I turned 46 a few days ago. No party. No fireworks. Just some quiet reflection. The moment was humbling. Eric, the kids and I were spending the day in our woods, up on the northeast corner of our land. We’d lit a fire to cook lunch and were resting from hiking around cliffs and hemlocks. The baby fell asleep, and with a thermos of hot chai, I sat on a moss covered rock in a slant of sun.
Usually on my birthday, I like to review what I’ve accomplished in the previous year and write a list of goals for the following year. This year I couldn’t do that. The tea was sweet and the sun warm enough that I could unzip my jacket. I had time enough to let my mind wander backwards over the last year, but I couldn’t name a single nugget of worldly accomplishment. Even though every day had felt busy (and most nights, too), I saw a year of undoing rather than doing:
- My full professorship was officially nullified, and I was now an adjunct with no benefits and no guarantee of future work;
- Everything I’d written had been rejected from every agent and publisher I’d courted;
- My friendships had thinned and some had dissolved entirely because socializing, for me, included my three kids and whoever would hang out with us;
- My body was lumpy and soft where it had been athletic and lean;
- My face had aged from lack of sleep, with wrinkles under my eyes and even on my neck;
- Adventures and romance with Eric had whittled down to half-hour movie installments before the baby woke up to nurse.
I could go on, but why? This list is disturbing enough. What is equally harsh is how tired I felt. With so little achieved, you’d think I’d be at least rested! Yet I could have laid back in that sunshine on that bed of moss, closed my eyes, and slept through the whole afternoon. Usually, if a person quits a job and has no worries about helping the community, staying fit, or even sleeping, then you’d think he or she is at least having a ton of fun indulging in a thousand pleasures day and night! Hopefully illicit ones! In my case, though, I’d never been more disciplined, rising at 4 AM and often not going to sleep until 10 PM or even midnight (and waking up throughout the night, as well). I hadn’t eaten in a restaurant more than twice or bought a single personal item in a store. I hadn’t even gone out on a date.
What was I doing with all my time?
Mothering, of course.
Since that moment in the sun, I’ve been trying to figure out how to describe the invisible work of what seems like my year of undoing. I don’t want to give a list of what moms (or all caring parents) do on a daily and nightly basis. Boring! Yet I feel it is critical to document on behalf of all full time caretakers the content of our lives, whether caring for a child, elderly parent, or ailing friend. What sound-bite of an answer can you give to the “What do you do?” question at a cocktail party or on the soccer field? Our society is so resume oriented! When I try to answer honestly, I come up with a few vague descriptions:
- I love people in ways they can feel;
- I appreciate the trees as I walk by them;
- I clean, clean, clean;
- I listen;
- I reflect on the day and wonder what I could have done better and try to improve the next day;
- I support my kids in their dreams, their education, their friendships;
- I strive to cook healthy meals (and don’t always fail);
- I take every chance I can to rub Eric’s shoulders and enjoy TLC with him, helping to relieve some of the aches that come with full time labor.
None of these activities feel boring to me. Each feels like directly loving the most important people in my life. For example, though I sometimes groan about packing school lunches every day, I actually enjoy it. I get up early enough to do it alone in the pre-dawn, thinking of each child in a dreamy kind of way while listening to soft music. I enjoy the colors and textures of the food as I peel an orange or slice a green apple. Some days, if I know one child is having a test or has been feeling tired, I stick a piece of chocolate in an envelope with an encouraging note.
No one in a job interview wants to hear about these thirty minutes of my morning. These efforts add nothing to my bank account. Yet to me they feel important. So do the hours I spend with my kids outside every day after school, playing soccer or hiking in the woods, helping them release the “inside-ness” of the school day and breathing in a larger, more wild world. Even sewing up the rip in my daughter’s favorite pair of pants a few nights ago gave me a sense of meaning.
Lots of moms and dads do dozens of helpful caring gestures every day around the intense efforts of full time work. For ten years, I tried to. This last year’s slower pace, though, has offered a different kind of sweetness, and I see a change in my kids because of it. They are more relaxed and confident, which allows them to focus on their own ambitions in a more genuine way. Just two nights ago, for example, I was putting the kids to bed when I noticed my daughter running her left index finger over the pile of Harry Potter books she’s read. She’s almost done with the fifth, which astounds me, given that she’s seven and started reading the series only three weeks ago. I watched her mouth the words to each title, look at each illustrated cover, and then take in a deep breath. I felt her pride, and I also “saw” her mind fathoming this world-renowned story that ran over so many thousands of pages, following a band of kids growing from innocence into adulthood.
My point in sharing this moment is that it almost didn’t happen. I had been about to bark, “Come on, let’s get into bed, it’s eight o’clock already!” Yet thankfully, I was sensitive enough to notice Grace and to stop. Overfull schedules and the fatigue they create don’t always allow for such a pause – in the parent or in the child.
Not only do parents lose out with modern life’s pressure to earn income at the full time level. Grandparents do, too. I was at the college pool with my kids mid-morning a few seasons ago when two elderly women began treading water near us. I listened to them talk about their jobs as cashiers and the difficulties they felt in finding time for family around those jobs. Both confessed they hadn’t started gardens in the last few years. They talked about sore feet and an ailing friend they wished to visit. These women had to be near eighty! Hadn’t they earned time to be with family, friends and their own gardens?
More than quality of life for individuals is lost when all able people are working full time. My grandfather, thanks to a government pension, was able to retire at age seventy. He immediately dedicated himself to raising my sister and me, which allowed my mom some breathing room and the chance to practice her painting. He visited us at least two or three times a week, sometimes for the whole day. He also single-handedly collected clothes from his retirement home and every week drove them downtown to two different homeless shelters, where he handed out high quality coats, sweaters, socks, and anything else he’d been able to collect. Free hours he spent at his community wood shop where he chatted with other hobbyists. He also fed Canadian geese every morning on his daily walk. Clearly, a small portion of the world gained by his “not working.”
I grew up thinking that everybody had to work. “You have to pay your own way.” “You have to earn a living.” “Do you think money grows on trees?” Enough phrases were thrown around and over my head throughout my childhood that the option to do what I’m doing now did not exist, not in my head and not in my life. This axiom, though, perhaps needs more examination. Does everybody really have to work full time? Why? I wonder: if more parents were able to focus on their children, and if more grandparents were around to support those parents, would certain resources be saved and maybe others generated at higher levels? Would delinquency perhaps go down? Prison time? Depression? Maybe the number of youth medicated for ADHD or EBD might lessen? At the very least, more adults would be around to help those children in ways beyond pharmaceuticals, including taking them outside, giving them one-on-one tutoring, trying art or music therapy and more. We’d need fewer government programs to take care of our youth and our elderly. Maybe the harshest consequence would be to the video game industry once the numbers of lonely people went down.
The problem is that given the current economic landscape of our modern life, most people have to earn income, and usually it has to be a full time income. I don’t know how to sustain the life I have now. Parenting nowadays is a lot like playing a musical instrument or gardening or praying in a Zendo. These activities provide health and growth for whoever does them and for whoever is around those who do them, but they cannot sustain a life. They need to exist on the sidelines of a career.
I’m striving to open my mind to possibilities beyond what I lived when my first child was born. Ten years ago, I had neither the courage nor the imagination to conceive of parenting Drew full time, even when he was a seven pound infant. He and I lost out because of that. Now I have a savings and a partner willing to bust his butt so I can be with my current baby Mikah – and Drew and Grace when they are not in school. But our lives are not sustainable. We are living off of savings, which I would not have if I hadn’t worked the last ten years. Figure out that conundrum!
Next year, I hope to visit the exact spot in the woods I enjoyed this last birthday. I bet I can find the same bed of moss. If I time it right, I can even sit in the sun there – if the weather obliges. I have no idea what my mind will see in hindsight, though. Will I have anything to write down that sounds like an accomplishment? Will I be listing as one of my future year goals, “Get a job pronto?” Whatever unfolds, my challenge is not to let financial or social pressures spoil what I have now, which is delicious and un-compromised time with my family.