I I I I I I I  

A Mother's Work

After five years at home as the primary caregiver for our children, I'm seriously considering going back to work fulltime, due, in part, to our less-than-rosy financial situation.  It's a measure of how conflicted I am about this choice that I've typed and deleted a dozen sentences of justification and explanation, as if I needed to prove that my decision is motivated not by self-interest but by necessity.  I'll rant and rave at anyone who dares to suggest that mothers who work outside the home are inferior to stay at home moms, but I still feel the need to establish my "good mommy" street cred (even if it means indirectly supporting the notion that only mothers who "have to work" should work outside the home).  To be perfectly honest, as much as I love being at home with my children, I'm frequently bored, frustrated, and lonely.  I often long for adult company and more challenging work than sorting darks and lights and coaxing a toddler down for a nap.  I'm not thrilled about putting Alec in fulltime daycare, but I am excited about contributing more than a token amount to the family income, and about pursuing my own career goals.

My mother married before she graduated from high school (she was remarkable in her family, not for marrying so young, but for finishing school anyway), and was a stay at home mother for most of my childhood.  In spite of the advances of the feminist movement, the women I knew who had "careers," rather than working part-time or sporadically to supplement the family income, were mostly childfree, and often single.  The TV shows and movies I watched reinforced this: Wilma Flintstone and Samantha Stephens put their energy into raising their children (and managing their husbands), while Mary Tyler Moore and Margaret Houlihan traded barbs with co-workers and struggled for recognition from their bosses.  Divorced or widowed mothers, like Elliot's mom in E.T., sometimes worked, but if they were lucky they found another man to support them, as Mrs. Brady did, and continued to devote themselves to housework and childrearing.  As I got older, there were more representations of working mothers in the media, but as Susan Faludi points out in Backlash, the division of women into good mothers or career girls continued into the 1980's, along with the idea that women who were successful in their careers were doomed to failure in their personal lives.

My parents and teachers assumed I would go to college and to have a career, and as a young feminist, I was determined to be economically independent and to succeed professionally.  And yet, as if to prove that my academic accomplishments didn't impinge on my personal life, in high school and college I threw myself into one intense dating relationship after another, often hooking up with a new guy before I'd completely ended the previous relationship.  It seemed vitally important that I have a boyfriend, and I didn't have the knack of keeping things casual.  While other girls were still dating a new guy every weekend, I was picking out china and addressing wedding invitations.

When I told my advisor that I'd decided to get married in the spring of my Junior year, she only said, "Be careful."  At the time, I resented the implication that marriage would reduce my drive (or ability) to succeed.  Perhaps I should have watched her example more closely.  The next year she and her husband adopted a baby; she took an administrative job and put her acting and directing career on hiatus.

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 I began to understand her words of caution when I unexpectedly got pregnant during my second year of graduate school.  Most of my colleagues and professors reacted as if this were a tragedy of epic proportions.  The playwright I was working with on a new production asked, "You aren't going to keep it are you?"  When I explained that I wasn't going to have an abortion, she refused to schedule the performances around the pregnancy, and instead found another director for her script.

That pregnancy ended in a miscarriage, and I finished my degree with an uneasy feeling that I was looking forward to two irreconcilable futures: the one where I was a professional director or a college professor, and the one where I carried a pregnancy to term and raised a child.

I had been ambivalent about parenthood, but after I lost the baby, it suddenly became critically important.  I made bargains with the universe -- if I could only have a baby, I'd be an exemplary parent.   I glared at moms who yelled at their kids in public, smug in the certainty that I'd never treat a child that way.  These women had what continued to be denied to me every month when my carefully charted temperature started to drop and I bled and cramped, but it seemed to me that they took their great luck for granted.  I swore that if I had a baby, I would never forget what a blessing a child is.

When I got pregnant again, the month after I graduated, I knew which path I would pursue.  Instead of going back to school for a PhD or looking for directing jobs, I found work that was more compatible with raising a family.  I haven't directed a play since I left school, and recently I caught myself saying, "I used to be a director."  It hurt to say it, but how long can you continue to describe yourself by a job that you haven't done in ten years?  The energy I'd planned to put into my career, I instead invested in my children.  I worked outside the home until my second child was born, but in my decisions about employment, my children came first, and ultimately, I decided to quit my full-time job.

Once my primary role became stay at home mother, I was even more determined to be a model mom -- maybe not June Cleaver, but perhaps her modern incarnation, calm and reasonable, with an endless supply of healthy snacks and always enough time to read to or play with my children.  I was going to cherish every golden moment, just as I'd said I would.

Of course, you can't live like that, any more than you can always remember how much you love your spouse or always approach your first world problems with the perspective that most of the world has it much worse.  I adore my children, but I snap at them when they misbehave at the grocery store, I feed them fast food when I'm too tired to cook, and sometimes I want time away from them.  I think this is probably healthy - I'm not sure I'd want to be around children who were relentlessly cherished and coddled and made to feel that they were the center of their parents' lives.

As they've gotten older, I've become more reconciled to being what D. W. Winnicott called "the good enough mother."  And as I've felt less guilt and anxiety about my role as mother, I've become more comfortable with the idea of working outside the house again.  It took being at home with my kids fulltime to see that it was possible to be a good mother and also make space for myself in my life.

Children are perhaps the most all-consuming creative project you can embark on, and it's perfectly possible to make your children your life's work.  But I'm poorly suited for the role of the Angel in the House - I want the security, recognition, and freedom that come with paid work.  I know that when I worked fulltime, I romanticized the life of stay at home mothers.  It's perfectly possible that I'm now romanticizing life as a work outside the home mother.  I still remember how frazzling it was to try to keep all the balls in the air, and I've spent quite a bit of time thinking about what sort of work I could do that would make the juggling act more doable.  I'm tidying up my resume and putting out feelers, trying to find that perfect position that offers job-satisfaction, decent pay, and enough flexibility that I can still spend quality time with my children.  More importantly, I'm ignoring the occasional feelings that I'm somehow failing my children by returning to the workforce.  One day they too will have to find a way to balance their careers with their family lives.  I hope that they can learn something from my example, and isn't that what being a good mother is all about?
 About the Author:
Melissa Lipscomb
lives in Austin with her children Drew, Franny, Alec and husband Adam. Some days she feels like she's figuring out, and others she's just waiting for the other shoe to drop. Visit her blog.



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