“I’m winging it every day, praying, surrendering, steeping myself in grace by any means necessary. I grapple with finding my own integrity, to trust the path that I have chosen, to believe that I am mothering well, that I can claim for myself a belief in my own goodness.” – Elizabeth at Mothering with Soul
“Giving birth to a new life is about so much more than just the moment itself. The power of finding your strength as a woman through birth resonates for the rest of your life. It shapes you as a person, and as a parent.” ~ Gina Sewell
I want to say first that I believe, as the organization Mothers and More does, that all work that women do, whether paid or unpaid has social, political, and economic value. In my own life I don’t distinguish between what I do for money and what I do as a volunteer, but that is partially a function of privilege, because I love all of my work and choose freely to do it. I recently finished reading the book The Art of Family and in it the author makes a point that I’ve made in various posts as well, mothers have always “worked,” it does no good to try to distinguish between “working mothers” and “stay-at-home mothers,” because the difference is much more fluid and alive than a category can hold.
FOUNDATIONAL TO A LASTING FAMILY is acknowledging that we will be many things to each other for our whole lives, even past death. We can abandon the old fears that family life will smother us and instead go after fully practicing ourselves in the presence of partner and children. In short, making a family is the best way to present ourselves, to stake our claim to a spot on earth. But “practicing ourselves’’ in front of our family, what does that mean? To give the essence of ourselves to our children is not necessarily dependent on the amount of time you spend with your children. Here, we must recast the debate over moms who work and those who stay at home with children. This is one of those divisions that turn up damned if you do, damned if you don’t, because it is a false one from the start. First, mothers have always been “at work,’’ whether farming, spinning, pioneering, running cottage industries, or investment banking. In history, women have always, of necessity, worked for the welfare of their families, some even forced to leave their children behind to find ways to sustain them. Imagine that pain, next time you come home late from the office.
The real issue with at-home moms and working moms is the struggle for identity. Having children is the most identity-challenging and identity-changing thing women do—starting with pregnancy, when even your body gets an identity change. That should be our first big clue. But we are terrified to face it. Who wants to watch your identity evaporate, which is what having children often feels like? Identity isn’t about societal roles, either, though the ones we get stuck with can be more burden than help to us. In fact, if we allow societal roles to determine our identity, we are not really in control, we are accepting a series of masks. We have to ask ourselves the hard questions: Who would I be without this job, without this kid, without this income, without this education?—getting at the core of who we are. This is a work we must do solely on our own, and it is excruciating work. But no human gets out of it, not even mothers. Babies make you ask, “Well, who am I now?’’ Though it is currently hot in intellectual theory to say we are nothing but social and cultural constructions, this is not a spiritual truth. Identity is something you build relationship by relationship, not role by role. Families, especially at the young-children stage, are not the pause button pressed down on who you are and what you want to pursue. Yes, we may have to put off finishing that degree, taking the promotion that requires weekly travel, writing that screenplay, or finally learning French, but those things weren’t going to make you you anyway. Your relationships make you who you are, because they give you a chance to actually manifest yourself, which is what you really believe in. We fill up what we do with who we are. What we do can never fill us up.
Gina Bria (2011-11-28). The Art of Family : Rituals, Imagination, and Everyday Spirituality (pp. 8-9). iUniverse. Kindle Edition.
This notion is also explored in an article I enjoyed from Mothering:
“…Women a few hundred years ago worked their butts off every day helping their family survive. They planted and harvested, killed and prepared their own food. The children either watched younger children, played (often unsupervised) or worked right along side them. Women who had to work outside of their home had other people or family members care for their children while they cared for others. The wealthiest women probably had other paid servants care for their children much of the time. Children played with other children. Children worked. Children solved some of their own problems and they found things to do…”
Personally, I refer to this as “grinding my corn”:
I want to be with my children, but I wish to be engaged in my own pursuits at the same time. When our lives feel happiest and most harmonious is when exactly this is occurring—when we are all together, but each working on our own projects and “doing our own thing.” I envision a life of seamless integration, where there need not even be a notion of “life/work” balance, because it is all just life and living. A life in which children are welcome in workplaces and in which work can be accomplished while in childspaces. A life in which I can grind my corn with my children nearby and not feel I need apologize for doing so or explain myself to anyone…
Returning to the issues of identity raised in the quotes from The Art of Family, the question is explored beautifully in the article Beautiful Catastrophe: The Death and Rebirth of Becoming a Mother:
You were twenty, twenty-three, thirty, thirty-five. You were free and young and somebody else.
We were free and young and somebody else.
But now, we’re mothers.
At some point the reality will hit us: We are never alone again, no matter where we are, and we are the only ones in the world who have become this person toward this child.
I’ve been the same woman my whole life. What about her? Where is she? Is she just dead?
Yes, she is just dead.
Does that seem harsh? Well, it is. So is motherhood.
Perhaps we can soften this whole thing by saying our identities are “transformed,” or we are “forever changed,” but the fact of the matter is that the woman you once were is gone, and she will never come back.
I also recently finished reading the anthology The Maternal is Political and in it Jennifer Margulis (later birth writer of the new book Business of Baby) says:
Jame’s working full time and my staying home wasn’t working. My working full-time and James’s staying home hadn’t worked either. We both wanted to be with our children. And we both wanted to work (something I was only able to admit once I tried being a full-time mom). But neither of us wanted to do one or the other exclusively.
This is what we are working towards for my husband and me, hopefully this year. I think we both deserve to be home with the kids, I think we both also have other work that is valuable to pursue. I envision a life of seamless integration of our various roles and passions–all of us. We have a family mantra: “our family works in harmony to meet each member’s needs.” :)
“Is there one single aspect of motherhood that isn’t political? From conception to graduation, from your kid’s first apartment until you die, it is basically one political decision after another…” –Rebecca Walker
Also in The Maternal is Political, Beth Osnes writes about Performing Mother Activism (she has a one woman show) and I love her analogy of care being like a loaf of bread…
I go on with scenes that tackle the onslaught of societal expectations and repressive forces that creep into a woman’s life once she becomes a mother: “it happens one day. You find a large parcel on your front porch. You open it to find the status quo being delivered to you…well, actually, the status quo manual…” I go on with scenes that lambaste the fearmongering that goes on in our government and media: “The status quo wants you to dumb down, mother. It will tell you who to trust and who to fear.” I remind mothers that we must think for ourselves: “I say rage, mother. Do not go gently into that good night. Rage, rage, against the dying of your light.”
I have also stopped expecting that caring needs to be a whole and perfect project, like an unsliced loaf of homemade bread. I am coming to accept that, at least for me, caring about the world is more fragmented, much more like a store-bought loaf that splays open as soon as you open the bag. Here’s a slice of caring about antipoverty legislation, here’s one of caring for my three-year-old with the flue, here’s a slice of caring for victims of our country’s warring and, whoops, here’s even a slice of caring about my curtains. I have stopped imagining that caring is pure and unselfish; many people, including me, fashion their identities out of caring, whether for kids or for the world. Still: Bread is bread, and caring is caring. Whole or broken. Homemade or purchased. Consumed or given away.
I’m also learning that social movements will go on, even if nursing mothers or parents of toddlers have to drop out for a while. We will be back,someday, maybe when the youngest turns two or whenever we can again afford to dream like activists, rather than work like dogs. We may be more distracted than before, less available…But when we return, we will give a break to someone else who needs it—like those erstwhile college students who may be finding that carting babies to marches is harder than they anticipated.
And when we do rejoin the movement, it is possible that we will agitate and march and advocate from a deeper place within ourselves than we had known existed. It is possible that we will act from that cavity our children have hollowed out of us, that place where breath begins.
And, as a lovely closing tribute to all women and all their work, remember this…
Mothers — you are powerful. Stand tall. You are full of grace. Stand tall. Join together and stand tall. Be as a Redwood tree. Stand tall. If you have stood next to a Redwood tree or seen photos of one, you will notice that they do not grow alone. They grow in groves with all of the trees connected together, even if they appear to be separate. Their shallow roots form a web that holds these big trees up in the wind. Redwoods do not fall very often. We can emulate those trees, mothers. We can hold each other up.
We may feel alone at times, but believe me and remember: You are being supported underneath the surface of where you live. Right beside you there is somebody thinking about you and supporting you whether you know it or not. Think of all the mothering that goes on in life. I have found in my life that it comes sometimes when you do not expect it and from someone you do not realize has your back. Someone in your root system seems to know that you need something. Women have a natural mothering instinct if they just listen to it.
Other past posts about mothering and working: