on motherhood, the stay-at-home variety

by lani

one thing that people don’t tell you about parenting a kid with special needs is that it involves a lot of paperwork. you think you’re going to spend most of your time actually, you know, parenting the kid. but no, special needs parenting is approximately 27% parenting and 73% paperwork.

ok, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration.

but this week i found myself at my desk, as usual, answering the same questions i’ve answered dozens of times for yet another specialist appointment, and i came across a question that hit me like a punch in the gut.

i’ve always had an answer to this question.

i’ve actually had many answers to this question. i can write “photographer.” i can write “music teacher.” i can write “business owner.”

except that this time, i cycled through my answers and found that they no longer apply. something happened when i wasn’t paying attention, between the last time i answered that question and now; life whirled around frenetically for a while, and now that it has mostly settled my labels are gone. stripped from me as by a tornado, and flung about as far as i would expect from one.

my hand trembled as i pressed the pen to the blank space after the question, “occupation:” and my stomach flopped.

stay-at-home mom

there.

i wrote it.

it didn’t kill me.

~~~~

i really avoided writing this post.

there are as many opinions on motherhood as there are people who have experience with mothers. strong opinions, opinions that cling to our very souls, settled in the deep places formed first inside our mothers’ bodies. there are also a lot of women writing about motherhood online; we stay-at-home mothers, we love our internet. beautiful words extolling and exhorting mothers swirl around facebook intermingling with pictures of our growing babies; we stay-at-home mothers, we love our facebook.

as an erstwhile stay-at-home mom, i sifted through the words, through the blogs and the articles and the forums, looking for something that spoke to my conflicted soul. i looked for someone writing about the ambiguous experience of splitting my soul and body wide open and watching humanity emerge from depths i didn’t know i had. i looked for writing that reflected the horrible mortality of mothering, replacing the self, bringing forth death, the everyday trauma of caring for children, the ragged soul searching for meaning in a role so hyped that it is nearly impossible to untangle its actual significance from the pastel hallmark lies.

i found schedules.

i found recipes.

i found fights about baby sleep patterns.

i found pinterest ideas.

i found “how to’s” … from “how to stop yelling” to “how to find contentment”

i found fellow christian moms validating their choice to stay-at-home with a spirituality that i found sexist and reductionist.

i found fellow feminist moms validating their choice to work outside the home with a single-mindedness that seemed callous and dismissive of research.

i found a whole internet land of moms talking to each other about mothering, but i couldn’t find the conversations that my tender, recently broken and burst mother heart yearned for. it was discouraging.

i didn’t want to write this post because i don’t like conflict. i like to write with my political and religious cards held somewhat close, even as i’ve bled from the heart about personal struggles. but becoming a mother, and therefore talking about it, invades every corner of our lives, turning over tables and breaking windows, breaking down walls and remodeling the structures of perspective that we’ve carefully built our whole lives. motherhood is a global conversation. and because of that, to tell my story and connect with you authentically, dear reader, i have to play those cards.

~~~~

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my motherhood journey began at a rather awkward time in life. i was a fledgling feminist and a baby liberal, beginning to lay aside my fear and question every one of my religious, political, and personal beliefs for the first time. i tore down the structures of fundamentalism and fear standing so high in my mind, while building up a human body in my uterus. i read naomi wolf, and reacted vehemently to the pidgeonholing of vocational motherhood as a spiritual obligation as we prepared to parent our child equally: equal housework, equal financial provision, and equal parenting.

any structure left standing in my heart was reduced to rubble when sky was stillborn at full term.

i had nothing left to lose.

rebuilding can’t happen until the rubble is cleared away, the rubble of a religious system and political thought and everything i had felt about the way the world worked. i had become a mother, and was left with the monumental task of clearing away the wreckage of my motherhood.

ash came.

two months later, i stared down at two lines on a dollar store pregnancy test.

i scheduled weddings to photograph that summer. we were doing it – the equality thing. i had a baby, a baby-on-the-way, and a career as a photographer. my determination to provide my children with a picture of equality had resulted in success; i yearned to live a life that inspired my daughters to dream of their own possibility, and my sons to promote the beauty of equality.

the life turned upside down, yet again.

my business failed. i had significant health problems. our finances dropped off a debt cliff. our son had high needs, my pregnancy was complicated, then our infant daughter had health concerns. (i’ve written about all these things, so i won’t go back over them now.)

and here i am, 2 years later, now solidly rebuilding and determined to give my children a picture of equality even while i’m economically pigeonholed into a very traditional gender role. determined to process what this strange and varied motherhood journey means for my identity. determined to figure out what it means to be a mother on a spiritual, personal, societal, and relational level.

these are the conversations i sought. and these are the questions that compel me to explore the terrain of motherhood in all its ambiguity and controversy.

~~~~

figuring out where to start writing about motherhood is hard.

it is one of the most discussed subjects in books and blogs, and it seems like everything has already been said. but it can’t have been, because there are millions of mothers forging new mothering experiences, with new humans, at this very moment. it is written, “there is nothing new under the sun,” except … that’s not true. every single human who has ever lived is new and totally unique. and as mothers, raising and shaping these children in a myriad of methods and partnerships, our experience of motherhood is shaped and defined by the personalities of the people we are mothering. there HAS to be something new to say about motherhood!

so why do we resort to the same words and tropes when we attempt to describe mothering? why does it feel like there’s nothing new to say?

i don’t know.

~~~~

why is it so hard to write about motherhood?

what has a piece of firewood to say about being chopped in half? motherhood cleaves the body into two novel entities: a new baby, and a new mother. my consciousness is the same, but my soul, my self, even my body, are unfamiliar. these fingers that brush the keys … they are the fingers of a woman i do not know. can she write? can she speak? i don’t know.

why is it so hard to write about motherhood?

maybe because it is like air: once you relax into the role, it becomes the pulse of your lifeblood, the atmosphere of your world. what is there to say about breathing? “today, my lungs expanded with oxygen, and my arms and heart expanded with mothering. my lungs exhaled air, and my arms and heart exhaled the stuff of motherhood.” that stuff of motherhood is the proverbial blood, sweat, and tears. it is the thickened life we pour over our children, intensified emulsions of experience and emotion, clarified over the fires of research. our children show little appreciation for the research, by the way.

why is it so hard to write about motherhood?

maybe because freud was right, and we each have a conflicted attraction toward the concept of motherhood that blocks the fingers at the keys.

why is it so hard to write about motherhood?

maybe because mother is much easier to define as a verb than as a label. it is impossible for me to describe my experience of mothering without describing my kids, and so maybe this idea of “mother” floats in the space between myself and my children, out of my grasp, out of my control. mother is something that i do, a way that i interact with a certain set of individuals.

why is it so hard to write about motherhood?

maybe because that last paragraph was wrong. motherhood isn’t just the day-in-day-out actions of a caretaker; it is a deeply felt label, an altered state of being that hits at the core of our identities as women and humans in the world. how does one write about something so precious, so close, so baffling?

i don’t know.

~~~~

how do i embody this economically necessary role, this spiritually esteemed title, this dubious label of stay-at-home mother, while still opening my children’s perspectives to other equally valid ways of structuring family roles? and how do i accept and embrace my current vocation of stay-at-home mother, living out a clear definition of who i am and what i do, able to experience a sense of confidence and inner peace as i answer that question, “occupation?” with a steady hand and a smile on my face?

i don’t know.

but writing about it, exploring the features of the terrain of motherhood through words, seems like a good start.

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