Spending the morning alone with CJ is taking me back a few years, to the first year-and-a-bit I spent alone at home with my first-born (his younger sister arrived not quite eighteen months after him, at which point, life became considerably more chaotic). The house was so quiet. I used to turn on the radio, or the television, for company. We were living in a new city and knew no one. I didn’t feel lonely. I was 26 years old, and utterly thrilled by motherhood, captivated by this newfound, instant purpose to my life. I am thinking about this not only because my feelings have changed in ways profound and subtle over the last eight years, but also because we have been discussing the implications of stay-at-home mothering in my women’s studies class. For most of the students, fresh out of high school, this is purely theoretical. For me, it feels deeply personal. That slogan “the personal is the political” is suddenly relevant. At times during last night’s lecture I felt hurt and upset, as when the professor said rather casually something along these lines: most of you aren’t planning to get your degrees so you can stay at home and bake cookies and raise children, are you? Her point being: at this stage in your lives, all of you fresh-faced, ambitious first-years, you’re harbouring bigger plans, right? But that’s me. That’s me in a nutshell. I am the woman with the master’s degree at home with my children baking cookies. My professor was essentially sympathetic to the quandaries and choices families have to make, husband and wife together, in order to raise children in a society that hasn’t really figured out how to support young families: is daycare the answer? Early childhood education? Paternity leaves and benefits? Why is there this unspoken concept of “the mommy track”? Her answer to all of these: it’s the patriarchy, stupid (I paraphrase).
I can’t do this topic justice in one blog post, so herewith, I present a few random thoughts. First, I refuse to think of this (at least) decade spent primarily with my children as lost time, or a waste of my talents and abilities. There was nothing I wanted more than to stay home with my babies. Nothing. No amount of subsidized daycare could have driven me back to work, when I had the option, financially speaking, to stay home. I asked Kevin whether he felt a horrible pang upon returning to work, leaving his babies at home. He couldn’t remember. He is, however, a very active involved father, and I know his feelings toward our children are just as strong as mine. But the truth is, had he wanted (and been able) to stay home, I would have fought him to get to stay home instead. I didn’t want to leave my babies and go back to work. On the other hand, what Betty Friedan was addressing in The Feminine Mystique, “the problem that has no name,” that puzzling, weary, unspoken malaise experienced by many stay-at-home mothers (in the 1960s, and now) is a real phenomenon. It’s a feeling of spiritual lack, unfed by middle-class wealth and comfort; and of personal, often secret, longing. The feeling of being unfulfilled. And guilty, too, becase our children are supposed to fulfill us, somehow–I would argue that still remains the overwhelming trope.
I would like to counter this with a baking-your-cookies-and-eating-them-too philosophy: my own, which is unfolding even now. We live our lives in stages. I’m not a big believer in being able to do–or trying to do–everything all at once. If I am fortunate, my life will stretch long enough to be lived in quite different ways at different times. (Though this is not without compromise). I am coming to the end of the young-child stage, the every day, every minute, pre-verbal, breastfeeding, diapering, lost sleep stage. Of course, my children will continue to need me, but not at this same level of simple intensity. The problems become more complex, but children grow. It’s what they do best.
For me, spending this young-child stage so completely with my young children has been deeply fulfilling. But, like my professor suggested, it is not the only thing that I want to do. I’m getting ready to move along, to enter the world, on occasion, unencumbered by my children (I mean that literally; as a young mother, I felt naked on the rare occasion I was out in public without my kids, I wanted to tell every passing person about their existence; and I don’t feel that need anymore, which is an interesting shift).
What fascinates me about life is how much there is to learn from every situation, every pain, every contact, every seemingly ordinary moment. No one told me to take this class at this moment in my life; in fact, it seemed a bit silly, even self-indulgent. (I am taking it because, should I choose to pursue a degree in midwifery, this course would count toward that). But it has become, like so many of the things I’ve chosen despite no one telling me that I should or could, another entry point for these random pinpricks of light that illuminate my path.