Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Just Wondering

Forgive me. There is no knitting content in this post. There is nothing fun or entertaining either. I'm not even sure why I'm writing this, or whether I'll actually post it, but it's after midnight and I am sitting here wondering whether my life has been a waste.

My seven-year-old said something today that cut me to the bone. He was getting ready for school, the first day after Spring Break, and he told me that I'm lucky I don't have to go to school or work. I pointed out that I do have to work; my work is at home. And he said, "Yeah, but you don't DO anything." I started to explain that I do lots of stuff, like laundry and cleaning and shopping and cooking and gardening and taking care of people...and then I realized that nothing on my list means anything to anybody. I'm not changing the world; I'm not making any real contribution.

I always thought I'd do important things. I am very ambitious and have an impressive education. I was on a successful, high-profile sort of career path when I decided to have kids. For what I thought were very good reasons, I gave up my career and stayed home when my first child was born. That first baby--oh, my god, it was like a hand grenade landed in the middle of my life. I had no idea how dramatically my life would change. I think I was in shock for most of the first year. It wasn't just my career that disappeared. It was my identity, my freedom, my friends, my whole life. Of course my husband's life changed, too. But it's not the same. He still went to work every day, still had lunch breaks and adult conversation, still got a paycheck every week and occasional kudos for a job well done. But I stayed at home, day after day, with only a demanding potato for company, and nothing to do but change diapers and nurse and clean things, with never a moment entirely to myself. I think it took about five years before I really adjusted to the idea of being a mother, and only a mother.

And I'm happy, as a rule. I have a great husband and two terrific kids. I have friends and live in a neighborhood I like. There are no major crises in my life. But every day of my life, I live with the private question of whether I made the right choice. Is it really worth giving up my whole life to raise kids? Is there anything they can ever do as adults that will justify my retreating from the world to have them? What about my contribution to the world--the one I didn't make? A lot of resources went into producing me; shouldn't something more come of that than just two more people? Yeah, I know my life isn't over. In theory, I could still do something else of value. But we all know that's not really true. I gave up my spot on the career ladder when I jumped on the mommy track. Even if someone wanted to hire me, and I were willing to start over, ten years behind the power curve, what would happen to my family if I just said, "Mom's going to work; see you in ten hours"? (Or "Bye--going back to Russia, see you in a year"?) I don't think you can have it all, at least not all at the same time. I have kids. That's not going to change. And anything else I try to do will always be subordinate to them.

Most of the time, I just ignore the running commentary in my head, and I've never talked about it out loud to anyone. I don't know what it says about me that I have to turn to the anonymity of the blogosphere to examine this most private and fundamental question. But my son's innocent comment is keeping me awake tonight, and I don't know where else to go. I know he didn't say it to be mean and he wasn't trying to hurt my feelings; he said it because it's what he really believes. That's why it hurts so much. I can ignore any number of nasty, angry comments directed my way because a child isn't getting his way. I don't care if he screams "I hate you!" because I won't let him do something I know isn't good for him. I don't react at all to being told I'm mean when I force a kid to eat vegetables or clean his room. But this comment is much more disturbing, because it means that all those parts of myself I gave up to raise kids have made me seem lacking to them. What an irony. I can't very well tell them, "Hey, you should have seen me before I had you. I was a really cool person. But then you came along and sucked the life out of me, and, well, this is what you get."

Even at the worst moments of parenting, I always figured it was at least worthwhile. You know, you don't get paid, you don't get commendations, you aren't valued in the eyes of society, but at least you know it's important. For the first time tonight, though, I'm wondering if maybe the reason no one seems to value the work of raising kids is because it's really not all that valuable. Childhood is only a short period of a person's life. Maybe it really doesn't matter if it's spent in day care. Maybe being home with Mom is overrated. Maybe the net benefit is greater if Mom turns the kids over to a competent caregiver who can watch twenty kids at a time and just goes on with her life and career.

Not that it matters for me. I made my choice. I'm okay with it, and I'll go on living with it. I'm just wondering.


Anonymous said...

I think you are reading too much into what your son said. I think he doesn't see you go off to work every day and have a "defined" profession. You stay home and cook and do laundry and all the millions of other things but that is way too abstract for a kid to see. He sees dad go to work and mom stays home.

I once asked my daughter what color skin I had. She was about 3. Her answer was orange (thought you might like that answer!). I guess what I'm trying to say is sometimes they see just what is put in front of their face and they don't take into consideration a lot of other things we adults would. By him saying you don't DO anything probably just means you don't go off to a separate job.

Hang in there. You should be proud of yourself for raising your kids. I think its really important. I wish I could have been able to do that when my daughter was born but financially it wasn't an option.

Faith said...

My mother had an ivy-league masters degree and dropped everything to stay at home with my sisters and I. When I was 18, she said "Ok, me time." and became an award-winning jewelry designer within a few years. Now she's going back to school to get another masters, this time in Psychology. She still says, however, that raising her children was the best time of her life and the best decision she's ever made.

I can't imagine how shitty it must feel to have your child say that you don't do anything, but there is always, always time to do something else! It's not too late! Maybe you'll never become the person you thought you'd be, but my mother and her friends are all such an inspiration to me. When he's old enough to know better, you'll be an inspiration to your son!