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.