A while ago, I shared a post on Facebook about the joy of having our older children choose to love us. Several moms responded that they hoped their children would make that deliberate decision when they got older. One mom commented, “I wish you could share the formula for this.”

I’ve thought a lot about that formula lately. Of course, you know there really isn’t one. Most moms are just trying to do the best they can, day in and day out, while they hope their love for their children carries through, above and beyond all the messes and mistakes and meltdowns.

But as I’ve thought about that formula and how I spend my time as a mom and the love my family has for me, I’ve come to realize one thing: maybe the most important work I ever do as a mom is to tend my family’s souls.

This world is sometimes hard and painful and ugly and brutal, and all of that wears on the soul. If my husband and children are going to be able to work and learn and love and play in meaningful, impactful ways, they have to have something good in their souls. They will pour out what’s inside of them, and the fact of the matter is that I have a great deal to do with what’s inside of them.

This is not an ego trip. I don’t even want that much power a lot of the time, because it is an enormous responsibility. In our society, where moms have so many choices about how they can spend their time and so many good things they can be doing, the care of our families’ souls can get lost in the shuffle. This is not a condemnation of moms who choose to pursue careers and hobbies and their own soul-feeding interests. Not. At. All. Instead, this is meant as an encouragement for moms who wonder if all the things they do every day and every week and every year really matter. Are they really feeding the most important formula? I think the answer is yes.

Soul care does not happen by default. Someone has to decide to do it. We can hire other people to clean our houses, we can order grocery delivery, we can arrange for tutors for our children, we can sign them up for lessons. But someone has to take care of the souls of the people who live in our homes. If there is no one who is making that work their primary responsibility, souls are going to suffer.

I know all this sounds like some sort of lofty guilt trip. You might well be reading this and thinking, “Good grief! I’m just trying to get the laundry done, and now you want me to take care of someone’s soul?” But don’t you see? Getting the laundry done is taking care of someone’s soul. I have teenage daughters, and what they wear very much affects their souls on any given day. If the shirt they want at 6 a.m. on a rushed school morning is ready for them, that helps them get off to a better start that day and frees up their mental and emotional energy to concentrate on things that matter so much more.

The ordinary acts we practice every day at home are of more importance to the soul than their simplicity might suggest. (Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul)

This morning, I made breakfast for my 18-year-old college freshman, who commutes to a nearby private university. Is she absolutely capable of making her own breakfast? Of course she is! But while I was making her breakfast–while she didn’t have to do it because I was doing it for her–she was braiding my younger daughter’s hair. Which served two huge, soul-feeding purposes: for one thing, it put my second-born child in a decent frame of mind…because the mood-hair connection is a thing, mamas. Secondly, it strengthened the sister bond between my children, and I will make breakfast every morning as long as these girls are living in my house if it will help solidify that bond.

Later today, I’m spending several hours feeding my daughter’s marching band friends ahead of a competition. Could someone else do this? Yes, but not many other moms have time to do this. Does it matter to anyone’s soul? Yes, it does, because if these kids are not fed well, they cannot perform well, and if they don’t perform well, their hearts are broken after all their hard work.

No, there is no sure-fire, guaranteed formula for raising children who will choose to love their parents and others well, given the choice to do something else. But so much of the time, we give what we get, and if what my children get from me makes what they give more beautiful, then I will have spent most of my adult life doing something irreplaceable. And that is the sweetest, surest formula I ever hope to work out.

Elizabeth Spencer

Elizabeth Spencer is mom to two daughters (one teen and one young adult) who regularly dispense love, affection, and brutally honest fashion advice. She writes about faith, food, and family (with some occasional funny thrown in) at Guilty Chocoholic Mama and avoids working on her 100-year-old farmhouse by spending time on Facebook and Twitter.