If you know me in real life (or if you are my husband), you’ve probably heard me use the phrase, “I just want to grind my corn.” I’ve been meaning to write a blog post about this idea for quite some time and when I posted my essay about “playing my music,” I received a comment from a friend saying, “I worry I’m not accomplishing what I’m capable of doing, but I know that ditching my kids and simply pursuing my ‘own thing’ would not be fulfilling.” When I read that, I knew that the time for my corn grinding post had come. When I use the phrase, I’m envisioning some kind of ancient tribe in which the mothers are working together grinding corn, while their babies are tied to their backs, and the older children play nearby. While I do not literally want to live in primitive times (those corn grinding mothers also probably had a lifespan of 35 years!), I feel as if mothering is “meant” to be a communal activity rather than a solitary one and I feel like babies and children are meant to coexist alongside their mothers as they go about their daily work. Rather than intensive, child-focused, total-reality mothering, I think babies are happy watching their mothers work and participating in the daily rhythms of the home and world with no need for the mother to be “rolling around on the floor in the glitter in her sweatpants” (see the book Perfect Madness) while serving as a one woman entertainment committee. This age of individual mothers caring for individual children in isolation from the larger “tribe,” is a social and cultural anomaly when we look at the wide scope of human history. Likewise, meeting for playdates isn’t what I mean either—I mean more task-oriented, corn grinding work, than that.
In the book Perfect Madness, the author articulates what I mean when I say I want to grind my corn—the need for something in between staying at home and working full time (basically, that working and mothering simultaneously is the most natural and fulfilling approach, but our society does not make that combination often feasible or comfortable):
Which means that ‘natural’ motherhood today should know no conflict between providing for our children (i.e. ‘working’) and nurturing them (i.e. ‘being a mom’). Both are part of our evolutionary heritage; both are equally ‘child-centered’ imperatives. What’s ‘unnatural’ about motherhood today, if you follow Hrdy’s line of thinking, is not that mothers work but rather that their ‘striving for status’ and their ‘maternal emotions’ have been compartmentalized. By putting the two in conflict–by insisting on the incompatibility of work and motherhood–our culture does violence to mothers, splitting them, unnaturally, within themselves…For they show that the so-called ‘choices’ most of us face in America–between more-than-full-time work or 24/7 on-duty motherhood–are, quite simply, unnatural. They amount to a kind of psychological castration: excessive work severs a mother from her need to be physically present in caring for her child, and excessive ‘full-time’ motherhood of the total-reality variety severs a mother not only from her ability to financially provide for her family but also from her adult sense of agency…
This is what I’m talking about. There needs to be a third, realistic option (and not just for women. For men too. For families!). I have often expressed the desire to find a balance between mothering and “personing.” I’m seeking a seamless integration of work and family life for both Mark and myself. An integration that makes true co-parenting possible, while still meeting the potent biological need of a baby for her mother and a mother’s biological compulsion to be present with her baby. Why is the work world designed to ignore the existence of families?
So, returning to my friend’s remark, I truly feel as if there is another option between “not accomplishing” and “ditching my kids.” And, I feel like after a LOT of work and trying, I’ve found somewhat of a balance in my own life between “personing” and “mothering.” It is possible to mother well AND also do some other things that feed your soul. It doesn’t have to be an either/or arrangement. And, we don’t do our kids any favors by not pursuing some of our own passions when they can watch and observe us being vibrant, active, complex, complete human beings (not saying that it isn’t “complete” to be a SAHM, but that if you DO want to pursue some other non-kid projects, kids learn good things from watching that happen!) I used to feel like I was going to die–-metaphorically speaking…like my soul was getting squashed—if I wasn’t able to pursue some of my personal goals. I don’t feel that way anymore (and I still spend roughly 90% of every week with my kids and 99% of my waking and sleeping hours with my baby!).
At one point when my first son was a baby, I was trying to explain my “trapped” or bound feelings to my mother and she said something like, “well what would you rather be doing instead?” And, that was exactly it. I DIDN’T want to be doing something instead, I wanted to be doing something AND. I wanted to grind my corn with my baby. Before he was born I had work that I loved very much and that, to me, felt deeply important to the world. Motherhood required a radically re-defining of my sense of my self, my purpose on earth, and my reason for being. While I had been told I could bring my baby with me while continuing to teach volunteer trainings, I quickly found that it was incompatible for me—I felt like I was doing neither job well while bringing my baby with me and I had to “vote” for my baby and quit my work. While I felt like this was the right choice for my family, it felt like a tremendous personal sacrifice and I felt very restricted and “denied” in having to make it. With my first baby, I had to give up just about everything of my “old life” and it was a difficult and painful transition. When my second baby was born, it was much easier because I was already in “kid mode.” I’d already re-defined my identity to include motherhood and while I still chafed sometimes at the bonds of being bonded, they were now familiar to me.
I become fully certified as a childbirth educator in that year after my second son’s birth (provisionally certified in 2005 and he was born in 2006) and another feeling I struggled with was the sensation that I had all of this change-the-world birth energy that was being stagnated or blocked somehow. I felt like I had become a birth educator in order to change the birth world, to transform the birth culture in the US, and in my own small corner of the world I could not make the kind of impact I envisioned making. That is when I started writing and found satisfaction in reaching out to the wider world in that manner (I explored how that benefited me in the music post already).
Now, with Alaina, while I do feel overloaded or overbooked at times, in general I feel like I have found a better balance than with any of my other children. I continue to teach college classes in person (a total of 10 hours a week) and online and while it is tricky at times, so far it is working pretty well and we’re all happy (thanks in no small part to my mom who has been willing to come to class with me to take care of her in between my breaks, so that we experience only small amounts of separation once a week). As she gets bigger and more energetic (read: sleeps less), I’m definitely finding that I will probably have to let something else in my life go in order to continue to be available to her, to my boys, and to my own need for “down time” in the manner in which I wish to be without hurting myself (by staying up too late, not eating well, having stressed out “freak out” moments, etc.). Sadly, I think it is going to be my birth classes that I put on hold and possibly this blog as well (more about this later) .
Speaking of the difference between parenting and personing—I also do not view being a mother as my job. Mothering is a relationship to me and not a job that I perform. Just as it is unhealthy for me to be defined by work responsibilities, it is also unhealthy for me to be defined by relationships. I would never describe my job as being “Mark’s wife” or “Barbara’s daughter,” that gives them too much responsibility for my identity. We are in relationship to each other, but that is not a duty I perform. And, just being in relation to them is not enough for the full expression of my personhood, I need other aspects and elements to my identity. Why am I surprised that I feel the same way about parenting? 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.
Continuing my birth art and life theme, I made two new sculptures a couple of weeks ago to express my corn grinding spirit. The first one is a corn goddess sculpture:
The second is a mama literally grinding her corn and holding her baby 🙂
They both make me happy when I look at them and I added them to my living room side table altar/sacred space.
Footnote: I started this post on June 17 and am now finishing it over a month later. Simultaneous corn-grinding and mothering can be very sloooooow…..;)
Footnote 2015: I’ve added a whole new baby since I first wrote this in 2011! I also created a whole new sculpture about the experience: