A few months back, I had a career crisis.
For eight years I have been what most would term a stay-at-home mother. I stay at home with the kids while my husband goes to work, or in our case, six years of graduate school. During that time we’ve had lots of little boys and ping-ponged across the United States four times.
So last fall, after graduation and yet another major move, I woke up to a glaring realization.
I did not want to be a stay-at-home mom any longer. In fact, I was sort of done with motherhood in general.
For one, it didn’t seem to be doing any good. Despite the hours of time I put into teaching my children and reading parenting books, my four boys were unruly and just plain wild. I went to bed most nights in tears.
But there was something else, a niggling, restless feeling in me. I had supported a husband through graduate school, literally hunkering down that last year, by far the hardest year of our lives, while he plowed through the dissertation. I was full-time mom and dad during that year, and through most of the previous years while he tapped away on articles and papers, six days a week, late into the night.
I was burned out. I was completely empty.
I started looking for teaching positions, storytelling positions and graduate degrees. I wanted out. I figured my kids, who didn't seem to be doing that well under my tutelage, would do better in daycare, and I could finally realize all of my dormant aspirations.
To understand this, you have to know that I had an incredible mother growing up. She had energy and drive and creativity. She also often said this: “All I ever wanted to be was a mother.” She majored in early childhood education and poured that passion into raising her six children.
I did not major in children. I majored in journalism because my mind has always been filled with words. I love the written word.
Oh, I knew I wanted to be a mom, too. In fact, I assumed that when I had kids I would come to feel just like my mother. I would lay aside my love for writing in a deep and dusty box and jump with both feet into motherhood.
Which is exactly what I did.
Only I am not like my mother in this regard. I love being a mom to my four boys, but I still have all these words running through my head, stories and poems and thoughts, and when I don’t write them down, I start to go unhinged.
The question I faced last fall was one every mother must ask, at almost every phase of child rearing: “How much of my life should be mine, and how much should go to my children?”
This is the tug for every mother, whether they work out of the home or not. When you have a child, you give up a piece of yourself. Quite often it is a large piece.
I was talking one day to a neighbor who teaches nursing at the University of Minnesota. She told me that after several years, she has never reached full professor status. She shrugged and said to me, “I wanted to raise my kids. I couldn’t do both.”
I keep a running tally of the passions I would love to pursue. The list is oh so long: Get a master’s degree, join the civic chorale, write books, teach college, canoe the Boundary Waters and squirrel away time to read The Hunger Games. I’m just giving you a sampling here.
The question is, as mothers, how much of this do we lay aside for our children?
I used to think it was nearly everything. That’s how you show your true devotion to motherhood. I remember a point when I made a very silly statement to my husband: “I don’t want my kids to ever know I was a writer. I want them to grow up and never know that mom got up at 5 a.m., and stayed up late into the night to write.”
To read that now sounds ridiculous. What I was saying, in essence, was, “I want my kids to think I live solely for them. I want them to think they are the center of my universe.”
This was a huge mistake for my entire family and me.
Because what every mother needs is something that defines her outside the parameters of motherhood.
I want to be clear on this. I am not saying that mothers need one more distraction. We are already pulled in so many directions that take us away from face time with our kids.
I think this is where most women go wrong. We think that in being busy we will find purpose. So we fill our schedules with book groups, gym memberships, card groups, pedicures and clearance day at the mall. Then we waste time reading blogs about mothers who make their children cupcakes in the shape of dragons, and the motherhood guilt, along with the restlessness, takes us on a downward spiral.
Anne Morrow Lindbergh, in her book “Gifts from the Sea,” sums it up most poignantly. She writes, "We are hungry, and not knowing what we are hungry for, we fill up the void with endless distractions, always on hand — unnecessary errands, compulsive duties, social niceties. And for the most part, to little purpose. Suddenly the spring is dry; the well is empty.”
What we need is not more to-do’s clogging our calendars. Mothers need something that brings them back to their essence. This is different for each woman, but it should bring us back to the family as better wives and mothers.
Lindbergh writes that we need a slice of solitude, every day, in which to center ourselves as women. “Quiet time alone, contemplation, prayer, music, a centering line of thought or reading, of study or work. It can be physical or intellectual or artistic, any creative life proceeding from oneself. It need not be an enormous project or a great work. But it should be something of one’s own. Arranging a bowl of flowers in the morning can give a sense of quiet in a crowded day — like writing a poem, or saying a prayer. What matters is that one be for a time inwardly attentive.”
During my own personal crisis, my husband and I had some long talks about what we should do. He was supportive of any decision I made, whether that was working or going back to school.
In the end, I did neither. I decided to throw open the doors and announce, “Guess what, mom’s a writer!”
I began taking that job seriously. I now get up very, very early to write. But I also take time, midday, to tell my little ones, “This is mommy’s writing time. You may play quietly.” My husband gives me most of Saturday to write while he takes care of the kids.
I will tell you this: The outcome of my writing is not important. What is important is that when I step out from behind my computer screen, I always feel more centered and more willing to accept the challenges of being a parent. Taking time to write allows me space to remember why I became a mother in the first place. I love teaching my kids. But for a long time I was so burned out I wasn’t doing that very well either.
There are definite plans for graduate school and a more substantive career down the road. But it turns out I really do want to be at home with my little ones during these young years, even if my kids are wild and unruly. My 5-year-old says to me, “Mom, you’re the best writer in the whole world!” even though he has never read a lick of my writing. But he prays every day that I will be good in my writing.
Most important, something happens when I take that time for myself. I emerge with a clear mind. I’m a better mother. I step more lightly on my toes.
In his masterful essay “The Lantern Bearers,” Robert Louis Stevenson tells of growing up on the rugged Scottish coast where he and other young boys played a peculiar game. They gathered at twilight with a small lantern fastened to their waist, completely obscured by a topcoat. The delight of the activity was in knowing that you carried, deep inside where no one could see, this small beam of light.
He writes, “The essence of this bliss was to walk by yourself in the black night; the slide shut, the top-coat buttoned; not a ray escaping, whether to conduct your footsteps or to make your glory public: a mere pillar of darkness in the dark; and all the while, deep down in the privacy of your fool’s heart, to know you had a bull’s-eye at your belt, and to exult and sing over the knowledge.”
Stevenson finishes with a thought so dear to me I used to have it painted on my kitchen wall: “And the true realism, always and everywhere, is that of the poets, to find where the joy resides, and give it voice, far beyond singing.”
That, as mothers, is what we must do. We are, each of us, poets. Our job as women and mothers is to find that lamp that keeps us lit from within and hold it close.
Only then can we have the power and energy to sing out, to our families and the world beyond.
Follow her blog, "The Tiffany Window," at http://thetiffanywindow.wordpress.com.