Once upon a time, with a college degree and honors, I embarked on an unexpected and ambiguous career.
21 years later, I’m ready to retire.
“You can’t retire,” my sons tell me, even though they both shave.
Why not? My contemporaries are doing it. They’re leaving the office and the classroom and the police force, and not only are they celebrated, but they’re expected to reward their years of effort with relaxation–to allow their minds soften into something new.
“I’m worried that I’m living like I’m retired,” a friend says, on a Tuesday morning, in the cafe at our local co-op, after we realize that we’re sitting at adjacent tables.
I turn my chair toward her and explain that I’ve been considering just that.
“Why are we expected to jump into the next thing without the opportunity to get to know ourselves again?” I say.
She nods her head, “I’m not the same person I was before.”
We both know that our partners lives have been reshaped by parenting, but they’ve been able to move forward with their careers and identities, while ours have snagged or circled or more often, met dead ends.
Although we’re are a decade apart (her oldest and my youngest are peers), my younger friend and I share a mounting anxiety about what we’re supposed to be doing, and if we’re doing it wrong, and even worse, if what we’re not doing… is unfair, particularly as our children come of age.
“We have to claim this time,” I say, “Not just for ourselves, but for all the other mothers (and fathers) who come after us.”
I tell her about another friend who once asked in a panic, “Is it okay that I keep changing my mind? Taking jobs. Leaving them. I don’t know what I want. I can’t figure out how to manage it all.”
My friend nods knowingly.
“We should write a book about this!” I say.
We both laugh, accustomed to bouncing big ideas like this off of one another, in between conversations about our most pressing realities: homework and driver ed and emerging sexuality.
“Too bad one of us doesn’t have her PhD,” I say.
My friend shakes her head. Our parenting years have robbed us of the illusion of (and the inclination toward) expertise.
“We have to start by recognizing caregiving as a career,” I say. “There is so little understanding and appreciation of its dimensions, particularly after the early years.”
What follows is an extended back and forth about all the ways that parenting a teenager and even a young adult require careful attention and artistry. I tell my friend about an elderly mother that I met with my husband over the weekend. She came to town to help her son through his divorce. My husband was touched at this act of motherly devotion, but I felt something else–An awareness that this career never reaches a finish line.
My friend glances at the time on her computer. “I have to get to some errands before I pick up the kids.” We hug goodbye, and I turn back to my computer to outline the trajectory of the caregiving role.
The hours of the primary caregiver:
- Newborn: 24-7
- Infant: See above
- Toddler: See above
- Preschool age: Overtime
- School age: Full time
- Highschooler: Night shift
- Young adult: Contractural
When I finish the list, I realize that I’m twenty minutes late to pick up my son from Driver’s Ed.
Later that evening, on a way to an event, I tell my husband: “I’m frustrated when others ask what I do. Everyone raises kids, but it’s what people do for a living that distinguishes them. It’s as if consciously raising two human beings is some small thing.”
Suddenly the enormity of my devotion occurs to me:
Two human beings.
TWO HUMAN BEINGS!
“I’m so proud of me,” I say. “I want a party and new pair of Birkenstocks.”
RESOURCES FOR UNDERSTANDING THE ENORMITY OF PRIMARY CAREGIVING ROLE
- The short answer is that I am buying a stay-at-home wife
- Your family would be better off with a housewife (so would mine)
- Advice from the top: Marry a stay-at-home spouse or buy the equivalent.
- Maybe no moms are working moms
- Three cheers for women who say they don’t want to work. At least they’re honest.
(all of the above from the audaciously insightful Penelope Trunk)
UPDATE, September 2016:
MY NEW Birks!
Splurged on a second pair!
(One for each son!)