Saturday, January 12, 2013

One Dot At A Time


In my quest to read everything Kacy  recommends, I have been making my way through Po Bronson's What Should I Do With My Life?  

It's really quite life-changing. It's all about how people decide--wait for it--what to do with their lives. I've been grappling with this decision for a long time. See, my "career" has been to teach college writing part time. I did that for longer than ten years before I quit to spend more time at home and not hate my life. (Teaching college writing is a serious love-hate thing for me). I am not really ready to go back to teaching again, what with Wells being just one year old and all, and I don't really need to (which is an awesome luxury that I try not to take for granted). But when the time comes, I wonder, will I even want to go back? I have always been sure that teaching is "my calling," but part of me would love to do something else. Get a nursing degree! Go to law school! Do secondary ed! Become a writer! All of these things make me afraid and I probably won't do them (especially nursing, how could I really do that?)

Anyway, up till now I have felt like I "do nothing" because I am not teaching. Being a parent doesn't count. It's who I am, not what I do. It's not a career.  I also bristle at those cliche' Mom Job Descriptions you see floating around on Facebook now and then: Short-Order Cook! Chauffeur! Full time nanny! House Cleaner! Round-the-clock Nurse! And so forth. I hate that. What are these job descriptions trying to accomplish? It seems really reductive and trite to me. It's also self-serving and whiny. Plus, I don't wanna be a chauffeur and a short order cook! I'm not super stoked to be a house cleaner. I don't want that to be what I DO.

So, when I got to chapter 25 of Po's book, which had been about writers, farmers, social workers, et. al. till that point, I was really surprised to see the story of a mom. The chapter, called "There's More to Motherhood than Baking Cookies" talks about a mom named Mary Ann Clark. Growing up she had examples around that encouraged her to have a career. She wanted to do something great for society, like work to eliminate poverty, malnutrition, birth defects, etc. Housework didn't really appeal to her (amen to that). But she fell in love and got married, anyway, and then had four children. She talks about making the sacrifice to stop working and have kids. She says "I thought I had so much to offer society. But first, I wanted to give it to my children. My first responsibility was to them." This happened in the 60s, so things were quite different concerning pregnant women and moms in the workplace back then, and she really couldn't have kept on working. *

So Mary Ann was pregnant or nursing nearly nonstop for ten years (you know the drill). During that time, she did go to school to earn her masters degree, among doing many other things in her church and community. When the time finally came that she could step away and begin her work of saving the world, she found out she was pregnant! Mary Ann was in her early forties. So, she put everything on hold once again. And what was especially hard was that this youngest child became so bitter and angry at her parents, because they had to move across the country when she turned 12, that she didn't speak to them for 9 years! Nine!! Not a word. She wouldn't eat dinner with them. She wouldn't engage with them at all. So, Mary Ann put everything she had into this daughter who would not speak to her.

Things slowly got better with her daughter, and now, at age 65, Mary Ann is entering the work force as a field interviewer for a childhood leukemia study. She is super excited and has tons of energy, and also has no regrets.

The thing is, it's not like her life is FINALLY beginning. On the contrary, after waiting 40 years to start her career, Mary Ann knows that her first purpose was to help her kids survive and thrive. But we think of her time as a mom at home as a pause, or a hold. It's because we celebrate career triumphs way more than parenthood triumphs. Parenthood triumphs are subtle, fragmented, and non-linear. They are hard to tease out because (if we are good parents) our accomplishments don't belong to us, they belong to our kids, and our kids are independent beings with their own accomplishments, too. We can't really take the credit.  Also, so much of it is tiny, like making hot chocolate for a four year old when we don't feel like it, or finally getting a baby to take a good nap. That isn't celebrated like a job promotion or a raise. Parenthood doesn't necessarily follow the arc of a great story, in which someone climbed from the bottom to the top with astonishing speed and dexterity.

Mary Ann compares parenting to that pointillist painting by Georges Seurat (see above). "It's laid down one dot at a time. Rarely does anyone else recognize the meaning of that one dot." Elder Bednar talked about this concept here, as well. Cleaning up Wells, and his high chair, and the floor around his high chair, three times a day after meals sometimes makes me hate my life and feel very defeated. It's gross, it's tedious, it never seems to get easier or better, and it's never really finished. What is special about that? What is meaningful about housework and cooking? Nothing, really. They aren't spiritual activities, I don't care what kind of spin you want to put on them. And they don't come together to make the ultimate resume, thus assuaging that feeling of meaninglessness that moms sometimes have.  All of those tedious tasks that make up 90% of motherhood are just dots, miniscule dots on a  huge, complicated pointillist painting that will make sense and be beautiful when all is said and done. And the point isn't in getting them done, but in our willingness to do them, despite the fact that it isn't what we expected or planned on spending 90% of our time doing. And we are willing to do them because we love our kids and that is our purpose.

The thing that makes a pointillist painting so amazing is not each individual dot, but rather the sheer number of them, how they combine to make something complex, and (most importantly) that someone was willing to sit there and paint that scene one tiny dot at a time. As moms we like to dwell on the individual dots and compare them to others'.  "She makes organic, vegan, gluten free meals from scratch for her children every day and I can only heat up a can of soup." or "She made beautiful crowns  and special individual cakes for her daughter's birthday party. I just bought a cheesecake from Costco." It's fine if people want to spend a lot of time on each dot, but it's also okay to say "hey, it's a DOT. It needs to be here, but I'm going to do it fast and move on." It's dumb to compare ourselves to other parents, anyway, since nobody's painting is going to look exactly like another's. There's really nothing like being a parent. No career comes close.

Reading about Mary Ann made me realize that my life isn't on hold at all. And that it's never really too late to do things. I no longer feel that pressure to figure out what will be next after this "pause" in my career. I'm glad to realize what my first purpose is, and I look forward to figuring out my second purpose when the time is right.



*I admire working moms and do not think it is impossible or incongruent for a mom to have a career and be a great parent at the same time. My mom did it and plenty of other moms do, too. Things are better now in that way than they were in the 60s.

14 comments:

  1. I agree with you totally. I am starting to think/understand that the spiritual aspect to housework/kidwork (there is none) is how it molds you by virtue of the fact that you are submitting your will to something. I will never buy into scrubbing toilets as my divine role, though I support people who have found meaning in that. But it is by doing things I hate every day for people I love that makes me more Christlike. I'm not super Christlike. But I am more Christlike for it.

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    1. Why are you not the General Relief Society president? I need this comment on a Pinterest Printable.

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    2. This post really resonated with me, Carly. I think about this subject on an almost daily basis. I really appreciated your words, and I'm so glad I got on your blog today.
      Also, we sure loved having Holden and Michael over several weeks ago (and missed you!). Does any kid have a cooler hobby than Holden? Really. I hope I can see you soon.

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  2. Perfect! Like.
    Should I really read the book?
    And, as someone who's slowly re-entering the work force, I have to say I have many, many moments where my skills honed as a mother have benefited me in my job (I teach an Institute class for special needs adults, read: PATIENCE required). This was my favorite post I've read of yours, Carly.

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  3. I meant that sincerely, but it ended up sounding back-handed. I mean that I appreciated this post on so many levels, which is why I think it's my favorite post from you. But, I also think you are always a good writer, and I've enjoyed your blog for a while now. Better? Or mostly worse?

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  4. Haha, I didn't think it sounded back-handed at all. I love and am starved for all compliments, back-handed or otherwise. I think it's really cool you are going back to work. I want to hear more about that. And the book is good and worth a read.

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  5. I, too, read everything Kacy tells me to read. And I am SO glad I read this post--it is what I need to remember and hear. Because it sure seems like I am never going to be done with this dot--or any dot--ever.

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  6. Kacy sent me here and I'm glad she did. This reminds me of an article I read a long time ago in Real Simple. I tried to find it online but the most I could find was that it was in an advice column called "The Motivator" and it was on page 217 of the March 2008 issue, and that the author, Gail Blanke, wrote a book called "Throw Out Fifty Things" which I want to read now.

    Anyway, I do have some quotes that I wrote down from it at the time and I refer to them often. I think it fits here. And by the way I love "hey, it's a DOT." Awesome. So, the quote: Gail Blanke:

    "How do you come to terms with your personal goals while still meeting the needs of your children?

    "Well, I believe what many have said before me: You can have it all, but not all at the same time. If you've chosen to stay at home, you can still make progress toward what you would love to be doing.

    "Don't confuse giving yourself 100 percent with losing yourself.... Don't think for a minute that you're circling in a holding pattern and that one day, when the children are older, you'll land and get on with your life. This IS life." - Gail Blanke

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    1. I love that quote. It gives me a lot of hope! Thanks for sharing that, Eliza.

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  7. Well said. You should be a writer.

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  8. I think you said it all, Carly. I never really wanted to anything else but be a Mother, so guess I accomplished it pretty well. But, along the way I learned many things and did some really fun things for me and my family. You really need to write! write! write! Do a children's series to start and go on from there. No one sends better Christmas letters out each year. They are always a joy to read and your blog is great. Keep it up.

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  9. perfectly stated. i needed this today. thank you.

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  10. I guess my mother raised me in her image: I never wanted anything else but to be a mother - once I got started! And now that I am in the work force, I yearn for the job of being a full-time mother. I have yet to find JOY in my job, but found it hiding in unexpected places throughout my mothering career. And by the way, mothering goes on......

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