I’m an Adult Woman With Kids in Search of Myself (and I need some new options)

This week, I’m rereading The Feminine Mystique. Look forward to more posts about how it resonates with my life as a young mother nearly fifty years later.

When I was growing up, all I wanted was to settle down. I wanted to move to a small town where everyone would know my name. After 4 moves in as many years, I wanted to live in the country, preferably close to my family, and never move. I have long considered myself a bit of a homebody and not much of a risk-taker. This has been backed up by a long history of being pretty wussy about change and trying new things (like driving a car, flying on planes, etc).

But lately I’ve been extremely restless. My uncertainty about the future and desire for change has taken on a new urgency. Maybe it’s the fact that we’re in the waning weeks of my final semester in grad school; maybe it’s my anxiety about how to fill the time as a (mostly) stay-at-home parent. Something in me is scared and the thing I’m scared of is: stasis. In reflecting on my life history and how I got here, I’ve been reevaluating myself and my choices, and I have come to the conclusion that I am a change junkie. I don’t often seek out action in the physical or visceral sense, but I seek out constant stimulation in my mind. In high school, I shifted from obsession to obsession, immersing myself in worlds of music and books. I fantasized constantly about what was next: a guaranteed ticket out of Oklahoma, a man to love me, and music. I wrote long stories about this future life (yes: I will share them with you, later). Then I had college, an intense time packed with experimentation, work, and fun. Grad school was the ultimate, brainy gamble: a career version of Russian roulette, except the revolver has five bullets instead of one. Soon after starting grad school, I became obsessed with having a baby and learned every single possible thing about babies and birth and breastfeeding. Then I changed programs. Then I had a baby. Then I (accidentally) got pregnant again. Have I mentioned that the longest I’ve lived in a house or apartment since leaving my parents’ home at 18 is 3 years? And every semester in school is a fresh start. That’s 3 months before a total shake-up.

I’m a change junkie.

Nowadays, it’s manifest in little ways — the constant email checking, constant Google reader reloading – and big ways: desperation for a job or a big project; thinking about a new baby or moving or whatever. It’s all part of the same giant problem I’m staring down:  I’m scared of being bored. I’m scared that in three weeks, I’ll start the “rest of my life:” a life lived in one place, doing the same things, with the same family. I keep trying to implement my Radical Thing-Doing plan, but I’m doing the dishes thinking, “Jesus, I just keep having to do the dishes.” I clean the floor and in an instant, it’s showered by cornbread crumbs. I’m not getting zen.

In college, when I read Betty Friedan and Anne Sexton and became a feminist, part of the powerful persuasion of second wave feminism was its revulsion at the tedium of conventional motherhood. I shared their utter outrage at the marriage and family manuals and women’s magazines of the 50s and 60s, which glibly suggested that caring for a home was as stimulating and challenging as traveling, writing, working, anything else. That in the day-to-day challenges, emotions, interactions, and triumphs, a smart woman could find satisfaction. I hated that notion. It insulted me. I told my then-boyfriend (now husband) that my worst nightmare would be a house in the suburbs and a minivan full of kids. I think that has carried over a bit in my reaction to mommy and lifestyle blogs that make it all seem so satisfying, so engaging and rewarding. I don’t find it to be that way. I know there are Moms who do… I envy them. I believe mothering should be defined by the relationship it represents – mother and child – but it is often discussed as and characterized by the things mothers do, especially in the early years when, as Jen eloquently describes, we have so much intimate participation in every functional aspect of our children’s lives.

Having kids certainly changed my perspective on mothering as a nightmare: I deeply wanted them, and I love having them in my life, and I wouldn’t trade them for anything. But, this shit is not working. I am struggling – really struggling – to find myself – my whole, individual self – in any version of “adult woman with kids” available out there. (Saying “mother” always, already feels so loaded. I’m a woman, and I have kids. I’m trying to figure myself out here.)

I don’t identify as a SAHM: as I’ve said before, I’m mothering by default. I’ve done the natural mothering thing and philosophically, I’m on board, but once you move past the urgency of infancy, AP is compatible with almost any lifestyle. I don’t have to SAHM it up to be an attached mom.

While I can and do “work” at “home” – trying to grade papers while the kids make a mess with waffle syrup, or writing a blog entry in a running car with a sleeping 4 year old in the backseat – it isn’t exactly work, and it’s not exactly fulfilling. I’m not about to start my own Scentsy franchise or whatever. Most of my “working at home” is characterized by the desperate desire to be left the fuck alone so I can concentrate. The push-pull is intense when you are constantly interruptible.

At least for now, I’m not a career woman. While momming 24/7 seems like too much, working full-time feels wrong at my core, and as long as my husband has a 50 hour a week job that pays the bills, it makes sense for me to spend more time with the girls, which requires being at home and doing all that home stuff. I don’t feel a strong calling to a full-time occupation. Nothing I can do is worth the sacrifice of 90% of my time with my kids, at this age, anyway. (Writing? But that doesn’t pay.) While I adore teaching, I’ve worked with diffident eighteen year olds long enough to know that investing my identity completely in their success is a recipe for a nervous breakdown. A job won’t make me feel better at mothering: if anything, the more I’ve been away from the home this year (struggling towards comps in grad school), the more chaotic and distressed our home lives became. Things fell apart. I am needed, however much I may suck at domestic tasks: something about me is a kind of glue to our household.

A few months back, I read an interesting post on this topic at Her Bad Mother. Catherine Conners recently moved her family from Canada to New York so she could pursue her dream career. Because of this transition, her husband became the caregiver in their family, and he… hated it. I could relate completely to her description of his feelings about stay-at-home-parenting:

If I write the words Kyle does not like being a stay-at-home dad, Kyle does not like being dependent upon me, Kyle is not comfortable being the ‘wife,’ it just sounds wrong, it seems open to misinterpretation, to misunderstanding on the part of anyone who would read those words and not get that he loves his kids, and that he loves being with his kids, and that he loves me and is proud of me, and that he wouldn’t want me to be anyone other than who I am, that all of these things are true and important, more important than the ‘and yet…’ that follows them. And yet he doesn’t like being at home I cannot do justice to the complicatedness of his reality. I cannot do justice to the complicatedness of his feelings.

I can relate completely. Kyle and I are on the same team here! Wow! But can you imagine this being about a wife? This family been in this new life arrangement for a few months – how many years of dissatisfaction with stay-at-home-motherhood do women weather without anyone being seriously concerned about their fulfillment, or seeking alternatives? Other than fellow Moms who completely get where I’m coming from, does anyone read my blog and feel sympathetic to the “complicatedness” of my feelings and reality? I think it speaks to Catherine’s own complicated experience as a mother that she can sympathize and respect her husband’s experience, even as it imperils this fragile plan they created so she could pursue her own dreams. But as I write this, I imagine readers stumbling across me and being like, “Ugh, another bored white mom complaining about her privilege.”

I decided to reread The Feminine Mystique because more and more I’m dissatisfied with the options available to me – which can be boiled down to public/private or public/domestic, work/home – but despite wave after wave, there still aren’t many in-betweens or alternatives. Either you find yourself in or through the home (SAHM, WAHM), or you have to reject the home (WOHM). Right? So what else is there? Is there a place outside the home where I can find myself as a woman and a mom? Is there an out-walking-around-mom? A driving-around-and-talking-mom? A reading-and-writing-sometimes-cranky-always-loving-always-thinking-mom? We need more options for individual fulfillment beyond work and home. We need some new spheres.

9 responses to “I’m an Adult Woman With Kids in Search of Myself (and I need some new options)

  1. I hear you with the change junkie stuff. By 27 I realized I had lived in 26 different residences. Now that I have a family and we are settled and own a house, things have to be different, stable for a while. Right now, having small kids, it’s definitely a big transition for those of us who love to move and to frequently pursue new careers and hobbies. But I think motherhood changes as your children get older and allows you to focus on your own pursuits more. I look forward to including older children on more grown-up interests too (reading books, running, etc.)

  2. Other than fellow Moms who completely get where I’m coming from, does anyone read my blog and feel sympathetic to the “complicatedness” of my feelings and reality?

    Yes. One thing: when Kyle feels the role he has isn’t enough, we all understand his dissatisfaction. It’s “natural.” Women have to deal with the idea that they’re being untrue to their nature, as well as dissatisfaction with their role’s deficiencies. The external judgements are bad enough, the internalization of social norms has to be far more damaging.

    The personal thing I hope your friends do for you is that we validate your ambition to be the best parent you can be at the same time as we validate your ambition to do more. These seem perfectly normal to me as someone whose wife would probably have died or gone insane, had she been forced to be a SAHM, and who is profoundly grateful that her professional ambition opened up some space for me to be a more engaged father than some other men, both in my generation and in my father’s.

    As for the privilege part–you don’t have to work full time, and that is privilege. But it seems to me that if we make more equitable spaces for women and men who don’t have the privileges we have–if we make it easier for people making minimum wage, or for people who can’t find employment, to raise their kids without diminishing their lives, social justice will trickle up, and a more just world will benefit everyone, especially our children. That’s a little utopian, I know, but the sun is shining, and a person can dream, right?

  3. Holy shite, yes. I get it. WE NEED MORE SPHERES! I am struggling with this so intimately right now. I hate to “choose” between work and home when I feel in so many ways like you do. My profession does not deserve the amount of hours it demands me to be away from my kids. It’s that simple. But the alternatives…so I just have to sit at home? Clean? Cook? What is expected? As much as I LOVE caring for my kids (I do) how fulfilling can it be and for how long? I hate feeling like I am choosing to be a SAHM for no other reason than there are no other good alternatives…

  4. I think what we’re also up against the fact that we are punished, career wise, for having a family. I had an acquaintance, a grad student working toward her PhD in English Lit., tell me that she was baby crazy but holding off because she’d never make tenure if she had one. I know a male ER doctor who said, “we try not to hire too many female docs, because when they take maternity leave, it messes up the schedule too much.” It’s no wonder some of us stay home! It would be nice to find some way to harness the intellect of the parents staying home that want more into something good and productive. And sometimes, I imagine an America with a nationalized daycare system so stellar that the idea of staying at home with your kids, and making them neurotic the way I do by taking SUCH good care of them, actually becomes a liability to their development!

    I, too, am becoming apathetic to “mommy blogs” (except when I want to blog/FB about my own kids, right?;)) and feel that there must be a better way for us to reconnect and contribute to the world. That said, being entertained and intellectually stimulated via online interactions with adults we can’t meet in person (cause we’re stuck at home) does have value.

    I was struggling for intellectual fulfillment as a part-time working SAHM and decided to put my English Lit. degree to work and write a book about a girl stuck in an impossible situation who tries desperately to change it. Now that the book is finished, when I step back and psychoanalyze the story, I realize that in many ways, I was fictionalizing my own feelings of entrapment. While it still remains to be seen if the product of my “entrapment” (my book) is of value to a readership, I do feel less trapped now that I completed my goal. Further, setting the book goal helped me to be okay with a sink full of dirty dishes, children two weeks past needing a hair cut, and a slightly dirty house.

    • I agree that if it was less an either/or situation, there might be less need to commit oneself so fully to one or the other, or to criticize people who make different choices. If less was at stake when you have babies, options would seem more viable.

      I don’t know if I’d have wanted my kids in full-time daycare as infants — I’d really like better options for maternity leave when babies are babies. And, I still hesitate at the suggestion that my choice of vocation should have so much say in who I am as a human being.

      I’m still working this out in my mind.

  5. I think that what you’re describing here is actually a larger American problem though it does seem to affect women disproportionately, or at the very least, more overtly. I have read a bunch of studies that have suggested that a pretty large proportion of men would willingly trade money or “status” in their career to have more time with their families, or more flexible work hours. I think our economic system now relies on us behaving like work should be everything, trump everything (and for diminishing returns now!) and that everything outside of work is worthless. I’m pretty sure this is not how it goes in other “developed” nations. We got fucked by the “Puritan Work Ethic.”

    • Yes, I was thinking about how vacuous the whole “identify with your vocation” thing is for anyone, not just mothers or women. I know Brian feels hamstrung by this as well, considering how he stumbled into a career he doesn’t really identify with, and doesn’t have time to develop any alternative “spheres” of identity either (frustrated guitar player; evenings-and-weekends Dad).

  6. Pingback: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to (mostly) Love Oklahoma: A Tulsa Memoir Part 5 | mama nervosa

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