Having been (involuntarily) underemployed for almost two years now, I really should have known to expect that I would at some point need to answer that innocent, almost haphazard but surprisingly invasive question. It's only five little words, asked by the most casual of acquaintances in the most casual of circumstances: "so, what do you do?"
What DO I do? I move clean glasses, spatulas, tupperware, bowls, ramikens, sippy cup parts (all four hundred and seventeen of them), measuring spoons, monkey plates, coffee mugs, and butter knives from their spots in the dishwasher to their spots in the cupboard or drawer or shelf or counter. I weigh myself holding my baby (is he really twenty pounds already?), I weigh myself not holding my baby (have I really lost all that weight already?). I consider vacuuming the stairs and get angry that I can't afford to hire somebody to do it for me. I look for a clear piece of plastic the size and shape of discarded dental floss that attaches to an action figure my son, M, calls "the red guy." (It's Spider Man.)
What else do I do? I ask in a nice voice for my son to pick up the Lincoln Logs (aka “blinkin’ logs”) because I think dumping them out is the only way he knows how to play with them. I ask in a nice voice again, then in a serious voice. I ask in a mean voice. I tell him that I will help him put them away as soon as he starts, but that if he doesn’t start now, I’m going to spank his bottom. I make the bed, gathering the clean mattress cover from the laundry line, hoping that the overnight-diaper-soak-through-accident smell is sufficiently indetectable and also hoping that M, who is currently eager to “help” with every boring household chore known to (this wo)man, including bed-making, will not spot our collection of adult magazines stored under the mattress. I carry the child-sized superhero-themed tent from the guest room to our living room, where it takes up approximately eighty percent of the open space but where it keeps M and his newly-mobile baby brother occupied for the entire morning.
I get ready to leave the house: I pack avocado, a slice of vegan pizza (damn dairy allergy), cucumber sticks, a granola bar, and leftover fried rice in a tiny, washable backpack, hoping that my enormously hungry son won’t need additional snacks during a long day away from home. I throw three cubes of frozen baby food into a jar (rice, sweet potato, and golden beets, the trifecta that officially demonstrates not only what a good mother I am but also that my infant officially eats better than I do). I find spare clothes for both boys in case of pee (or worse) accidents, mud accidents, food accidents, water-play accidents, etc. I verify that the diaper cream is still in the diaper bag, because poor baby D has what looks like a very uncomfortable case of redness. Similarly, I check for sunscreen and hats, and curse the boys’ dad who is always (always) singularly responsible for any misplaced items, even if he’s out of town, sick with the flu, or locked in the dungeon. All implausible alibis, the whole long list. I fill sippy cups, tie shoes, buckle car seats, and unbuckle carseats when M very politely asks to do it himself.
I attend events known as Play Groups and Preschool. I buy memberships to the local Children’s Museum, even though “local” means forty-five minutes of mountain driving.
I check Facebook.
Of course, this is not what they mean when they say, "so what do you do?" They do not want a list of tasks that my current job requires. They want a title. Executive Assistant Manager at Party City. Water Quality Resource Manager for the National Park Service. Legal Secretary. Librarian. Hobo. Anything.
But the title of what I do is all wrong. I'm a full time mom, which means I have no hiring official, no letters after my name to prove my qualifications, no office and no time off. Some people call us "Stay At Home Moms" but it's just not true. If we stayed at home we’d go nuts. Besides, I've been looking for work since I left my soul-shattering job almost two years ago; at the last tally, I've worked for 9 (nine) (nine!) separate employers in the meantime. So what does that make me? Is my job status “unemployed” or “full-time mom”? We never expected to live off of one income, but I suppose it's testament to how awful my work conditions were when we decided it was less scary to potentially default on our mortgage than it was to ever go back to that job. So my full-time mom status? It was not part of the plan.
Of course, I wonder what is stopping me from being an entirely satisfied full-time mom. Wasn't this my long-term dream all along? Didn't I always joke with my husband that I should have married rich instead of marrying for love? (I'm about one hundred percent certain that he did not and does not find those jokes funny.) Of course I could have a career... LATER. Hadn't I wished during every one of my full-time jobs, even the ones that I truly loved, that my life would be better if I weren't chained to the commitment of 40-hours-per-week of out-of-the-house work? Maybe I'm just one of those people who prefer to be unhappy and who uses all evidence to support the unhappy thesis. Am I becoming one of those frown-wrinkled old grumpsters who hates the cold damp of winter as well as the merciless summer sun?
But of course, need it be said? I love my children as if there were a separate organ in my body designed for loving them uniquely. I explain to M that he doesn't have to share any Mama love with Baby D because I have a separate, magic heart for each of them. And it feels true. It feels like the only accurate way to explain the sheer volume of love that seems capable of pouring forth from the general vicinity of my middle. The so-what-do-you-do-question is not a question of love. It is a question of value. The question looks pathetic so it’s especially difficult to admit the amount of spiritual struggle its caused: what is my value if I don’t have a “real” job?
It has taken me by surprise, this attachment to what I DO and its relationship to who I AM. If you had asked me how much my sense of self worth was attached to my employment status when I was actually employed, I would have scoffed. "Not at all!" I'm sure I would have said. "I am a complete human being, whatever my job! My spiritual satisfaction is NOT dependent on ANY details of my professional life!" What a self-assured and inexperienced little bitch I surely was. Of course I was proud of my contribution to the world (especially when I was working with kids on the autism spectrum) but I suppose I considered one's job as something like an entitlement; we may not all find the job that speaks to our souls' purpose(s?), but no matter, because we could all find a job at least. Or perhaps I never explicitly considered this question because it was such a non-issue. It’s hard to give words to a concept that was never voiced.
Now that I can't find a job, now that I've been rejected from multiple jobs that I thought were beneath me ($11 dollars an hour? That hardly pays for child care!), I find myself wondering in no insignificant way: what the hell am I supposed to be doing? Asked like it's a question for the gods, who I've never otherwise propositioned. Am I SUPPOSED to be staying home with my kids all the time, loving them all the time but also going a wee bit bonkers? Is now the time to go back to graduate school for speech and language pathology? Is one hundred thousand dollars of debt a worthwhile sacrifice for a guaranteed career? Is the emotional debt of spending 24 solid months buried deep in academia worth the time spent away from my young children? Should I keep scanning the online want ads, even though they invariably make me feel like I have NO skills and that I'm just a worthless piece of shit who hides under the cloak of staying at home with my kids? Is this getting too complicated yet?
If it weren't for the financial stress, I think I could more happily embrace my lot. As victimized as I feel by the origins of my circumstances, I imagine that we could live pretty comfortably with me at home baking things and scrubbing things and teaching M how to cut along a curved lines and encouraging Baby D to stand up on those deliciously chubby little legs... if only our earner earned a tiny bit more. Or is this another unhappiness trap? Is it always a bit more until we become beady-eyed one percenters? In this regard, I must draw the line: I know our expenses and I know our income and yes, a little bit more really would take the edge off. Besides then we could finally put a real bath tub in our master bathroom instead of a one-person stand up shower stall that is one of the many design flaws in our seven-year-old "starter home." (Our imperfect master bathroom is high on our list of first world problems.)
I also certainly understand on a philosophic level the role of the mother. Of course working as a full-time (but unpaid!) mother is one of the most influential and rewarding jobs in the world. Of course these moments, these language-learning, face-making, rock-climbing, toy-sharing, bath-splashing moments are golden. Of course I wear the painful cloak of empathy when I see or hear or read stories of parents surviving the suffering or death of their child. I often feel like my soul has a true geometric shape and that my children are pouring into it pitchers and pitchers of something sparkling and liquid and replenishing. My reservations about calling myself a full-time mother do not mean that I'd ever quit the job as a mother at all.
But being a mother is more different than any other two jobs I’ve had. Being a mother is as different from being, say, a librarian, as being a wallet is from being a... I don’t know, watermelon? What I’m saying is, we’re talking apples and oranges here. In fact, apples and oranges is a perfect cliche for incomparable things because the truth is they’re both fruit. They just happen to grow best in opposite climates.
One element of full time motherhood that I find unexpectedly difficult is the almost complete lack of adult feedback on what a great job I'm doing. Am I supposed to feel horrible about this? Are we, as mothers and as humans, supposed to blow off like some dandelion puff our desire to be praised? This is not to say that people don't call me a good mom. When a friend recently confessed that she found herself in a mothering pickle and mentally asked "what would S do?" I (1) did not exactly believe her but (2) felt really fucking good about myself. Sorry to be so low on the ladder of emotional needs, but dealing with little people is really (really) frustrating and it would be a game-changer if every now and then my boss could stick her head in and say "keep up the good work." And then she could pay me a fat bonus. When M says he loves me, my heart melts. I wouldn’t exchange his verbalizations of love for anything. But a child’s love is not an adult’s appreciation, and sometimes I simply crave the latter. I would imagine I’m not alone in this.
My next mental hang up on the whole Mommy thing is that the job title is the same for every mom but the only consistent thread in the job description is "keeps child alive." I don't WANT the same job title as the moms who put Pepsi in the bottles of their one-year-olds; I don't WANT to be confused with the women who have the television on ALL DAY LONG, as if calling it "background noise," means that it may as well be a waterfall; and I certainly don't want to turn into one of those people who can't talk about anything except the behavioral habits of their kids. Now, I acknowledge that when the hours of one’s days are occupied by wiping poopy bottoms, one will inevitably talk about poop. I understand that if my job is my children, then talking about my children is just talking shop. So I’m trying not to be superior and snooty about it, as if having a conversation about the troubles I’m having getting D to stop nursing every two hours at night makes me THAT kind of mom. I just want to be sure to retain the ability to jump into conversations with that other kind of adult, the kind that doesn’t stay home all day and the kind that interacts with other adults on a regular basis. And perhaps this is all tied into the wanting-to-be-recognized thing, but I want to somehow demonstrate in my job title that I’m a really GOOD mom even if I make mistakes and get frustrated and threaten M that if he doesn’t put chonies on RIGHT NOW that I will lock him in the dungeon. (Yes, I actually do use this technique. It seems to lighten the mood, somehow. I recommend it.)
I also find myself (desperately) wanting three children. It’s inexplicable in a way that mystifies even me. It doesn’t make sense, and we probably can’t ‘afford’ it. (When A brought this up I countered, “but nobody’s going to STARVE to death! Nobody’s going to FREEZE to death!”) Part of me thinks that if I’m “sacrificing” my career (as if I could get a job if I wanted to...) so that I can be a full-time mom, that I may as well do the full-time mom thing as fully as possible. On top of all this, I’m seriously considering homeschooling my kids, or at least offering them the option to stay at home for Fun School with mom instead of going to Big Kid School on a big yellow bus. (And I predict the big yellow bus factor is going to be stiff competition.) Having three kids would mean that I would teach a three-child classroom which somehow makes the investment feel more worthwhile. It reminds me of an unlimited long-distance plan; the more you talk to your family in Pennsylvania, the cheaper the per-minute rate. Wait, am I really comparing my family to a phone plan? Have I apologized yet for breaching this topic?
I suppose the answer is that there’s no easy answer.
So, what DO I do? I laugh. A lot. I bathe on a regular basis (and this does seem to warrant merit in the full-time mom world). I get down on myself for being a worthless, unemployed piece of shit. I change my mind. I give myself a break. I appreciate my husband, and my kids, and my health, and my home, and my friends, and my life. I go to job interviews. I go to play groups. And then, of course, I write.