The Joy Myth

One summer not too long ago, when my children were aged eight, five and two years old, I took them on a trip to visit my parents while my husband stayed behind to work. A long drive coupled with near constant in-fighting amongst the occupants of the car left me completely spent. I arrived at my parents in an energy deficit that I couldn’t restore.

Over dinner on the last night of my brief stay, exhausted but engaged in casual conversation with my mother, father and sister, I described the raising up of small children as being “in the trenches,” because there were days that certainly felt more like warfare than parenting. My kids were at an age where just simply getting through each hour sometimes seemed like a remarkable feat. That labor-intensive, physically exhausting portion of parenthood was where I found myself.

My mother, who raised four children of her own, took umbrage with my description. She explained how mothering her children proved to be such a joyful experience. How she remembered parenting small kids as full of fun and discovery and deep satisfaction. She described the house I grew up in as teeming with not only her kids but also the children of neighbors, an open door policy. She described teaching us how to bake, how to sew and described making platter after platter of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. My mother embraced the demands, the workload and the chaos of parenting. Most of all, being a mother brought her immense joy.

It’s hard not to compare and contrast my parenting journey with my mother’s. In so many ways, we are strikingly similar. But in this one way, this really big way, we are not. It’s not as easy for me to find the joy in motherhood in the same manner in which she did.

After our fateful conversation that summer evening, I grappled with why things are so different for me. Why couldn’t I find the immense joy that my mother described? I definitely have moments of joy – lots of moments of joy – but I don’t know if I would characterize my experience raising three young children as pure joy. I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that I wasn’t finding enough happiness and pleasure in motherhood.

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However, my parenting journey doesn’t look like my mother’s parenting journey. It is dramatically different, in fact.

When my mother was forty, her youngest child was already in third grade. Now, forty myself, I just wrapped up potty-training my preschooler. I had my children in my thirties. My mother had her children in her twenties. That decade makes a big difference. I am weary at forty. I seem to have lost all of that energy I remember having in my twenties. Maybe the twenties mom version of me wouldn’t have minded finger paints and glitter and cookie decorating and bread baking. The forties mom version of me thinks that those things make huge messes and can’t we just color with crayons instead?

Also, as is more common now, my husband and I have an untraditional arrangement in regard to household duties. While my husband excels at laundry, dishes and toddler tantrum management, I handle every aspect of our finances, from simple checkbook balancing and bill paying all the way to retirement and estate planning and investments. I complete every tax return, schedule every oil change for our cars, coordinate every doctor’s appointment for our family and register every child for every sporting season. I handle every piece of paper and mail that comes in our front door.

In addition, for most of my years since leaving full-time employment to care for my children, I’ve also managed to work part-time. The first few years were spent working in my field of study and, most recently, I’ve worked part-time as a writer. I continue to stressfully straddle two worlds, unable to commit wholly to one for fear of giving up the other entirely.

As a child, I enjoyed freedoms that I would never dream of extending to my own kids today. As a little girl, I used to spend hours at the park at the end of our city block in downtown Columbus, Ohio, with my older siblings. I can’t imagine my children enjoying this type of independence at their age. It’s become an eyes-on at all times existence. I’m not sure there’s more danger lurking nowadays but the threats are more obvious. My standard operating mode as a mother seems to always be set to, “ALERT,” which is absolutely mentally exhausting. I don’t enjoy the same freedoms as mothers from generations ago that could point to an open back door in the morning and not expect to see their children until lunchtime.

There are also all of the outside commitments present today that weren’t present a few decades ago. I’m expected to start my wobbly toddler in soccer, where their only goal is to remain upright. There are spring sports, fall sports and winter sports. There are probably summer sports, too, but I just haven’t been told what they are yet. After school clubs, homework and enrichment opportunities abound. I am forever loading and unloading children into and out of my car. There is always something happening somewhere that takes us away from our home. The pace can best be described as frantic.

One of the most influential changes for modern mothers has been the advent of social media and its deafening commentary on the right and wrong way to parent. There is an incessant stream of information and images telling us what our home life should look like, what my mothering should look like. I should craft with my children, I should teach them a foreign language, their rooms should look put together but casually messy, they should wear this brand of clothing and this brand of shoes. It’s always on, this ribbon of data, pumping us mothers full of information on where our efforts fall short.

Is my joy as a mother lessened just because times have changed? Because life is more complicated now? Because I’m an older, busier, more harried version of my mother? Because Pinterest exists? Yes, I think that’s part of it. But, it’s also more than that.

Where my mom sees joy, I see survival. Joy versus survival. My experience as a mother vacillates between these extremes. There are certainly parenting moments of tremendous joy and happiness but there are also moments when you just have to put your head against the wind and plow through to the other side. Like the two faces of a coin. Joy and survival. I believe with my whole being that these two emotions can coexist in motherhood.

When my son watches the Christmas tree light up for the very first time and I spy the awe and wonderment in his eyes? Joy. Two weeks later when he is writhing on the floor in the throes of a tantrum because he doesn’t understand that Christmas presents are only to be opened on Christmas? Survival.

When the principal pulls us aside at a school picnic to tell my husband and myself that our youngest son is a delightful addition to the Kindergarten class? Joy. When, later that same night, that same son cries inconsolably for many, many minutes because we refuse to buy him an actual, real, live giraffe? Survival.

Seeing my husband’s elderly mother meet her infant granddaughter for the very first time? Joy. The five-state road trip and four-night single hotel room stay with three small children that it took to make that moment happen? Pure survival.

The relief in knowing that our oldest son’s vision is crisp and sharp? Unrepentant joy. The seven surgeries and years of doctor’s appointments and rehabilitation it took to repair his congenital cataracts? Absolute survival.

Having the means to fill my cart at the grocery store with healthy, beautiful food to feed to my family? Grateful joy. Having to take three kids with me in order to get the shopping done? Ultimate survival. Watching as my kids push away that beautiful food and ask for a peanut butter bagel instead? Exasperated survival.

That first really cold night of fall when the wind is blowing and the sky goes dark early? When we draw the curtains, light a fire in the fireplace and snuggle under blankets reading books? Lovely, lovely joy.

When my kids wander out of their bedrooms one by one each morning with sleepy eyes and that one cheek that’s still warm from their pillow? When I scoop them up and hug them tight and they lay their whole bodies into mine? Well, that’s not joy at all. That’s something else entirely. That’s pure bliss.

We should all have permission to discover our own kind of joy in mothering. It’s okay if some of us struggle with finding happiness amongst the chaos and the tantrums and the general din of parenting small children. It’s okay if some of us have awful, terrible days that we hope we will forget. Awful, terrible days that we hope our children will forget. Parenting isn’t an all or nothing gig. It’s not all joy or no joy. There is an awful lot of grey in there. And, perpetuating the myth that we’re mothering incorrectly simply because we’re not happy enough does a huge disservice to us all.

My most fervent wish is that my heart remembers both the joy and the trial of mothering. That I can look back on my years of teaching and leading and loving my children with both the warmth of joyful gratitude and the triumphant knowledge that I simply survived.

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Heigh-Ho, Heigh-Ho

About a year ago, Bob and I were having dinner with another couple and the topic of work came up. When I mentioned looking for employment, mentioned being ready to go back to work now that the kids were getting older, my friend’s husband asked what my ideal job would be. I remember pausing to really think about his question and then I replied, “Events, I would love to do something with the execution of special events.”

In an uncharacteristic achievement of a stated goal, last week, I re-entered the workforce. Working in events.

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Image courtesy of the amazing Etsy shop: TheHeirloomTomatos

I left full-time employment in 2009, shortly after Charlie was born. Two babies meant we’d entered the Extreme Zone in monthly childcare expenses and at some point, Bob and I decided it would be best for me to hop off the hamster wheel that happened to be our daily schedule with two children and two full-time jobs.

I’ve never been particularly career-driven. For example, there was no real end-goal in mind when I started college besides simply finishing it and even that didn’t seem necessarily like a mandate. I wasn’t like some of my friends who knew they wanted to be pharmacists or attorneys or engineers. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do when I graduated besides “get a job.” Therefore, I selected the most general liberal arts degree I could declare and muddled my way through. Once I graduated, I basically (to borrow a new favorite term I recently heard) Forrest Gump’ed my way into a couple of great jobs, eventually landing at the U.S. Department of State working in a field that had absolutely nothing to do with my degree.

All this to illustrate that leaving full-time employment was not a difficult decision to make. Not even in the slightest. I wasn’t abandoning a dream or a passion or anything. However, staying at home to solely care for kids was never a particular end-goal of mine, either. Bob and I agreed it simply made the most sense for our family at the time. So, when I left the State Department, I quickly found part-time work in both marketing and freelance writing. Two things that I could do mostly from the comfort of my home. It was a hectic pace but a good kind of hectic. A productive hectic. And, I really enjoyed the events side of my marketing job, planning the logistics of and working on-site at an industry conference a team I worked with had developed. It was really good for me to stay employed. To keep one small grasp on something that was unrelated to child rearing. I was able to be a totally professional adult doing professional adult-y things while still caring for my young children. I was making it all work!

Then, Millie arrived.

Three kids happened to be the tipping point for our family in a lot of ways. Suddenly, we had SO MANY kids and one of the things I had to give up with the addition of a third child was my employment. We were living in Richmond at the time, Bob was working in Washington during the week and I just couldn’t keep the pace required for a part-time job with full-time kids. It turns out, I could not, in fact, Have It All. So, I somewhat reluctantly let go of my outside work. It was just another thing that had to be done. It was something that was now removed from my very busy plate and I was resigned to its necessity, if not slightly dismayed at everything that I had had to sacrifice.

The years ticked by and my kids got older and more independent. Eventually, everybody could get themselves a snack on their own (for the most part), play unsupervised outside (for the most part) and use the potty all by themselves (for the most part). Then, last fall, they were all magically in school at the same time (for the most part). It was momentous. I enjoyed the silence for about fifteen minutes before thinking, I want to go back to work. It’s time. There’s once again room for me to be employed. So, I began sending out my resume in the hopes of finding a part-time position that would mesh well with my skill set and my availability. Bonus points if it was something I actually wanted to do.

After almost a year of looking for the right fit, I have finally found something that checks all of the boxes. I’ve been hired to assist with special events at a local winery. I help make sure weddings and corporate events run smoothly and seamlessly. If I could have hand-picked a job for me right now, it would probably have been this one. I’m ecstatic to be employed again. And, employed doing this line of work.

As a stay-at-home mom, the entire process of finding a new job, while not necessarily stressful, was just super intimidating. At first, I wasn’t sure how to explain the four year absence of employment on my resume and briefly considered adding a line that just read: “2012-2016 – KEPT FAMILY OF FIVE ALIVE THE WHOLE TIME.” (I ultimately decided to hi-light my freelance writing career in that space instead.) It had also been quite awhile since I’d interviewed in-person for a job (since 2002 actually, when I interviewed with BOB), a long time since I had answered questions about my strengths and weaknesses, a long time since I had considered wearing pants that actually buttoned. It was hard to shift from the part of my brain dedicated to kid minutiae to the part of my brain that needs to be all professional and stuff. At times during the search, it just felt so hard to break back in. But, break back in I did!

As I sat talking with Bob the other evening about my first week at work, I tried to explain to him how nice it was to have a thing again. To have a little space, a little corner in my life that is reserved for something I want to do, something I’d like to pursue. As moms who stay at home full time with little ones, it can be really hard to carve out some space that is just for us, to do something or follow something that interests us. I’m so thankful to have found the space to take on this new venture.