Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Lost

When we decided to have a child, I very carefully timed pregnancy. I wanted to conceive in August so birth would come in May--right as the semester ended at my university. That way I could have four months at home with the baby before returning to the classroom in the fall. If pregnancy didn't happen that month the first year, we'd try in August of the next year.

As luck would have it, I did get pregnant that first month, thanks in part to the infinite wisdom of a totally life-altering book (explanation another time). I finished grading exams little more than 24 hours before my son was born.

We settled into a summer rhythm of nursing, napping, reading aloud (historical monographs in a sing-song lilt), and more nursing. Sometimes David would walk in at the end of the day and ask what I did with the day. "Change sides" was all I could think of.

It stunned me that at the end of the summer, I could not imagine going back to my teaching job. I took off a year, then finally quit entirely. I finished my dissertation, turned it into a book--then started another one with a friend and have finished it down to the copy editing.

I am a historian.

No, I am not.

Mine is a job that has to survive on two hours a day most days--fewer when I need the emotional recovery of knitting during part of my son's reading-or-napping time each afternoon, more on weekends or when pushing deadlines. By evening, my brain refuses to participate. And now the second book is basically finished, anyway.

Am I a professor? No.

Do I make any money? Only enough to buy a spinning wheel with my royalties. Not enough to live without my partner's salary should that ever become necessary or desirable.

Could I get an academic job at this point? No. If you come out with a new PhD and get one job anywhere in the world, you have to consider yourself lucky. If you haven't taught in almost eight years, you are not going to be one of those lucky ones.

Have I thrown everything away?

And I don't believe I could find a job that would fulfill me or challenge me as much as time in my own warped brain does or give me what time with my amazingly cool child does.

I feel trapped, unsure of where I am, what I want with my life, unable to make other decisions even if I did know what they should be.

Am I a SAHM? I am the parent at home, certainly. And that used to be an incredibly important job. Back when our son was tiny, he needed constant care and attention. He was nourished by my presence, both figuratively and quite literally.

My son and I have a lovely time together still--and he certainly is not ready to be alone. But this job is a lot less essential than it used to be. It may be just as fulfilling for me, but it no longer feels like what I am giving is all that necessary for my son. I mean, most folks, even SAHMs, send their kids to school by this point.

But wait--I'm homeschooling parent! That is the job, isn't it? Yes. No. I take notes on what my son does, and I go to the required county portfolio review. But he is his own teacher, his own guide. That is how he's chosen to homeschool. Seeing him find his own path gives me great joy, even as it points out how extraneous I am to the whole endeavor.

Am I a housewife? I suppose I am.

It is not the job I wanted, not a job I acknowledge is mine. If you look at the piles of dirty laundry, the dishes, the grimy bathtub, the floors that have not been vacuumed in ages, you'll know that no one in this house identifies with the job of housewife.

These are tasks that I believe should remain completely unshackled to gender.

But then one person--in this story the one who can breastfeed--quits her job to to be home with a child. It is so wonderful, so beautiful, so much better than all the stupid stuff that has to get done at the office, so much more challenging and rewarding than the office, so much harder and exhausting than the office.... Then that parenting at home job starts being less time-consuming, even though it is ever-more mind consuming.

Our plans for completely egalitarian parenting were swept aside. We kept up the good fight within the confines of a more and more traditional life.

Now that I have fewer parental duties, should our commitments to egalitarian housekeeping be dumped too, in favor of the traditional wifely responsibilities?

It is starting to seem like the answer is yes.

It this where all the touted "women's choices" lead? Do we choose one thing--the experience of staying home with our children--and then by habit start falling into a life we had rejected? What kind of trick is this?

Is THIS really the lesson I am passing on to my child? That this is what women are supposed to do, want to do?

Trapped, mostly by things I loved, and still love. I love being home with my son. He and I both love the magic of homeschooling. If I were to work outside the home right now, those things would be lost. I can't imagine that life would be improved in any way.

I don't even think we could step back to the almost genderless kind of identities we used to have before our child was born, back when my partner's better-paying job was matched by the depth of my passion for my career.

I don't have that passion for a university job anymore.

Who am I?

Can I just tell myself I am a knitter and let the whole identity crisis be swept under a rug?

It wouldn't be found there around this house....

14 comments:

Lia said...

That's it, completely. What are we to do, us 21st century mothers?

FemiKnitMafia said...

Amen sister. Speaking as a working mom, I can completely symphathize with the mental toil, angst and woe. You're a brave woman for putting out here. Thanks for talking to us. Keep it up. We'll get through this together.

SaraSkates said...

It's a constant struggle, eh? All I can add is to just embrace the good stuff (as you do). In a really weird way, I stuck to the whole tenure track thing long enough to get tenure, and then I jumped ship...to a more admin job, and I ADORE the change. Balancing everything at home and the rink and in fiber land is hard, but in the end, it's not worth putting a lot of time into something where you don't have much passion. Anyway, I didn't give myself permission to jump the tenure ship until after the fact - but for what it's worth, I'm pretty sure it wouldn't make you happy.

Penny L. Richards said...

Hey, you know we followed some of the same track on all this. I remember I'd been a mom for five or six years, the "I'm ridiculously unemployable" thing stopped being hilarious, and started being a bit scary, and a bit sad; then I kinda settled that with myself--decided to do the things I'd want to be getting paid for, even if I'm not actually getting paid--and that helped; and then at about the ten year mark, it seemed I wasn't quite so unemployable as I thought. I'm still not getting paid just yet, but I think the past ten years have helped me see past the laundry and dishes (which is tough, the piles are high), and to a balance something like Saraskates mentions above. And don't worry about what to call yourself--just do your thing. Let other people worry about what labels to apply.

Kate A. said...

Wow, this post really grabbed me. For obvious reasons, I suppose.

I guess I try to remind myself that my goal is to make my life as happy and useful as possible, not to match up or not match up to any kind of expectations, like feminist ones, or even my own ambition (what we think will suit our egos will not, after all, always make us happy or be particularly useful to anyone). However. The laundry needs to be done, and it is not a fun job for anyone, ever. I know that to me my family is more important than anything else ever could be, but I also think I would be doing any future children a disservice as well as cheating myself and the world if I didn't find some way to use what I'm good at to contribute to something or someone beyond me and my little family. My best way to contribute seems to be teaching, and I am passionate about the importance of inculcating critical thinking and writing skills in more than just the one or two children I might have someday.

But all these lovely principles and ideals have so little connection to the job market, to the biological clock, to the limited number of hours in any day. Or the @%^$& laundry.

All I can think of is that no one with as many choices and opportunites as middle-class American women enjoy today is truly trapped forever by making a certain choice at one point in time. Your son is still young - he may not need you constantly any more, but he needs you more now than he will when he's in high school or college. And the academic route is not the only professional option by any means. Now that you've been published twice and you're lucky enough to be able to only work a couple hours of most days, why not keep writing? Who knows on what adventures that might take you? (Writing about knitting??) Or if you're finished with writing, there are other directions to go, with or without your PhD. (Can I mention knitting again?)

One of the most important benefits of feminism and recent social change in general, I think, is that we (women especially) should not let ourselves be led into thinking that once you're on one path you have to stay there, or that whatever profession you say you "are" when you get to a certain age is "who" you will always be.

I remember thinking, when I was five or six and explaining to a friend that my mom wasn't there to pick me up because she was in Chicago doing an internship for three months, that it was really awesome that MY mom, unlike any other mom I knew, was really smart and talented and doing interesting things in big, scary cities. That was when my mom was still working on her BA in English. She finished when I was about 10 because she'd had to go part-time from her second semester of college. She worked in publishing for another decade after graduating, and made good money. Then, she starting volunteering at a suicide help line and decided she wanted to do something more useful to the world than selling ad space. I remember being awed by her guts and her selflessness, and really, really proud. She got her MSW eventually, again working part-time all the way through, and she started her second career as a social worker only after both her children were in college. My dad did a lot of laundry. Mom cooked more than she should have had to. My brother and I both learned more about laundry, cooking, and cleaning than our peers knew, and we're the better for it. And yeah, our house was a mess, but who remembers that??

Do what grabs you, and if nothing's grabbing you just at this moment, rest, cling to your loved ones, and wait till it does. It won't be long. And damn the laundry.

Sheepish Annie said...

Sounds like some very big questions are coming up for you right now...perhaps a need for change? The desire to define ourselves by our endeavors is a strong one!

The journey can be enjoyable, though. You have so many talents and interests and you excel in so many things. If nothing else, the exploration will be interesting!

Specs said...

The older I get, the more bothered I am by how much my mother gave up when she had me (her first of three). Thinking about my own life, I realize how frightening and complete the loss of public identity can be when you have children and become a stay at home mom -- and personally, it's not something I think I could handle.

My mom has recently gone back to school and is slowly earning her MA in English lit (while teaching English at my old high school) and while this makes me incredibly proud, I'm also so sad that it took her an extra 20 years to get here because of us. So it's always nice and bittersweet to read about women dealing with what she must have dealt with -- and dealing with it by actively reforming their identity and redefining themselves.

Judi said...

I am well past where you are now and hope that the change of viewpoint might be helpful.

I was lucky enough to be a SAHM when my children were young, I started college when the youngest started kindergarden. I had a career that I loved and am now more or less retired.

One of the things I have discovered is that SAHM and "homemaker" are not necessarily synonymous terms. And "homemaker" is something that few of us are prepared to value.

I have been the working parent and the stay at home parent. Sometimes I was the homemaker and sometimes I was not. These things are somewhat independent of who is making the livelihood.

Homemaking is not well understood these days and is most often confused with "housekeeping", which is a misunderstood term of its own.

The way I see it now is that housekeeping is a job and homemaking is a career. Some of the difference is semantics of course, but some of it is interpretation.

The housekeeping is what makes the home happier and healthier, the homemaking is what makes the memories.

"Caring" has been my profession and I have found that it is the simple things that demonstrate it most profoundly. No one cares that I have a masters degree, what matters to them is that I make them FEEL better. Technically supurb care without the "caring" component is just housekeeping under another name.

I don't know that my meanderings will have any meaning for you now, but please realize that your dilemma is not just one of modern middle class America, it is one of women through the ages. What you do is less important than the meaning you attach to it. For you AND your family.

Helen said...

If you swapped "university job" for "law job" my story would be so close! I've not written any books, but I've taken forays back into the working world.... but lately only ones that will let me pick my daughters up at 3:00 when school lets out.
Recently, the job lost again.
Did I forsee this future? no way.
Did I want it? not a bit of it.
Do I regret it? rarely.
I do wonder though, what I'll do when they really can live without me.
(besides fold more laundry)

Susan said...

Great post. I am a stay-at-home non-mom. I am not a housekeeper, housemaker or any of those other words that I find kind of revolting. I do however love crafting (knitting, spinning, quilting, etc.) and cooking. Notice I didn't say cleaning? *grin* I "work" at home teaching healing and doing spiritual work. Most people don't get what I do, and frankly I have a hard time understanding it sometimes too.

I guess it all comes down to being, and being okay with the whateverness.

Anonymous said...

I was raised to view the traditional women, the 50's poster as an impossibility yet at the same time something to secretly aspire to. In the 80's a two income family was a necessity and my parents who both worked outside the home couldn't manage the house and their jobs at the same time. As I grew up the maintenance of the house fell on me. Now that I'm a mother and a university student, I'm so busy trying to attend classes in the day spend quality time with my family in the evening and studying when everyone else is sleeping (myself included) that household chores are the last on my to do list and it makes me feel like a failure as a wife, mother and woman.

Pooch said...

You have the answer. We do what we love and do not need to justify it to ourselves or others. Loving others leads us to extend ourselves in meaningful ways to the child, the spouse/partner. Because we evolve and change, trying to define ourselves with a label is meaningless. Living in the moment with those we love is a precious gift that is not defined by gender or roles. Each does his/her part in the days of living and loving.
:)

Carrie K said...

It's a conundrum, isn't it? At least we have choices. And not easy ones either. And sometimes the choices are between bad and worse. Gender is just a part of life, but so is being a mother, being an autonomous human being, being a wife, being self sufficient, even if that sufficiency isn't bringing home a paycheck.

And why is the paycheck more important than the home? One can't be more valued than the other. We're just mixing it up more.

I'm just happy I get to be a childless working woman w/o being ostracised for it. Am I totally happy with my choices over the years? Heck no. But at the time....

Great post. I vote for the defining Knitter.

Kim said...

I got that book you linked to from the library - it is rather eye-opening, and I'm glad you mentioned it. I'm gonna give it a try (for achieving pregnancy, not for avoiding it).

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