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:
I needed to read this today. Thanks so very much for sharing these sentiments. And the last line is so true, haha!
The last line about having been working on it since June 17th?
This is so healthy. When we become self actualized as women, that is what we model for our children. When we take our focus on being there for the children 24/7 and put it back into perspective where it belongs, we allow the children the room to self actualize, to learn to be responsible for themselves. This type of mothering is empowering and self esteem building. If we spend all our time focused on others, that’s what we teach our children they must do to be valuable….which stunts the growing self. Your post was so refreshing to read! Thanks!
Thanks for taking your time and giving this post the thoughtfulness it deserves; what a great topic. I too felt the constraints and hated it and so would do it differently given the chance. I incorporate it into my babysitting/nannying professional life and results show positivity in my relationships.
I think that if our society had more of a group spirit, all working toward the greater good together, we would have this kind of parenting environment you speak of. It sounds like something that wouldn’t be in our future, but I think maybe it is. I think we live in isolation because everything has become very self-based. This has a few pluses but some obvious minuses, as you’ve noted.
You know, I don’t like much when people think that being a mother is my job. Or when I’m patronized that I do “work” full time, because “that’s hard work too! maybe the hardest ‘job’ of all!” I understand that they are trying to give me credit, but I don’t consider being a mom a “job”, and even though it can be “hard work” sometimes, I don’t “work full time” by being a mother to my children and staying at home with them. I don’t know. I guess I felt that terminology demeans the kids (in addition to sounding patronizing or condescending to me). I don’t need the labels of “work” to feel worthy in what I do with them. Our love and growth is fulfilling in a way that shouldn’t require we sanction or validate it by categorizing it as something reduced to an extended chore or obligation. I think it could and should just be what it is without everyone’s approval, but maybe this is just my little rant?
What is interesting is when you do have something you consider your “work” (something like you were mentioning as it relates to your *person*), refer to it when the topic arises, and people think you are talking about your children. Nope. I am actually referring to other things outside the domestic capacity… 🙂
wow, you can’t even know how timely your post is for me Molly. I have been trying to start a private practice as a parent coach (www.sosparentcoaching.com), have a personal blog, and stay home with my twins and 2 yr old while husband is gone long hours. I have been bitterly stewing after reading “The War on Mothers.” It was the first time that I realized it was a systemic problem — not a “me” problem — that a I can’t figure out how to balance it all. And lately, we are needing more income, so I’ve been looking at going back to work, but my heart -literally, it feels like my heart — doesn’t want me to send the girls into long hours at a daycare…and it infuriate me to go back to corporate world as an MSW and “work for the man” so to speak. After dinner tonight I “vomited” up my frustrations to my husband that I can’t figure out how to have balance…and that is leading to me to resent him…resent our kids…and while there is no reason for me to be miserable with my life…that’s where I”m at…miserable. I just can’t figure it out…and I DO believe that by me filling fulfilled by my passions…that that is a gift to my girls…but I.just.can’t.figure.it.out.
Thanks for commenting, Shannon. Definitely a systemic problem! I think many mothers struggle with similar issues of “balance” and don’t really realize that part of the struggle is because we are embedded in an institution/social structure that doesn’t value family life, but pays a fairly extensive amount of lip service to the “mothering is the most important job ever!” message
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Thank you for posting this! I wish I had something brilliant to add but really I feel like what you’ve written perfectly captures what I’ve been feeling! I love that I have the opportunity to stay home with my daughter but I’ve also found it very isolating at times. Community is so important me and my daughter…we both go a little crazy without it. I also know that I’m a better mother and wife when I take time to take care of myself. I feel like the idea that you’re only a good mother if you’re sacrificing everything plays into all this. It’s definitely plays into the balance I’ve been trying to find!
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I sooo get this Molly!
I post constantly about needing a commune.. feeling so very torn between my gorgeous son and full-time attachment parenting and following the ever-pulling presence of “the other”. The other encompases (I’ll apologize now for being on a computer without spell-check.. that I’ve totally become reliant upon) everything from taking a shower by myself, to working on the bazillion projects I have on the go, to working hours at the amazing pottery shop that hands me a paycheque. My dear partner and I work completely opposite schedules in order to always have one of us with our son (childcare options in our sparsely populated corner of the world just don’t sit well with us at this point) and so we rarely see each other.
Living in a communal environment where there would be worksharing, shared toddler-minding.. and, nearest to my heart.. a community of people working together in a way that banishes that intense loneliness of almost-single parenting. Freeing everyone up just enough to be able to pursue the other things that nurture the soul in a different way.. a personal way. You word it so well up there *gazing at your post* that I won’t try to paraphrase.
I thank you wholeheartedly for your amazing words. I’ll be printing them out to read at those times where I’m pulling out my last hair and rolling in the glitter in my sweatpants.
Yes! Yes! Yes!!
I have felt just this way for a long time – it’s just hard to find a way to create this! How do we mother in a community way when we’re all so isolated?? I totally agree that play dates don’t cut it – I want more!! I don’t want to be a mother alone! And I want to see something that I accomplished at the end of the day – and not have to try to hard to find all my satisfaction in the fact that my children are happy at the end of the day
This was exactly what I needed to read today! Thank you.
My life is sort of divided into “before marriage” and “after kids”. I moved to a new state after graduation college, and all my childhood friends and family aren’t close by anymore. So all the people and friends I know now know me only with kids. I became “The coach’s wife” and “Amber’s mom.” I wasn’t ME, anymore.
No one know what I like to do, what I might be good at. I’ve even heard “You look different today – oh! You don’t have the kids with you!” (I have four now, and they are rather attached 😉
Anyway, I felt a PHYSICAL need to create, to do SOMETHING that didn’t disappear minutes later – laundry always came back, dishes never stayed clean, and toys seem to breed like crazy around here.
But when I started playing with clay – polymer first and then ceramic – I could look at the thing I made – an expression from inside of me, and it would stay there, the next day, the next week….forever. (if it didn’t get broke!) I could walk past and smile because THAT was something I accomplished.
Now I am trying to make a small income with my hobby, and at the same time I’m finding the benefit of touching other people’s lives with my art. I don’t get time to make a lot – I’m not sure I’ll even be in the “green” this year, but I’m supporting my need to do something from deep within my soul. And I’m very thankful to have a husband that has never once complained of the funds I’ve spent to pursue this passion.
I wish we could meet in person – I bet we’d have a ton to chat about while our kids played 🙂
Through reading this blog I felt deeply connected as I am 26 yes old and a mother of four and a wife of 6 years I have always felt the need to continue on my path and defintly explore more of myself out side of the roll of wife and motherhood and such an emptiness inside feeling like I’m not being myself and achieving much in my life as me I had the feeling of who am I I’ve lost myself . I suffered slot of irratic moods when my fourth child came along and not having the support of my husband was a major impact on my life my idea of a happy contented family was some what becoming more of a part in my fantasy mind . My youngest is now 3 and I have qualified as a age care worker and next yr studying diploma of aromatherapy I am trying to grind my corn with my children on my back and I strongly feel that it is a necessity to do so for your children and yourself I thoroughly enjoyed your blog and I give many thanks for knowledge blessing to you and may you find the pleasure in grinding your corn always .
Thank you !
As a sixty-year old mother of 10, lawyer-consultant, corporate marketing communications director, married twice, I will share this bit of hard-won wisdom: you young women have many opportunities for work-family integration due to technology that equal corn-grinding, so be thankful and seize them with imagination. However, subscribe to my theory of the ‘horizontally integrated life’ and enjoy each moment with good humor and humility.Yes, you will have perfect, well-adjusted children who love you, a devoted husband and passionate marriage, a well-organized and clean home, and a fulfilling career. You just will NEVER have all those things at the same moment in time. When you look back from old age, you will be satisfied, but not really before then.
Blessings to you all.
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