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Photo by Dakota Corbin | Unsplash

“I will not be defined by my children!”

This cry came from a dear friend of mine, a brilliant woman and mother of four accomplished adult children. At the time, long ago, my own four were very young and I was knee-deep in tiny people. I agreed with her — I must find my own identity — even while drowning in kids.

After college, I promptly (accidentally) started a family. Nothing that I learned in school, or anywhere else, could have prepared me for the immersion of parenting, and then homeschooling, four children. No matter how busy life was, or how fulfilling, there was always a little voice, like an itch, suggesting that there must be more. Asking, “what have you done?!”

The part of my brain that courted fantasies of law school, world travel, and a nebulously defined but fabulously fulfilling career was quickly buried beneath layers of diapers, picture books, and science projects, and craved something more stimulating. Staying home with my kids has been many things — difficult, delightful, exhausting, enlightening, boring, brilliant, and constant — but it has not always provided the cultural validation that I seem to crave. Intellectually, I know that my choice to stay home with these people was right for me — worthy, fulfilling, and successful. Emotionally, however, I react uncomfortably to a culture that doesn’t really value mothering. A culture that asks, “What do you do?”

I heard a telling story about a woman, the wife of a professor, who gave up her own academic career to stay home with her two kids. While making the rounds of the university social circuit, she tired of the question, “What do you do?” and the dismissal she invariably encountered upon her response. “I stay home with my kids.” She changed the answer, mostly to entertain herself, and a social experiment was born.

“My brother and his wife were killed in a horrible accident and I’m raising their two lovely children.”

Gruesome, yes, but she became the center of attention — a noble and generous heroine. It is not, admittedly, a very in-depth experiment, but it begs the question — why are my efforts not valued in the same way? Is it not the same? To create a healthy, happy home, to give most of your time, resources, energy and thought to the raising of children — anyone’s children, including your own — when did these endeavors lose currency in our culture?

And how do stay-at-home-moms rise above the vague sense of inadequacy? I realize that this feeling is not universal and probably says more about me than I care to admit (living in a competitive academic community skews reality). But I have spoken to enough women to know that this thread runs through all our lives. We all need to have our work valued. We’re all jumping through culturally imposed hoops and begging the kids to jump through ours.

This has been a big issue for me — cultural validation, currency, feeling undervalued — and for many others, I’m sure. I don’t really have answers. I was, however, lucky enough to get a view from the other side.

Years ago, a friend needed my help. Robin was a very busy, successful, NYC-based artist who became a mom late in life. She and her sculptor/professor husband lived in an impossibly hip, renovated potato chip factory (because of course they did) and enjoyed a creative, cosmopolitan life. She was invited to speak at a university not far from me, and asked if I could keep her two young kids for the night. My own four were between the ages of 2 and 13, so I was in full bloom on the island of children.

She arrived to find me in my usual disheveled state — stained hausfrau outfit, unkempt ponytail, wild look in the eye. She was a bit flustered herself, after five hours in the car with little people, but still exuded a cool sophistication — one born of a great haircut, tailored black clothes, and a beret (a black beret because, of course). We ate, caught up a bit, and settled for the night. In the morning, I said goodbye to the lovely urban sophisticate, portfolio under her arm, as I stood red-faced in the steaming kitchen, spatula in hand and six kids underfoot.

The day was fine — lovely, even, with kids frolicking outdoors, happy to have new friends. I fretted all day, though, about my station, my story. I thought of her thrilling life — art openings, fulfilling work in the studio, reviews, travel, teaching — and my life of diapers, mud pies, carpools, tantrums, and ABC books. Where was I? How did I get here? Had I unwittingly traded that for this?

She was a success in the professional world and had kids. I was milk-stained and messy, addled and bored all at once. While she was speaking to adults about the meaning of her work, I was explaining why we do not put nuts in our noses. I had squandered my youth and my education and here I was, cowed, a scullery maid.

When Robin returned, flush with her exciting and satisfying trip, we settled the kids and tucked into some wine and conversation. Finally, she said four words that shocked me. “I want your life.” She proceeded to speak of how envious she was of my life, my choices. She told me how stressful and wrong hers felt at the moment. Her oldest hated school and wept about it every day, while she struggled to find someone trustworthy and affordable to stay home with her preschooler while she worked in the studio, which was imperative because of the pressure of commissions and deadlines. She lamented her hectic schedule, full of harried mornings and weary evenings. She longed for my tight family, the rhythm of our rural life, and the chance to be deeply involved in the education of the kids.

I was stunned — and then thrilled. I laughed and told her of my own raging envy. It seems almost petty now, years later, but that was really all I, or she, needed. To have someone recognize the value of my work and the beauty in it re-energized me and reminded me why I was where I was. An outside, objective eye is necessary for all of us and not always easy to find in our bubbles. The grass is green on the other side, but it is here, too. Both Robin and I came away from that night seeing the value in our own choices, and we were both better for it.

I have women friends of all stripes — writers, teachers, bartenders, bakers, nurses, designers, lawyers, homeschoolers — and everything in between. Some have stayed home to raise their kids and they work their asses off. And some, like my friend who just lost a hard fought political campaign, work their asses off and raise kids. It’s all hard and we’re all in the trenches. We’re all in this together and we’re all kind of awesome.

I don’t mind being defined, at least in part, by my children and I don’t really want anyone else’s life. My kids are brilliant, capable, kind individuals and I am crazy proud of them. This is who I am, this is what I’ve done, and I’m trying to reap the rewards of my work joyously, just as Robin is doing. She has found a way to balance her needs with her desires, and her family is thriving because of it.

There are choices to be made with respect to family and career and each woman needs to tailor them to her own needs and desires. The debate that rages in the public square regarding these choices is destructive to us all. I chose to stay home and it was never perfect, but I learned long ago that nothing is. Every mother I speak to questions her path — wouldn’t it be lovely if we each just got a seal of approval up front?

Perhaps our culture will come around to honoring the work that we all do — whether as stay-at-home moms or circuit court judges — and the choices that we make as women and as mothers. Women need, first, to honor one another. We are shaping the future of the whole, wide world and that should be validation, and motivation, enough for all of us — regardless of our choices.

Write it down.

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