I was cleaning out my home office this past weekend, which meant uncovering about 30 pounds of papers that have long since stopped being useful and were very overdue for the recycling box. Deep under a pile of scrap paper and old receipts, I dug out a planner from 2008. The book was pretty obnoxious – one of those yellow “mom planners” that someone had given me as a gift when I quit my full-time reporting job at The Seattle Times in the fall of 2008 to spend more time with my girls, who were 1 and 3 at the time. Even though the book was aesthetically offensive (a bottle of wine would have been just as appropriate, non?), I used it. I remember thinking that now that I was a “stay-at-home-mom” (whatever that meant, I wasn’t actually sure) I would need to be supremely organized about my mommy activities and duties.
I flipped through it again this weekend, sitting on the floor amid my pile of dead trees, and took a little trip down memory lane. Most interesting to me were the lists I found at the back of the planner. (I am embarrassed to admit to some of this, but I will because I think it speaks so directly to the often unspoken conflict many women, and some dads, too, face when they leave their “professional” career for the underpaid, health- and retirement-benefits-free job of full-time parenting. Like others who have made the shift, I was supremely conflicted.
So, the lists. On one planner page, I took notes on other parents I was meeting as I navigated my new life, landmarked by library story times and visits to Cupcake Royale. Having left behind my work friends, who were still dealing in deadlines and paychecks, I was fairly desperate to find a new club to belong to. The problem was that I couldn’t connect with a lot of parents I was meeting on the mommy circuit. In some cases, the alchemy just wasn’t right – if we had been cruising an online dating site, let’s just say our profiles wouldn’t have generated a match. In other cases, we were all so focused on wiping snotty noses and being the perfect mommies to our little darlings, we couldn’t relax (and ignore the kiddos for a few seconds) in order to get past the chit-chat about breastfeeding schedules and pediatrician picks in order to really get to know each other.
So I took notes, hoping I could filter out the friend potentials from the duds. On my list was “Melissa*– mom to twins Cruz and Carter, 18 mo., funny, cool red boots, likes wine tasting,” and “Liz* — graphic designer, nose ring, not married to baby daddy, lives Fremont,” and “Jenn* — LA transplant! Does yoga Tuesdays mornings + has babysitters!!” I ranked these moms by number (hello, junior high, anyone?!), trying to figure out who could become my new BFFs. Without new instant mommy friends, I worried, I would be a total failure and lonely to boot.
In my nervous new-stay-at-home-mom state, I desperately hoped those notes on the page would morph into my new de-facto daytime family, a replacement for my workplace network and a source of adult conversation that would prevent me from going crazy alone with my two toddlers.
Another list at the back of the ugly yellow planner outlined the possibilities for keeping us all busy, busy, busy: A full weekly schedule of park playground rankings, open indoor gym hours, story times, kid-friendly coffee shops and children’s theater shows. I red-tabbed these pages, the most important in my planner because they represented the promise that full-time parenting could be as diverse and fun as my working life had been. Without the scheduling options, I wouldn’t have anything to do, and my children would be wholly without stimulation, I figured. I had to validate my choice to leave my job by providing us with The Best Fun-Filled Schedule Ever.
I used the planner for about six months, grabbing for it often as soon as I woke up (to the sweet screams of my cranky/wet/hungry children) and sometimes one last time before I drifted wearily off to a temporary sleep. But gradually, the monthly calendars show more white space and less frantic, hopeful scribbles – not because we were sitting at home doing nothing, I remember, but because I slowly realized building a new life could not be done by marking notes in tiny paper boxes.
It’s been almost three years since I left the world of full-time office work. Most of the “friends” I made those first few months have faded away; we run into each other sometimes at the park or grocery store and exchange friendly chit-chat, but that’s about it. The few true friends I found are still there for the occasional lucky night when we can all escape for a girl’s night out, and these are the mothers I would count on the bring me soup when I get sick and pick up my daughter in a pinch if I am stranded. But most of us no longer have the time to while away every day at the park, worrying about how we will be judged against the “working” mommies in some nonexistent comparative contest. A lot of our kids are in preschool and, gasp, grade school now, and many of us have started new journeys onto different projects, jobs, experiments. We are mothers always, but we are following new passions, too, or thinking about how we can strike a different balance.
I tossed the yellow planner, saying a final goodbye to those innocent, angst-ridden notes about what I thought life as a stay-at-home mother would be like. With perspective, I’m glad to realize they didn’t come close to doing it justice.
*Names changed for the sake of those poor, oversimplified mothers.