You think I would have figured some of this stuff out by now, seeing as I have a few years of experience in the motherhood department. My oldest is nearly 19 years old (freshman in college) and my youngest is 18 months old. Five kids in total: three teenagers, a preschooler, and a toddler. Many people smack their heads, V8 style, when I tell them I have five kids. As in, who on Earth would be nuts enough to have five kids? I don’t usually give it much thought. Well, obviously I didn’t give it any thought at all, or I never would have had five children. Duh.
Just this past month, I had an epiphany about motherhood — something that helped me understand what fuels the “mommy wars” (mothers working outside the home versus SAHMs). I sort of straddle the two groups, as I work from home 30 hours a week. I have a babysitter here in my house three full days a week, so I’m not on duty during that time, but the kids often run into my workspace and I inevitably interact with them throughout the day. They know I’m here. When I was nursing, my babysitter would bring the baby to me for feeding. But I was fortunate to have that luxury. Without question, I get a significant break from having to prepare food and change diapers and be the one in charge of keeping everyone alive. Oh, and I get to focus on something aside from my kids: my work.
While my work has many stresses — impossible deadlines, panicked clients, difficult personalities, too much to do in too little time — it’s still my own domain. I have clients, not bosses. It’s up to me to prioritize and manage my workload. I’m really only accountable to myself. If my clients aren’t happy, then they won’t be my clients for very long. (And I have the delicious flexbility of being able to run out for a couple of hours to get my hair done or go to a doctor’s appointment without dragging the little ones with me. That’s huge.)
I find that on my workdays, when I step into my office/library/workspace at 8:30 in the morning, a wave of relief washes over me. I don’t always love my work, and it isn’t my reason for living, but I do love being the master of my own domain, and not having to keep anyone else alive. I’ll be honest. On the days when I don’t work, I often look at the clock and think “My God, it’s only 3:00. What are we going to do until dinnertime?” On my work days, I never look at the clock and wish it read a few hours later than it does. This is why SAHMs are like: “You just don’t understand how hard this is.“ And the women who are earning paychecks are like: “I work my butt off all day for a difficult boss and THEN I get to come home to my second job — domestic life. You just don’t understand how hard this is.”
I get it. Working fulltime outside the house is extremely challenging. (I’ve never done it, so I can only imagine. It seems like an impossible proposition.) But staying at home with your young kids fulltime requires a very different kind of sacrifice, even if you love being there. I hate to say it, because I’m sure some won’t like me for it, but I think that the sacrifice is you.
I recently had several occasions to spend some time away from my little ones. A handful of long days out of the house, and then earlier this month, I went away with two of my teenagers for three full days to visit the oldest at college. The two little ones stayed at home with dad.
I began to notice something interesting. When I am not with my little guys, I am somehow more myself. I found that the way I parent my teenagers was actually different when we were away from the toddler and preschooler. I had the time to formulate a complete thought; I had the ability to focus and connect with the older kids. I connected with them as me, not as a harried mother. I began to recognize myself again. Oh, right! This is who I am. I felt more emotionally centered; less like I might burst into tears just because two unrelated things happened to go wrong at the same time. I had reserves. There is a French phrase that doesn’t translate very well but described the sensation exactly: I felt good in my skin.
I’m fascinated by this discovery. I am not saying that I don’t love spending time with my young boys, because I do. Yes, there are challenges, but there is a lot of fun, a lot of laughs, and a lot of cuddles. I have always adored the period of infancy. I will admit, however, that during the weeks when I’m short on babysitting or end up spending more time with the boys than usual, it’s not always so much fun. I am coming to understand that I need my three work days to do my thing. Even though my work can be stressful, it is at times satisfying. And, most importantly, it doesn’t involve keeping anyone alive.
There is something about the intensity of caring for very young children — about up to first grade — that is profoundly draining. They need you. It’s not enough just to be there. They want your attention; you need to feed them; you need to change them; you need to read them that Elmo book — the one you can’t stand — 834 times in two days. You need to pluck them off the bookshelves before they kill themselves in an avalanche. You need to come up with yet another way to entertain them on a rainy day, when at least one of your kids is too little for the craft project but just big enough to wreck it for an older sibling. The sheer noise factor — shouting, crying, screaming, fighting, talking, jumping off the furniture, chasing the dog, electronic toys, “musical” instruments — is often enough to make you want to poke your eye out with a Brio train. They gift you with moments of independent play, and perhaps a decent nap schedule, but there is nothing that you can really count on.
As the kids get older, you can position yourself to take advantage of those gifted moments of opportunity to do something on your own list, but it isn’t until the kids are at least 3 that you can stall them for any length of time when you’re trying to get something done. There are days — and nights — that are utterly filled with pee and poop and vomit. During some stretches it seems like you haven’t had a solid, uninterrupted night of sleep in years. (Because you haven’t.) Your time is largely spent wiping noses, picking the same toys up off the floor over and over again, and finding ways to be cheerful and support your child’s emotional and intellectual development even though you’re dog tired and really just want to go take a nap. Every day seems to be a variation on the same theme, which at time feels more like Darth Vader’s theme from Star Wars than anything Raffi might perform.
Then, eventually, the kids start going to sleep at a reasonable, predictable hour — which you’ve been looking forward to for months years — but it turns out you’re still so brain dead by 8:00 p.m. that you can’t carry on a coherent conversation with your spouse or a relative who calls to chat. Forget about working on your novel or starting a new oil painting. Somehow your time is still not your own, even when you’re not technically on duty. And I assert that you cannot be yourself until your time is once again your own, for more than an hour or two at a time. (Although an hour or two is a great place to start.)
When does your time become your own again? Kids grow. They go to school. They become more independent. You no longer have to worry about keeping them alive from moment to moment. Gradually, you come back to life, sort of like a slo-mo version of Michael J. Fox in Back to the Future when his parents kiss on the dance floor and he reappears in the snapshot tucked into the neck of his guitar. One day, you are you again. Sure, now you’re driving kids all over town and trying to lure them to the dinner table for family time, but this lacks the intensity of parenting a 2-year-old.
There are lots of wonderful things that happen while you’re taking care of young children, but I don’t think that you can really see the gravity of what that experience is like until you come out the other side. I was actually OUT when I stepped back in. My third child was 10 years old when I had my fourth. Perhaps that’s why this realization has hit me so hard. That, and the fact that I’m 40 now and I feel a little more selfish about “me” time. I’ve spent my entire adult life being a mother. I love being a mother, but I’m ready to also just be me. From my current vantage point, the energy and focus required in caring for young children makes it impossible to also be myself. The two seem like incompatible objectives — a more all-encompassing twist on our discussion of A Divided Heart.
I imagine that there are many mothers out there who simply love every aspect of motherhood and flit through their days like Mary Poppins and would probably tell me that I should never have had so many kids, seeing as I’m not really up for the job. Maybe that’s true. Maybe those mothers already knew who they were before they had kids, so it’s not as difficult for them to stay in touch with that inner anchor.
In the short term, I’d like to brainstorm ways that mothers of young children can stay connected to themselves, their real selves, while their children are young. I firmly believe that maintaining the creative self is absolutely essential. (Of course I do. I’m writing a book about that.) Finding ways to spend a bit of time alone is also vitally important, although often difficult to accomplish.
Oh, and just for the record, I’m going away again this weekend. Three days. Flying away by myself. And I plan to practice being me while I’m away, as much as possible.
What do you think? Does any of this ring true to you, or do I just sound like a cranky mother in need of Prozac?