This is what I tell my nine month-old in the mornings now, when I’m giving him a breast milk addendum to his blueberry oatmeal and nuggets of scrambled egg. He’s easily distractible and pops off repeatedly to stare at the cat, or his dad, or the window, or the magic of his own hand. And now I ask him, “Are you sure you’re done? Because the girls are going to work.”
Yes, after three months of meandering routines and on-call milk from the tap, “the girls” and I are back at work, caught in the whirlwind of teaching and prepping and pumping and attending an absurd amount of meetings. And Michael is in full-swing stay-at-home-dad mode.
Part of me feels relieved. Summer comes with weighty expectations. You’re supposed to do fun! exciting! things that other people will find interesting, people who inevitably ask, after regaling you with tales about ice climbing in the Himalayas or spooning with dolphins in the Caribbean: “So, what did you do this summer?”
I hung out. I played with my baby and my nephews. Once, I thought briefly about going camping and had ambitious plans to take a road trip to a wedding, but neither of those relatively minor excursions panned out. I picked some berries. And I ignored the Internet for an extended period of time because the endless pictures of other people doing their fun! exciting! things was beginning to make me feel dissatisfied with my slow-going, home-bodied, berry-picking life.
Aside from unreasonably lofty expectations, summer also wreaks massive mayhem to any sense of routine, which, before I had a baby, was refreshing. Now? Not so much. As August dwindled, both Michael and I began to anticipate the return of some structure and consistency to our lives. Wide-open days become unwieldy after awhile.
So when the deserted campus was once again overrun with (mostly) eager students and colleagues, I felt and welcomed the electricity in the air that comes with a new school year. It felt good to inhabit my office, to be alone and have a task to anchor my mind. It felt good to lose myself in the unending possibilities of syllabi tweaking. It felt good to work.
But underneath this honeybee enthusiasm – deep in the sticky hive of my mother-mind – I felt something else: the steady drone of guilt.
Ugh. Guilt. I know it’s an inevitable part of mothering. This was recently illustrated to me a couple months ago when I swung Julian up to my shoulder a little too harshly, making him veer awkwardly and start to cry – obviously not anything serious, but I felt bad nonetheless and said as much. My mom, rather than reassuring me that this was no big deal, launched into a rather terrifying story about my brother almost drowning as a young boy because of (what she perceived to be) her negligence. She wasn’t chiding me; my expression of guilt had simply triggered her own reservoir of the stuff. I could palpably feel our mother-guilt pooling and undulating as we looked into each other’s haunted eyes, and I thought to myself, “This is motherhood. I will now feel guilty, about something or another, FOREVER.”
Some of the time, I am fine. Some of the time I tunnel headlong into whatever I’m doing at work and manage to stay focused. But then my milk lets down, and I think about my baby, about the reality of our physical separation. I check my phone to figure out whether I need to pump (in which case I spend the next 15-20 minutes marooned at my desk, lamely scrolling through Facebook with my left pinky) or whether Michael has time to bring Julian by for a nursing session.
This should be the ideal scenario, of course. I am lucky to have a job with the space, flexibility, and proximity to accommodate nursing, and I feel a surge of giddy joy whenever I see Michael and Julian appear in my office door. As soon as I know they’re en route, I watch the clock in anticipation and listen for Michael’s familiar plodding tread on the stairs.
But then, after Julian eats and crawls all over my office, pulling books off the shelves and eating paper from the recycling bin, they leave. They leave and the office feels empty, eerily quiet. I find myself wondering about how long Julian’s nap will be, and if he’ll wake up crying or not. I wonder if he misses me, if he thinks about the fact that I’m not there.
Tuesday was the hardest day this past week. On Tuesday, the wonderful flexibility of my job backfired. Michael brought Julian by for some milk, and as I watched my baby gleefully tear apart old copies of my maternity leave paperwork, it occurred to me that I didn’t have to be there. Tuesday is a day I don’t teach, so I use the time to prep classes, grade, meet with students, write – all necessary parts of my job. But as soon as the thought presented itself – the thought that it was selfish of me to be in my office when it was possible to be at home – I couldn’t unthink it. I gave into the guilt, went home, and spent a frustrating and futile afternoon trying to work from there.
I’m sick of the should voice. The voice that tells me I should be working when I’m with my baby and that I should be with my baby when I’m working. I don’t know where this voice is coming from, but I can’t give it what it wants.
Of course — just processing out loud here — maybe this isn’t all about guilt. Maybe this is about me being territorial. Maybe part of me is threatened because Michael and Julian are honestly completely fine when I’m not there. Or maybe – I’m feeling an inner ding ding ding! as I write this – maybe I’m feeling guilty not simply because I’m missing out on time with my baby, but because I actually enjoy being at work.
On Tuesday, truth be told, I wanted to work. I wanted to stay in my office and power through and get some stuff done, but I felt compelled to be home, simply because that was in the realm of possibility, and I seem to have absorbed the cultural expectation that babies should be with their mothers 100% of the time. Given the choice between being with her baby and being at work, a good mother should want to be at home right? But I’m the bad mother who wanted to be at work.
So that’s where we are, the girls and I, stuck on the “damned if you do or don’t” merry-go-round. When I’m working, I feel like a bad mother – especially if I’m enjoying myself. And if I come home leaving a lengthy “TO DO” list smoldering on my desk, I feel like a bad professor.
We’re too hard on ourselves, we mothers. Remember that Time cover? “Are You Mom Enough?” Those editors knew exactly which button to push with that headline, exactly which wound to prod. I never feel like I’m mom enough. But who does? Who could possibly meet all the demands, all the steaming piles of should we heap on ourselves? I know it’s bogus, I do, but still, I keep shoveling.
And so, at the dawn of this new week, this new school year, I would like to raise a toast, to all you pump-weary, guilt-haunted, stretched-beyond-the-limit mamas. Despite what you may feel, you’re more than mom enough — say it with me now! — and the girls and I salute you.
[SIDE NOTE: I referred specifically to “mother-guilt” here, because I’m honestly not sure if men feel this same pressure to be constantly present to their children. Is the guilt a dad thing, too…?]
A recent Pew Research analysis revealed that 40% of U.S. households now have a female breadwinner. As you can see, Lou Dobbs and Friends over at Fox News don’t take this news well:
At first, I felt a little offended by the clip. After all, I am a woman and the breadwinner of my family. But then I realized that they say absolutely nothing about me or my family situation at all. For them, there seem to be only two kinds of families: a nuclear family with a male breadwinner, which is inherently healthy and stable, and dysfunctional families with impoverished single mothers and absent fathers. (You should also watch Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, of all people, take these guys to task on that point, in this epically awesome smackdown.)
The “analysis” of Dobbs and his buddies completely bypasses the salient point, clearly articulated in the PEW findings, that the “breadwinner moms” are made up of two very different groups: “5.1 million (37%) are married mothers who have a higher income than their husbands, and 8.6 million (63%) are single mothers.” The jumbled, fallacy-ridden exchange skates over that distinction straight into apocalypse land, where the family is disintegrating, children are endangered, and men (or at least their balls) are nowhere to be found. There is no room whatsoever in their discussion for a man who chooses to be underemployed or forego employment altogether to be more present at home, because their notion of familial health depends upon a narrow, capitalist conception of masculinity: a man is someone who takes care of his family by making money.
Such assumptions about masculinity are rife in the Fox News clip – men have a “natural” or God-given role to protect, provide, be dominant, etc., and that is interpreted in exclusively economic terms; the definition of the Protector/Provider has become synonymous with earning a paycheck outside the home. Yet these talking heads seem oblivious that what they are defending as the “natural state” of humankind (nuclear family + male breadwinner) is a relatively modern, post-industrial invention.
Their high-pitched anxiety is not about what women are doing, but what men aren’t doing. In the world of Lou Dobbs and Erick Erickson there seems to be no space for families or men who choose to “lean out” of the workplace and into the home, who resist the contemporary American myth of material wealth and happiness as correlative.
I’d like to add another talking man-head to the conversation — one perhaps worth listening to — who sees the domestic sphere radically different than Dobbs et al: Wendell Berry. Just this week, I read his essay “Feminism, the Body, and the Machine” – an essay that ambitiously tackles a range of Big Ideas, from technology to capitalism to the sexual revolution. He raises enough fodder for twenty blog posts, easily, but I want to discuss the section in which he advocates the need for men and women to revalue the domestic sphere:
“There are, however, still some married couples who understand themselves as belonging to their marriage, to each other, and to their children. … This sort of marriage usually has at its heart a household that is to some extent productive. The couple, that is, makes around itself a household economy that involves the work of both wife and husband, that gives them a measure of economic independence and self-employment, a measure of freedom, as well as a common ground and a common satisfaction. Such a household economy may employ the disciplines and skills of housewifery [or house-husbandry!] of carpentry and other trades of building and maintenance, of gardening and other branches of subsistence agriculture, and even of woodlot management and wood-cutting. It may also involve a “cottage industry” of some kind, such as a small literary enterprise. […]
I know that I am in dangerous territory, and so I had better be plain: what I have to say about marriage and household I mean to apply to men as much as to women. I do not believe that there is anything better to do than to make one’s marriage and household, whether one is a man or a woman. I do not believe that “employment outside the home” is as valuable or important or satisfying as employment at home, for either men or women. It is clear to me from my experience as a teacher, for example, that children need an ordinary daily association with both parents. They need to see their parents at work; they need, at first, to play at the work they see their parents doing, and then they need to work with their parents. It does not matter so much that this working together should be what is called “quality time,” but it matters a great deal that the work done should have the dignity of economic value.”
Berry is describing a fundamental shift in values here, where domesticity becomes central, rather than tangential, to the identity of both men and women, and the work of home-making and child-rearing is given comparable “dignity” to outside work that rakes in the dough. Of course many people, myself included, find their job outside the home to be very meaningful and satisfying, but I agree with Berry that employment within the home is significantly undervalued in our society, and that needs to change.
In my reading of Berry, it doesn’t matter who makes the money; the money is not ear-marked as “his” or “hers.” The prominence of the “breadwinner” role is displaced by what one might call the “breadmakers,” husbands and wives who both work to make their home stable, loving, productive — whether or not they are also employed beyond the home.
A couple of days ago, Michael and I began talking about the possibility of him continuing to be a stay-at-home dad. We were sitting outside on our back patio, steaks on the grill, baby wiggling on a blanket on the grass, a light wind blowing through with the promise of summer. It was an idyllic moment, and I happened to be paying attention – enough to feel overwhelmingly grateful.
Then, a thought occurred to me: if Michael and I were both working full-time, this moment wouldn’t be happening. He probably wouldn’t be home yet, and I’d be throwing something easy and boring together for dinner (my culinary skills are stunted at best). We’d have only a small window of time together before putting the baby down for the night. The fresh greens on my plate and the abundant backyard garden around us wouldn’t exist, because Michael wouldn’t have time to maintain them. Our life would be significantly different than it is now and has been for months.
It has always been the plan for Michael to start applying for teaching jobs again and go back to work in the fall. But suddenly I feel the need to ask, why? Why mess with something that seems to be working for us?
Of course, it’s not easy to shirk societal values. It’s scary to choose the option that gives us minimal savings, less financial security, less status. And it’s certainly Michael who is making the more subversive choice, who will have to routinely and awkwardly field the question, “So, what do you do?” The myths about masculinity so apparent in the Fox clip are arguably more intact than cultural myths about femininity. We’re accustomed to the mother who works outside the home, but not the father who chooses to work only within it – a reality acknowledged by the Pew Research findings:
While the vast majority of Americans (79%) reject the idea that women should return to their traditional roles, the new Pew Research survey finds that the public still sees mothers and fathers in a different light when it comes to evaluating the best work-family balance for children. About half (51%) of survey respondents say that children are better off if a mother is home and doesn’t hold a job, while just 8% say the same about a father.
Of course, Michael and I are privileged in the sense that living on one income is a viable option for us. According to the Pew Study, the median family income of married female breadwinners is $80,000 annually; I make just over half of that, but that is still enough to get by on, if we choose to live simply and forego middle class luxuries like eating out, going on vacation, owning a second car, and buying new clothes, cable TV, magazine subscriptions, etc.
I know that Michael and I aren’t the only ones wrestling with these decisions. I have many friends who are choosing to “lean out” – and some of them are men. My friend who sent me the Fox News clip, John Meindersee II, recently made the choice to work part-time in the service industry in order to be more present to his family and to invest in his “cottage industry” of designing board game apps. No doubt he could be making more money working full-time in the financial sector, where he’s worked before, but he and his wife, Caity, are deliberately choosing to live by a different set of values.
And just yesterday, coincidentally, one of my favorite bloggers, Deja Earley, wrote about her family’s decision to leave her husband’s job behind and relocate across the country in order to pursue a more flexible, family-centered vision of The Good Life – even though this puts them in a more precarious position financially.
We are all new parents, we all have small babies, and we are all circling around the same questions: How to be more present to our children and loved ones? How to make a home? How to live a full life?
So maybe the talking heads are right. Maybe the social order is being undermined – not because there are more female breadwinners, but because some young families are abandoning the paradigm of the breadwinner altogether. And maybe that’s a good thing.
Just now, after spending about thirty minutes getting Julian to fall asleep for the night, I turned on the kettle to make some tea, sat down on the couch, and typed those two words.
Then, right on cue, as if he could sense that I was on the verge of productivity, Julian started crying, and I went back in to soothe him to sleep again.
What a perfect little microcosm of what my life is like at the moment. I’m all over the place. If writing happens at all, it happens in fragments between the napping and feeding and cleaning and folding and diapering and bathing and baby-entertaining.
This post, in fact, is emerging from the primordial ooze of notes that I tapped out one-handed on my iPhone in the dark with a half-asleep baby suctioned on one boob. That is what writing looks like for me these days. That is what life looks like.
My college roommate used to give me grief about being an “overachiever,” an accusation that rankled me at the time, but I’ve recently realized that she was totally right. She had me pegged. I’m an overachiever – a condition that is fundamentally at odds with the reality of parenthood.
I’ve been running myself into the ground the past few weeks, trying and mostly failing to do dozens of things at once — to be, simultaneously, a stellar mama/writer/wife/professor/blogger/homemaker. I’m in the throes of my second head cold in only two weeks. My left eyelid has been twitching for three days straight. I’m ragged.
Ergo, I’ve decided to make some changes. First, I’m going to train my hair to go several days between washes, so it will hopefully be less obvious when I don’t have time to shower. And, second: I’m going to become a mediocre blogger. On purpose.
By that I mean that I’m no longer going to painstakingly follow the 10 Commandments of Successful Blogging (of which there are only, actually, 5).
Commandments #1 and #2: Post 2-3 times a week. Post only on weekday mornings.*
(*Because apparently only weirdos like me do most of their online reading on nights and weekends.)
This is probably my one chance in life to be a despot, so I might as well take it. Instead of holding myself to a specific number of posts for week, or specific topics, I’m going to write whatever I want to write, whenever I feel like writing it.
I can’t post 2-3 times a week. Let’s be real. My life is too unpredictable and chaotic. And sometimes, when I actually get a baby-free, work-free moment, I don’t feel like writing. Instead, I might feel like watching British crime drama from the 90s, courtesy of Netflix. (Plots were so much more thrilling when no one had a cell phone and everyone had a terrible haircut.)
No blogging schedule for me. I want to write when inspired, and when I have the time and energy to craft something meaningful. I need to give myself permission to take breaks from the blog when I need to, when life demands it of me, without feeling guilty or panicked that my readership will suddenly disappear.
Commandment #3: Find your “niche” and stick with it.
Ugh, the dreaded niche.
If a wry mommy blog married an ambivalent feminist blog in a Quaker church with an irreverent priest officiating, and a scattering of academics and celebrity gossip columnists in attendance, this blog would be the strange progeny of that union.
I used to worry a lot about this niche thing. When I wrote about being a mama, I worried that I’d alienate my readers who aren’t parents. When I wrote about feminism, I’d worry that I’d alienate the mommy crowd. When I wrote about faith, I worried that I’d alienate the feminists. And so on.
So I guess my niche is not having a niche. My blog is all over the map, because I am all over the map. I don’t feel like I belong to any one camp. None of the labels quite fit. But you know what I’ve realized? That’s probably true for many of my readers. Here we are, wandering through life, never feeling like we quite belong anywhere, and the irony is that the people around us, the ones who seem so secure in their identities and tribal affiliations — well, they probably feel like misfits, too.
I am a misfit. This is a misfit blog. The misfit blog of a despot who will write about whatever she wants and post on a Sunday evening if she feels like it.
I might write about baby poop. I might write about sexism. I might write about how depressing it is to shop for a swimsuit after having a baby. I might write about how The Bachelor is weirdly like a modern retelling of the biblical book of Esther. I might write about how I used to love my cats, but now they mostly annoy me, because my house feels like it’s teeming with whiny creatures who NEED something from me ALL THE TIME.
This is Mama Unabridged, right? Time to un-abridge myself.
Commandment #4: Promote your blog on social media.
Bleccch. This is the worst rule. The most effective, I’ll admit, but also the most soul-killing. My relationship with social media is truly love/hate. I love that it enables me to connect with interesting people and ideas, but I hate that it makes me feel like I’m in junior high again, awakening long-dormant anxieties about popularity and appearance and achievements and being part of the “in” crowd.
I have a Facebook page for this blog, and I occasionally post interesting links or anecdotes on there, but I honestly don’t do much, because I don’t want to be annoying. I know the Blogging Commandments say I should be blowing up your newsfeed with awesomeness multiple times a day, but, well, I’m too busy trying to find time to drink the cup of coffee that I have now reheated NINE TIMES since this morning. So…
Twitter is the worst. Most of the time on Twitter, I feel like I’m talking to myself in a crowded restaurant. Sometimes Twitter is interesting and useful. Sometimes it just triggers my outsider complex, which is why it can be helpful to buffer my tweets. (If you don’t know what that means, buy yourself a congratulatory drink and vow NEVER TO FIND OUT – just rest assured it is not something dirty, even though it sounds vaguely like Scottish sexual harassment. “Come on, luv, let ol’ Seamus buffer your tweets…”)
Long story short: I’ll keep using social media, but in sporadic intervals, with regular Sabbaths in between. I’ll do cameos. I’ll be that unpredictable sitcom neighbor who might burst through the door at any time, make a few wisecracks, and then disappear again.
Commandment #5: Write well.
I’m going to break all the other rules, but this one I’ll just bend. Being a mediocre blogger doesn’t mean I can’t be a good writer. I’ll keep the goal of writing well, with the caveat that sometimes I won’t. Sometimes, like right now, I’m just going to write crap and then post it. There is no muse here. There is only mucus and toilet paper – because, yes, I’m one of those people who views actual Kleenex as an extravagance.
But, in all seriousness, this is the only rule I care about. What I love about blogging is that it keeps me writing regularly, and it enables me to connect, even momentarily, with all sorts of people who—for whatever reason—resonate with what I write. That’s pretty cool. So, I’ll try to write interesting things for you to read. And sometimes I’ll succeed.
And now I’m going to break one last commandment by refusing to end this post with anything inspiring or poignant. Instead, I’m just going to end with a video of my baby laughing because his dad is waving dirty socks in his face. You’re welcome.
Today’s a big day. You’re walking across campus toward the gym, toward the abrupt end of the familiar path you’ve been walking for years. This is what you’ve prepared for; this is the finish line that has glimmered on the horizon through all those years of schooling and dreaming. Today’s agenda is crammed, but tomorrow will open into the wild unknown.
Who will I be? Whom will I love? Where will I land? How will I make my mark?
You’re worried about a lot of things – trust me, I know – even though you’re trying to play it cool under that thin black robe. You are surprised at its flimsiness; you thought it would feel more substantial on your shoulders. You thought this day would feel more substantial, too, but it’s already gliding by.
You’ve smuggled a pen and a crossword puzzle torn from today’s Oregonian inside your sleeve, a visible sign that this ceremony is SO not a big deal to you. The puzzle is a lie, of course, an attempt to give your mind a red herring, to distract it from anxieties that buzz around your eyes like gnats.
You are worried about love.
This makes you feel pathetic, and like a complete failure as a feminist, but it’s true nonetheless. You’ve fallen in love fairly recently. It’s a risky, fragile love, one sprung from the ruins of last year’s epic heartbreak, when you were emotionally decimated and had to pull yourself out of despair with several rounds of anti-depressants.
That heartbreak is still alive for you. The love dried up, but the taste of rejection remains in your mouth, at the back of your throat. You’re worried it will never leave, but I promise it will. You’ll gradually forget this guy who broke your heart. Not too far in your future, you’ll stop thinking of him entirely – aside from that occasional fantasy that you randomly run into him, on a day you look particularly a-mazing, and have a chance to tell him what a wonderful life you have now. You want him to know that he never really broke you. Which is true. He didn’t.
And now this second love has appeared, even though you are still reeling. I admit, it’s hardly the formula for a healthy, lasting relationship: you’re on the rebound, and he’s in the throes of an existential crisis, living in a Portland townhouse with a bunch of other guys, who are also in the throes of existential crises. Everyone’s looking for answers at the bottom of cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon. No one is showering regularly. It’s a bit of a mess.
He is a man at sea, and you’re on the shoreline, beckoning – trying not to look too desperate.
You’re supposed to go to France at the end of summer, to teach English to bitchy French youths in Rouen for a year. You’re supposed to set out on this adventure solo, untethered to anyone. But, secretly, you’re already thinking of not going, even though you won’t admit this to yourself – and certainly not to him.
Well, I like spoilers, so I’ll tell you what happens. You give up France for him. And it might surprise you to find out that, in a little over a year, you marry this guy. He gets over his existential crisis (for the most part) and starts showering regularly (for the most part). And even though it seems like a recipe for disaster right now, things turn out really well. Beautifully, in fact. You are grotesquely happy together. And you make cute babies.
After you get married, people will ask, “So how do you like being married?” And you’ll be unsure how to answer, because although you love being married to Michael, you also now realize how hellish married life could be if you had entangled yourself with the wrong person. You’ll think about the guy before Michael, how miserable you’d make each other, and you’ll feel strangely grateful that he broke your heart.
You are worried about God.
Or, more accurately, you’re worried about Not God. You’re worried about God’s absence.
Doubt is a source of fear and guilt for you right now, I know. Your faith was once like a completed Jenga game, a tower of smooth wooden blocks that fit perfectly together, no spaces between or unfinished tiers. This tower did not move – but neither did it breathe. It stood tall, but precariously so; if the wind came through, the blocks would be scattered. So you’ve had to keep the windows locked up tight.
This was faith for you – until you arrived at college, where someone said: Open the windows. Let the air in. Breathe.
You grew up confusing faith with certainty, and now that the certainty is gone, you are worried your faith has self-immolated in a final, futile protest.
I want to offer you some comfort. You’ll realize this for yourself in a couple of years, but I’ll go ahead and tell you now: this is not a real death. This is a rebirth. A startling bird of fire will rise up from those ashes. Your faith is in the midst of metamorphosis, unfurling from something rigid and immobile into something beautiful, mysterious, and uncaged.
You will grow to understand that to be human is to live in a state of unknowing, and the doubt you now fear is actually a vital dimension of your faith.
You are worried about THE FUTURE.
Everybody is asking, “What’s next? What are you going to do with your life?” As if there is only one thing one does with one’s life. You don’t know how to answer that question, and that’s okay. You don’t have to know. You’ll do many things.
I’ll be honest, though. It will be hard to transition into post-college life, where you are not told, every three or four months, how well you are doing and how you should improve. You’ve been trained to live relentlessly looking forward; you’ve been taught to anchor yourself in the future, to root your self-worth in achievable goals and the approval of your parents, your pastors, your professors, your peers.
You have learned to live impatiently, anxiously waiting for that final moment of Arrival.
But it will never come. Or, what I mean to say is: that moment is always already here. This is it; you have arrived. Your “real life” doesn’t begin on the day you graduate, or the day you get married, or the day you become a mother for the first time. Those big moments are wonderful and exhilarating, but they flash and vanish. “Real life” is what happens in between.
If there is any piece of advice I can offer you, it is this (and I say this as much to myself as to you, because we still share many neuroses):
Don’t think of your life as a ladder to climb, rung by rung, toward an always-shifting terminus. Imagine a spiral, pinwheeling outward from the present moment, the murky past and the inchoate future swirling around you, inscrutable. You’re in the epicenter of that storm, and that is where you must learn to live, in the quiet eye of now.
Try, even just for today, your graduation day, to forget about the future entirely. Stop searching out there for that Holy Grail that will make you feel complete, because it’s actually right here, in the flickering light of the present. Look at your hands; you’re holding it already. Raise it high to toast what surrounds you before it all disappears, and take a long, soulful drink.
Then, go do that crossword.