Monday, February 26, 2007

Defining One's Self

A few weeks ago we had our first visitors to our new house. My husband's youngest brother came to see us and brought two of his (low-20's aged) friends. He and my husband planned to go skiing that weekend, including a lesson for OC. I was going to watch her get her lesson, then knit inside the lodge while drinking hot chocolate.

His friends were very friendly and talkative, and I was enjoying the company. That is, until I was asked an innocent question that I still don't know how to answer.

We were getting to know each other, and there was the inevitable 'What do you do' line of questioning. We spent some time talking about their jobs while I cringed, knowing it was going to be my turn soon. And before I was ready, it was my turn.

"So what do you do?" The question was directed to me.

I thought to myself, Everything! Nothing interesting! All kinds of things! How much time do you have?

I could've launched into a litany of things that define my day: I raise a child by myself during the day five (sometimes six) days a week while my husband works long hours to get his new office off the ground; I spend an hour or two per day teaching her lessons to augment her chaotic classroom environment; I keep everybody fed including a lunch ready for my husband every morning, much like a proper 50's housewife; I keep the house clean (sort of); I unpack the boxes and put things away nearly all by myself; I'm lonely and haven't befriended another mom yet; and at the end of nearly every day, I drink, much like a proper housewife.

That would've been boring, and a conversation-killer. Since I rarely have conversations with adults these days, I didn't want to put this one to an early death. I gave it some thought, going over the complicated feelings I have over defining myself in a different way, and then said, "I stay at home with OC."

It was simple, straightforward, and not laced with any traces of shame or frustration. Because I'm a grownup.

"Oh," she said. "So you're just a mom."

Now, let me say in her defense that she didn't mean anything by it. I could tell by her tone that she wasn't being snotty or rude, she was being young. I could tell that difference existed when she said that, and believe me, I wouldn't defend anyone who said something like that unless the comment truly was devoid of malicious intent.

Nevertheless, her comment sliced deeply inside of me and hit a sore spot. I wanted to slap her but then what would have been the point? I am 'just a mom.' I 'just' stay at home and raise my daughter. I think we can dispose of the word, 'just', but other than that she is right. Except for that word 'just', I realize I shouldn't be offended by it.

I am a mom. I take care of another human being. I'm busy every day. I represent one side of a division of labor in this house which, if didn't get done, my husband would be over his eyeballs and couldn't function what with having to be up so late doing what I do every day. What I do is important, if uninteresting in conversation. I know that.

I do feel pride over my daughter and what I do for her. It goes without saying. What I find hard is to find it admirable to do something that anyone else can do. Things like, cook and clean and unpack boxes. Those are not things that are special. And lots of people have children. There are millions of moms in the world. I can see why it's easy to dismiss with the word 'just'.

To be honest, I am a little jealous of my husband. He goes to work (with his lunch already packed!), talks to adults, and works at things he likes to do. Not everyone can do his job, or knows the technicalities of it. He has things to add to conversations with persons he just meets, has a sense of satisfaction - and a paycheck - at the end of the day. He has a place to go every day.

I don't get a paycheck for what I do. I don't use any of the technical skills I used to when I was employed. The truth is, I miss it. I miss the work, being in the loop of new technology and learning things from coworkers. At the same time, I'm grateful for the chance to be at home with OC. I've missed so much time with her already.

While I was working, my daughter was in daycare. I am not giving an opinion on daycare in general. That is a boring debate. What I want to say is that my experience in putting my child in daycare as an infant was wrenching. I felt bad for her spending so much time in daycare. She needed me, and I missed her. I loved my job, but at the time I hated that it was at the expense of my daughter in daycare all day long. Most of my friends who had kids had unique structure to their schedules in order to either have their kids stay with relatives, or to stay in daycare a shorter time during each day. I didn't have that. Keeping my job allowed me to move on with my life and eventually got us here, all of which is a story for another day.

Now I'm married and I stay home and we live here. Why the hell aren't I joyous and over the moon about all this time with my daughter???

Well, for one thing, I'm a human, multi-dimensional being. For another, life is complicated, and that's the way it is. Society is another. Being at home with nowhere to go and no place to be is another. Now living in a new place and not having friends is difficult. The reasons are many. This is where I am with it right now.

My husband doesn't understand why it was a hard transition to stay at home because he looks at all the time I spent commuting and all the effort in order to get to work, that it got better as soon as I stayed home. From his point of view, it got a lot easier for me. It did, but all the other emotions can't be quantified like feeling good about a graphic design job well done, interaction with colleagues, things like that.

It's okay that he doesn't understand completely, he didn't go through it. He respects my feelings and that's enough. He supports me in finding what I need to do for myself now. After I told him how I felt he said we should set money aside to buy the equipment necessary to do design work from home. Or, I could go back to school for a four-year degree. Or, whatever. I appreciate that support.

I don't know what I'll do, but I have to keep moving forward. I enjoy volunteering at OC's school once a week. I may do SMART and tutoring. I may go back to college when she's in First Grade. I may homeschool her. I have no idea about that yet.

What I do know is that I won't let someone else define me.

Finally, I will find a good reply to that comment if I ever encounter it again. So far I've got "shut up, beyotch" and "it takes one to know one" but I feel that something more witty - and that makes sense - might be in order.


Mrs. Chicken said...

Here's one I used to use on Mr. Chicken:

"I'm busy making a person, what have YOU done today?"

I pack his lunch, too. And you may find that some part-time freelance work that you can take on an as-you-choose basis might make the difference for you. I know it has for me. I just feel better, and I can't even tell you why.

Volunteering someplace other than school might help you make a friend or two.

I'm always thinking of you. I'm sorry you are lonely. If it is any consolation, I am , too.


Carmen said...

Until you think of something better to get you through those questions.... Say "I'm a graphic artist, but I'm taking a career break to raise my child" Which is true. May do away with the "just" comments. OH's suggestion of getting you set up for freelance work is a good idea, I happen to know you are a talented Graphic Artist. That work may give you that piece of yourself we all seem to need for some reason.

Wendy said...

When faced with that question I always go the boring route and say I'm a mom.

Someday, just for my own amusement, I'm going to say that I'm a pole dancer.

I find that as the kids get older, staying home is starting to bore me to tears. I can only scrub toilets or load the dishwasher so many times. Plus, I'm at the point where I would kill for time with other adults that doesn't involve the obstacle course of little old ladies at the grocery store.

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

I usually say something like, "Oh, I'm mostly a mom, these days." I seems to imply the multi-dimensionality of a person, and also the idea of a person changing over time. That's *really* hard for someone under 30 to understand. I remember it : )

Give yourself a break. You've made a lot of changes recently. If you weren't depressed it would be more surprising.

Lady M said...

You've got so many changes to deal with - moving to a new town, being a full time mom. I'm glad that you have your husband's support while you decide what the next steps are to define yourself on your own terms!

Sandra said...

I'm with Lady M. SO many changes ... it's wonderful you have his support and you are defining yourself the way you need to and want to.

Occidental Girl said...

Mrs. Chicken: Good one! Making and raising a human being trumps most things. Everything. Good point about volunteering somewhere other than school. Hadn't thought of that...

Carmen: Thank you for the wonderful compliment. That was so nice. I think your suggestion is a good one, I should say that because that is something useful to add to the conversation. It could lead to work, too, who knows?

Wendy: I KNOW. I'm proud of my clean kitchen floor, but then again, I'll just be cleaning it again next week (month). So who cares?

Jennifer: Hey, a Bend blogger! Nice to meet you. Yeah, I'm sure I was pretty unaware in my 20's, too.

Lady M: Changes, ugh. They can be good, but are so hard sometimes!

Sandra: Thank you!

Thank you all. I love your comments and support. It means so much, especially right now when I'm all lonely and alone with feelings of loneliness.

Melissa said...

I have been trying to think up something meaningful to say to you about this post since you posted it, but I'm coming up woefully short. I'll just say you have beautifully expressed how I feel in almost the exact same way.

lectitans said...

Surfed over from Jen Robinson's Book Page.

I'm 25, we'll start with that.

My mom was many things during the time I lived with my family (birth to 19) and one of the things she did as her primary activity for many years, was be "just" a mom. I get very defensive at that "just," probably because I think raising me was a very important job. I thought it was the most important thing she could do, of course.

But it got easier to talk about when she started school for graphic design, because then when people would say "Oh what does your mom do" I could say "Well she takes care of my sister and brother and she's a student of graphic design."

And now that she's doing graphic design entirely from home, I can say "Well she cares for and homeschools my brother, and she's a graphic designer."

I think everyone else's suggestions of ways to talk about it are excellent, and I've seen a huge change in how my mom feels about herself now that she's working freelance. The other thing is that for her, at least, the new equipment was not outrageously expensive - a good computer and the right software was all she needed. I don't know how things will be different for you.

The last thing that I want to say is that while it's true everyone can be a mother, not everyone can be a GOOD mother (much less a great one). This is evidenced in the behavior of their children, mostly. (And I see it, as a teacher.)

So, if you are pleased with the way your daughter behaves and especially treats other people most of the time (there are rough times for even the best of people!), you should take great pride in it and feel as though you're doing an excellent job - better than a lot of mothers do.

Jen Rouse said...

I came from Jen's book page as well, and I have had the same experience as you on several occasions. Why do I always feel slightly ashamed when I say, "I'm a stay at home mom?" Why do I never know what to put when I'm filling out a form with a blank marked "occupation?" For awhile I wrote "unemployed." Better for people to think I'm some kind of deadbeat than admit that I'm a housewife, I guess! I too was dying to quit my job and then found I missed it once I did.

I don't know why career is so tied to status in our minds, but it just is. Since I've started doing some freelance writing and editing I feel so much better saying that I'm a writer/editor than a mom. Just because I don't have a regular, paying job, doesn't mean I'm not intelligent or capable. It's ridiculous, I know, but it's still there.

You and I and all us stay at home moms need to just stop worrying about what other people think! And the fact of the matter is, many, many other moms have stayed at home before us, and most people understand, value, and respect the contribution we make.

Here's to less fretting about our job description (or lack thereof) in the future.