Thursday, September 2, 2010

More Musings on Stay at Home Parenthood

An old friend of mine just became a stay at home mom.  She was head of her department at the high school where she taught and said she teared up watching the school buses go by on the first day, unsure if she's happy with her decision or not.  It shocked me to find out that she's staying home.  We haven't lived in the same town since graduate school, but she's always been career oriented and competitive in her field.  She moved into the position as department head very soon after starting her teaching career, and always referred to work as an important part of her identity.  After e-mailing back and forth, I think she's just as shocked to find herself at home with her infant son.  She's really struggling with the choice to leave her job, but said she can't imagine waking at 4am to deliver her son into someone else's hands, only to retrieve him for the final few hours of his day.  She said she'd love part-time work, but it's hard to find, and so low paying in her area that she'd be trading her salary for childcare and taking nothing home for her efforts.  And there's the extra question that teachers sometimes struggle with:  Why am I paying someone else to care for my child so that I can care for other people's children?  Ultimately, she found she couldn't answer that question to her satisfaction.  So she's home, asking herself instead whether or not she's making the right choice, and how she will cobble together a professional identity after years of schooling including a Master's degree, time spent climbing the ladder, and now suddenly this moment where she finds herself staring into a professional void.

Another friend put her six week old into full time childcare to return to her elementary teaching position for the start of the year.  She makes no secret of the fact that she longs to be a stay at home mom and it breaks her heart that she can't afford to, but she seems cheerfully resigned to the choices she's made, even as she openly pines for the chance to choose differently.

I think of my own upbringing, and wonder what it means to me to be able "to afford" to be a stay at home mom.  Am I willing to sell my car, and take two city buses with two children to get to the pediatrician's office, or drive them an hour in the morning and then again in the afternoon to transport my husband to work on days we need the car?  Can we afford double the gas on those days?  Can we afford a bus pass?  Would we sell the house, and live somewhere smaller, or in a worse neighborhood, or go back to renting?  Stop eating whole grains, or (worse, in my mind) start cooking them all from scratch?  Most of the time, for middle class people, whether or not we can afford something is really a question of what we're willing to sacrifice.  I think I'd sacrifice my car, without too much heartbreak.  Both the grocery store and the pharmacy are within walking distance.  It would be awful to lose our house.  We really love our house, and to downgrade our neighborhood would be a risky proposition.  We're only one city step up from sketchy as it is.  Whole grains are great, but my Irish ancestors have survived on starchy potatoes for generations, and I imagine I could do the same.  Cooking everything from scratch sounds downright horrible.  I voluntarily clean the toilet so that my husband will cook, but he doesn't bake.  I hate the kitchen like kids hate the dentist and evangelicals hate Satan (or worse, Obama).  Okay, maybe not quite that much (I don't openly refer to my kitchen as the Antichrist, although now that I've thought of it, I may start), but you get the idea.  So it's all a question of what to trade in, what to keep, what to barter.  What's on the table, and what's kept firmly in the pocket, not up for offer no matter the price?

My husband and I attended a baby shower this past weekend for a couple who married last year and are thrilled to be expecting their first baby, a boy.  She's in her mid-forties and overjoyed to be halfway through a healthy pregnancy after at least one miscarriage.  She works full time and hates her job, but feels lucky to be employed at all.  Her husband can't find work and has been expending his energy on their brand new house, getting things settled for their family and ready for the new baby.  He wants very badly to find work, and is struggling through the best he can to stay upbeat at home while searching for work.  She's hoping to find something else and leave her present job.  They're considering the fact that dad may end up staying home with the baby by default, although it's not what either of them would choose in an ideal world.

As we were driving home from the party, my husband remarked:  Well, I found one side effect of staying home with the kiddo all summer.  I couldn't think of anything to talk about.  That took me by surprise, as my husband never lacks for conversation when I come home from work.  Then again, I suppose if you haven't seen your old friends in a year or so, perhaps you don't want to recite your grocery list or catch them up on the latest gossip from your online gaming community.  I don't know though, those online gamers do have some juicy gossip!  In any case, it was funny to hear my husband voice the same complaint that I frequently read from stay at home parents, and after only two months at home with a toddler.  And truth be told, I've no interest whatsoever in hearing about the groceries, but it's never stopped him from telling me every single thing he's bought each week, with relish!  Ah, the sweet man loves both food and details, and suffers the misfortune of being married to me, who can't concentrate on either one without eyes glazing over.  But he'll be back at work next week, and we'll see if he feels any more prepared to converse after spending some time in the classroom.  It was interesting, in any case, to find that he had the very same feelings as many a stay at home mom.

Just this week I had a moment of clarity about what I'll call my fitness jobby (it's somewhere between a job and a hobby).  Now is not the time for it.  I may keep my one to two yoga classes a week, and I may not.  That's a question I've been asking myself as this pregnancy progresses.  But I show up, and I go through the motions, and I go home.  I don't read, and I don't research, and I don't plan, and I don't look for new things to teach.  Nor will I, probably, for the next few years.  It's been a little tough for me to swallow that, but I think I'm getting there.  Life is a series of trade-offs, whether you have children or not.  My twenties were spent staring marvel-eyed at all the beautiful options.  My thirties have thus far been about choosing my own, and making them work.

As I move deeper into both motherhood and my position at work, I'm surprised to find that my new job is expanding into who I am, stretching its tentacles outward into my definition of myself.  I've been a teacher so long that it was always an integral part of my self-image.  But I taught so many things, and in so many venues, that no particular job ever laid claim to any large part of my self-definition.  I taught preschool, and yoga to seniors.  I taught summer camp, and inner-city after-school programs for troubled middle school youth.  I taught special education to affluent students, and mind-body mediation classes on private religious retreats (I know, me!?).  I was a teacher when I babysat, and when I worked with adults with physical and mental disabilities in water aerobics classes.  I was a teacher whenever and wherever I wanted to be, and the role may have defined me, but the location and the paycheck, and the particular title I was assigned at any given moment did not.

Suddenly I'm an administrator, something that alternately amuses and surprises me.  I still think of myself, at times, as a barefoot hippie girl dancing in circles near a campfire.  I say to myself:  I am a school administrator, and I laugh out loud.  How much that matters to me today is different from how much it mattered three months ago.  How much will it matter a year from now?  Will my feelings about working change as my job seeps deeper into my definition of self, and I move from being a mother of one to a mother of two?  Will my feelings about motherhood change?

It seems as if, once you make certain choices, your road should necessarily narrow.  As if the smorgasbord of options I had before me in my twenties should by now be winnowed down to a manageable buffet.  Instead, I find that every door that closes opens two more.  Even as I choose, each day, just to do the things before me, I still find myself marveling at the vast array of options, still staring wide-eyed at the seemingly limitless choices we are lucky enough to be able to make.  They say too many choices causes anxiety, but I have a high threshold for ambiguity, and I thrive in change.  I wouldn't choose to be anywhere else, with fewer choices and more stability.  I like this open field.  I like this moment, somewhere in the middle of a million choices, where we move fluid from one place to another.  I like the idea that all of our stories are being written as we live, and the scripts are as varied as the players.  I like to think my babies will someday inherit the open road.  It's scary, I guess, if you dwell on the dangers.  But what a freeing place to be!

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