Tag Archives: Anne Sexton

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.

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Asking Big Questions; Avoiding Molasses Swamp

I like to think of my life as a series of decisive moments: a path forged, full of deliberate, conscious actions so that at any given time, had you asked me about my choices, I could have said something strong and convincing like, “I want to major in a program that will give me breadth in the liberal arts as well as the practical and theoretical grounding I’ll need to be a classroom teacher,” and there I would plant my flag of Genius Plan for Life and you would never question me or have doubts about this Genius Plan for Life because I’d sound so darn convincing when I talked about it.

“It makes complete sense for Brian and I to get married at age 23, because we’ve been together for years, we know each other so well, and our relationship is founded on friendship, so we know it is built to last.” Genius Plan for Life. 

“Graduate school is a great fit for us, because we have so enjoyed the challenge of our honors, upper division humanities courses and we want to do original research and really immerse ourselves in our fields. And, I’ll keep teaching, just in a college context, which has enormous rewards and challenges.” GPFL.

“Two children spaced two years apart is ideal, it keeps everything nice and compact and we know they’ll be best friends.” GPFL.

But underneath those Genius Plans, there are Actual Stories of How it Happened that aren’t nearly as satisfying.

“I bummed around in a few programs but stuck with English Ed because, well, I like English and think teaching would be fun, and by the time I thought of double majoring or something it was going to take too long to do that so I said fuck it.” ASOHIH

“We’re getting married because we’re in love and we don’t want to break up, but it seems weird to us to build our futures around a person we aren’t married to, so we’re making it official.” ASOHIH

“We weren’t ready to do real world work so we decided to stay in college for longer. Then, I had a variety of reasons not to extract myself.” ASOHIH 

“I accidentally got pregnant.” ASOHIH 

I spent so much time in my teenage years fantasizing about my adult life that it seemed impossible I might fuck it up or make any uncalculated move that wasn’t destined for 100% success. I thought adulthood meant (finally!) control over life, and once I had that control I would exercise it completely and perfectly. I never understood the lyrics for “Once In a Lifetime” because I would never be caught off guard by my circumstances.

You may find yourself living in a shotgun shack

You may find yourself in another part of the world

You may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile

You may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife

And you may ask yourself… well, how did I get here?

I would never just “find myself” somewhere with no clue how I’d arrived (let alone a shotgun shack, whatever THAT was). I would never stumble into a life, never accidentally land somewhere sucky by accident. In the Candyland of my future, I would never be stuck in Molasses Swamp: I would always plan ahead, avoid cards with dots, and take rainbow shortcuts when necessary.

Just Say No To Gloppy the Grad School Recruiter

Imagine my shock at age 31 to find myself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful life, in another part of the world, asking myself HOW DID I GET HERE? No Genius Plan in sight. I decided to quit graduate school, a pursuit to which I’ve dedicated a decade of my life, and the thing on which everything else has hinged. Deciding to quit graduate school has prompted a bit of an identity crisis. It’s hardly surprising, considering I’ve spent the last 25 years of my life – with only a single year’s break – in a classroom. All of them as a student, and eight as a teacher. My entire life is built around school: my year starts in August, not January. It isn’t Christmas unless I’m pulling an all-nighter to submit grades before the deadline. Those cookies aren’t for Santa, they’re my reward for getting through another five-pager about the legal drinking age. I decided to date the man I would eventually marry because I wrote an essay about him for my Interpersonal Communications class. School structures my day, my week, my idea of what an hour feels like; my relationships, my activities, my friendships, my wardrobe, my pastimes, my healthcare, my paycheck, my email address, my everything. I’m made of school. If you did a cross-section of my body, you’d find school supplies: strata of college-rule notebook paper, post-its, and number 2 pencils, all held together by Elmer’s glue.

I’m quitting for a lot of reasons (at least 100) that I’ll get into later, but most of it boils down to I don’t like it and/or I don’t want to. Deciding to quit was really hard, but also really easy. I haven’t had a regret or twinge or a “if-I-just-scramble-and-write-a-ton-I-could-raise-this-barn” obsession in the middle of the night. What I am wondering is… what’s next?

I could be a Mom. We make enough — not a ton, but enough — or rather, my husband does. There would be enough so I could just be a Mom. And that’s really tempting some days. I love the simplicity of it: the pure immediacy of the needs of my family, for once with no competition from a paper or a book or a project. Eventually, I would have time to write and maybe do that thing they call exercise. My girls are young and I know this time is precious and fleeting. Maybe I would rise to the occasion, plant a gorgeous garden, and complete all those projects I Pinterested. It sounds peaceful.

Then, there are times like this weekend, when my oldest was sick, needy, and clingy, and the weather was too rotten to get out, and my husband worked so it was just me and them and me and them and me and them in the house and by Sunday night I was extremely crabby and desperate to get away. I love being with my kids,  but I get restless. I get bored, and I crave alone time and adult company, but I don’t think we can afford those fancy things if I’m not employed.

Plus, while I appreciate the aesthetics of a clean home, I do not enjoy the process. As my husband delicately put it the other night, “You’re not the most… domestic person in the world.” Maybe I’d go all Anne Sexton and get crazy and weird and cranky if I was at home all the time. Maybe I’d be depressed and bored and a terrible Mom because I’d constantly be wanting a moment, JUSTONEFUCKINGMOMENT, to myself, instead of enjoying the little things. What if Brian lost his job? What if one of my kids got sick and we couldn’t afford to care for her? What if my parents get sick or the car, ya know, EXPLODES? Could Brian ever retire? What if, what if?

So okay, fine, maybe the thing to do is get a job. Lawd knows I have truckloads of student loans to pay off, plus there are house projects we could fund (like that whole thing they call PLUMBING). I have some possible leads on positions that I’d probably like in places I wouldn’t hate (mostly student services-type stuff at the college level), and I could make reasonable money, and my girls would continue in preschools/daycares that they enjoy. I could use both my knowledge and experience, which would be pretty radical considering how little graduate school actually applies to anything in real life. I could interact with grown ups, do something that might feel like it made a bit of difference in the world. We’d bustle around and see People and do Things and maybe get a Minivan!

When I zoom out from my life and view it from above, this seems like a very sane choice. Money is a good thing. It’s secure. It’s such a satisfying outcome: “Oh, I left grad school but I have this great job and I’m doing this great work so it wasn’t crazy, it wasn’t at all crazy to go into thousands of dollars of debt and spend eight years of my life getting two semi-worthless master’s degrees and a job I was qualified for 5 years ago.” Getting a job sounds like this was a Genius Plan for Life all along. It’s a language that people recognize. It’s less iffy. Less “Hmmm?” and more “Aha!”

But. It also sounds exhausting. I barely have time to prepare dinner as is, and I have so little to do during the day, you guys. When would I grocery shop?  When would I clean? Would I spend every evening snapping at the girls because they’re trying to get my attention when I have to cook, pay bills, clean up, etc? What if someone got sick? Would I ever write? Would I have friends? Would I be close to my girls if I spent all day away from them? My Mom was a SAHM until I was in jr high, so how do I work this? Would this open doors or close them? Would the tradeoffs be worth a life of stress? Would I live to work or work to live?

I go back and forth constantly. I know what I don’t want, but I don’t know what I do want. And I also know that there’s no perfect solution, that no one thing will be the perfect next step. It’s all always messy, even when it’s right. I suppose I am grateful for the privilege to chose.