When I was an associate at a law firm, a colleague and I used to joke about how fascinating it was that thanks to our jobs, we could be simultaneously having a crippling anxiety attack and also on the brink of falling asleep from profound boredom.
Then I had my last baby and decided to take a permanent maternity leave. And I learned that a similar phenomenon exists when staying home with young children.
The ins and outs of childcare are tedious and repetitive, so much so that I won’t even bother expanding upon this point for fear ofzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. And as for the anxiety volcano that lives inside me, it’s changed some. It no longer hisses and spits forwarded red-exclamation point emails from higher-ups that read, in their entirety, “status?”, nor 3am sweat-fests regarding the accuracy of my citation on page 6.
Instead, it emits a low but constant rumble of insecurity that I never experienced when I was working. The self-doubt is not as to whether I’m doing a good job as a mother. On this front I’m pretty cocky: my children are usually dressed, have access to no shortage of bunny fruit snacks, and a solid 75% of them are enrolled in accredited schools, can use the bathroom unattended, and can talk. (The youngest is 0 for 3 on those fronts, but I’m so smug that I have no doubt that he eventually will say something other than “gah.”)
No, the self-doubt is all about whether I made the right decision to quit my job, whether I’m wasting the bazillion dollars my parents spent on my education, and whether my daughter will always believe, as she said to me the other day, that “daddies go to work, and mommies go to exercise class.”
My days at home pass quickly, and they’re very full, but I struggle at the end of them to think of one thing I’ve accomplished that I feel particularly good about. I don’t need to be told that what I’m doing is valuable – I know it is, and I know that being the Chief Operating Officer of my family is as significant a contribution as the financial one that my husband makes. But being valuable isn’t the same thing as feeling meaningful, and for me, the added joy I get from the time with my children during the day that I didn’t have before does not make up for the lack of intellectual rigor and professional validation that I derived from working.
All parent-couples are engaged in the dance of who takes on which responsibilities in order to keep the family afloat, both financially and operationally. For us, the big picture was that in order for me to keep working at the pace I was before I had my youngest child (our family’s fourth), we would have had to add even more childcare than we already had. That didn’t feel right. Given that I was already ready and eager for a career change, taking some time at home made sense on all fronts.
It was a very hard transition, and it did quite a number on my emotional health. However! It has now been over a year, and dare I say I not only feel generally stable, but happy?? I credit much of this evolution to the passage of time, but I have also become more deliberate in my approach to stay-home-mothering, which in turn has helped me rise above the grind of the day-to-day.
In addition to overpriced Chardonnay, the use of television as a babysitter, and the gradual expulsion of hormones from my body, I credit the following with helping me regain my sense of self:
- Making a Plan: The Big Picture.
I have been clear with myself and my family that I intend to return to the workforce at some point. A finite timeline for being home, no matter how flexible, makes me feel like I am not suffocating under the weight of yogurt smoothies and snot, and instead has allowed me to recognize that this is a special, temporary period in my life – one that I am now better able to enjoy. It has also given me a sense of control, one I felt had evaporated along with my job title and paycheck.
- Making a Plan: The Small Picture.
When I let my days unfold organically, and react only to the most immediate task (this errand, that spill, this pediatrician appointment, that other pediatrician appointment, this FOLLOW-UP pediatrician appointment OH MY GOD WHY DIDN’T I JUST MARRY A PEDIATRICIAN), I get irritable and sort of depressed. I start to feel resentful toward my husband, who not only is not a pediatrician, but also gets to be out in the world all day, talking to other adults about Important Things that have nothing to do with the fact that he’s a father. I definitely start to resent my children, who are so, you know…childish. And more than anything, I resent myself. No matter what happens during the day, I feel disorganized and ineffectual; I feel either lazy or frantic.All are awful, so I’ve trained myself to spend some time with my calendar each Sunday planning out the week to identify which days I have blocks of time to myself and what I need to accomplish during them, which things I’m doing with which children when – and then I hold myself accountable to that schedule. It’s made a significant difference, not necessarily with respect to what actually happens during the days, but rather how I feel at the end of them.
- Mastering the Must-Haves.
As my daughter has so astutely noticed, exercise is mandatory for me – it’s in everyone’s best interest for my body to release as many endorphins as possible. Also mandatory is spending time with both friends and with my husband, but not always together. These things make me feel like an Actual Person, not just a #mommy. And when I’m home, I try to prioritize doing things with my children, whether an activity outside or project inside the house; when there are too many unscheduled, unstructured hours, I start to obsess over how dirty the baseboards are or what in the everloving hell am I going to make for dinner. (Spoiler alert: chicken nuggets.)
- Making a Point of Acknowledgment.
I frequently thank my husband for all he does for our family, and he does the same. Being thanked for things as small as picking up dry cleaning and as large as helping our children hone their manners means the world to me, because it is external validation that my days have meaning – which (for better or worse) in turn makes them more meaningful to me. I especially like when this mutual appreciation is conveyed in front of our children, as I want them not only to know that both of their parents make daily contributions to the family, but to learn to voice appreciation themselves.
- Being a Joiner.
In the past year I’ve made a point to say yes to as many opportunities as I’m able, regardless of whether they fit neatly into the narrative contained in my resume. The volunteer and service projects I’ve taken on have taught me an immeasurable amount, helped give me back a sense of community that I felt I’d lost, and gone a long way toward eradicating my boredom. (And yes, I’ve reached out to Bethenny Frankel in case she wants a co-author for a sequel to “Place of Yes.”)
- Getting Over Myself.
Childcare involves sh*t, both literal and metaphorical. But the overwhelming majority of parenting blech falls squarely in the category of First World Problems, not to mention “problems” that many would give anything to be so lucky as to have. So I try to fully acknowledge the downsides and then move past them. My experience of motherhood isn’t actually just picking peas off the floor, nor is picking up peas all that bad in the grand scheme; if it feels like it is, I really need to revisit the rest of this list, most importantly this last one:
- Focusing on the Positive.
I have to discipline myself to do this in a number of areas in my life, namely all of them. Complaining is easy, and snarking is funny, and no one wants to hear about anyone else’s amazing marriage or fulfilling work-life balance. But there are myriad joys and blessings in parenting. For example, my actual children. Look at them!
I really do miss working, on a lot of levels, including the one on which I got to get dressed up and drink coffee in the car, alone, while listening to something other than a Music Together CD. But I’m at peace with the situation in a way I didn’t used to be; I no longer dread being asked “what do you do?” and wondering if having an x-month- old still qualifies as having “just had a baby.” I don’t feel I’m a better mother because I spend more time with my children – I was just as good a parent when I was working, and was probably even more patient and engaged when we were together (#cocky). But I’m now able to see this change in terms not only of loss, but also in terms of what I’ve gained.
And although I likely will always have to tend to my anxiety volcano, much like I do my roots, I am pleased to note that the self-doubt rumble is getting quieter as the months pass, and if I turn up “Hello Everybody!” just loud enough, some days I don’t hear it at all.