A major part of a writer’s job—as well as a mother’s—is eavesdropping. If we didn’t overhear conversations, from the mundane to the dramatic, how could we possibly have fodder for our next story, information about our children’s lives?
Which brings me to this post.
I was at a local café the other day when I heard a woman say to her friend, “Yeah, she’s home for the summer and I’m exhausted!”
It stopped me dead in my tracks. Or, at least, it made me stumble, my coffee cup in hand. The women halted their conversation and turned to stare at me, open-mouthed. I smiled at my clumsy feet, found an empty table, and pretended to read as they went on about their college-aged children returning home for summers and holidays. For them, it was both a headache and a delight.
I tried to read but a question I’ve long struggled with continued to eat away at my brain. It was a question that inspired me to return to school in my 40s—that’s how desperate I was to finding an answer to it. And it is this: Why do women become so fragmented in the presence of their children?
Nearly two decades ago I renounced my career in the tech industry to raise my daughter. Granted, I worked outside the house when possible, but in a much different capacity—and if not with far less stress then under a far different kind of pressure. My primary responsibility, however, was taking care of my home, my husband, and, most of all, my daughter Isabella. Women don’t speak as frankly about this as they should. Sure, raising a child is wonderful and rewarding. It has its moments of utter bliss. But it can also be maddening, in that the choice in becoming a Stay At Home Mom comes with not receiving a paycheck, a To Do list that never seems to end, lack of social and professional visibility, and, above all, very little acknowledgement and encouragement (if any). Still, I argued. Still. Caring for my daughter would rob me of my identity but I would be contributing to the continuation of the species in a wholly positive way. I would be a large part of creating a person who was solid, loving, and smart; a person who could, and would, give back to humanity. And I’m proud to say that I did just that: My daughter is now in her twenties and she’s stable. Mature. Self-confident. Wise beyond her years. She has a zest for life, and I know she’ll touch the hearts of many. The effect that has on me is beautiful in countless ways. I feel triumphant.
Before Isabella left for college, though, every morning was a guess-what-the-day-would-bring game. While my husband rarely failed to eat his breakfast, scan the newspaper, and rush out the door for his eight to ten hour day in the office, I stayed behind, my breath shallow, my once, cleanly-structured agenda at work a multicolored dry-erase board of tasks. Park visit! Dishes! Walgreens! Pediatrician’s! Sandbox! Snack time, bath time, brushing teeth time, reading time, bedtime! Within that, though, were all those daily woes, from a fractured wrist and a nasty kid on the playground (another subject moms stay mum about, much to my chagrin) to spoiled butter that would throw a whole dinner out of whack. And yet when it was finally my bedtime, and my daughter had survived another day on this planet, andI’d survived, too, I’d feel that…I hadn’t accomplished anything at all.
Years passed; predictability returned; things got easier. But Isabella’s needs and priorities and letdowns and successes occupied the forefront of my mind, leaving room for little else. My hopes and desires and worries and disappointments were luxuries I could only indulge in the wee hours of night when everyone else was asleep.
She’s in college now, and she comes home occasionally for the holidays. Her presence back at home is always a delight—I love my time with her. We shop together, cook together, have lengthy conversations about, yes, the mundane (who is Ryan Gosling dating now?) and the dramatic (what does one do with a possessive girlfriend?). I look forward to her visits with as much joyous enthusiasm as I looked forward to Christmas as a child.
But when she comes home, something in me noticeably shifts, and like the women at the café, I am, all of a sudden, thoroughly engaged. That visceral bond we have resurfaces like a shot of heroin smacked into my arm without warning. My heart races, my stomach kicks like she’s back in my womb, and my entire being reacts to every nuance in her disposition. If she’s down, I swim in it. If she’s ecstatic, it doesn’t matter that I’ve gained five pounds and am fighting with my best friend because I’m thrilled too. Her happiness and well-being become paramount; it’s what matters most.
During her last visit, I was elbows-deep in hot, soapy water while she talked on the phone. I was thinking about the phone call I had to make the next morning to her dentist, the orchid in her room I had to water, and the load of laundry of hers I had to do before her flight back to LA when a voice in my head screamed, “Wait! Who says that you have to be back in that role just because she’s home?” I glanced into the living room and saw my husband watching a baseball game like he hadn’t a care in the world while the mere sight of him reminded me what I needed to handle for him on his behalf. Just like that, I was back to being that person, the caregiver, my own agenda (“you have one, Mom?”) thrown on the back burner and set on simmer until further notice.
I’m not alone in this. Like me, many women find themselves in the same predicament, oftentimes unknowingly. So the question is: Why is this, and how can we avoid this kind of fragmentation?
This requires more space and time than I have here but I’ll briefly say this: Studies have shown that women are indeed wired differently. I obtained my BA in Women Studies late in life because I saw the world I once knew unravel in the wake of marriage and motherhood. I needed answers. On why men seem less inclined to letting go of their careers to raise children; on how they can stay focused when everything around them at home has fallen into disarray. On why the details that plague me and other mothers are insignificant to them.
But back to the question at the heart of this post: How can we remember to be individuals AND mothers? I had become so conditioned to placing my daughter’s needs above mine, even now that she’s older, independent, fully capable, that I’d forgotten that once, and not that long ago, I had my own life, too.
Despite my degree, despite my experience, I’ll admit that I don’t have all of the answers. But I can tell you that I’m slowly training myself to set boundaries around this all-consuming love and concern for my child. I’m learning to methodically separate her needs from mine—a task I should have tackled when she was born. I haven’t reached total enlightenment (yet!) but I can offer you the following tips:
—If your child is small, make a list of YOUR priorities as soon as he or she falls asleep. Write it down, and commit yourself to accomplishing what you’ve promised yourself you would. The dishes can wait but if you keep putting off items on your personal to do list for another day, you’ll find yourself in an ocean of discontent. Taking care of yourself directly translates to being a better mother and person.
—If your child is an adult, remain focused on what matters to you and the things you have to do for yourself even when he or she is around. Continue writing down tasks and checking them off. A visit from your child is certainly special and deserving of your attention, but that doesn’t mean that you need to abandon your own priorities.
As for feeling fragmented, I am reminded of what a good friend from Italy once said to me: “You are lucky enough to have supermarkets open at midnight. Do your work during the day and go shopping later, or send your husband on weekends. During the day, give yourself a few hours of undivided attention and focus on your own agenda.” I have begun to implement her advice, and it works.
Now, if only I could read this aloud at the café and hope the two women I encountered the other day eavesdrop on me…
Transcend. Transform. Thrive. 1-on-1 Coaching available. Reinvigorate your passion, awaken your true calling, and utilize inherent coping mechanisms to handle life’s problems with efficiency and grace. During the process, clients explore the obstacles that hinder personal, professional, and spiritual growth, and investigate possible solutions. More information…