Once upon a time, with a college degree and honors behind me, I embarked on an unexpected and ambiguous career.
21 years later, I’m ready to retire.
“You can’t retire from motherhood,” my sons say, even though they both shave.
And why not?
Many of my contemporaries are leaving the office and the classroom and the police force, and not only are they celebrated, but they’re told to relax. To kick back. To explore. To embrace plenty of leisure time to soften their minds into something new.
“I’m worried that I’m living like I’m retired,” says a friend, on a Tuesday morning at 10, when we stumble upon each other in the cafe at our local Co-op.
I turn my chair toward her table 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?”
She nods her head, “I’m not the same person I was before. How could I be.”
Although my friend and I are a decade apart (her oldest and my youngest are peers), we share a mounting anxiety about what we’re supposed to doing, and if we’re doing it wrong, and even worse, if what we’re not doing… is unfair.
It’s true that our partners lives have been reshaped by parenting, but they’ve moved forward with their identities, while ours have snagged or circled or more often, met dead ends.
I tell my friend about another mother who once asked me 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 have to claim this time,” I say. “Not just for ourselves, but for all the other mothers (and fathers) who come after us. We should write a book!”
My friend laughs. We often take turns bouncing big ideas like this off of one another, in between conversations about homework and driving and emerging sexuality.
“One of us needs a PhD,” I say.
This time we both laugh, and she shakes her head. The parent years have robbed us of our inclination toward expertise.
“I think we have to start by recognizing caregiving as a career,” I say. “There is so little understanding and appreciation of its complexities, particularly after the early years.”
My friend and I discuss all the ways that parenting a teenager and even a young adult require careful attention and artistry. I think about the elderly mother my husband and I ran into over the weekend; how she was in town to help her son through his divorce. My husband was touched at this act of motherly devotion, but I felt something else. A sense of responsibility and devotion that doesn’t end.
My friend glances at the time. “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, and then realize that I am 20 minutes late to pick up my son.
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
Roles and responsibilities of the primary caregiver
- 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)
Post script: “It’s challenging to tell others what I do,” I say to my husband, on our way to an event. “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, not just to my kids, but to the world. “Two human beings. TWO HUMAN BEINGS. I’m so proud of me,” I say. “I want a party and new pair of Birkenstocks.”