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A few years ago, the high school from which I graduated started issuing an all-alumni directory. Actually, a company from White Plains, New York publishes it; phone banks of employees call alumni to gather vital statistics and information about missing persons, and, oh yes, to offer the happy opportunity to obtain a directory for an inflated purchase price. A "Whatever Happened to So-and-So": ridiculous but irresistible.
When the call first came long ago for my particulars, I, still in the first few uneasy years of motherhood, asserted that I wasn't just a stay-at-home mother. I was an "Actress/Homemaker." I needed an epithet, for this directory would be going out to all those comrades in teenage angst who watched me give a commencement address in June 1979. (For the record, I was not the valedictorian of my high-school class or any other educational endeavor; I'd merely won so many Biggest Mouth awards over four years that they gave me the opportunity to blather on one last time. The speech was fair and photos document a crooked hat. Why didn't anyone tell me?)
I was certain my classmates and family members expected me to amount to something of consequence: actress, journalist, lawyer, psychologist . . . something worthwhile and fascinating.
In all my years of aptitude tests, academic counseling, career guidance, and long-term goal analysis, never was staying home with children proposed. My fruitful fantasy life never visited the island of cozy domesticity. No one, myself included, expected me to end up as a full-time mother of two.
When I coyly described my circumstances--"Oh, I'm only a mother"--the publishing company suggested the term "homemaker." And it was proposed in such a crisp, matter-of-fact manner, I felt a comforting wave of validation wash over me. I was Something, not Just a Mom.
The few job titles I've had have been pretty short lived and somewhat unimpressive: waitress, bank teller, volunteer, chronic volunteer, crabby volunteer coordinator. I decided "actress" was a quasi-legitimate description since I had performed with some regularity in community theatre for over a decade, and was even receiving an occasional paycheck. Granted, my net proceeds rarely covered the cost of a few hours of baby sitting, but it was comforting to have some sort of professional designation.
A few months ago, the same company wrote about an updated directory. This time, I have decided to insist on being identified as a "Mom." For I am.
I'm not doing much acting these days. At first, I thought it was the time and energy constraints--it's hard to have Shakespeare memorized and ready to go for an evening rehearsal--but now I think, for me, it's something more. Momness is such a production in and of itself that I just cannot find the juice, or the drive, to add on any more performances.
The day is spent in improvisation (how to make erranding entertaining), analyses of the classics (Malcolm especially enjoys the tale of "Hamlet and the Moody Prince" or "Macbeth, the Bloody King"), dramatic discipline (there is a purpose for and story behind most of the manners demanded by polite society, i.e., why do we shake right hands instead of left? ), and showmanship (making every reading of The Velveteen Rabbitas special as the first; I have yet to make it through without weeping).
Neither am I a homemaker. I didn't build this structure, and I clean it only when absolutely necessary. While I love where we live and strive to maintain some vague semblance of order, my home does not define me. Inevitably, there are times I wish it looked more like a grown-up house and less like a back-yard fort. My occasional excursions into the world of crafts and the finer things usually fail; sometimes miserably, often hysterically. The projects designed to bring us closer as a family leave my kids bored and me deflated. Because the tasks are so unnatural to me, I can quickly turn into the kind of mother I detest, a sentiment usually shared by the rest of the family at these times. Attempts at home beautification often deteriorate into a battle for table space. Heck, it's easier just to let joyful chaos reign. So I wade through the scattered toys and peek out the uncurtained windows at the weedy yard without missing a beat. And even when the clutter is managed and the decor resembles a coherent scheme, I am not defined by these surroundings.
Of course, I am doing a respectable amount of writing, but it's hard to acknowledge that in the form of a professional title. Maybe it's too new an endeavor. Or perhaps because what I write is so personal, I'm uneasy about having my life, as I write about it, or the writing itself laid open for criticism.
I am a writer? Nah, I'm just a mom who writes.
I know a mom who's a nurse. And one who's a filmmaker, another who's in marketing. Lots of them spend all day with their children, but some don't. Many of the moms I know are teachers, administrators, a few are ministers, and there's even the one who edits this magazine. I can call on any of them for sympathy and humor when a day doesn't go well, for they've had such days, too. Their children aren't perfect, neither are their homes, their marriages, or their lives. We share the bond of realistic expectations. We're all faking it to some extent, choosing our battles, and focused, by and large, on the same long-term goal:
To raise children with whom we'll enjoy spending the holidays for the rest of our lives.
I didn't know this when I brought home my first baby. I thought I wanted him to be happy and healthy and fulfilled and a valuable member of society. Well, I do, I suppose, but my greatest accomplishment is a child with whom I delight in sharing the mundane.
And I thought everything depended on me, on the choices I made daily and the ease with which I steered his father into agreeing with my agenda. Our plans were well thought out and purposeful. We went on regular outings weighed down by a diaper bag ready for any possible contingency: bottles of juice and bottles of formula; snacks and money for concession stands; changes of clothes for accidents and/or weather variances.
I was prepared for anything, and the baby just enjoyed whatever presented itself. I fretted that I wasn't doing enough for him, helping him achieve his full potential, and he was achieving it regularly. I was the one lagging behind, unfulfilled.
At times I felt alone, the only at-home mom in all of Minneapolis. Community center classes yielded short-term friendships with a number of nannies. There was no work society because I didn't have a job, and my husband's career as a pilot is one of significant isolation (there isn't time or room enough for hanging out in the cockpit socially, and pilots rarely fly with the same crew for more than a month during a career).
I was the only stay-at-home mom in our childbirth class. An ECFE snafu put me in a class for teenage mothers. Church conflicted with nap time. Cooperative nurseries were nonexistent. At every turn, it seemed another door shut me in or shut me out. The simple truth, beyond the excuses, is that I just couldn't get myself together, couldn't organize myself to find a group with which I could connect as a mother and as a person.
I don't think I was ready for that.
So I looked within. It wasn't a pretty sight, but it had to be done. And when I emerged from a smothering depression and called an uneasy truce in my marriage, there was an astoundingly wise child making preposterous statements and vowing unending love and loyalty.
My seven-year-old is not of this world, but he graces it with his presence. Malcolm doesn't merely march to a different drummer, he has his own percussion section. When he was two, he started addressing us formally, like a character out of 19th-century England. Adults find it charming, while other children are sometimes taken aback. But "Father and Mother" roll off Malcom's tongue so naturally I can't imagine being called anything else.
Except Mama and Daddy. That's what two-year-old Ezekiel calls us. He's smart, funny, and a very old soul, just the being I needed to whip me into shape. He has no patience for moody self-involvement; he demands a upbeat attitude from everyone. He's so straightforward about it, we just acquiesce and do our best to live up to his expectations.
And so, with my second baby graciously latched on to my breast, I began writing. And writing. And connecting with other people in an entirely new and satisfying way. I introspected myself onto a computer keyboard and found all my personal struggles were more universal than I dared hope.
Somehow, my journey for identity is complete. Courtesy of my children, I believe.
From my experiences as a first-time mother, I learned about myself. In endless days of parks, zoos, museums, and story hours, I kept finding the same answer to the nagging "why was I put on this earth" question we all face now and then. I saw my purpose in the magical young boy who was determined to keep growing faster and taking in more than I ever expected. He seizes life with laughter, a story, and a song.
The second time around, when I knew enough to know I didn't know much and should just get on with the business of enjoying this extraordinary baby, I found my place in the world. Now, I stick an extra diaper in my smallish purse and we head out for the day. I watch him explore whatever surrounds him instead of constantly trying to make his environment worthwhile. We spend hours just toddling around the neighborhood, looking for sticks and squirrels. He goes with me to meetings and lectures, nursing loudly and contentedly. He sleeps less than his older brother, but I don't care so much. I know how quickly these baby months fly, and I savor the hours we spend gazing at one another. This is a child who misses nothing, and sometimes he's nice enough to let me in on all the secret things he knows.
So, while I'm certainly doing more now--participating in school, church, and community activities, writing regularly and connected socially, at last--I am quite content to be defined by my role of mothering these two boys. I'm honored and proud to be a mom, for while it may not be all that I am, I am all the things that it is.
When the phone call came regarding the alumni directory, I was ready.
"I'm a mom."
"Oh, a homemaker. That's really wonderful."
"No, just put down mom, please. I've put some thought into this and it's what I'd like."
"The data base won't let me. When I type M-O-M it defaults to homemaker. Same for M-O-T-H-E-R."
"But . . . but . . . I'm invested in this! I'm making a statement! I'M A MOM! Please, isn't there some way? What if you typed in M-U-D-D-A . . . "
"I checked with my supervisor. We can't do anything about it."
"This is too funny. I'm even writing about this for a parenting magazine. It's a big deal, the whole point of the piece that I've been working on with my editor. . . "
"Hold it. You write for a magazine?"
"Yeah, some freelance stuff. But the point of all this is that I consider the title 'Mom' to be noble and inclusive and how I perceive myself."
"Well . . . yeah . . . wow. So isn't there something we can do?"
"Let me see . . . okay, if I put freelance writer first . . . then slash . . . yes, you're a mom!"
"And you can't reverse it and have the mom part come first?"
"No, it won't do it."
"You know, there's one big metaphor for motherhood in all this."
"Well, I know you're a mom first. Does that help?"
And actually, it does help.
The updated directory arrived recently. I flipped through it excitedly, invigorated to see the blow I was striking for motherhood.
I'm a . . . freelance writer / homemaker?
It did occur to me to send back the directory, demanding a reprint or a recount or something. But really, is that where I want to fight this battle? Maybe if enough women agree with me, then men might begin to cultivate the ability of identifying themselves as Dads first. And perhaps, if we learn to see the value and completeness of parenting in general, our children and our psyches will have a much easier time of it.
Besides, I'm unwilling to give up my copy of the directory. It's been such fun perusing and finding out whatever became of that brainy girl from Shakespeare class.
Well whaddya know? Carolynn's a homemaker.
Sally Russell is a frequent contributor of essays, articles, and reviews forMinnesota Parent. We just call her "Ma Sal."
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