time alone

A working mom who stays at home or a stay-at-home mom who works?

My ability to prioritize. Hmmm. Somewhere, right now, there is a man married to me who is smirking and shaking his head. My (lack of) ability to prioritize has been a consistent source of stress for both of us over the years. However, I will say that moving across the country last summer, where we have no established social group or family nearby, has helped me evolve tremendously in the areas of priority and “down-time.”

But first. A few disclaimers that I want to get out of the way, because, as you acknowledged in a comment following your post, this is a topic that comes loaded with baggage:

  1. I’m pretty sure I can speak for both of us when I say we know that, in the grand scheme of life, this stage is short-lived and fleeting. However, as a reminder to everyone who is thinking this to yourself, when you’re in it, IT FEELS LIKE FOREVER.
  2. We both know that the dilemmas we’re confronted with when “staying home” with young children are problems of privilege, relative to the dilemmas some people face.
  3. The above being said, these are also legitimate concerns and an honest, compassionate discussion about them is helpful and healthy.  There is room in the world for all of it.
  4. The common terms “stay-at-home mom” (or dad), “house-wife,” “hands-on-father,”  and “working mom” are bullshit and I try to avoid them or at least put them in quotes. Women and men who care for their children and homes full-time don’t “stay-at-home” and are also, in fact, “working.” It’s also not like “working moms” stay away from home; they may spend less time with their children, but usually the way it’s spent is different. Quality over quantity, no? A “house-wife” is not actually married to her house and probably has lots of other abilities, ideas, and interests than her label implies. As for “hands-on dad”…well….it’s great that fathers of our generation are more involved in their families’ lives than in the past, but it also seems pretty obvious to me that an involved husband/father should be the rule, not the exception. We’ve all heard “Cat’s in the  Cradle” and seen enough footage of Girls Gone Wild to know that absentee fathers screw things up.  (Of course I have been, at different times, a “working mom” and a “stay-at-home mom” so can speak from those experiences. However, I’ve never been a father or husband, so guys, feel free to leave rebuttals in the comments.)
  5. I usually assume #4 can go without saying these days, but just yesterday I was reading a review of a particular school lunchbox we use and a reviewer wrote something about “us busy working moms don’t have time for such-and-such….” I wanted to punch my Mac. I wasn’t happy with the implication that moms who don’t “work” outside the home aren’t also busy. We’re busy; it’s just in different ways. Neither way is more valid or important than the other.  I remember (vaguely) the days before I had kids and probably would have said “stay-at-home moms” must have all kinds of time on their hands, like I still hear friends say today. But indulge me for a moment: right now I feel just as stretched, stressed, and busy as I did when I was in grad school, working, teaching, and writing a book-length manuscript with two toddlers who were in full-time childcare. I remember the drive to and from campus everyday: how, for 10 minutes, twice a day, I got to be alone in my car and listen to the radio and drink coffee and no one was sitting on my head or kicking me in the ribs. It was nice.

If you remember, Katie, one of the last books I included in my bibliography for my manuscript was Maternal Desire by Daphne de Marneffe. It moved me so much I bought, like, 7 copies and sent them to my new-mama friends. If you don’t make it through the book (one friend described it as too academic for her..) the last chapter alone makes it worth having. In “Time with Children,” de Marneffe (a “working mom” turned “stay-at-home mom” turned “working part-time mom”) examines two types of existence: the orientation of “having” vs. the orientation of “being.”

Culturally, we are oriented towards “having,” which refers not only to material possessions, but also egos, relationships, feelings, experiences, problems, education, and information. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your perspective) our relationships with our children resist the paradigm of “having.” (I’m liberally paraphrasing de Marneffe here…) Instead, if we can shift towards an orientation of “being” and revel in the process, we may find more peace in our intertwined lives with young children and feel less desperate for that time of solitude and personal “progress.” (This is not to say that the time for solitude is unnecessary: more about that in a minute…)

Here is the last quote I’ll offer:

We may pride ourselves in our ability to multitask, but at a certain point multitasking and caregiving collide. Without a certain level of attentiveness to loved ones, people risk multitasking their way right out of relationships.

Okay. So, this is the one of the last books I read before moving to Palo Alto, which is good, because I soon found myself going from living in the same town as my generous, experienced, always-available mother (who may or may not read this blog or even know I have a blog or even know what a blog is…) and other family and friends-who-are-like-family to a place where we knew exactly NO ONE. I also began my second attempt at being a “stay-at-home mom.” I had to put on my big-girl-panties. (Shout-out to CB!) But it also forced me to evolve as a mother and wife and figure some things out.

  • Once I got over the irritability of having Sola ALWAYS next to me, like an extra appendage, I became awed by the fact that, for probably the only time in my life, I am living two simultaneous existences. Not may people get to experience this and it’s an incredible way to be. And it won’t last much longer.
  • I realized how much Chris and I used to socialize, when childcare was free and easy. Now, not only are we just building a social circle,  but it’s also not so much a possibility or, I’m realizing, a necessity. There will be time in the future.
  • You know this, Katie, but I don’t watch TV. We have a TV and the kids watch it and occasionally I watch movies (less than once-a-month) but it just takes too much time. I’m not trying to be an elitist snob, like anti-TV-people often get labeled; it just takes too much time. And the ROI (return of investment) isn’t worth it.
  • This may appall some people, but I’m not into scheduling many activities oriented only for kids. I hate playgrounds. You know that. We also don’t do much library puppet-time, not many “play-dates” (unless I’m friends with the other parent and it’s a play-date for us, too), not many amusement parks or windowless buildings created for the sole purpose of letting kids run around screaming with laser guns/plastic balls/neon-colored food. Instead, we do stuff we all like to do. This includes: unstructured time at home, bike rides, beach trips, hikes, and memberships to the Academy of Sciences and Monterrey Bay Aquarium. I think this style teaches our children that not everything has to be about them all the time. I think this is a good lesson.

Fun is more fun when everybody’s having fun.

  • I’m learning to let it be OK that I just feel like staying home a lot. This is huge for me. I love the outdoors, I love being outdoors, I still run and hike and camp. But I used to wake up every day in sort of a panic thinking “when are we going to get out” without coming close to acknowledging that, sometimes, I don’t want to get out.  I like my home. I have put a lot of time, love, and spirit (and not necessarily money) into decorating it. I want to be in it and use it, which means letting it be a complete mess sometimes and then cleaning it up with care and a generous spirit. Both the nesting and the clean-up require motivation and energy, so when I have the motivation and energy, I do it. When I don’t, I don’t. The editors of Domino magazine wrote in their awesome book on decorating, “Bear in mind that a room that looks like a showroom also feels like one, and nobody will want to set foot in it (and there’s nothing sadder than an unused room).”  (I love the last parenthetical phrase.)

Not one for the decorating books, but shows signs of life…

  • Finally, the biggest help for me was a shift in thinking about my “hours.” Chris works typical 9-5 hours and the boys go to school most of that time. So, I used to wake up “on,” stay “on” during the day, because this is when everyone else is working, and then think, I’ll be “off” when Chris comes home and we’ll relax and enjoy the evening. But then Chris came home and we’d bicker over dinner, clean-up, and bed-time. We’d both been “on” all day, after all.  Then, at some point this past school-year, it dawned on me that I could have a break in my “work day,” if I just use it. Now, I try to take time “off” in the late morning or early afternoon, depending on Sola’s nap, the YMCA childcare hours, my to-do list, etc… No day looks the same, exactly, but I am mindful that I need time and take it without guilt or self-consciousness that everyone else thinks, “Well, doesn’t she have an easy life.”  Examples of how I spend my “off” time: going to the sauna or SHAVING MY LEGS (!) after yoga at the Y, when Sola is in the free childcare; reading a magazine, book, or surfing online when she is napping; having a beer or glass of wine at lunch instead of when most people do: when they get off work in the evening.  When I type these things out, they seem so tiny and unimportant. (Or, in the case of the last one, the beginning of a drinking problem.) But these are the silly little things I need to feel like I can return to “work” in the evenings and not resent my entire family, which is what was starting to happen.

Blah, blah, blah. That was a lot. I hope this helps you or our parent-readers or our non-parent readers have a glimpse into a different life. And, of course, I’m curious too, dear reader: how do you embrace an orientation of “being,” no matter what your stage in life?

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12 thoughts on “time alone

  1. Ok, so I too was a little taken aback by the use of the term “ability to prioritize” in reference to you as well:)
    However, when I think about it, you really do have an ability to prioritize ….yourself: your health and mental health, your needs and interests, and in return your family gets a happier, nicer you. Sometimes with all my organization and on task perfectionism, my family gets a bitchy bitter me. Thanks for teaching me a little bit about self care, I’ll try to do more of it. I wouldn’t have started running again if it weren’t for your encouragement. So thanks friend, I’m glad to have you in my life. Xxoo RK

    • ha. thanks for the honesty. i wonder if i’m almost panic-driven and/or tunnel-visioned into prioritizing ME…time will tell, i guess and then i’ll have to figure that out, too. i will be thanking YOU for teaching me a thing or two on an upcoming post, so stay tuned….

  2. I love this post. I especially love the photos. (Do you have some professional photographer follow you around to get these shots? I have so few pictures of me with my kids. Even though I’m with my kids all. the. time. And those pictures are posed and I have asked specifically that someone take them.)

    • sorry. i was trying to respect your privacy by not including your face. don’t worry. all my girlfriends say you look handsome with long hair. (i do too, for that matter.) 🙂

  3. Sounds like a good book. I think I will buy it today. I can relate to all you’ve said here, and I think the idea of teaching our children to like activities that the whole family enjoys is a great lesson. Involved Dad’s should be the rule and not the exception. I get so irritated when people praise my husband for helping and comment about how lucky I am that he helps because our Dads didn’t (not that he doesn’t deserve praise, but he is her FATHER). Too many other points to get into, but you and Katie have put up some impressive posts this week. Lots to think about–including limiting my yoga practice to my living room 🙂

  4. Sweetie, I’m always late to these posts, but I love the way you parse a problem. I raised one child a generation removed from you guys, and I never filled Ian’s days from dawn ’til bedtime with all kid activities. I did feel guilty occasionally because it seemed EVERY other child was was being given more to do than my child, which was going to result in more successful children who would become more successful adults. It’s probably true about the success part, but we have one of the happiest family units I know, so I think we did okay. This is a long ramble to say the worry over whether you’re doing it right never goes away. 🙂

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