me: I’m so glad you’re home. The kids are driving me crazy and we need to figure something out for dinner and I’ve been working on the house all day. I’m exhausted.
him: I’ve been working all day, too, you know.
me: I didn’t say you weren’t. But I need a break from doing the same kind of work. If I don’t get a break, I’m doing the same thing, 24 hours a day.
him: I know you work hard. But when do I get a break?
me: But if you get a break when do I get a break?
Then we say we don’t know how single parents do it.
This is not earth-shattering stuff. And it’s the stuff of a relatively privileged life. If you “stay at home,” you have similar conversations. If not, you’re tired of hearing about them from those of us who do. And before you get all excited over opinions of working moms vs. “stay-at-home” moms (always in quotations until I learn of a less ridiculous term for this lifestyle), understand: this is not that kind of piece. Yes, I know the debate is alive and well lately, but here’s a secret the flame-fanners ignore: I’ve done it both ways with young children and there are benefits and disadvantages to working outside the home and working with the home. Don’t talk yourself into thinking that if you could to just go back to work or just quit your job and stay home, your life would get better.
But after having this who gets a break? conversation with friends and, ahem, spouses-who-shall-go-unnamed, I’ve been thinking: It’s not so much that I need a break from the work (that is exhausting and unpaid and culturally under-appreciated…but that is a different piece); it’s about a break from identity.
Nothing I’ve done in life has flooded me with a tidal wave of identity like becoming a mother. It was only after having my third child that I finally knew I had what it took to “stay at home.” That’s right: going back to grad school and working full-time was easier for me than staying home with twins. I had lost my already-shaky sense of identity and I didn’t know how to be a mother until I understood who I was outside of being a mother.
Back when I was teaching and writing full-time, when I met someone new, I would tell them I have three children and I teach and write. Then, we would go on to have a conversation about interesting things. Now that I tell people I have three children and I “stay at home” the conversation stalls. She must not have much to talk about, is the unspoken message I get. This reaction is not just in my head. In social settings I’ve observed friends who work outside the home quickly make it clear that they have real jobs besides “just” being a mother. I could do it too; I can say I’m a writer. But unless I’m feeling especially insecure, I don’t. I want it to be clear that “staying at home” is something I value and take pride in and yet— surprise! —I still have other things to talk about.
Cycling is one of the few pre-children identity-holdovers that I’ve kept since becoming a mother. (Even writing is something I began professionally after I had kids.) And I’ve held onto cycling not just because it fills me with passion and the energy of living. I hold onto it because it gives me that break I need from being someone’s mother. When I go through the ritual of putting on my funny little lycra pants, my jersey, my helmet, and I head out to climb the foothills and speed down the road, I am a cyclist. I am anonymous and free and I could be anyone to the stranger driving by.
I need this and my children don’t know it yet, but they need this for me. I need a break from being their mother so I can be a better mother.
What is your passion? What fills you with the goodness of life? Is it professional? Getting that certificate, going back to school, finishing that novel? Is it creative? Photography, fashion, design? Is it physical? Dance, yoga, swimming? Is it whimsical? Reading, watching your favorite show, sitting in a sunny corner with a mug of tea?
If you haven’t the means to engage your passion, I hope you can find a way. If you choose not to engage, think twice before judging people who do. It means the world has one less resentful, bitter, unfulfilled person, which can only make it a better place.
What is your passion? Don’t let anyone make you feel guilty that it isn’t why you got a degree or it doesn’t bring in money or somehow you haven’t “earned” it.
People will judge you. Let them. And don’t fall into the trap of telling yourself you’re doing it for the kids. There’s nothing wrong with doing it for yourself.
Sometimes you’ve got to be nobody’s mama.