my sanity trying that lost my marriage….trying to do everything and BE superwoman. I was so foolish. I can still strive to be the Prov. 31 woman and to remember her as a role model, but I realize I can not be her anymore than I can emulate and be perfect like Jesus. Elizabeth I consider you to be close to perfect already. Just keep being the great woman you already are and Jesus will take care of the rest! Remember to lean on Him.

    • I am so sorry for the pain of your divorce, Jan. . . But I’m not in any way perfect! I’m so thankful for grace that covers my sins! I really do think Jesus wants to give us life abundant . . . and I would say that when I’m at peace with not doing it all, and not being superwoman, my life does feel more abundant.

  4. I never thought about that perspective in thinking of how long of a list of everything that the Proverbs 31 woman does. Thank you for posting your perspective. It has definitely gave me something to think about.

  5. Good post. I have you in my RSS reader, so I don’t see your posts right away usually. This time I saw Jonathan’s pictures before I knew this post existed. And, on that archery picture, where he said, “My Proverbs 31 woman; see Elizabeth’s latest blog post,” I instantly got a sick feeling in my stomach. “Ew. They are THAT couple? Who believes that the Proverbs 31 thing is legit?”

    So you have no idea how relieving it was to read the title of this post and realize that, no, you guys are the same Jonathan and Elizabeth who have always been; that is to say, a couple I deeply respect and admire, and at whose feet I would someday like to learn if it ever becomes my turn to be a Proverbs 31 failure to some lucky man. 🙂

  6. Interesting title-i am a prob 31 failure, I had to read immediately as I’ve never thought of you as a failure in ANY area of your life!! 😉 I grew up w/diff parenting. My mother preached the power of the prov 31 woman to me 24/7. I wanted to be a vet at Texas A&M but was told I couldn’t do that as I was going to school to get my Mrs and you guessed it,live the life of the prob 31 woman and all the gender divided chores that accompany said life. Vet med was for boys!! Yes, she DID!! 😐
    After my divorce (I understand that one Jan!!) I sat down w/my bible to see just what happened in my prob 31 world. It was the 1st time Id read it for myself and not merely listened to my mothers summarized version!! Wow!!
    In the last 30yrs I’ve read that passage many many times and I have a much diff viewpoint (interested, too, Elizabeth to read the viewpoint you posted in conversation to your mom). I don’t believe this woman did it ALL, every day ALL the time. I think she was much like us in her day to day yet she did these things when possible and that’s what stood out in the authors mind. Just like when we reflect on someone, we remember those things they did that stood out. Did they do those things all the time, every day? Oh NO!! Not possible, well maybe for martha stewart but she has a lot of $$$ help!! In the meantime, they did the best they could and that changed from day to day, season to season, age to age. 😊
    Maybe she did do these things daily and if so, I’m prov 31 challenged too!!
    However, we each have diff gifts and you know what happens when we begin to compare ourselves one to another, even that p31 standard!! 😮
    We are all created in His image and we are equipped to do every good work. You touch so many w/your blog and your example to step out in faith, saying YES 2 God-khlmer speaking aside!! Praying for you ALWAYS & often!!

    • I think you are entirely right Pam! Thank you for sharing your thoughts, they were such a fresh perspective, especially the part where you said she probably didn’t do all those things all the time, but she was remembered for them, when she did them. That was a totally new idea to me. I think that just goes to show how so many of us have this wrong impression of the Proverbs 31 woman, and it’s the wrong impression that makes us feel so bad about ourselves in comparison to her. . .Looking forward to seeing you soon!

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  8. Enjoyed reading your heart. I think you are that Prov 31 woman. You choose to love those God has entrusted you with above other things that would pull you away. Prov 31 seems to me to be a panoramic view of this woman’s life, not what she did each day, week or month. Read in such a manner you see the seasons of her life unfold. The testimony is that as the years pass her grown children rise up and call her blessed. After reading some other comments above, it looks like your children have done just that, risen up and called you blessed. Good words, thanks.

    • Thanks for reading, Tamra. You are right that Proverbs 31 was describing the many things she did, though she didn’t do them all every day! And as a friend here in Cambodia has pointed out to me, she had household help to get all those tasks done. 🙂 My own mom has certainly been a loving example to me, as you can see in the discussion above. I think a lot of my attitude of considering children a blessing and not a burden, came from her example of taking care of her family without complaining. Thanks again for stopping by! ~Elizabeth

  9. I found your blog through some friends sharing “10 reasons”. (ha! well said). This article caught my eye, and I just have to say, good job! Perfect prioritizing! So rare to see this among missionaries, where the pressure is on to perform well and get results. In fact, I just finished the book, The Happy Room, which addresses this issue. Very insightful. I, too, homeschool. We are not official missionaries, but we want to be used by God. I constantly deal with the questions in my head, like, “Are you doing enough?” “Shouldn’t you be reaching out to more people on a deeper level?” Well, maybe the answer is “no”, and then “yes”, but before all that, I determine to make sure my husband and kids are receiving enough, and that I am reaching out to them on a deeper level. Then we’ll talk about the next sphere. In short, keep up the excellent prioritizing!

    • Thanks for dropping by, Lillian. I have never heard of that Happy Room book, but now you have me curious. I’ll have to look it up 🙂 May God bless you in whatever ministry He leads you into, whether at home, in a local church, or overseas. ~Elizabeth

  10. I know I’m a little late to the party so to speak but I wanted to let you know how much I appreciate this piece.

    I’m a mother of three and wife to an amazing missionary doctor…and all I can do is homeschool the kids and keep us fed. (I’m currently a Hindi language study dropout…and I keep warning everyone I might stay dropped out for the next decade – until all my kids are off to college!).

    I struggle a lot with feelings of inadequacy and thinking I should be doing more than I am so I was greatly encouraged to read that I’m not the only person living such a life and having to draw the line of enough at a similar spot.

    • Thrilled to have you join us as a Proverbs 31 Failure, Melissa! Even in the year since I wrote this I’ve felt down that I don’t “have it together” enough to study more, so it’s really good to hear another homeschool mom express the same feelings. THANK YOU for taking the time to comment ❤

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  12. I just breathed a sigh of relief. I too have tried language study… And stopped… About 48 times (ok, 4… In 2 years) blergh. Just can’t do it plus 4 kids who are not even homeschooled (another missionary failure?) Thanks for not being perfect! Your failure has truly blessed another Prov 31 failure! You husband linked me to this from his “idolising Missions” post.

    • Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Erika! YES YES YES. You are not alone in your inability to “do it all”! And why do we think that makes us failures anyway?? We women can be so hard on ourselves, don’t you think?? Maybe a first step is having “missionary women who appear to have it all together” start being honest and brave and debunking these myths, both for ourselves and our supporters, and even our idolizers.

      Blessings. May you receive the peace of Christ in your life today.

  13. I am a missionary wife who home schools our 3 boys. I’ve always felt that my ministry to others ( read: women) is to let them feel better about the state of their homes after visiting mine. Sure, some days I get discouraged at the mess and huge list of things left undone, but I, mostly, retain my sanity. Each of us are unique. For some (wacky!) moms, cleaning is a hobby that relaxes them (apparently…), for others of us we would rather get a root canal! I consider the Proverbs 31 super woman empowering. God is saying it is okay to be those things. We don’t have to sit in the shadow of our husbands, pretending we have no talents or abilities of our own. This woman is strong and independent, while bringing esteem to her husband, through HER special talents, whatever those may be (homeschooling, or working, or operating a business, or all or some of these things!). In Christian circles, and on the field, we often buy into the church culture notion that wives are pale reflections of their husbands who surrender any individuality and outside the house skills they have. Not this wife in Proverbs! It can be freeing! I know this time with young kids is fleeting. Nowhere in Proverbs does it say she does all this all the time. I hope as wives we can be free to serve the Lord uniquely, as He calls us. In the home and out through different seasons in our lives!
    Wow, that was much longer than I intended!

    • I love this approach to the Proverbs 31 woman! Thanks for sharing! I love that — we can shine on our own, apart from him, in our own gifts and skills. We don’t have to be a pale reflection. That’s not an aspect of P31 I’ve thought of before.

      Thanks for dropping by, Emma, and blessings on you as you homeschool your 3 boys this week 🙂

  14. Thank you for linking this up at Velvet Ashes! Like you, I can get to five roles pretty quickly and realize now why those are the only things I can seem to get done, or get done well at least!

    • I know! It’s crazy, isn’t it?? Thanks for the comment, and here’s to paring down our roles to the most important ones — and hopefully at a manageable level! Blessings. Hope your sunny day was good. 🙂

  15. For a long time I thought if I was not all of these things that I wasn’t living up to _________ – I don’t even know what to put here because writing “God’s standards” doesn’t even seem legit – especially when I stop to consider the Mary VS Martha story. Jesus told Martha that Mary had chosen the better thing right? **to sit and glean?** Thanks for sharing this. A lot of what you write and wrote here especially really touches my heart and it feels like, “YES, someone understands!” But really, I have such a hunger for real community that I find myself drinking in the comments as if we were all together on a living room floor sitting criss-cross applesauce!

    • You can’t know how I will treasure the statement that you’re “drinking in the comments as if we were all together on a living room floor sitting criss-cross applesauce.” That is the desire of my heart, that this blog would be a safe place for people. So come back to drink in the community any time you want!

      And I agree there’s still a lot of pressure to perform, even though we’re talking about all this pressure we feel to perform! And now in addition to performing in the “real world” we have to perform in the digital world and make our Facebook and Instagram pictures look just right. That’s a lot of pressure. Let’s collectively rebel against it!

      Thank you for taking the time to read and comment, and seriously, come back any time! Love, Elizabeth

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  18. I know this is an old post but I just want to say thank you for being real about Proverbs 31. I married a man who was abusive (of course, when I married him I did not know that) and he would always use Proverbs 31 to point out all the things I was not doing and make me feel inferior, less than, like a failure. For a long time I thought Christian women, in general, could do it all and that I was of the very few that were denied the ability to be the perfect Proverbs 31 woman. Thank you for opening my eyes. God bless you and your family.

    • I am so sorry about your abusive husband. What a difficult situation you describe. I am so very sorry about it. I would hate for you to still feel this pressure — I’m glad you know now that the rest of us aren’t getting it all done either!

      Peace and hope to you today. ~Elizabeth

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