A guy came to my front door yesterday to sell me pest control services. We’ve been in the new house right at one month and already have fire-ant mounds the size of, well, Texas, in the front yard. The last thing I want to do is unearth a bag of fire-ant killer and bomb those guys, so when a clean-cut, earnest, smiling young man offered his service, I gladly agreed.
As he was surveying my yard and pointing out the myriad ways in which those little bastards have already infiltrated my new kingdom, we chatted in the way one does with service providers: breezily and superficially. He inquired about our pets and got an earful when I told him about Piper Pig. He asked about my children’s ages and genders. He asked what line of work my husband is in, and then asked if the price of gas is going to continue to climb. I replied breezily and superficially, and as our conversation was running out of steam, he asked if I too am in the oil & gas industry. I paused before answering, knowing that what was to follow is a topic I have come to dread: the question of what I do for a living.
I mumbled something lame about how I “hang out here, taking care of the kids,” knowing full good and well just how lame that sounds. He recovered nicely, telling me that based on my outfit, he assumed I was a career girl who had just returned home from work. I laughed to myself at his good fortune in catching me in a skirt and t-shirt and sandals instead of the usual workout attire and tennis shoes. Most days I go to the gym, shower, then change into another workout outfit because that’s where I feel most comfortable. I have more workout clothes than “real” clothes, and the “active” section is the first section I head toward anytime I go into a clothing store. I boxed up many pairs of “regular” shoes to make room for my growing collection of athletic shoes. I refrained from telling the young pest-control salesman that the only reason he hadn’t caught me in workout clothes is that I had an appointment (more on that later) with a new health-care practitioner and I didn’t show up sweaty and smelly in my gym clothes.
In other words, I dress up — if a skirt, t-shirt, and sandals can be considered dressed up — for my first appointment with a newbie to my ever-expanding stable of health-care experts, but will quickly revert to my chosen uniform of Dry-Fit, spandex comfort.
Back to the dreaded “So, what do you do?” conundrum. Why do I always struggle with this one? Why do I feel feeble about my “job?” Why do I find it supercilious to say that I don’t work outside the home? Why do I cringe when people ask if I plan to go back to work someday. To say that I’m a housewife is ridiculous; I’m not married to my house. To say I’m a homemaker seems archaic, and truth be told, I didn’t make my home; the builder did. To say that I stay home with my kids seems deceitful as they are away at school for most of the day, and honestly, I don’t stay home all that much myself. To say that I am an at-home mom doesn’t ring true either, for reasons we just covered.
I have an old, wrinkled, faded copy of Newsweek magazine that apparently I lifted from Visible Changes hair salon many years ago. It’s dated February 21, 2005. I’ve kept it among my books all these years and found it the other day while organizing the study in our new house. How interesting that I found it just the other day, and ran up against the at-home mom conundrum a few days later. At the time I stole the magazine from the hair salon, my kids were aged 5 and 3 and my mom was dying from cancer–a stressful time, for sure. I don’t recall but suspect that the magazine spoke to me because I was coming to grips with the fact that perfection and motherhood don’t quite go together, even though my mom seemed perfect and set a very high bar.
In the article, author Judith Warner previewed her book Perfect Madness:Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety and got down & dirty about the real truth of motherhood. She asks “Why do so many otherwise competent and self-aware women lose themselves when they become mothers? Why has this generation of mothers, arguably the most liberated and privileged group of women America has ever seen, driven themselves crazy in the quest for perfect mommy-dom?”
Warner described women who “surrendered their better selves–and their sanity–to motherhood. Women who pulled all-nighters hand-painting paper plates for a class party.” She interviewed 150 women from across the country for her book, and heard women universally tell tales of “lives spent shuttling back and forth to more and more absurd-seeming, high-pressured, time-demanding, utterly exhausting kids’ activities.” She found that 70 percent of moms say that motherhood is “incredibly stressful” and that 30 percent of young mothers suffer from depression. More than 900 Texas women told researchers that taking care of their kids is “about as much fun as cleaning the house, slightly less pleasurable than cooking, and a whole lot less enjoyable than watching TV.” Yet mothers feel the need to “perform magical acts of perfect Mommy ministrations so their kids don’t fall through the cracks and end up as losers in our hard-driving winner-tale-all-society.”
Writer Anna Quindlen bookended Warner’s article in Newsweek with one of her own, also about manic motherhood. Quindlen writes, “What the child-care guru D.W. Winnicott once called ‘the ordinary devoted mother’ is no longer good enough. Instead there is an uber-mom who bounces from soccer field to school fair to play date until she falls into bed at the end of the day, exhausted, her life somewhere between the Stations of the Cross and a decathlon.”
Sheesh. No wonder I feel weird about telling someone else that my “job” is being a mother.
I’ve long ago given up my position on the PTA board and planning classroom parties and organizing a birthday party for the teacher. I did my time chaperoning field trips and opening milk cartons and ketchup packets at lunchtime. I worked more than one shift reading aloud to my kids’ kindergarten classes, and I committed to mentoring struggling kids in other classes. I enjoyed it, but I don’t miss it. While I don’t remember feeling pressure — from myself or others — to be a perfect mom, I welcomed the opportunity to step away from such duties. The fact that it was a cancer diagnosis when my kids were in 5th and 2nd grades wasn’t the opportunity I was looking for, but it is what it is. Who knew that I would be trading one high-pressure, insanity-creating, incredibly stressful job for another. Being a mom and being a cancer patient have a lot of similarities, most notably that no matter how far we’ve come, there’s still a long way to go.