Sarah Palin has five kids (and one more on the way) and she’s running for vice president (the wisdom of that is highly debatable, but not because of the kids). I have two kids and I just quit my job to stay home with them.
It’s a comparison I’ve been mulling the past couple weeks, but I’m not exactly sure what it says. After working through the birth of two babies (except for maternity leave, which was work of a different sort), and spending the past three years juggling a career and a constant blur of diapers, feedings and mostly sleepless nights, in many ways I’m more confused than ever about how to find that magical work/family balance. I question whether it’s possible.
I never saw myself “staying home.” With the birth of Punkernoodle 1 three years ago, I finally understood that wrenching, obsessive love that parenthood brings. But I never lost my desire to continue working as a journalist. In fact, in a way I felt rededicated – now that I had a daughter I had to impart to her one of my most closely-held values: Women had a place in the outside world just like men did. I had to set the example that personal fulfillment, intellectual growth, social contribution and financial independence were normal and necessary. Mommies could do it all.
So I juggled, and in many ways life became much like a circus act. Then Punkernoodle 2 came, and the delicate threads of my ambitious recipe for success began, slowly, to fray.
I wish I could pause here and whip out a brief but enlightening overview of mothers’ roles throughout history, starting back when those apes divvied up the hunting/gathering and childbearing/feeding roles, touching on the feminist movement, the 80s Me Decade Powerwomen, the alleged millennium backlash wherein highly educated women finally said “enough” and abandoned their careers in droves to bake cookies and drive their preschoolers to Spanish Pre-Math and soccer championships.
But just thinking about it, and trying to figure out how I fit into the Motherhood Cosmos, is wearying. And I’m not sure where that big picture would get me anyway. The Mommy Wars are still raging, though often they’re masked behind subtle corporate and government discrimination, social and economic inequities, and passive aggressive playground politics. I carry the stereotypes within myself: “Stay-at-home-mom” triggers a gut reaction, an impulse to check for frazzled hair and crack jokes about matching yoga tracksuits and drinking vodka out of sippy cups.
But I’m resisting those stereotypes, because some real truths are taking their place: The fact that as a working mother I sometimes only saw my girls for an hour or two of awake time each day, much of that taken up by stressful urgings to hurry-up-and-put-on-your-coat-eat-your-dinner-take-a-bath. The fact that work which once seemed, in my twenties, to be the center of the Universe, now took a backseat pleasure-wise to the wonder-filled time spent reading storybooks, running in the grass, splashing in the fountain. The lack of alternative working schedules and quality, flexible childcare available to parents. The growing angst about not being there enough, about missing too much. Dinners that used to be assembled by hand that now came out of plastic, or the overpriced buffet at Whole Foods. Chaos ruled, weekends whizzed by, more than the occasional outing to the woods/zoo/library/theater were simply impossible.
So here I am – I (temporarily) threw in the towel. But I prefer to call it a “sabbatical.” I have a plan for this precious time I am lucky enough to be able to attempt: I’ll reconnect with my girls, yes, and I’ll pursue my little side endeavors. But I’ll also seek out the meaningful things that necessarily fell by the wayside in a two-working-parent family: The Seattle “tribe” that I lack, the time to examine and discover our family’s priorities and goals, our connection to nature and healthful habits, my own personal desires. Metaphorically, I’m regarding it as a chance to plant our seeds more firmly in the soil of our choosing.
It sounds idyllic and very big-picture. In reality I know that on some days success will mean not losing my temper and getting everyone home in one piece. That truth was reaffirmed the other night as we attempted to wrangle a tired 3-year-old and a bullish 1-year-old out of a Chinese restaurant and into the car after Lukas’ birthday bash. In a feat of what I can only describe as Olympian talent, I balanced one over-packed diaper bag, one large sack of leftovers, three jackets, one little person and one dirty diaper in my arms as I simultaneously held four fortune cookies gingerly in my hand, trying with all my might not to crack even a one.
For some reason, on that eve before my last day of work in a career I loved for nearly a decade, I felt as though I cupped our very futures in my palm.