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When Being a Mom Isn’t Enough

I have to say, it took me by surprise. After all, I had ditched the feminist side of me long ago. It was tossed in the same heap where I left my fierce independence, my career ambitions, my single life. Now I had settled down into the oft-challenging, endlessly rewarding life of a wife and mother. A stay-at-home mom, a Hausfrau, a domestic queen. Okay, I never baked bread or anything like that, but I was pretty darned committed to this motherhood thing. Still am. But out of the smoldering heap where I left my feminism wafted an ember with a little spark left. And the spark whispered, Isn’t there more?

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Not that being a mom isn’t fulfilling. That’s not my point. It’s just that in the course of the day everything you do gets undone. You clean the house, it gets messy. You make a meal, it gets eaten. You bathe a child – well, you get my drift. After so much expended energy, you have nothing to show for it at the end of the day. Not like the tangible sense of accomplishment you might get after finishing a report or closing a deal or saying something really smart in a board meeting. I talked this over with my mother once and she let me in on her secret. At night after my five sisters and I had been bathed and put to bed, my Mom descended to the colorless dungeon we called the basement. There she would work at the sewing machine for whatever hours were left in the evening. Then she would put the little half-stitched dress or blouse or whatever it was on a hanger and carry it to her room, carefully hanging it on the bedroom door. When she awoke in the morning, her eyes would fall upon that little dress and she would say, “Everything I did yesterday was wiped away, but that survived the day.” She understood the dilemma of motherhood: everyone wants something to show for their day. I love that story, but the truth is, I don’t sew. So I needed to find my own “half-stitched dress.” My hunch is that we all do.

The unscientific poll I’ve conducted among my friends (the thirty-somethings who stay at home with the Barney to Arthur crowd) shows that many of us struggle with depression from time to time. We can say all we want about how “blessed” we are to stay at home and how “rewarding” it is, but haven’t we all struggled at times with those overwhelming feelings of despair? Seems ironic given that we are doing The most important jobs in the world. Recounting her own struggle, the late Sally Conway offered some compelling reasons why today’s homebodies are down in the dumps. Think about this: If you were able to wash dishes, do laundry, sew clothes, till soil, and change diapers without dishwashers, washers and dryers, sewing machines, lawn mowers, or Pampers, how would you feel about yourself at the end of the day? Pretty good, I bet. Housewives of olden day did some exhausting work, but they had much to show for it when the sun had set – including a st rong sense of identity. Sally Conway’s observation is a valid one: “…while technology has taken away some of the drudgery [of being a housewife], it also has taken away some of the women’s identity.” (Women in Mid-Life Crisis, p. 93.) If the identity of today’s woman is no longer linked to the starched shirts hanging from the line, where exactly do we find that tangible sense of accomplishment, that thing “that survived the day”? How do we cope on those days when we feel that being a mom isn’t enough? Answers, like sorrows, seem to come in sets of three, so here goes:

1. Be honest. It’s okay to miss the outside world. It’s okay to miss working. Sometimes it just plain felt good to dress up, smell pretty, and talk to people who could speak in complete sentences. If you used to have a full-time job, don’t pretend that staying at home with children is without problems. Don’t glorify your home life to your working friends: “Today, after Junior built a replica of the Eiffel Tower with Legos, I baked a cherry pie from scratch and then we reenacted our favorite scenes from Little House on the Prairie.” Be serious. Your major accomplishment today was resisting the urge to sell your children to traveling gypsies.

2. Try to view your life as a three-act play. Let’s say Act I covered the first 20 or so years of your life. Right now you’re probably in Act II, those middle years when you add some new players to your drama: a husband, a child, another child, etc. Your stage is a little crowded, you don’t get as many good lines and maybe the wardrobe had to be let out just a bit. But pretty soon this act will be over and much to your dismay, your little actors and actresses will have plays of their own. Then comes Act III. If you look at your life this way, you’ll realize that 2/3 of it does not include raising children. You had two or so decades before children and you’ll probably have two or more decades after your children leave home. What’s my point? Enjoy Act II: it goes by faster than you think. And give a little thought to what you may want to do in Act III. Do you have any dreams yet to be played out? Have you always wanted to write a book, scale a moun tain, go back to college, fly to the moon, take a nap? That’s the stuff Act III’s are made of. Savor this time with your kids – and continue to invest in your dream, a little at a time. Which brings me to my next point.

3. Find your very own little half-stitched dress. My Mom sewed to give herself a sense of purpose and identity. Then when my baby sister entered kindergarten, my Mom went back to school – as a teacher. She just completed 30 years of a successful and enriching career as an educator. So what do we do with our talents and abilities when we choose not to work outside the home? We continue to cultivate them, in whatever ways possible. We have to find for ourselves what that dress dangling from the bedroom door meant to my mother. For me it is writing. I can wash dishes, mop floors, even homeschool my children and not feel what I feel when I sit down to write. My main priority is still my children, but little by little I’m working on that dress – stitching together words that at the day’s end will not be erased.

Perhaps for you that dress is something else. Maybe it’s volunteer work or going back to college part time. Maybe it’s taking a computer course (from your three year old). Maybe it’s starting a home business. Whatever it is, the key is to find something that gives you a sense of completion, a feeling of accomplishment apart from the mom-thing. So no matter what gets “undone” in the course of the day, you’ll be able to say one thing with certainty: A part of me survived the day.

Amy Hollingsworth’s toddlers are now teenagers and in their 11th year of homeschooling. Amy’s “little half-stitched dress” has culminated in her first book, The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers, published in 2005. Her second book, Gifts of Passage, will be published in April, 2008. You can reach her via her website: www.amyhollingsworth.com.

©1999 Amy Hollingsworth

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