Opinions are like assholes and everybody’s got one! You know the saying… and as another school year begins, I feel the pressure yet again, not to succumb to the ass-holery that exists among judging adults.
Whether I’m at the playground or grocery store, I cringe when people ask, “whatever will you do with your free time now that your children are back in school”. I try not to imagine them thinking of me in a bubble bath eating bonbons.
I’ll be the first to admit, as a recovering workaholic and overachiever with four children, it’s nearly impossible to achieve work-life balance and succeed as a mother. I want to wear a t-shirt that says, ‘I’ve worked full-time, part-time, and been a stay at home mother, and I support your choice’.
I was relieved to move to another part of the country last fall where no one knew what I was capable of work and volunteer wise, allowing myself time to breathe and adjust my children to the enormous transition. The major relocation and subsequent legal issues with our new home additionally bought me sympathy and patience from those inquiring as to my job prospects and volunteer capabilities.
I am grateful for Cindy at the local grocery store last who saw my anguish on the first day of school last year after dropping my eldest children at their new middle school. I burst into tears as she asked how I felt to have my children in school, rather than what I was going to do for work. I instantly felt a connection to this empathetic mother with grown children, who had also chosen to stay at home while raising her own children. Tears of gratitude and tears of anxiety for my children in their new schools melted together into a blubbering mess in Cindy’s checkout lane. Cindy immediately did what no one else had done for me before… she stopped everything and yelled over to the barista at the latté counter, “I need a double latté pronto, to go!” She took care of my needs, without judging my situation, a first for me as a seasoned middle-aged woman. I promptly retreated to the picnic benches in the parking lot to compose myself before biking home, yet I’ve never forgotten Cindy’s kindness and we still smile together when remembering our first encounter in the checkout line.
I was raised by a mother who values society’s impressions of her and her family, always conducting herself with perfect public demeanor. “Kristen’s a commercial banker in Chicago,” was a proud line she uttered upon my graduation from university. Banker, lawyer, doctor were all justifiable professions in her mind, but never stay at home mom with a college degree. A woman not content to stay at home herself throughout my childhood due to career goals and financial needs, my mother always inquired what my next project would be as I volunteered countless hours as a community activist, with four babies in tow. Fulfilled, yet extremely busy making a difference in my hometown, I never felt adequate enough to onlookers, let alone my mother. I was constantly struggling to keep up with the demands of children, a household, and community projects, while coping with insurmountable physical pain, no doubt the result of irresolvable stress. You can imagine how perplexed I was to hear my mother say, “You have no business getting a job with four children,” when I secured a part-time job after my fourth child was born. Needless to say, having worked my way up to my second part-time job, with hours exceeding 40-60/week at times, failing to pick-up my children from school on time, and struggling to manage a meal with little food left in the pantry, I began to wonder who I was truly out to please when my health and personal life began to suffer.
In hindsight, it was my decision to have four children; admittedly I had become infatuated with the sweet ‘Eau de Nouveau Bébé’ fragrance prior to a few romantic getaways with my husband. (In an ironic twist of fate, we no longer have the time nor the money to take trips alone together!) I live with no regrets and I’m desperately in love with my family. I am also fortunate to have a certain amount of privilege to be able to choose the title of ‘home economist’, taking care of a busy household, receiving pay in whines, cries, stubbornness, with a sprinkle of hugs and kisses. Honestly, the hours are long, the pay stinks, I’m not earning retirement anymore, but the benefits are numerous to my family when I’m in balance. I miss making a difference outside of the home at times, and judging from history, I may return to work for income after I catch my breath. I find nowadays that it’s easier to ‘Lean In’ as Sheryl Sandberg expressed, when you have prepared meals, a nanny and a house cleaner in the budget. However, based on my experience and societal observations, when two spouses or single parents have demanding jobs, work-life balance is seemingly impossible as parents.
I’ve known mothers who describe being ‘better mothers because they work outside of the home’, mothers who are fulfilled by their careers climbing the corporate ladder or owning their own business, mothers who have no choice but to work to support their family, and mothers who prefer to stay at home while raising children. I’ve struggled with fulfillment from many of these shared experiences. I salute all mothers in solidarity as we do our best in spite of the demands!
The spouses behind successful mothers are often irreplaceable themselves. I will never forget the time my twelve-year-old exclaimed last spring at the dinner table, “mom has time to do it, she doesn’t work all day.” My husband immediately shot back without hesitation, “who takes care of the scheduling the entire house, volunteers at school, and manages every minute detail to ensure this household functions so easily?” I either became choked up with tears of gratitude, or snorted my drink in shock, I honestly can’t remember, but my children and I will never forget the impact of his simple statement.
There will always be naysayers, ‘the opinionated’, who form their own conclusions from their vantage point, albeit with clouded lenses. To those adults, I’ve made it my challenge this year to be empathetic to their own personal statements, made in reflection of their lives and not mine, and try to keep my sarcastic self-preservation retorts to myself.
The single mother who confided in me, “I hate when the young mothers with strollers parade by my house in exercise clothes while their hubbies are at work bringing in six figures.” The nail tech at the salon who asked if I ‘stay at home’ and responded with “lucky”, to which I’ll admit, I felt an embarrassing cringe of guilt in front of my daughter. The mothers who exclaimed, “I could never let someone else raise my children” as I dropped my four-year-old at full-day preschool or who heard that I had summer childcare. And of course, the small business owner who inquired what would I do with all my free time now that my kids are in school. Even my own mother… These are their stories, not mine.
Yesterday, I saw Cindy in the checkout line, one week into the new school year. She smiled and said that she was thinking of me the other day and was wondering how I’m enjoying the neighborhood and if the kids are well-adjusted this year. Cindy remarked how when her kids were in school that she would no sooner drop them off than have to turn around to pick them up, the hours flew by so fast she hardly could get anything finished, and now they’re gone! “Enjoy this time if you can and don’t get a job outside the home if you don’t have to” she advised with a warm smile. “Thank you Cindy, I think I’ll work from home,” I replied and reflected… Cindy, the world needs more of you!