Last month it seemed as though our entire house were hitched to the back of an old John Deere, being jostled along a rutted-out gravel road, hay and sticky kids poking out the sides, with everyone thinking the ride was great fun until we got off and realized that our backs were sore from the rough terrain, hay was in our underwear, and our clothes smelled of manure.
Third grade at one school, kindergarten at another, and preschool at a third; a week spent wringing as many memorable moments as possible out of a visit from our close family friends who moved abroad earlier this year; the happy and sloppy and bouncy invasion of my parents’ adorable puppy—these events brought us to a high that of course could not be sustained. And so we rode out the crash that inevitably followed, a crash that carried with it its usual compadres, the cold and the flu. (Isn’t one illness enough for the first month of school? Must we have two?)
During this time, I reached the milestone I’ve looked forward to for so long: all my kids in someone else’s care, all at the same time, freeing me up for . . . what? Writing the next great novel? Creating awe-inspiring works of art? Curing cancer? Surely I could achieve something so significant, I figured, now that my arms, lap, and mind were so freed. Sure, my youngest son’s preschool is only for a few hours, twice a week, but to me this seemed like an eternity, as I have not had any regular time to myself during the day for the past five years. (When I say this to my husband, he inevitably points out that neither has he, to which I promptly retort the classic stay-at-home-mom response: “You have your commute!”)
So now here we are, one month later, and I have written, hmm, maybe two pages in my novel? Something like that. At this rate it’s scheduled for completion in 2021. I have to thank my overall feelings of intimidation staring down a project so daunting, but also all the crap that comes with having kids in school. Crap that, although my oldest has been in school for three years, I neglected to plan for, especially the part where I now must multiply everything by three.
This past month has been an endless stream of school schedules, homework, pick-up and drop-off routines, worry over no friends, school pictures, fundraisers, lunchboxes, excitement over new friends, play practice, PTA sign-ups, and field trips. Logistics has never been my strong suit, but I now find myself thrust into the role of project manager times three. I am grateful that I get to be the one doing these jobs—not because I particularly enjoy the work, but because I know that facilitating all these details smooths the lives of my children in small ways, making their lives more peaceful. And that in turn makes me happy.
I thought I was frazzled from keeping so many balls in the air until I had dinner with two girlfriends, both of whom are mothers who work outside the home and have recently taken on a greater workload. One has a part-time job and is self-employed, with five jobs/clients that she sees regularly. She spends her days running from job to job while her children are in school, and her nights shuttling them from baseball to football to Boy Scouts. More often than she would like, dinner is McDonald’s en route.
My other friend recently accepted a promotion to become manager of her team. This is a great step for her career, but at the moment this good news feels more like bad news, and she’s wondering if she made a mistake. As manager, she now spends the entire day in back-to-back meetings, which means she must log in at night and work for several hours after her kids go to bed. Of course, in addition to all this, she must monitor her daughter’s adjustment to high school, her son’s adjustment to kindergarten, and her preschooler, in addition to a busy extracurricular schedule.
Why do we mothers do all of this? Why do we continue to fill our lives to overflowing and layer on the responsibilities? For each person I suppose it’s a different answer: to pursue a career that brings satisfaction, to make ends meet, to follow a dream, to pay off debts. For many women, the answer changes from year to year, and thus their work outside the home fluctuates as well—now she’s at home with her kids, now she’s working full time, now part time, now self-employed. But what’s interesting is that the part of the equation that represents us as mothers, caring for our kids—that part never wavers. The rest of our lives might be filled with variables, but our role as mother is a fixed constant.
(I am speaking in generalizations; I know this characterization doesn’t best describe 100% of all women, and at the same time, it is entirely fitting for some fathers.)
This externalized focus strikes the cynic in me as surprising. The drive to mother does not appear to stem from selfishness, and isn’t that what humans are programmed to be deep down: selfish? But when I think of it from my own experience, I’m hard-pressed to think of anything more obvious or omnipresent than a mother’s desire to care for her children. The wedge of my pie chart labeled Kids might shrink or grow from day to day, but it’s always there, in that too-bright yellow color. Even in my most dramatic, emotional of moods, I can’t imagine any set of circumstances that life could throw at me that would change this. Down at the shelter? Yep, there they are, holding my hands. Living in our car? That would be cramped, but I’m sure we’d make do.
And good thing for all this crazy devotion flying around our planet! How lucky for our species that all these little kids have adults so willing to sacrifice their sanity and well-being so that their tiny loved ones might make their shaky, wobbly way into adulthood. Of course, the children have no idea of the mental and physical sacrifices their parents make for them. (They just interpret the resulting symptoms as more proof that their parents are clueless and old.) They have no idea, that is, until they have kids of their own one day. Then they’ll know, all right. Oh yes, they’ll know . . .
And if that’s schadenfreude you think you hear in my voice, you’re wrong. Completely wrong.
(Thanks, Mom! I love you!)
© Amy Daniewicz