It Takes a Heap of Loafing to Raise a Kid

Stirring up envy in the suburbs

I celebrate myself, and sing myself I loafe and invite my soul . . .

--Walt Whitman, "Song of Myself"

When Maia was a baby and we lived in the suburbs, I was the envy of my neighborhood. It was a neighborhood of mostly white, middle-class two-parent families with jobs and cars and annual vacations and $40,000-plus incomes. But the moms on my block envied me: the poor, single, student mom with the big natty hair and the noisy old car. It took me a long time to figure out what it was about my life that intrigued them and why they lingered so long in my doorway, asking to hide scribbled poems in my cupboard, and confiding their wildest dreams of lives that sounded oddly similar to my own.

It didn't hit me until several years later when I asked the readers of Hip Mama, the parenting zine I have edited and published for several years, to think about motherhood's greatest taboos--our most secret thoughts and wishes. To my initial surprise, the majority of the responses reminded me of my old suburban friends. Our taboos didn't have to do with sex or food or any of those traditional female "sins." What we wanted was simple: an hour alone. Different readers expressed their wishes in different ways.

Some dreamed of taking a bath without having to listen for the toddler. Some dreamed of sleeping a whole night through. And one boldly posted this message on Hip Mama's Web site: "Give me joint custody, hold the divorce!" Once this married mom confided our universal desire to the online community, dozens more chimed in with their own hopes or rituals for an hour to themselves, or a mellow afternoon without any schedules or "to-do" lists.

What my old suburban neighbors envied was not my big hair, or my crappy car, or my $500-a-month income, or even my singleness. They just wanted to spend a day in their pajamas every once in a while, as I did. I was hardly a woman of leisure, but in our picture-perfect suburban neighborhood, I was the next best thing. My neighbors envied my ability to slack. They envied my ability to say, "Hey, the baby is whining and I've got three papers due tomorrow and I'm in the middle of an ugly family court battle and I can't pay my rent tomorrow, but you know what? I'm going to take a bath."

As a young single mom, I had a head start breaking free of the cultural expectations of motherhood. "That's what I like about you," Paula, one of the neighbors, told me as I was hanging some whacky homemade Christmas decorations. "You don't care what anybody thinks."

Paula imagined I was personally evolved--but not caring what anybody thought was, at first, sour grapes. And I learned to loaf not because I knew it was important, but because I simply couldn't keep going and going and going.

My friend Wendy calls me a closet overachiever posing as a slacker, but I have learned that there's a connection.

When I was working on my first book, I sometimes felt that the project required more discipline than I had in me. I spent too many of the hours I was supposed to be writing chapters laying on the couch eating seasoned curly fries or painting my toe nails blue. I'd spend two hours slacking, two hours stressing out and feeling guilty about having slacked, and about an hour writing.

Then one day as I lay on my couch reading--in slacker mode--I came across a beautiful little Gertrude Stein quote and I stuck it on the wall right next to my couch: "It takes a heap of loafing to write a book."

I took her words like gospel and I loafed, I cut out the two hours feeling guilty about it, I wrote, and I finished my book two months ahead of schedule. Now I've made another little sign that seems to me even more important: "It takes a heap of loafing to raise a kid." If Gertrude Stein had had children, I'm sure she'd have said it herself.

We are taught that motherhood is a selfless profession, but I'm here to tell you it doesn't have to be. We can, and must, loaf. We can meet our children's needs and fulfill our own desires. We can take care of ourselves--not just because our own comfort and happiness will make us better parents (although it will)--but because we deserve the same attention we give to our kids. We are worth the trouble.

 

Ariel Gore is the editor/publisher of Hip Mama. This column originally appeared there. Look for semi-regular installments from Ariel in upcoming issues of Minnesota Parent.

 
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