Eli got excited recently at the prospect of my joining him as chaperone on an overnight trip that he will take next year, a fifth-grade experience he looks forward to as much as he dreaded the ballroom dancing in fourth grade.
“Come with me!” he said. “That way, you won’t have to sit around the house by yourself all day, doing nothing!”
In a word, ouch. Is that what my kids think of me?
I had to laugh. The sentiment had come from a generous place, not a judgmental one. When I thought about it, I realized he was just responding to my own complaints about my lack of schedule and direction and the loneliness of being a freelance writer/stay-at-home mom. It is I who have denigrated my own use of time and created in his mind the impression of his mother as someone who exists just slightly South of useless.
I began to defend myself weakly.
“Well,” I said, “I do write.” I thought to list off the various and sundry things I do as mistress of a household of four, as maker of morning smoothies and egg sandwiches, local café conversationalist, grocery shopping mad-woman, afternoon popcorn-popper, columnist, attempted novelist. … And, after all, I have to move the car twice a week.
But really, did I have to defend myself to my 10-year-old? Did I have to justify myself to anyone? The answer, sadly, is yes. But the person to whom I must ultimately justify myself is myself.
I am living proof of what I learned in the one angry Women’s Studies class I took in college: we mothers cannot have it all. Feminism seems just to have put a renewed pressure to “do something” besides the very hard job of parenting, to accomplish in one’s day something that can be held up very tangibly and told to people at parties.
In Park Slope, the bar is high. I am surrounded by Pulitzer-prize winning authors, Tony Award-winning playwrights, TV personalities, producers — in short the people who are arguably creating what the world thinks. It is no wonder that I feel slightly embarrassed in the presence of these people, slightly cowed as I try to build my own voice and balance those career aspirations with my great desire to pick up my kids from school most days and be available should they need me.
The conversation comes up all the time with my stay-at-home mom friends, those who do some sort of outside work and those who don’t, who float around during the day like I do trying to meaningfully fill the time between pick-up and drop-off: how do we justify ourselves to ourselves. Sadly, those mothers with full-time jobs often feel the need to do the same, and imagine all they would do if they ever could stay home, not unlike the retirees I encounter in my travels who spent their whole careers daydreaming of luxuriating in boring bliss only to find being bored is boring.
The kids in the neighborhood, like my own, pick up on the vibrations of what people “should” do, and have learned well what is what, that “success” is something that is won, mostly, outside the home.
One afternoon, Oscar was telling a friend how I was often late for pick-up, and then in the next breath justified it slightly by noting that, after all, her father was sometimes late, too.
“Yes,” she said innocently, “but my father has a good reason. He has a very important job…”
When I laughed, and pointed out that I am, in fact, a writer (not that I should have to defend myself), she acquiesced with a sweet thoughtful nod.
“Yes,” she said. “You do have that column…”
Kids just say the things the adults think but often don’t say, of course. Self-esteem in this day and age, probably like in the ages before it and almost surely after, is a hard thing to find. Will it be better if I ever actually publish a book? Would the kids and the other parents and I feel slightly better about my “doing nothing” if there was something more solid to show for it? But what if the book sucks, never makes it on to the NY Times bestseller list like so many of my neighbors have? What if my first book is great, and I never write another? Where does the pressure and self-judgment end?
There is a balance, and I am fortunate enough to have the time and money to try to find it. But it ain’t easy. I call Big G sometimes in the middle of the day just to list off a few things I have done, to get his proverbial pat on the head.
I texted him the other day after I’d lamented about the task of going out in the rain to move the car.
“I did it!” I said after pushing myself to simply walk out of the house and spend 10 minutes to find a parking space.
If only I could focus on the list of things I do instead of those I haven’t done. If only. I need to start so that my kids will be less hard on themselves in their own lives, so that they too might see the value in something less than someone else’s idea of “doing something.”