I've been a mom for a little over three years now, and I'm still adjusting. I love my little ones. There's nothing more wonderful and fulfilling than wrapping my arms around their warm squiggly bodies or seeing their faces light up when they see me enter the room. The other day, my three year old walked up to me where I was sitting on the floor, put his arm around my shoulder, kissed me on the nose, and said, "I love you, Mom." That filled me up to the core.
But as I said, I'm still adjusting. It is a big transition to go from working in an office to hanging out with the kids all day.
Before I had children, I don't think I really understood that becoming a mother meant entering the service industry. And not in the sense that lawyers or accountants use the phrase, but more along the lines of work performed by servants, janitors, waiters, and maids. As in working to meet the basic bodily needs of others. This past year has been one long continuous string of changing diapers, cleaning the potty, cutting up food, setting and clearing the table, putting on and taking off socks and shoes, pumping, washing bottles, feeding, doing laundry, vacuuming, and picking up toys.
Of course I understood that parents do these things. I expected to change diapers. I expected to pick up after my kids. I expected to prepare their lunches and do their laundry. What I didn't expect was how repetitive these tasks can become or the extent of time they consume. How could such little beings generate so much laundry?
In the remaining hours when I'm not caught up in one of these tasks, I'm just hanging out. Sitting with my three year old as he's playing with Legos. Shadowing my 11 months old as she's cruising along the couch. Refereeing the two as they tussle over toys. Hanging out at a playgroup as they play with other kids.
While the repetitive household tasks make me feel like Sisyphus, it's the hanging out part that's getting to me. When I'm just sitting with my kids, I feel time drain away. I'm not talking about the time when I'm reading with my son or when I'm cuddling my little girl. I'm okay with those. I'm talking about times when I can't fully focus on either one because they are running in different directions or I'm just hanging back while they are engaged in some activity that doesn't require my participation. Those times when I'm just playing guard and ensuring that my children stay alive. In those times, I fidget, pick every speck of lint from the rug, compile a to do list in my head, and wonder how long I can last as a stay at home mom.
I've never been good at hanging out. As a teenager, I rarely talked on the telephone because I found it difficult to sit cradling the phone. In college, I found frat parties to be a little painful as I tried to look like I was at ease sipping lukewarm beer. For as long as I can remember, I always carried a book in my purse or backpack, just in case I had a few unexpected stray minutes -- that is until I had children.
These days, I do not have time to read. At least not much more than an online article here and there. But I have so much time when I'm just sitting or watching passively -- time I could use otherwise to do something. And it kills me.
I am aware of the source of my anxiety about time. When I was growing up, I watched my parents work crazy hours at the store -- hours they found miserable. They did nothing other than work. And grow older. In those hours, I saw two lives wasting away. And the few hours that they had to themselves felt so precious, sacred. I vowed then to use my time well, productively.
The thing about being productive, however, is that you need time to be productive. You need the freedom to do. And these days, with two kids to watch, my time isn't my own anymore.
Not having something to show for my time isn't easy. My identity in part is wrapped around achievement. That's how we were raised. My parents rarely expressed affection toward us unless we did something that merited approval. Just being wasn't enough; we had to do. And I've geared my life toward doing; finding a way to be an action verb. When I have nothing to show for my time, I feel useless, unworthy -- like that kid in the back of the class who does not merit attention because he has nothing to contribute.
The string of tasks I do to run the household do not seem enough to merit "doing." They are simply busywork -- not dissimilar to the type of work my parents did that seemed so empty. And the remaining hours of hanging out -- of just being rather than doing -- feel wasted. But of course, the irony is that they are not wasted. I'm spending them to help my children grow, to develop. Still, knowing that does not make it easy to put aside my own anxiety and needs.
I'm beginning to understand why parenting is so difficult. It's not just about the physical demands -- which of course are very real and challenging. But it is also because the needs of our children can be at odds with our own needs -- needs which are emotional and psychological and deeply entrenched in the way we function in this world. And the inability to meet these needs can cause mini implosions within ourselves.
Despite all this, I don't regret staying at home with my children. It is a choice I make every day. I see how well adjusted my children are -- stable and free of anxiety. On the first day of preschool, my son cried all the way home because he wanted to stay in school longer. And he told me that he didn't cry when I dropped him off because he knew I would come get him. That made me feel as if all that time hadn't been wasted, even though it didn't appease my sense of worthlessness. Not completely.
Tomorrow, I may choose differently. I am waiting for my children to need me a little less, although I've heard from enough parents that that day may never come. But I know that everyday, they do need me a little less because I can see the difference. And perhaps, the time I'm spending with them now is an investment to help them become more secure and independent in the future.
In the meantime, I am also working on keeping my anxiety in check, while working on small ways to scrounge up some time for myself -- time I can use to read and write and nurture myself. It'll be a while before I can get to the many things on the list of things I want to do for myself, but for now, just a few hours a week isn't bad. I feel very lucky that we have the means to hire some regular help during the week. Maybe it's a good thing that I had children later in life so that I was able to have my 20s and early 30s to myself, even though a part of me wonders if I just got spoiled and too used to having so much time to myself. Would I trade those days of freedom for these? Not in a million years.