The Profession

I like to pretend we women have moved past our divisiveness. I mean, whether we’re mothers or not, we still have more in common than not. And within the “mother” category, whether we breastfeed, bottle feed, use disposable or cloth diapers, wear our babies 24/7 or occasionally put them down so we can make ourselves a sandwich, choose to stay home or continue to work a job in an office, we’re still mothers of children. Children who are all individuals in their own right. Which is why the sniping about Who Does It Best it just ridiculous. Because “best” assumes everything about you and me is equal and one of us is not reading as much to our children as the other one. Which….is stupid.

So, I was amused but disheartened by what recently happened between the new PM of the UK, Theresa May, and Andrea Leadsom, the other candidate who claimed that motherhood made her a better candidate. Sure, motherhood gives you a new set of skills, if you are the kind of person to learn from the role, but those skills can be found in non-mothers as well. And Ms. Leadsom’s claim won her nothing. Though I admit I felt a frisson of excitement that TWO WOMEN were the ones in contention. Right? That’s something, isn’t it? All the men (white men) vying for PM post-Brexit just kind of imploded at the end of the day. Women power! Except that even then, we had to find something to fight about.

Motherhood is a great job but it’s not for everyone. And it can make it difficult, if you have little support, to do other things full bore: certain kinds of careers, art-making, sleeping, having a fairly clean car. It’s not fair but life is not fair. That’s lesson #1. Life is not fair.

But somewhere along the line, Motherhood became a profession in itself. I saw it happening when my first child was born in 2000 when the internet itself was a baby. I talked to other new mothers on a chat board about this thrilling and scary new stage, through a baby-related website. I read a couple books. But I didn’t have the luxury of making motherhood a “profession”, per se, because I already had one of those. I had a full time job I liked and could not afford to leave to accept a non-paying job. Because having children is expensive even when you don’t expect them to be Baby Genuises and can’t afford to get them on a special preschool wait list (please; can we get serious?).

I began to wonder about all these women my age and younger who’d gone retro and dropped out of the work force to be, in the parlance of the time, a “full-time mother”. Which is a phrase that makes my blood boil. I am also a full-time mother. I just happen to have a full-time paying job as well. My children went to day care, preschool and finally public school. I did not use cloth diapers because I preferred to see how high I could build those landfill mountains. I breast fed and I pumped in the office for a year after returning from paltry maternity leaves. But I made it work. It kind of worked. And now I’m past all that, thank goodness. But I made the choices that were right for me and us and if you have anything to say about, just don’t. MYOB.

Here’s what you don’t realize when you are slogging through all that: by the time they’re in school, it doesn’t matter anymore. None of it matters. If your child is healthy, it’s all good. It’s the only thing that matters.

I had to work because I had to work and I made it work. Simple as that. Even though none of it was simple.

Water under the bridge. But the judging in the ether didn’t stop there. We continued to judge each other. Who is Doing it Right? Who is Doing it Wrong? All of us. None of us. Motherhood is too difficult and complex to make these calls.

The Professionalism of Parenting turned into this Helicopter Parent colleges and universities hate. With good reason. We have to step back and find our personal fulfillment in things other than our children.

Post divorce, I have summers without my kids and I have used that time to be sad and bored and find new ways to be creative, to be me again, to dabble unfettered. I miss them. I mean, if I didn’t say that out loud you might judge me a bad mother. But this is practice for when they go for good, out into the world to live their lives without me. I’m excited for them. I’ll be just fine. I seem to be in the minority here.

“The hardest was when she left for college. We dropped her off a couple days early, so the campus was empty, and I have this very clear image of her walking alone across the quad. I stared at my daughter’s back while she literally walked into the next phase of her life. So many questions were running through my mind: ‘Did we prepare her enough? Is she happy? Will she feel comfortable enough to tell us if she’s not?’ Looking back, I wish I hadn’t fretted so much over the small stuff. When she was young, we were worried so much about whether she started on the soccer team, or if she got chosen for the front row at the dance competition, or if she was playing flute at the recital. We worried so much about that stuff because we were looking for any sort of validation that we were doing a good job. And in our desperation to be good parents we became our children. I wish I knew how fast all that stuff would fade away. And how little any of that would matter once she became an adult.”

I found the above quote in an article I have now lost track of. It’s been sitting in here in my draft folder for 6 weeks. Maybe more. I think we all do this to a certain extent – see our children’s outcomes as validation that we did good, we are good people, good parents. I’ve been guilty of this too. But we need to find our way back to who we were before we became parents before it’s too late. Or, we need to find out who we are now. As individuals who have moved past raising children in the day-to-day and are left to coach from the sidelines in text conversations.

I was raised in the 1970’s. My semi-feral upbringing had good points and less good ones (no real terrible ones, though) that was part cultural, part “it was the ’70’s”, and part hands-off self-absorbed mother.

I think about that a lot. As difficult as my mother can be, I don’t regret much about how I was raised. Or wasn’t. But, I knew that when I had children, things would be different.

As a child, I was both my mother’s dress up doll and a burden who got in the way of her art making. Or the life she’d imagined for herself. The messages she’d received from her own mother were to squash her crazy dreams and get married. “If you go off to England, he might not wait for you.” So, she went much later. With him. Best of both worlds, right? You’d think.

But, in between having my clothes laid out for me every morning until I finally protested in late elementary school, having no say over the length of my hair, being enrolled in Brownies and ballet (maybe I expressed an interest? I have no memory of anything beyond just doing them), I was cut loose. I was locked in my room during nap time or was sent outside to play to keep from being underfoot. Like most kids were back then. I didn’t really mind either situation. I was happy alone in my room and prowling the alleys with neighborhood friends.

And maybe a lot of kids (I was eventually a “latch key kid” after my parents’ divorce in ’79) grew up like me and felt the need to correct all the mistakes done to them. Which makes this article really interesting.

A Manifesto Against Parenting

We need to step back. We need to let children be people. We need to let them roam the streets even if we worry about them. We need to let go of our fears. It’s a dangerous world but hasn’t it always been? Cancer happens. Accidents happen. We can’t always stop them. We can’t just be Professional Mothers. It’s not good for anyone. Trying to protect our kids from everything uncomfortable or scary that might happen does not help them grow up to be resilient adults. If you’ve never wiped your own butt, what will you do when mommy and daddy aren’t there to do it for you?

The main reason I left the city for the country was to give my children unfettered space to be children without an adult breathing over them. I saw the shift, the fear, the paranoia that suddenly frowned on free range neighborhood children just living their lives on sidewalks.

It partially worked. They mostly spend that time in their rooms alone doing who knows what? Watching YouTube videos and drawing and writing and texting their friends. But I don’t pry. The door to my heart and presence is always open to them. I hope I’ve done my job in letting them know that. My youngest and I have pretty deep conversations over text about puberty, menstruation, boys, love, hair, shoes, and writing. She knows I’m here when she needs me. No judgment. Whatever they’ve gone through, I’ve gone through.

But I don’t hover. I don’t pick locks. I don’t spy on their devices. I trust first and if I need to clamp down, I will. But I haven’t yet.

We need to all give each other a little slack as mothers. The next time you see a mother doing something “wrong”, just smile and nod. Acknowledge that we all have bad days. We don’t know the situation. Even if that mother is filling a baby bottle with Coca Cola (yes, I’ve seen it and yes, I’ve judged). Just give her a mother nod. We’re all in this together. We’re all one. And so are the women without children. Their reasons for not having them are as varied as ours for having ours. And they aren’t any of our business.We’re women and we’re stronger together than apart.

School’s Out For Summer

If this blog was a class, I’d either get an A or an F. An F for Failure to Post. Or an A for Spending All My Time Being Mom And No Time To Write. I’m leaning towards the latter. The last few weeks of school are always way more busy and hectic than they have any right to be. Now that the kids are in middle and high school, they have standardized tests followed by final projects and exams followed by one awards ceremony after another. They monopolized the computer for weeks but received straight A’s for the year. So, totally worth it.

And the oldest was accepted in a drug and alcohol prevention program where she and other high school students will teach 7th and 8th graders to not cave to peer pressure when it comes to illegal substances. Whether this kind of thing actually works, I can’t say, but she’s made her pledge and is looking forward to starting in the fall which makes her a much better high schooler than I was at her age. I have to think this is a good thing.

And then there was the youngest’s 12th birthday followed by a vacation to NYC followed by a birthday party that stretched out over a weekend. And now they’re gone for the summer. Off to their dad’s for 6 weeks.

And here I am in a quiet house with a new kitten sleeping off her shock in the carrier. I’m watching the clouds roll in and wondering if I have time to mow a bit before it rains. Probably. But I’m risking missing my opportunity so that I can raise my posting F to a respectable C. And a promise to write more frequently this summer.

I’ve had a lot of various thoughts about motherhood and parenthood but the lag in writing kind of tells you what it is: work. Motherhood is work. And a constant shifting of gears. Every time I tell myself, “Tonight I’ll sit down and write something!”, a child needs the computer and the grass needs cutting, the garden needs attention, a load of laundry needs washing and dishes. There is no end to the dishes. They have to be done by hand in my Amish house. It’s just how it is.

I received an email yesterday from the Artist in Residency in Motherhood founder asking what the residency had mean to me so far. There are 139 of us signed up for this.

I’m not actually sure I can answer that question yet because I feel like I’ve automatically failed the minute I started but perhaps I’m not being fair to myself. Or maybe it doesn’t matter.

I do pledge to post once a week this summer and I encourage you to send me your thoughts on motherhood, parenthood, and all that it entails. I’d like your stories.  I want my residency to be a conversation rather than just me yapping over here. Maybe you are a new mother and wondering when it’ll get easier or perhaps you’re watching your adult children fly the coop? What does motherhood mean when there’s no one around to actively mother? The job never ends but it changes. But how? What do we do with ourselves then?

I don’t know.

One of Them

When I was in elementary school, I was carpooled to school occasionally by the mom of a girl I was sort of friends with. She was close friends with my close friends, all of whom were a year behind me. She lived in a bigger house on a nicer street in an area that was slowly becoming THE place to live. Her mother, I thought, was pretty and very kind. Soft spoken. Gentle. All the things my mother was not.

One morning, we were talking about what we wanted to be when we grew up and I said I wanted to be famous. Maybe a singer or a dancer or an actress. All things I wasn’t very good at. Mainly, I wanted to be someone others would admire. The mother said, “Oh, when I was your age I had dreams of being an actress too! Instead, I became a mother.”

This was the most depressing thing I’d ever heard. I felt so bad. For her. And also for myself. Was I kidding myself? Was this all life held in store? Being a mom, driving kids to school and living a life of smallness? Of dullness? No way.

And yet, I became a mom and life has been anything but small and dull. I am not an actress or a singer or a dancer. I’m a writer but not the author I wanted to be after giving up those other pipe dreams.

When I did become a mother, when my first daughter was a few weeks old, maybe a few months old – that time has blurred together into one foggy memory – I told a friend who also had a baby, “I don’t really feel like a MOTHER.”

She looked at me, wide eyed in disbelief, “But you ARE one! Of course you’re a mother!”

“I have a child but I don’t feel like a mother. I don’t know. Maybe it’ll kick in eventually.”

And this feeling had nothing to do with bonding or attachment or any of that. I loved my baby. She was practically fused to my body. But I couldn’t square how I felt with this idea of motherhood. My idea of it, at any rate.

Years before, I had attempted to be a teacher but I had a lot of difficulty telling other people’s children what to do and how to act. I didn’t feel I had that right. I guess you need that feeling to be at least an adequate teacher.

I never wanted to be One of Them: those carpool moms who gossiped at pick up, the minivan mom (though, back in my day they drove enormous station wagons filled with kids loose and rolling around in the way-back; seat belts were optional), the mom with the bad perm and the mom jeans (though between you and me, they look pretty comfortable), the scout leaders, the soccer/lacrosse/baseball/softball moms who spent their entire weekend sitting in the cold and rain cheering (torturous). I get it now but it all seemed so not what I was. I was used to not fitting in and here was a whole new way of not fitting in: motherhood. Or the motherhood I was seeing. The suburban motherhood way of being. I did not grow up in a sports-loving family. I took years of ballet and girl scouts but my mother was not one of those involved mothers. Those other mothers could do those things. She had better things to do, I guess. I have no idea.

I had to write my own parenting manual. I never forced – at least not intentionally – my children to do things they didn’t want to do (and maybe other parents don’t either? They just follow their children’s interests too?) but the first one always wanted to do everything. The second never wanted to do anything. It’s still mostly that way.

I purposely never bought a minivan because, for one thing, they are ugly. And for another, it roped you into those carpool situations that are much easier to beg off of if you can only fit two other children in your car. You aren’t much use to the other mothers. And while I’ve always volunteered where I thought I could be useful, I was able to avoid being roped in for more than I wanted to do. Or was able to do. There has always been the other kid who was not a joiner who could not be left alone to fend for herself.

All my other friends who are moms, seem like moms to me. And women in their own right. The two things at once. And I’ve learned that there are as many ways to mother as there are mothers. We’re people who happen to have children. Some are great, some are good, some are not (my friends are not included in this last category). We are different people, our children are individuals who require their own IEP for parenting needs.

I still just feel like a person with children rather than a MOTHER but so far I haven’t been fired from the job. So, I suppose I earned the title at some point when I was too busy packing lunches and removing toddler poo from the bathtub and making a down payment on a flute, on braces, on a band trip.

When did you feel like a mother? Immediately? During those first weeks and months? Later? Never?

 

 

Teeter Totter

When I asked my Facebook friends – a very selective list; I’m not a collector of people – what motherhood was to them, I got a slew of answers. I’ll eventually post them all but a number of them had similar theme:

* the absolute best and the absolute worst of times
* maddening wonderful
* a life sentence in the best possible way
* fulfilling while simultaneously being a huge pain in the ass
* the hardest job I’ve never wanted to quit
* not for sissies

I have been attempting to write another post but every time I do, I either have work to do instead or there’s a child hogging up the one computer in the house. And she’s not goofing off – it’s all homework related or she’s writing a story. I’m a sucker for the ‘writing a story’ thing.

So, I have to wait in line. To use my own computer. That’s motherhood. It’s parenthood, yes, it’s sharing a house with relatives who mysteriously get toothpaste all over the hand towel you lovingly wash each week (did I forget to teach rinsing and spitting?), but motherhood is a much more intense job, I think. Motherhood never sticks the card in the time clock like Fatherhood seems to be able to do without a thought. Which may not be as true as it used to be but….motherhood is its own special level of being there. Even if your child is being raised by two fathers, one of them is most likely taking on more of the emotional, nurturing role. One of them is the mother.

I’ve already had to interrupt myself to pour the boiling water for iced tea, managing to spill quite a bit of it on the counter and floor (luckily, not on me), because my arm wasn’t obeying my tired mom brain. And what was my first thought? “Well, at least I know the counter and floor are clean now!” If only I’d accidentally poured boiling water on the entire kitchen! Then we’d be getting somewhere! And why stop there?

Speaking of somewhere, where were we? The dichotomy of motherhood. Life is good and bad and that teeter totter isn’t often very balanced but with children in the mix, the teeters and totters seem to be listening to an AC/DC song most of the time. There was a couple of years, when my kids were younger, when I’d set a lunch date with a friend (who is also a mother with a job), and 90% of the time, we’d have to reschedule and reschedule again because a child (usually mine) was sick. And all those plans – and all the meetings and scheduled other things – would have to be replanned. Start from scratch all over again. After awhile I simply could not count on anything to go as planned from October to April. Those were the Months of Uncertainty. Seems like a big chunk of the year, doesn’t it? It is. A big ass chunk of uncertainty.

Your time isn’t your own. And, yes, I mostly don’t mind! I chose this job. I love this job. But I’m really really glad that they are old enough to stay home alone (usually) when they’re sick.

I’m a planner. I like to know what I’m going to do most days. And when there’s open space, I make a list of all the things I could do in that time (including “nothing” items like read which I often feel guilty doing but nothing and reading are important too). So, the motherhood took some time to get used to. When my oldest was born, I kept waiting for my life to go back to “normal”. When would we all sleep regular hours? When would I be able to make a sandwich without a small someone strapped to my body? WHEN?

One day. Eventually. But I slowly came to realize that that old normal life was over. Gone. A new normal life had begun and I had better get with the program. Part of that program was throwing the manuals out the window (actually, one went straight in the trash – the one that claimed to solve all of baby’s sleep problems. LIES) and listening to the voice that said, you got this. Yes, it’s all crazy. Yes, YOU are insane. Why did you do this thing? This is nuts. How do humans keep making this mistake over and over?

I figured it out. I thought I had. But then I had another child and she didn’t play by the same rules as the other one. Oh no. That would have been too easy.

So when motherhood is a huge pain in the ass, especially when mothers snipe at each other and claim to know the right way to do…whatever (which actually only means that they figured out what works for them and really doesn’t mean anything else and so should shut their traps unless specifically asked for advice)…but there’s plenty of amazing good in it.

So much so that I really can’t imagine what my life would have been like if I hadn’t done this act of insanity. You have to go through it, not around it. Like anything worth doing. It’s a job I considered briefly quitting during those long evenings trying to console a colicky baby. Or when I drove over a road filled with spring peepers (I didn’t know! It was pitch dark!) to keep another one quiet. Or when the poo just fountained out of the back of a diaper while the child wearing it just kept working at her puzzle, unfazed, while I drew back in horror and wondered if there was a company I could call (Lil’ HazMatz?) that would take care of this? Because, surely I could not. No effing way.

But I did. And I also began to understand why so many of us are imperfect and messed up and unhappy. Because this job is indeed, not for sissies. Or people unready for it or way immature or selfish or angry at life or doing this because they’ve been told this is what women are supposed to do. We aren’t. It’s a choice now, thank goodness. I’ll eventually discuss the mean ones, the negligent ones, but for now, I’ll just say that during those lonely dark nights rubbing the back of an inconsolable baby, I understand how a person can hurt a child, a baby. How they can shake them in frustration and confusion and anger and helplessness. I saw how it could be. Not by me but I walked around in those shoes a little bit while the night closed in on us, filled with nothing but that particular kind of wail only a six week old can make.

The shoes hurt. They felt like knives. I took them off and stood up and walked around some more. I put the baby down. I walked away. I came back and picked her up. I carried her around in circles, waiting for the sun to come up. The crying eventually stopped.

What Motherhood Is

Welcome to What Motherhood Is. I hope you didn’t come looking for answers because I’m still asking the question. This project is dedicated to exploring what motherhood is and maybe what’s its not. But I am more interested in the “is”.

Here’s how this got started. I’m a writer. And a single mother with two children who are rapidly becoming young people. Whenever I write ‘children’ I don’t feel like I’m talking about the daughters I share my house with. It’s a word that used to describe them but no longer does.

I applied for a grant to help kick my ass back in action to finish a novel I’d started. A novel that’s been sitting in the computer for a while now. Life has taken over all the creative (and non-creative) parts of my brain. I thought, if I had a little time and money, maybe I can get this done.

I didn’t get the grant.

But I did find The Artist Residency in Motherhood. Which, as I read it, I thought, all at the same time, “Wow, this is great, why didn’t I think of this, wow, this is bullshit, just a spinning of life as art but….actually, life is art and art is life and man, she’s a genius.” How can I get on this genius train?

I suffered another Mother’s Day in which I was alone in the house – my weekend job was cancelled due to weather and my washing machine was dying – feeling sorry for myself and wondering why. Why do I care? Why do I do this to myself? Why is “motherhood” such a big deal? One daughter said, “Well, isn’t every day Mother’s Day?” And, I guess it actually is. Just like every day for her is Children’s Day. Except that I will always be a mother and eventually she’ll stop being a child.

I took a walk in the park, as I do, and mulled all this over. What does motherhood mean? It’s complicated. Because on the one hand, my relationship with my own mother isn’t ideal. It’s a relationship I’d rather erase, frankly. And then on the other side, is my relationship with my children which is pretty fabulous. I have some pretty great kids, if I do say so myself.

How can I get some grant money for being a mother? For turning that into art? For shifting what I already do with writing and photography towards these questions? ARIM offers a Red Thread grant. It allows you to create your own artist residency in motherhood. You just think about what you want to do (ie, the hard part) and then fill in the blanks (ie, the easy part), hit send and….you are officially your own artist in resident!

So, that all happened yesterday. Today I’ll figure out what it means, what this will be. For one thing, I’d like to juxtapose (one of those artsy words!) people’s thoughts (and I’ve gotten a number of responses via my FB post) with my photography. I’d like to find the visual representation to words. Words about What Motherhood Is. I’m not a particularly clever person so I may not be able to pull this off. But the artistic process is messy. And not always pretty. And may not hit it just right on the first few tries. Process. It’s a process. There will be a product but it will be a product of a process.

I was looking for an image to replace the one above that came with this blog template. Something that represents what motherhood is but actually, I think it’s kind of perfect. Motherhood, child-rearing, is a rickety scaffolding, a work in progress. Most days, you’re lucky that the wind doesn’t blow the whole structure down. Most days, the birds just up and fly off leaving you with a sink full of dirty dishes and a suspicious trail of sticky blobs on the floor that could be blood or maybe ice cream. You don’t really want to know. Most days, you just want to see how long it’ll stay there before you finally give in and scrub it off. Motherhood is filling those sandbags against erosion. Motherhood is life. Extreme life. Life in which that damned Justin Beiber song (“My mother don’t like you and she likes everyone.”) will not get out of your sleep deprived head. Life in which you trade in one kind of sleep deprivation (infants) for another (menopause).

I don’t know. Maybe it’s something different for you. There are universals and specifics in the job. The job description is long. I hope you’ll join me in my residency as we attempt to discover what motherhood is.