The dilemmas of mothering, part one

I have been intending to post about this for a while, but it's such a huge topic, I kept putting it off. That's why I've decided to do this in segments to make it more manageable.

There is so much out there about modern motherhood and feminism and the supposed clash between working mothers and stay-at-home mothers (as if these were two separate entities) it makes the head reel. If you work outside the home, you're being judged for not spending time with your kids and risking their pscyhological well-being by putting them in daycare. If you stay at home with your kids, you're being judged for not fulfilling your creative potential. There is endless reading material on this topic, covering every angle, every subtle, nuanced viewpoint, and every not-so-subtle, not-so-nuanced viewpoint on the subject. Why? Because a hell of a lot of women are mothers or plan to be mothers and are wrestling/will have to wrestle with these decisions. And it's far from easy.

I've done a lot of reading. I've read The Mommy Myth, about modern culture's idealization of motherhood, the media's portrayal of mythical modern mothers, from the perfect, beaming "celebrity moms" to the poor, black "welfare queens," and the supposed animosity between mothers who have paying jobs and mothers who stay home. I've read The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan. (If you don't know what that's about, just go read it. It will blow your mind.) I've read lots of blogs* and articles by feminists, anti-feminists, experts, and mothers who work at home, outside the home, part-time, full-time, and I've come to three conclusions:
1) I don't think I actually have anything truly original to add except my own personal experience (not that that is going to stop me from writing about it),
2) most every mother out there is ambivalent like me, and
3) modern feminism allows women to be defined by much more than the decisions they make about motherhood.

The media has pitted mothers who work paying jobs outside the home and stay-at-home mothers against each other as if they are two separate entities. The truth is that many mothers stay at home for a time, then go back to work, or vice versa. Take me, for example. Right now I'm staying at home with Daniel, but I don't intend to abandon my career as a musician. I've certainly had to make some adjustments, like taking a semester off from school, quitting my job with the touring opera company, and accepting the fact that establishing myself as a professional may take extra time, but I'm not giving anything up entirely. In fact, since Daniel was born, I've played a few gigs and am teaching five students. It's not much work, but it's something.

Mostly, I like staying home with Daniel. He's a sweet, cuddly baby, and I love seeing all the new stages of development as they come along. I'm the one who comforts him after his shots. I'm the one who saw him roll over for the first time. I'm the one who first figured out how to make him giggle.


I'm also the one who cooks the meals, does the laundry, gets up in the middle of the night when he's hungry, changes his diapers, washes his diapers, hauls him to the drugstore the grocery store the music store and the hardware store, spends hours talking in baby babble to keep him entertained, and anything else you might think of when it comes to baby care or housework. (Don't get me wrong. Stuart is a wonderful dad and husband, but I'm the one who's home most of the time, so I do 90% of the parenting and housework during the week.) Does it get lonely and tedious? My God, yes. Every so often, such as the days when Daniel decides he doesn't want to nap more than 15 minutes at a time, I feel like I'm going crackers. On those days I want nothing more than decent adult conversation and a glass of wine.

I need to be challenged to be fulfilled. (There's an art to washing diapers properly, but that's not what I mean.) I need to feel like everything I learned growing up and in college and in graduate school was not for the sole purpose of raising children. After all, what kind of example would I set for my son if he saw his mother, a well-educated, talented musician, abandon all of her ambitions just so that she could be the only one taking care of him and driving him to doctor's appointments and soccer games? What kind of conclusions would he reach about women's roles in his life and society at large? And if we have a daughter someday, will she believe me when I say "You can do anything you want, if you set your mind to it," if I don't believe it myself?

Of course I will treasure the time I am spending at home in these years of young motherhood. Of course it would break my heart to put Daniel in daycare as an infant. But I am also looking at my future, and while I don't know what it might hold, there better be more to it than making lunches and doing laundry.

*Addendum. Here are just a few of the blog entries I've read lately, including the one from mamacita that got the ball rolling:
"modern mothering" on Mexico Mom
"Names Changed to Protect the Innocent" on Clueless in Carolina
"Bubble Boy" on Slipping Reality
"Remorse" on Stinkbumps
"Mom Guilt" on Mayhem and Magic


Tooz said…
Okay. I've been both, a stay-at-home mom and a working mom. I don't think either position is better or preferable. I think the challenge is in making the stay-at-home position fulfilling, or in being a working mom who can also fulfill her role as a mom. That was so difficult for me. I know that I didn't do the job God, my husband, or my kids deserved, but it IS possible. It's just not easy.

Don't forget for a moment what a creative work you are undertaking in parenting your child.
Becca said…
I have so many responses swirling in my head to this, since I am surrounded by working moms who envy their SAHM friends, and I have a SAHM friends who envies my working life.

There is an ideal out there (perpetuated by the parenting magazines which can be downright toxic in their advice for family dynamics, but that's another post) that says men still get a pass on parenting and it's all up to Mom.

Whatever the partnership in your marriage, Dads should take a role, but Moms are convinced that they should do everything, and that sometimes encourages them to let Dad off the hook.

Anyway, I'm getting off point for what I wanted to say. Overall, there's tremendous pressure for women to be perfect, the dichotomy of having to work twice as hard to compare to a man, and to achieve what seems normal to most but extraordinary to you. There's also a healthy dose of the Grass is Greener syndrome.

See, I look at my friend Jenn and I envy her ability to stay at home with her son and live every moment with him. But that overlooks the stress that her husband Pete is under as a cop and freelance web designer to make enough for them to get by, the amount of hours he works, and the amount of time she spends alone or away from her husband with only their son for company.

She envies my ability to get out and talk with people, to have an extra income, and to connect with the work. It's easy for her to overlook the struggle of work/life balance, the extra money going to daycare, the worry that my kid is picking up bad habits from other kids, and the recent development of knowing there's a part of my son I don't know from the time he spends there.

Gah. I know what I'm trying to say, but I'm having trouble. Basically, whichever way you go, you will feel as much pressure as you put on yourself. Sure, this may derail your career some, but what an example it would be for your kids to see you continue to work to realize your dreams! What a lesson for them to know that your course in life is not predestined, it's what they make of it, and that not everything they want will be handed to them. Maybe they'll look back and see how you were able to juggle both sides--you stayed at home when they needed you, and you went back to work when they hit school, if that's what happens.

The biggest point is that I think you're thinking too far ahead. It's only been five months, but it's going to go so fast from here and I can't recommend enough just staying in the moment with Daniel and enjoying it and not worrying about what will come.

And when you need a break, you take a break. You're a mom, now, and no matter how one slices it, it's one of the hardest jobs in the world.
Suze said…
thanks to both of you. Becca, you covered something I was intending to write about next, the economics of staying at home and the pressure it puts on the parent who brings home the bacon. And then there's the whole topic of single mothers...but I"ll post on it later when my head clears!
Jenn Hacker said…
I'm on expert on single mothers! LOL

And Beck, you freaked me out for a minute there. I thought I was having a blonde moment and didn't remember being a stay-at-home mom (much less a husband!) Of course, I'm not blonde (but I was when I was a baby - so I thought I was having residual effects!)
Becca said…
No, sorry. I do know some people in real life, ya know : )

Suze, I was reading the addendum posts and I need to clarify. A couple times I've advocated the "treasured moments crap" and I didn't mean to come across as though that was the secret or anything. It's not realistic for all the time.

What I meant was that there will be moments when you'll feel frazzled and scattered and about to explode. It has helped me to take a moment to cuddle CJ and use it as meditation, almost. I just focus on this little kid and try to drop the work I have to do, the dishes in the sink, and the toys all over the floor out of my head for just a couple minutes--long enough to take a deep breath and figure out what to do next (OK, I'll finish making dinner, then give him a bath, then it's song time and bed and I can have a screwdriver and watch Adam and Jamie measure farts).

No way can anyone do that all the time. At least, I sure as hell can't.

I remember after CJ was born--I was 100% dedicated to him without realizing it, and didn't know how much self I was losing. I spent my spare time pumping futilely, trying to get housework done, and prove to myself, I guess, that I could do it all.

New Year's Eve night, I put CJ to bed, and Tom opened a bottle of shiraz and fixed a plate of grapes, cheese, and crackers, and he turned a movie on and patted the couch for me to sit and when I did, I just burst out crying. I realized I had forgotten my husband in all of it, and forgotten how it felt to just sit and watch a movie.

It's better now, but there are days when I run to Costco just to get a break.
Jenn Hacker said…
Hey, I'm in real life! At least, I was the last time I checked....

And I think it's wonderful that you guys can take that time away sometimes. All moms need it, no matter what they say!

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