Before we were married I told my husband that when we had children, I wanted to stay home with them. It never really occurred to me that I would do otherwise. I like to think that I was not particularly brainwashed into this decision by my Mormon upbringing. I don’t know. As a youth, I rebelled pretty strongly against the cultural, sometimes pseudo-doctrinal message that women belonged in the home. From a young age, I assumed that I would have a career. I didn’t want to have kids, probably because my mother had five children for whom she was the full-time caregiver, and I saw firsthand how difficult it was for her. I didn’t assume that I could do it better. I assumed it would probably kill me.
Interestingly, I never considered the possibility that I could have both a career and children, probably because I was too focused on how much children would cramp my style, but also probably because I had no role model. When my mother divorced her first husband, she was pregnant with my older sister and had no choice about working. She had to work to support herself and her daughter. But when she married my dad, she said she felt like she’d missed too much of my sister’s early years and she didn’t want to miss any more. She didn’t work outside the home again until all of us were in school. So I had no idea how to be a mother without also being a full-time caregiver. Most of my friends’ mothers were also full-time caregivers, and to be perfectly honest, I felt kind of sorry for my friends whose mothers did work. This might have been because, in all the cases I can remember, their parents were also divorced. But I like to think that even as I was disdaining my mother’s lifestyle as personally untenable for me, I must have, on some level, appreciated her sacrifice, because when the magical day arrived that I finally did desire children, I couldn’t imagine giving the job less than she had.
So about a week before giving birth to my first child, I quit my job—the best, most promising job I’d ever had—so I could be a full-time caregiver. I did it happily because frankly, at the time I was finding the annoying parts of my job super-annoying. (I even thought, at the time, that these annoyances were a gift from God, so I wouldn’t be sad about giving it up to be home with the baby.) That was 1998, and aside from a handful of freelance gigs during the first sixteen months, I have not had a paying job since. I can’t say that I regret my choice, exactly. In retrospect, I think it was probably the only choice I could have lived with. Given my family’s particular needs and my own personal limitations, I don’t know how I could have handled having a job on top of everything else. Someone else probably could have done it, but not me.
So I don’t sit around wishing I’d made a different choice than the one I made eighteen-plus years ago. I frequently wish that the circumstances of my life had been different, that my course had gone a different way. I love all of my kids. I’m grateful for the experience of being their mother. (Usually. At least 51 percent of the time, I’m sure.) But sometimes I wish I could watch the Sliding Doors version of my life and see how things would have turned out if I’d gone to graduate school in Fresno instead of staying in Los Angeles and meeting my husband. (Yes, I had big dreams back in the day. Fresno Dreams.) And if my daughters ever ask me for advice, and probably even if they don’t, I will encourage them to continue working after they have kids, even if they can afford to quit.
It’s not that my life as a full-time caregiver has been bad. Well, no, I won’t lie to you. Some of it has been absolutely horrible. But I’ve been unduly fortunate in many ways. For one thing, even when my husband was still in school and money was tight, we managed to pay for all the necessities without going further into debt. For another thing, over the years my husband and I have managed to build a pretty strong marriage. This has made for a pretty good life.
Obviously, both of those things took some effort in addition to luck. Few things used to annoy me more than people saying, “You’re so lucky that you can afford to stay home.” Not because I didn’t appreciate my own luck, but because I felt that other people didn’t appreciate the sacrifices that went along with the luck. And I’m not referring exclusively or even primarily to financial sacrifices. I’m talking about the personal, intangible sacrifices. I sacrificed future professional opportunities. I sacrificed security. I sacrificed independence. Even more than adult interaction, I missed doing something I was actually good at. Parenting, while occasionally rewarding, has mostly made me feel like a failure. I feel like that is by design, so I don’t want to complain too hard about it. But ideally, a meaningful life includes doing more than the things you do poorly.
Many mothers told me that if they didn’t work outside the home, they would “go crazy.” To them I wanted to say, “Yes. I know exactly what you mean. By the way, do I look sane to you?” I didn’t begrudge these women their choices or think that it made them bad mothers. (I would have had to feel like a much better mother myself to make that judgment.) I just didn’t like the implication that I was doing exactly what I wanted to be doing. I was not. I was doing what I thought I needed to do, for a lot of complicated reasons, and I wasn’t always sure I was right.
During one of my many therapy sessions with one of the many therapists I saw during my young-child-rearing years, I was told, “Some women are cut out to be full-time mothers. Others are part-timers. You might be a part-timer.” I didn’t like hearing that either. For one thing, I couldn’t afford to be a part-timer. At the time, my husband was still in graduate school, and I was several years out of the workforce; any job I could have gotten would not have paid for alternative childcare. For another thing, I didn’t want to believe full-time caregiving was something one could both desire to do and be temperamentally unsuited for. For thousands of years, mothers have been caring for their young. Did the cavewomen go insane? I would rather have heard that I just wasn’t doing it right (and then, of course, be told the right way to do it). I wanted the problem to be fixable. I didn’t want the problem to be me.
Then again, there was also the fact that I had spent the last several years killing myself trying to be a good mother. If I didn’t have any outside distractions, I didn’t have any excuses for not doing a good job at the Most Important Job There Is. I would never get those years back, and I felt like changing course would be admitting that I’d invested a hell of a lot in a mistake.
In retrospect, I don’t think I’ve done a horrible job at The Most Important Job. I could have done better. Or rather, I should have done better. I don’t know if I could have. I wanted to. I still want to. I’m not inclined to say I’d do anything differently if I had to do it all again. Mainly because I’d rather die than do it all again. But also because it is what it is. There’s no point Monday-morning-quarterbacking now. And I want to be clear about one thing: I don’t blame Mormonism for my choices. I didn’t become a full-time caregiver for religious reasons. I was following the model I’d been given. My mother was far from perfect, but she was always there. I appreciated that. I only wanted to do for my kids what she did for me and my siblings. I didn’t know how else to do it. And, as I mentioned earlier, given the circumstances, I’m not sure there was a better way for me to do it.
That said, I hope for something different for my daughters. It’s true that marriage requires sacrifices from both parties and that ideally husbands and wives are interdependent, yada yada. But I’m not so sure it’s a great idea for one partner to be completely dependent financially on the other. It’s awesome if it all works out, as it has in my marriage—i.e. my husband hasn’t died or left me for a less insane woman. I have no desire to divorce my husband (I’m sure that comes as a relief to Brother J), but there is something chilling in the realization that I would probably not be able to support myself, let alone four children, without him. It’s like I’ve been on a flying trapeze all this time and all of a sudden I look down and think, “Whoa—there’s no net!” It’s not a thing you can un-see. I guess this is why we’re not supposed to look down. But I have, and I will never recommend to my girls that they fly without a net themselves.
The other thing is difficult to put into words without seeming to cast aspersions on my husband or my marriage. My marriage is fine. (My husband is even finer, if you know what I mean.) (I don’t know what I mean.) But I’ve struggled with the idea that ours is an equal partnership and that his power doesn’t vastly outweigh mine because he makes all the money. I can almost hear you all saying, “Sounds like a personal problem.” Yes, it’s a personal problem. That doesn’t make it an imaginary problem. Obviously, there is more to me than housekeeping and child-chauffeuring and whatnot, just as there’s more to my husband than his paycheck. (I mean, I hope so, for both our sakes.) You can’t put a dollar value on everything. And the world has screwed-up priorities, money isn’t everything, blah blah de blah.
But the fact is, I’m a pretty crap homemaker. Maybe some of that is due to the fact that I’m not getting paid for this, so what’s the point? Ha ha. But seriously, most of this job isn’t in my skill set. I don’t delude myself that my husband is living his dream. His dream is to be a high school band teacher. (Or write a heavy metal opera. I don’t know, I lose track of all his dreams.) But he is getting paid to do something he’s good at, and he’s making a tangible contribution to our family, in addition to the intangible, irreplaceable contribution he makes as a husband and father. I don’t feel like I have to earn a paycheck that is equivalent to his in order for my contribution to have value, but I would feel more confident in its value if more of it were tangible.
And there’s one more thing. God willing, my children will eventually leave home and have their own lives. As the full-time caregiver for very young children, I used to look forward to the day when my children were all in school and I had more time to pursue my professional interests. As it happens, the amount of time that all the children are in school is not nearly as much as I thought it would be. But aside from that, the fact is that after so many years of putting off my professional interests, I find that I’m not even sure what those are anymore. I still feel guilty taking time to write when the house is a mess (which it pretty much always is), but I feel even guiltier taking time to write when I can’t manage to produce anything. (At this point I’m not even talking about getting paid, just about finishing something.) I’ve had to face the painful prospect that I’m not actually meant to write for a living, and as my previous job was in a dying industry (i.e. newspapers), and I’m almost 20 years out of it anyway, I feel like maybe I need to start over in a different field, go back to school, whatever. But I have no idea what else to do. I’ve been doing nothing but mothering and housekeeping (poorly) for so long, I don’t even know how to begin doing something else.
I don’t blame my predicament on motherhood or destructive cultural messages or anything like that. I’m responsible for my own choices. Frankly, it was just easier, when I was in the trenches, to let everything else fall by the wayside. That was why I did it. I wish I’d done something different, though. I wish I’d put as much pressure on myself to do non-home-related work as I put on myself to take care of kids and do the laundry and whatnot. I wish I’d worked harder at achieving something beyond survival during that relatively short period of time when my kids were young, so that I wouldn’t lose the habit of work, which I’m going to need for the rest of my life.
I know a lot of you are ready to protest, “But your family is your greatest achievement!” I’ll tell you the same thing I plan to tell my daughters: Children aren’t achievements. They’re human beings. So are women. So are mothers. Children must be cared for, and money must be made. I’m not so arrogant as to prescribe how other families should order their lives; I wouldn’t know the first thing about other people’s lives. But I’d like to hear some different stories besides “I gave up my career so I could raise my kids and it was the best decision I ever made.” Not because I don’t believe giving up a career for the sake of your family is ever the right decision, but because I know there are other stories out there. There’s my story, for example. But I’m sure there are happier ones out there, too.