Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Success and modern motherhood

I wrote the bulk of this post back in the winter, but I was never really ready to publish it - it sort of flew off my fingertips at the time, and I wanted to let it simmer, to make sure that I meant what it said, that I wasn't being rash or coming across as judgmental.

Today I feel ready: I've had one of those rare but lovely mornings where I've felt really, really good about how things are going.  I had the kitchen cleaned up and the floors cleaned by 10 AM.  I got through a long back-log of ironing and returned phone calls to the bank and vacuum repair shop while Anna played with her dollhouse.  We shared giggles and toddler conversations and had a picnic lunch outside (her idea) that ended up with both of us (and my 38-week pregnant belly) (definitely her idea) up in the tree house.

In between pondering whether the slide or the ladder was less risky for a woman in my state to get down from said tree house (I thought slide-induced labor would be a better story but eventually decided on the ladder), I had one of those "life is good" moments, and one that convinced me that I really believed what I had fired off into this draft so many months ago.

It wasn't just my blessings - sweet toddler, kicking babe inside, healthy and delicious lunch, gorgeous blue sky day in a beautiful back yard - that made me so happy.  I'm convinced that feeling as though I'm fulfilling my vocation and keeping up with my responsibilities made me recognize what a good life this is.  From self-discipline comes a paradoxical joy that we don't anticipate - having completed our work, struggled through chores, we find ourselves satisfied, happy, peaceful at having done what we should; not only does the subsiding of the inner turmoil at guilt or frustration at ourselves contribute to a happier home, but the completion of the work allows the smooth workings of a place where people can meet both their physical and emotional needs.

Someone asked me last night, "So, doesn't your husband want you to work?" implying that there could be no other reason for a college-educated woman to stay at home with young children.  It took me by surprise, and I don't know if I've been asked that point-blank before.  I gave some semblance of an answer about not wanting to work myself, but in retrospect, I realized that that's not entirely true.  There are days when I would love to get dressed up in a nice outfit and go to work - solve problems, think critically, discuss things with other professionals, make a spreadsheet or two (maybe that's just me).  But ultimately, I feel that what I do here is innately more valuable than anything I could do elsewhere - not just the mom part, but the whole homemaking bundle.  And it's not only worth doing, it's worth doing well.

The problem is, our society has started to sell us lies - lies that it's not worth doing in the first place - and that if we should even try, it's impossible, anyway.  Consider for a moment the quintessential 1950's housewife in her skirt and pearls, pictured competent and happy - a far cry from the frazzled mom in yoga pants we have accepted as our modern "standard."

I have complained, analyzed, and otherwise written about the practical and sometimes emotional challenges of being a stay-at-home-mom.  The reality is, it's a challenging job, but with God's grace, I don't think it's an impossible job.  One my most constant frustrations is my own sense of not meeting my expectations - sometimes because of my own inabilities to set expectations - but more often because I'm not living to my full potential.   There are days when Anna (or the effects of my pregnancy) are absolutely the reason that nothing gets done, but there are plenty others when they're an easy scapegoat for the things that fall prey to laziness or inattention or "just checking my email."

Whether by nature or nurture (or probably both), I've always been a high-achiever, and struggled from time to time in school and at work with people telling me I should just be content with "good enough" when I knew I was capable of better.  More often than not, however, in academia and workplace, our collective worldview supported my quest for success (maybe not my quest for perfection, but at least for success).  As a stay-at-home-mom, however, I feel as though the general perception is that no one can do it, so it's more popular to get a (figurative) pat on the head and a "now now, taking care of a toddler is difficult" attitude than a "let's think of some strategies to help you get this job done" type of approach.

It's confusing and - frankly, a little belittling - for women who have spent years being praised for doing well, awarded for hard work and success, challenged by teachers, bosses, and peers to constantly strive for improvement to suddenly be in an environment where mediocrity is more or less expected, and striving for, or even worse, achieving success is taboo.

I'm sure this attitude has grown partially from reality.  It's impossible to have everything under control at all times with small children who are prone to skip naps, get sick, and generally act as human tornadoes.  There will always be hard days.  There will always be days where it is physically impossible to keep up with the diaper changes and keep budding-godzilla off the kitchen table and simultaneously cook anything besides a frozen pizza.

But do we have to accept that because there are those days that there can't also be good days - or even that we can't make the best of those days (you know, make a bonus salad to accompany the pizza instead of waving a white flag and throwing a self pity-party while scrolling through Facebook)?

Maybe there's a sense that because there will always be someone somewhere struggling with a hard day, or a hard month, that it's somehow offensive to them to succeed.  Or because our societal standards have changed in terms of home-cooked meals that it will be a slap in the face to make one because someone else was too busy with a sick baby to do so.  Or maybe because so many have (by choice or necessity or because they never cared about it in the first place) lowered their standards for the status of their home cleanliness and organization because of other priorities, be they career, family, or some other obligation, it's unacceptable for anyone to have a clean or orderly home.  Goodness knows there's enough people getting riled up on the Internet over those moms who demonstrate any sort of success - especially in the birthday party arena - on Pinterest.

Even on days when it doesn't feel like it, I think most stay-at-home-moms will acknowledge their own feeling that they're doing the most important job in the world.  And I, for one, am ready to buck the system in terms of expectations.  I'm not going to feel ashamed for wanting - and (probably, only very occasionally actually) reaching - a point where laundry is reasonably under control, kids are happy, the house clean, dinner is made, etc; I'm not going to feel guilty for wanting to be a really good mom (and wife and homemaker).  Nobody blinked an eye when I said (verbally or non-verbally) "I want to be a really good consultant."  And we'd all find it  ridiculous if people with important and stressful careers like emergency room surgeons shrugged their shoulders and gave up over the sheer difficulty of the task.

I'm definitely not debating whether or not this is hard, this mom gig.  And I'm not proposing that it's feasible in all seasons of life, for all the moms, for all the time (welcome to newborn reality in T-minus 2 weeks, Emily).  But hard and impossible are not the same thing, and sometimes the hardest things are the ones most worth fighting to achieve, and the ones with the sweetest rewards.

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