She had worried about her ability to mother properly all along. She had no real model upon which to rely except the kind she read about in books. So she had read all the parenting books and when she exhausted them, she read many of the writings about working mommies and stay-at-home mommies and all the variations in between, amazed by all the mommy niches that existed in the world of parenting. She also read a lot of other books – mostly fiction – and paid attention to the mommy parts there too.
She bumbled her way toward a mommy identity, mostly by ruling out what she did not like, scratching out the negative – but not knowing what precisely was left after all that. Even then, it was essentially theoretical until those babies actually arrived – after which there was even grander bumbling, but now with strong overtones of fatigue, impatience and anxiety.
She had discovered during her first maternity leave that the idea of doing every slight thing in the house over and over again – of making dinner every night and doing the laundry and loading and unloading dishwasher in ceaseless rotation – made her heart sink into a black funk. She also realized that, while her girls could be delightful and engaging, she didn’t really feel totally fulfilled by her role as a mother – that it simply wasn’t enough for her – and that she had an urge for more…of what, she didn’t know exactly but she sensed that she couldn’t find it only by staying at home with her children. Naturally, it was this desire for the unknown more that perhaps gave her the greatest mommy guilt – particularly when coupled with the realization that she was most definitely not going to be a rock star working mommy. She was going to be much closer to a rock bottom mama, according to her grading scale and readings of mommy types, the kind who frequently had to compromise her professional standards in order to get through the daily grind with her family. Not only was she often stumbling through the work day, she also couldn’t even say she loved her professional career – most of the time, she felt she was just an empty suit and her heart was somewhere else. Every time she found a missing comma or period, her supervisors would praise her and say she had added value and a little bit of her soul would crumble off. Still, as much as juggling work and family had been difficult, she never thought of staying home. She was ultimately more comfortable with the strain of the job/family gymnastics – which seemed almost insane when she considered her low job satisfaction. But she just needed the door to the world to be open to her – just enough for her to keep dreaming about what might be possible. And she was familiar with insanity, so it all seemed somewhat normal.
But now she had no job. It was a temporary thing, she knew, felt, hoped – but still, it was hard for her to say out loud to other people or to explain what it was she was doing now…. which felt a little bit like angst-ridden floundering mixed with power napping. Initially, she would define herself by what she had been a few short weeks ago – before this precise moment – until she felt she was defending it, as if she loved what she had been – and even as she knew that she did not want the past to matter most in who she could become next.
And interestingly, many people seemed to expect her to be satisfied with her current state of unemployment – unemployed during the summer ? fantastic – and some even seemed jealous of the idea. And she wanted to be able to appreciate the free time, really she did. And she tried. People also encouraged her to relish the precious and fleeting moments with her children, who it was predicted would love having her home all day, every day (note to those people: not so much!). So she tried that too. Instead, she felt this restless itch to get back to work or to find enough space in her day to do things that didn’t revolve around her children. She knew too well that her children and their needs and desires could overwhelm her and her identity. She also understood and feared her own propensity to put herself on a back burner. As it was, with a career, she had for many years lost any sense of who she was and cringed at questions about how she spent her free time or what books she had last read, because almost all of her answers related to her daughters and had very little bearing on who she might be as a freestanding human being.
And now here she was: thrust involuntarily into the role of full-time mother and housekeeper and all the monotonous frustration that came with that. Her reaction to forced domesticity was causing her mommy guilt to spike horribly and to vacillate between two extremes: on the one hand, worrying about not doing enough with her kids because she was struggling to maintain a tidy household in the face of the relentless messiness of life and on the other hand, not wanting to do more with them, wanting that magic free time to be a suited adult sitting behind a desk where no one could tug at your shirt until the sleeve slipped down or smear some unidentifiable body fluid across the front of your suit.
She was dreaming about Virginia Woolf and her rooms and Doris Lessing and her unapologetic and unconventional flight from motherhood, knowing that she was having trouble finding her own comfortable place among these concepts right now. She was thinking about all the mommies before her and around her now, knowing there was no one model anymore and that she just needed to ride this out and continue her big blind grope toward motherhood. Right after she finished unloading the dishwasher.