Thursday, May 22, 2014

Are You a Chicken: The Tale of a Stay at Home Parent

There is a wonderful little book my youngest daughter loves entitled “Are You a Cow?” by Sandra Boynton. It is a series of thought provoking questions that are directed for the reader to answer, such as “Are you a Frog? Are you a Lamb? Perhaps a Pig? Are you an Upside Down Chicken? What ARE You?” Like all literature, it’s open to interpretation, but I see it as a reflection of the values in our society, particularly our obsession as adults to categorize everyone’s socioeconomic status with the never ending question “What do you do?” If your answer is not quite impressive enough, the person posing the question moves on to a more exciting individual. You didn’t quite make the cut.  

What does this say about us that we can’t be friends with all kinds of people regardless of what they do for a living? Does a stay at home parent need to prove their worth outside the home, separate from their family so they can be deemed respectable? What follows might be a cautionary tale, or perhaps not, maybe you're a cat, a dog, or a bear that does not frown. 

This is a non issue when you work outside the home. You go to your office, your job wherever that might be; you greet your colleagues, face your adult responsibilities, and live a life outside the realm of your family unit. You might drop your kid off at daycare or school, or your partner might do this. You work all day, and whether you like your job, or not, that is irrelevant because the fact that you have a paid position with a title adds another dimension to you as a person, as a woman. Society is proud of you.

So who are you as stay at home parent? Are you defined through our children? Are you defined through your partner or through your partner’s occupation? Do you suddenly become Mrs. Partner’s Name even though you never changed your so called maiden name since you don’t believe in such traditional nonsense? Or, are you indefinitely called Your Child’s Name Mom instead?

Do you suddenly lose your intrigue as a person, your brain power, your very essence because you chose to raise your kids full time thus you are no longer a feminist, no longer an intellect, no longer a respectable contributing citizen to THIS society, and definitely no longer interesting in the LEAST.

But, what if you didn’t choose to stay at home? What if you weighed your net income against the cost of a good, quality daycare and realized it resulted in a negative balance? - A quite astounding one at that. What if you cursed the fact that you spent your college years reading classical literature and analyzing dead foreign poets all of which resulted in a charming yet financially worthless Bachelors of Arts degree in Humanities of the Arts of Basket Weaving? Dang it for not managing to feign more interest in that Economics class you barely passed with the cool Indian professor that mentioned you might have what it takes to major in Economics if you just put a little more effort into it? Had you taken his advice you would be able to support your family just fine in right about this juncture of your life. Your kid would be able to go to that fabulously expensive crunchy daycare where the students finger paint with handmade, organic paints, learn to make gluten free muffins, and create their own volcanoes, all by the age of 1. Don’t you also know that the overpriced preschool has a 90% Ivy League acceptance rate? Darn it!

But you don’t give up. You investigate other, lower cost daycares and are appalled at the conditions, saddened at the thought of leaving your kid there all day, look down at the stained carpets, the dreary lights, and hurt inside for all the parents who really have no choice. Consciously or not, you realize you do have a choice, and you make the one to stay at home. Is there a middle road? Probably, but you don’t find it. You forget about investing in the combined cooler/breast pump, lugging it on the train every day and delve into childrearing thinking it is okay; you’ll have your career again.  It’s not as if you were that crazy about working in an endless web of gray cubicles anyway.

You of course adore your kids; admire their perfect features, their peculiar quirks, and the ridiculously funny things they sometimes say. But you find yourself questioning whether you are setting a good example for them staying at home. When your highly intellectual daughter mentions she does not want to become the first woman president because it would be too time consuming as she plans to be a mother someday, you have a mini heart attack, bubbling with anxiety and panic and the need to take it ALL back. But you manage to breathe, breathe again, and initiate a very logical conversation on the importance of focusing on life way before all that, the need to travel, live, read and study, study, study. Not just to get straight As and be the perfect student, but to really love and embrace academic learning, to establish a career where you are truly happy and flourishing. This is way more important than having babies because when you do finally have babies you want to love the experience and not have one ounce of regret about not getting to backpack through Europe, visit Asia, and take that class where the students visit Cuba for the summer to study a model healthcare system. You want to scream “Don’t get married! Don’t have babies!” but instead you say “You’ll have time for that much, much later.”

Sometimes, you find yourself pacing impatiently pondering what to do now as your child sleeps or plays quietly. You might begin to ponder ridiculous titles that would glorify your sense of duty at home – Domestic Goddess, CEO of My Own, and Household Diva Extraordinaire. Realizing they all mean the same exact nonsense you waste no more time trying to present yourself as good enough to a society that could care less.

But, accustomed to being extremely busy you volunteer for everything – Room Mom – check! – Bake Sale PTA Chief – check! Dora Party Planner to the Extreme – check! check! This of course does not last too long. Your energy fizzles as quickly as the balloons from the Dora party deflate.

This was ridiculous and not what you signed up for.

Alas, you embrace it. You find other ways to stimulate your mind – reading books, taking a course here or there, even delving into writing. It took you a couple of years, but you get more comfortable in your newly undefined role, you might even stop seeking play dates and really begin to enjoy being an introvert, comfortable in your own skin, enjoying those rare, silent moments.  

You wonder if there is such a thing as spending too much time with your kids, and have days where you want to lock yourself in your room because every time you have a fantastic writing idea one of them says they are hungry, itchy, hurt, or bored. By the time they are settled down, you forgot what it was that you wanted to write about, and that perfect literary line you had created vanished into thin air. You know that there are also days where your patience measures infinite oceans across the universe and forgive yourself for having bad parenting days or bad parenting weeks. Imperfection is unattainable and you are a work in progress, at least that’s what you tell your kids.

Finally you start to recognize that you have not lost your identity just because society’s measures are limited to defining your input on how many papers you circulate around your desk, how many emails you send out, and how self-important you appear. Do you even care about that? Well, maybe. You laugh at how, seemingly days before, you were running to catch the train to work noticing in passing how unhurried and blissful the stay at home moms appeared in their leggings and loose ponytails, kids hanging off their sides.  Now, as you walk your oldest daughter to school in your own faded leggings and barely brushed hair, you admire the sophisticated suits and meticulous styles of the working Moms.  You laugh again, because the grass almost always appears to be greener - that is if you didn’t know any better.

Though some lessons take various attempts for you to understand, you get this one. This is your role for now. Be grateful, be accepting, be an upside down chicken.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Trust and Faith

If you’d ask me 15 years ago whether I could ever forgive a cheater, I would have self-righteously laughed in your face. Of course not! Completely unforgivable, and who would do that to me my ego would add. If you would’ve asked me 10 years ago I would still laugh, though probably a little less loudly. And as the years pass that laugh sounds less and less confident, perhaps even a bit hesitant. The years have taught me not to judge too harshly, for those “problems” might affect me quite personally one day.  

Many of us have probably created a long list of relationship expectations in our twenties, a list which with time dwindles and is modified, elasticized to the point of completely morphing into a whole other set of ideas. Some changes are understandable – what was important at 25 is not an issue at 35. Say perhaps you only dated tall, dark, handsome men, only to discover that they left you mentally unsatisfied and confused. Then you learn looks are not quite as important as other traits such as sense of humor, responsibility, a little domesticity. I’ve always had a penchant for men who could make good coffee.

But, what happens when you commit to someone you thought met your expectations, only to discover years later that they really weren’t what you thought? What do you do if you discover this after you combine your finances, set up your home, and make a family together? And what happens when you look around and see that monogamy as you thought existed is virtually disappearing all around you?

Are we kidding ourselves to remain faithful, and to also expect the same from our partners? Should we all have open marriages? The logistics of that seem exhausting. What if finances are tight and family time scarce? Jealousy aside, how can one be chill about their partner dating when they’ve been gone at work all week and cash is too low to be spending it outside the family? What if we just hook up to procreate, commit to raising the kids together, but really continue living as a single person? How would that work out in terms of the million things a child needs on a daily basis? And what are the implications of that as a society on a whole? Would we break down, completely eradicating all previous notions of civility or would a whole new order – maybe even a more satisfied one – be established?

It is interesting to note that evolution theories on social monogamy find it more common for birds to be monogamous than mammals. For the creationists reading this, you might want to stop now. In essence we are but animals, a highly evolved mammal as some would like to think, though as impressive as the Polyergus Amazonian ant, I’m not quite sure. Regardless, it makes biological sense for us to pair monogamously, and as related to men specifically, the chances of producing his own offspring are increased by shielding his woman from other masculine advances, plus he gets the added benefit of being guaranteed that the kids are truly his. I write this with one eyebrow raised, but essentially it is biologically legitimatized. However, humans are a complicated bunch, we are often guided by emotions – or the illusion of emotions, vanity, and a desire to spice things up.

I can wholeheartedly understand wanting to have an affair. Who doesn’t miss the thrill of a chase, and the sexual tension of getting to know each other? Have you ever wanted to run away with the cute guy at the supermarket? Oh. Me neither. Though if you’re asking me whether I would risk losing everything I’ve worked so hard for; just for the thrill of something I am sure would not last 3 months, then the answer is undeniably no. Am I just limited by the construction of social reality? Probably.

As one might expect I’m at the age now where couple friends around me (myself and husband included) are facing mid life crisis; people I thought would never be unfaithful have crossed that threshold without regrets. Is it disheartening? Of course. Is it surprising? Not really.

So my question is, are we meant to be faithful? If we forgive an indiscretion do we automatically become doormats? Marriage predates written history and we can hypothesize its purpose was practical for many reasons. Whether those reasons remain valid today, are questionable, though some deserve merit. Getting separated is a pain in the ass. Let’s suppose there are no children in the unit, most marriages have cemented their vows by merging their finances, buying a bunch of crap together, and forming emotional ties with each other’s friends and families. Add children to that mix and separating seems almost impossible.

Thus barring extreme reasons such as abuse, or destruction of some kind, we age, we learn, we forgive, and we become way more lax in our marriages, the imperfections and an occasional lack of good judgment included. Do we still love? Of course. Undeniably, we love fiercely and even passionately. Staying married is almost like running a marathon, in that you alternate between feeling proud, almost smug, and then you want to shit on yourself, but you keep running. The thing with this marathon is that the goal is never to reach the finish line, to keep extending it until it’s no longer in your point of view. Some of us continue to run other marathons, while for others once is enough.