Shadow Work

“What are you doing tomorrow?”

My twelve year-old often asks me this as we bid each other good night. 

After years of staying home amidst the push and pull of patriarchy vs feminism, I instantly sense a trap. 

Why do you ask?  Why do you need to know?  Who put you up to this?  What do you want me to do?  Are you insinuating that I do nothing with my day?  Do I need to account for all my time?

Her reaction the first time I came back at her made me realize, that while her query had triggered me, my tone was not meant for her.  She was simply wondering what mom was going to do while she spent the day at school.  She knew how her day would go, but not mine.  Perhaps it was also an acknowledgment of how much I do to take care of her and her sisters – so what did that entail when I wasn’t physically with them?  Maybe, hope of all hopes, she was actually wishing for/validating some sort of relaxation from or reward for my toils.  That’s most likely reaching, but she is empathetic for her age. . .

I chose to leave the workforce when my first children were small, when they needed full-time care.  Having four children, that time stretched to encompass the younger ones as they came along.  As they all began to spend more time out of the house, I remained at home because there were always varied schedules, sick days, afterschool obligations – and that was before the inconsistencies of COVID life.    

But as they get older, and I angle myself toward both personal and professional pursuits – though none as of yet in a structured or official capacity – I wonder if the assumption that I will always be there is stunting the growth of all of us.

I wonder if we (mothers, women, parents) set ourselves up for more work and less appreciation by being available to our children.  By being there every afternoon after school, do they assume we’re the snack purveyor, chauffeur, laundry service, backpack picker-upper?  By doing less – or by being home less, as in working – would they appreciate us and what we do more?  The only time they usually acknowledge what I do is when it’s not done.  So if they are left to do more things for themselves, would they appreciate when I do complete a task for them more?  Because of its special quality, its novelty, or unexpectedness? 

In supporting our children and being there for them, are we making them less able to actualize themselves? 

Don’t get me wrong, I feel the heft of the unloading of a day’s troubles in a walk home from the bus stop.  I cherish the teachable moments that occur as we unpack their belongings and experiences.  I revel in the jokes and laughter as we all come together again at the end of a long stretch of separation.  These are valuable moments – for me and, I hope, for them. 

But the in-between moments. 

The assumption that I will pick up the slack because I don’t answer to a bell-schedule or time-clock.  That the jeans/leggings/sweatshirt they love will always be in the drawer when they reach for it.  That I will unlock the door at the exact moment they reach for the knob even though they have a key hanging from a hook slung over their shoulder. 

Perhaps I am rehashing the existential loop of my own childhood/mother’s experience.  Perhaps I am perpetuating another generation of children who live in a world of the laundry fairy and the fairy godmother, who don’t see the magic beyond the end of their noses because it’s always been there; who don’t sense the wizard behind the curtain because they don’t look long enough to see it ripple – or aren’t allowed to approach and draw it back for themselves. 

Work/life is a balance.  Supporting our children so they can flourish while allowing and urging them to apprentice in their own lives is as well.

It’s ALL in a day’s work. 

MILFing isn’t for everyone

I have been a stay at home mom for eight years.

When I stopped to calculate that number, I surprised even myself.

Nearly a decade of childrearing.  Holy milf, indeed.

When I made the decision to stay at home, I was not in love with my job, but was in love with my babies.  Simple, right?

Add a third baby, physical trauma, and postpartum depression into the mix and ‘stay at home’ was not as blissful as Leave It to Beaver would have you believe.

The other day I watched Mindy Kaling’s take on ‘Stay at Home Milf’dom in her sitcom episode of the same name.  Facing the end of maternity leave with her newborn and the start of a work relationship with an obnoxious new colleague, Mindy quits her job, telling Danny she’ll be the best MILF there ever was.  As always in the show, the irony is rich as Mindy follows the directives of a website called ‘Modern Mominista’, cooking and cleaning while looking perfectly fashionable.  Not completely sold on her decision in the first place and enduring a rough week at home, Mindy trades places with Danny for a day.  She feels alive with triumph after successfully completing a surgery.  Her victory is short lived, however, when she arrives home to Danny’s gourmet meal.  It looks as if he’s excelled at stay-at-home daddydom.  As she confesses her true feelings to the baby – how she loves him so much, but feels as if practicing as a doctor is the only thing she’s really good at – she discovers the secret to Danny’s success: his mom’s help.  Mom and Dad come to an understanding of how hard staying at home all day with baby really is.

from The Mindy Project, Season 4, Episode 5

from The Mindy Project, Season 4, Episode 5

The idea of this episode was not to vilify fathers as clueless with unreasonable expectations – though I was upset when it looked as if Danny was going to show her up (The plot redeemed itself with equal frustration 😉 ).  It was an honest – if humorous – look at all facets to the decisions of parenthood and childcare.  Mindy’s reticence at telling Danny how she really feels gets to the heart of all dilemmas surrounding motherhood – where the circles of self and mother intersect.

I didn’t want anyone else caring for my children as infants.  While that decision was fueled by love – it was followed with the close seconds of my need for control and my ambivalence toward my career.  Do women who view their careers as vocation love their children any less?  And what of women, like me, who stand by their decision to stay home, but struggle with the day-to-day carrying out of it?  Who are driven to anxiety and depression by the stimuli and stressful responsibility of it?

There is no clear-cut answer – as evidenced by Mindy’s confession to an empty room that she’s actually happy to go back to work.

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