Monday, August 22, 2011

The Emotional Side of Stay at Home Mommyhood

A few posts ago I tackled the task-y side of being a Stay at Home Mom, but I didn't really get into the emotional piece.  I didn't talk about what it FEELS like.  That's always quite a bit more complicated isn't it?

It seems to me that career issues have a lot (mostly?) to do with how we see ourselves.  Who am I in the world and what do I have to offer?  From my earliest memories, I have been most fascinated by the inner life.  What people think about and why, how they decide to do the things they do and why any of it matters.  Throughout my life I have occupied the curious space of being at once drawn to and overwhelmed by other people.  I imagine this is one of the reasons why I love to read in the manic way I do.  A book affords me a safe distance from which to ogle and wonder without the pesky need to bounce the conversational ball.

Initially this made a career as a high school English teacher seem to be the obvious choice.  During my first few years in college I took classes in both the English and Psychology departments with HS teaching as my goal.  Then the Psych classes got me.  During the semester that I took both Abnormal and Social psych I realized that it was psychology that drove my interest in everything else.  My love of reading had always been about the characters and if I shifted my focus to Psychology I wouldn't have to deal with the mind-numbing minutia of grammar and I would have to pursue further degrees, a huge bonus for school-loving me.

I went on to pursue graduate study in psychology and as much as it's possible to love a doctoral program, I did.  The classes were fascinating and the process of research was comforting somehow, suggesting that there might just be a way to get answers about the murky world of the human psyche.  Like so many other things, I didn't so much enjoy the doing of research, but I loved the idea of it.  As part of my program, I was expected to teach undergraduates and I found that it suited me even better than I had imagined it might.  Much to the dismay of my professors (who were training researchers, damnit!), I set my sights on an academic job at a small, liberal arts college.  I didn't want graduate students and I didn't want to spend all my time in the narrow domain of my training.  I wanted to get people excited about psychology broadly, excited about their own lives and possibility.  I wanted to be a part of the process of someone seeing themselves and their life in a new way.  I wanted to help people understand their world more completely.

During the six years I spent in full-time, tenure-track university teaching, I was mostly able to do that.  I found that as the "expert" at the front of the room, I could manage a large group of people.  I was dynamic, I was engaging, when we talked about personality my students were shocked to learn that I was an introvert.  I guided small groups of students pursuing their own research and cherished the intimate space that this kind of pursuit afforded me.  I met one-on-one with students to weigh in on matters academic and more frequently than I ever would have imagined, deeply personal.

These jobs were not perfect and there is much about the work of a professor that has nothing to do with students or one's area of expertise.  There are committees and faculty meetings and psychotic (truly in my case) colleagues and SACS reviews and wearing "the outfit" at endless ceremonies and graduations and students that don't seem to care about their own lives and inconsistent AC systems and... perhaps I should stop there.  No job is without frustration, but there are many things about the work of a faculty member that fits nicely with my particular constellation of personality and skills.

In the middle of all this career-mindedness, my wife and I decided to have a baby.  Prior to meeting my wife, when I had thought about my life it had always involved children.  Children in daycare.  I was a daycare kid myself and I come from a socioeconomic and geographic (suburbia) background in which everyone goes to daycare.  Both parents work and there is neither Nanny nor Grandparent in the daily picture.  I hadn't prepared myself for a career that would single-handedly support a family and didn't imagine I would partner with someone who had.

Imagine my surprise when I found myself marrying and planning a family with an MD, or as my mother likes to call her, a REAL doctor.  My previous girlfriend had been a German born, American Studies doctoral candidate who was writing a dissertation on the Beat poets.  This was much more par for the course.  By the time my wife and I were planning a move in order to begin her career, it was clear that sending our child to daycare would be a choice for us and not an imperative.  Oh choices.....

The original decision for me to stay home with Yogi was made easier by a whole host of factors, not the least of which was the fact that no local universities were looking for psychologists.  That fact combined with my wife's eight measly (we thought) weeks of maternity leave made the idea of my sitting out the year and staying home with the baby a pretty attractive one.  This was where we stood in our thinking on the issue a year ago when Yogi was born.

In the intervening twelve months all sorts of things have happened.  The most important is that I have fallen in love with Yogi and this family that the three of us are creating.  My attachment to these two overwhelms me.  I spent the first few months of Yogi's life marveling (questioning?) what I had done to deserve all of this.  These days I just try to pause long enough each day to say "thank you".

This work is both more challenging and more satisfying than I would have predicted.  Until spending days on end with a baby as my only companion, I never knew how much I feed on praise and approval.  As sad as it is to admit, I think what I miss most about teaching is the adoration.  Pathetic, no?  I can read books and articles and even discuss them with other people thanks to the internet, but I can't hold a room spellbound in a story or see that look in someone's eye that means "Wow!  I've never thought about it that way!".  My wife is quick with appreciation, but even she can't compete with the kind of feedback I had grown accustomed to.  This is not to say that I garnered only approval in my previous life, but I reveled in what I did get.

My life as a SAHM/housewife/whatever we're calling it these days doesn't offer many opportunities for praise.  As it turns out, being appreciated for my ability to keep a clean house is more likely to raise my hackles than stroke my ego.  It's a landmine really and I appreciate my wife's willingness to navigate it even after being singed on more than one occasion.  I will happily accept any and all kind words about my cooking though.  Humm.... funny how that works.

The other HUGE challenge for me is that I have so very little say in our daily schedule.  Although Yogi is a pretty predictable guy once he has settled into a routine, that routine is a moving target.  We may hold a pattern for weeks on end only to shift into another that lasts only a few days.  This is less than desirable for two big reasons.  One is that it is FABULOUS to make plans with other people.  Both Yogi and I enjoy being out in the world and as he gets older he's beginning to remember other kids and get excited when he sees them.  Being the prompt, punctual, obscenely reliable person that I am, it is hard to make a plan with someone and then have to cancel.  I HATE that.  Hate, Hate, Hate.  However, Yogi is teaching me that sometimes you just have to go with the flow.  Apologize for breaking the date and let it go.  Life really is too short.

The other reason that this shifting schedule thing is a pain is that nap time is MY time and I prefer to know when it will be coming.  You know, bc that way I can plan my time. ;).  Laugh if you will (and likely should), but if I've set my intention beforehand I'm much more likely to follow through and get that charge of productivity.  If it sneaks up on me, I'll often just say to hell with it and watch reality TV and that is good for no one.

Although it's easier to talk about the challenges (guilt, anyone?), the rewards are far greater.  Maybe I should explain the guilt for a second (this post isn't nearly long enough).  Not everyone gets to do this.  Not everyone has this privilege.  The privilege of making this decision for themselves and their family.  The freedom afforded by a spouse who spent 11 years in medical training preparing herself to do the kind of work that would mean that my earning potential would be helpful, but not required.  The freedom that her decisions have afforded me in my career path as they have narrowed and focused her own.  These things weigh on me.  They don't overshadow the joy and gratitude, but they texture it with a certain sadness.

But..... the rewards.  If you've stuck with me this far, you've earned some reward, no?  The big one is that my life is about creating a safe, nurturing home environment for my family.  A space that is clean and comfortable and safe.  An emotional temperature that is (mostly) calm and loving and supportive.   I have the time and the energy to focus on what seems to me at this moment in my life to be the most important.

My son has gotten outside for walks in the sunshine with his dog on most of the days of his life.  He has been snuggled into just about every nap and bedtime by one of his Mommies or one of his Grandparents.  My wife and I have had the opportunity to prepare fresh, whole and nutritious meals that make us feel like good parents.  I am able to take care of the house and run errands during the week so that the weekend can be wholly devoted to family time.

There are days when I feel like what I want most in the world is to sit in a very quiet room all by myself, but then Yogi grins his goofy grin or I can hear the two of them chattering together from the kitchen and nothing else matters.  It's all right here and I'm grateful to take my spot in the midst of it.


First of all, this is a stunning post. Stunning. Secondly, I think that you and R may have been separated at birth. The similarities are eerie. She's my very favorite person in the world, so this is given as a compliment...

I am so happy that you've found the right fit for your family. Despite the lack of positive feedback, which is entirely normal in early parenthood, you sound really settled and happy. I think Nutella would prefer to work part-time, but we are both glad to have our jobs and see how well Curly does in daycare, and how much he gets from it. I do think that kind of interaction and routine is so important when they're a little older, but also that it is such a wonderful thing for them to be well taken care of by a parent early on if a family can manage it. Good stuff.

Thank you for sharing this! My wife and I will soon be embarking on motherhood and I've been thinking a lot of about what stay-at-home-motherhood would be like. I will be the non-biological mother at home so I find your posts fascinating. Thank you for writing.

Thank you for this post.... I think Speedy & I would like to ideally get to a place where we can both work p/t and do 100% of our own childcare (even though we love our nanny share and think it has been great for the boy!) I would love to read more about your evolution as a sahm...especially as you contemplate #2!

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