Saturday, October 22, 2011

change (part 3)

Part 1, Part 2, and something a little lighter

As I considered the course things seemed to be taking in our home, it made me wonder about the choice I’d made to become a mother. A few very close friends and family members with whom I’d shared some of my struggles had all talked about taking ownership of the choice I had made to become a mother. If I could accept that it was my choice, that would help me deal with the hard times. Though it made some sense to me, it didn’t really bring me any comfort; it certainly didn’t make mothering any easier. Mostly, it made me question my decision-making ability.

When Sam and I had Anna, I certainly felt like I wanted a child. I had spent 23 years thinking only about myself and I was ready for that to change. I like being physically challenged and pregnancy and child-birth seemed like the ultimate extreme sport. I wanted to fit in with the other women at church where I was hoping to find friends. And most importantly, I wanted to have the intensely spiritual and life-changing experience that everyone told me motherhood was.

Though my desire to have a baby was pretty strong, I did seriously consider what I would do if we didn’t (or couldn’t) have a baby. I could keep working, but my two previous jobs had taught me that the kinds of jobs you get with a bachelors degree in psychology are emotionally and physically draining and don’t pay you very much money to compensate for the stress. I could go back to school, but I wasn’t sure about what I wanted to study or do for a career, and getting a masters degree and then either not liking my work or becoming a parent and not using it both seemed like a waste of money. And what would happen if we moved? At that point, Sam was studying for the GMAT and was thinking about going back to business school as early as the coming year. I was also physically ready. I was healthy and strong, young and energetic. My mom had gone back to school when we were kids. I could post-pone an advanced degree and I might have a better idea of what I wanted to do with my life in 10 or 15 years. To me, the only really sensible option was to have children now, and go back to school later when my children weren’t at home all day long.

Fast-forward three years and I was starting to see some of the flaws in my logic. So much of my reasoning to have a baby had been that the other options didn’t seem right. If I hadn’t known how much I really deep down wanted a baby, reasoning aside, I might have said I had one by default. But in my emotionally messed-up state, it was hard for me to connect with that deep spiritual feeling and all I had left were the reasons, reasons which didn’t stand up to either my feminist intellect or my institutional picture of motherhood. I was in a catch-22 where I was neither equipped for a successful career, nor was I having a fulfilled, transcendent mothering experience.

This was another paradox for which I found Reading Women extremely helpful in explaining. Staal quotes Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique. "When motherhood, a fulfillment held sacred down the ages, is defined as a total way of life, must women themselves deny the world and future open to them? Or does the denial of that world force them to make motherhood a total way of life? The line between mystique and reality dissolves; real women embody the split in the image." Though I don't agree that Friedan's prediction—get a job, hire domestic help, and you will be happier—is always true, her description of "embody[ing] the split in the image” rings true to me. As mothers, we must always make a careful balance between motherhood as a “total way of life” and giving ourselves space for our own identities to grow and develop, toeing the line between the institution and our own personal experience.

One obvious and often successful way of gaining this space is to work (or volunteer) outside the home. Second wave feminism, which essentially began with the publishing of Friedan’s Mystique, was very much concerned with getting women (upper-middle-class, white women that is) into politics and the workplace with equal pay. An unfortunate side-effect of this goal was the resulting cultural pressure on women to not only be the primary caregiver at home, but also be a primary breadwinner out of it, at the same time. Women were told that in order to prove they were valuable, they had to get a job. As such, we started telling girls, “you can be anything you want” with the cultural-expectation-tagline of “as long as you still take care of the kids.”(I won’t get too sidetracked here by spelling out all the complexity that has arisen around men’s roles in the past 50 years, but I do feel the need to acknowledge it here….Duly acknowledged, let’s move on.)

Staal recounts an exchange between Judith Warner, and Cecile Berry at a panel discussion at Barnard called, "Rewriting Motherhood:"
"'Well, I don't know if we should tell our daughters they have limitless possibilities,’ said Berry. ‘If you want to include a meaningful experience with motherhood in your lives, I don't know if that's possible.'"
(Here Warner's shocked and tries to recover),"'...I think if we can just give girls the ability to remain true to themselves, then that sort of takes care of part of the problem.'
'Yeah, it does break down to what kind of career you want to have,' agreed Berry, 'but that's exactly why I don't want to tell girls, "you have limitless options." I don't know if it's possible to really be a mother who experiences motherhood and at the same time have a dynamic, high-profile career.'"

I wish I could remember what Berry’s career was to get her on the panel, I do remember she gave it up to stay home with her children. What she’s saying here—to a very baffled Judith Warner—is that we need to give realistic messages to our daughters. Berry's pragmatism is a breath of fresh air to me. Yes, girls can do anything, but they need to understand that their experiences working in or out of them home will be changed by whether they devote all their time to one of those pursuits or if pursue career and motherhood at the same time. As with any decision, there are trade-offs, but we should at least try to prepare them for “embody[ing] the split in the image.”

In an ideal world, we’d all just stop judging each other, and ourselves, and we’d support our friends and sisters and daughters in whatever choices they deemed best. That’s what I really wished for as I thought, “What kind of mothering experience do I want to have? What kind of experience do I want for my children? Would not being a stay-at-home parent allow me to enjoy more the fewer mothering experiences I would have, or would it produce more guilt and more anxiety?”

Again, Staal helped me think about this. She writes, “To compare work and motherhood in terms of satisfaction and fulfillment is a similarly specious endeavor, for they are plainly not the same kind of experience. Seeing my name in print cannot possibly be compared with seeing my daughter's dance performance at school—not because one is necessarily better or more important, but because they are so very different and serve such different needs. Any mother knows this, even if some media pundits would seem stubbornly determined not to acknowledge this crucial distinction with their relentless coverage of the Mommy Wars.
"...If Friedan's specter was the 1950's "happy housewife" pictured in glossy magazine advertisements, ours is surely the '80's ‘supermom,’ now lying crumpled on the floor from too much cultural kryptonite. And in her wake enters a decidedly less glamorous antihero: the mother who is always reaching to make ends meet, always harried, always frazzled, and always—always—always—coming up a little short.”

As I read that, I knew I was haunted by that specter. Even without a job, I was feeling harried and frazzled. I thought about Julie Beck’s vision of a “mother who knows.” While some of the wording in that talk irks me, I agree with its spirit, and Sister Beck’s assertion that, “Mothers who know do less. They permit less of what will not bear good fruit eternally. They allow less media in their homes, less distraction, less activity that draws their children away from their home. Mothers who know are willing to live on less and consume less of the world’s goods in order to spend more time with their children—more time eating together, more time working together, more time reading together, more time talking, laughing, singing, and exemplifying. These mothers choose carefully and do not try to choose it all. Their goal is to prepare a rising generation of children who will take the gospel of Jesus Christ into the entire world. Their goal is to prepare future fathers and mothers who will be builders of the Lord’s kingdom for the next 50 years. That is influence; that is power.”

I decided I really did want to be at home with my children. Right now, I don’t want to be anywhere else. I decided I was completely willing to make that sacrifice, but I knew I must find a way to be at peace while doing it, or it would be painful for both me and my family. The vision, the idea, the hope of that peace was what gave me strength to do what I did next.


Marci said...

You can't leave us hanging like that :-)!

Elisabeth said...

A lot of the things you mention in this post are things I've thought a lot about in the last 2 1/2 years, especially in finding a balance between motherhood and still allowing your own identity to grow and develop.

It's a tricky balance, isn't it? Especially when you have the psychology/sociology background so these are issues that you see maybe differently than others might. I know that it kind of came up a lot with my other friends from the sociology graduate program.

The questions/issues raised from "In an ideal world..." on are also things that I have really thought about a lot.

Dani said...

I really enjoyed reaing this! Thank you for being so open and sharing Heather. I can completely relate to your comments in part 2 about "I stay home with my kids" with people in Massachusetts and being frustrated that people think that's all you are. It's been something I've struggled with as well. THank you for your thoughts!

makana hansen said...

Thanks so much for your thoughts. I have loved reading these last few posts

lizzie said...

I am grateful that you have taken the time and effort to synthesize all of this information and express so many of the thoughts and ideas that I have had about being a mom and a person.

I have also wondered why on earth I decided to have a child at age 23, and how my life would be different if I had given myself the chance to get through grad school and work in my field before I had kids. I have no regrets, although I do have to work hard to remind myself of that.