I never expected to be a stay-at-home mom, or SAHM, as I’ve learned to call it from the mommy blogs.  As a child my vision for myself was of a woman striding down shiny corridors in high-heeled shoes, the sound of which I associated with feminine power.  Instead, I wear this year’s Birkenstock sandals to the playground and wipe the sand and grit off my feet when I get home.

My right to claim SAHM status is limited. I was home full-time with my daughter for the first year of her life and then worked part-time (just twelve hours a week) for the next two. I’ll do the same with my son, born three months ago, and I don’t plan to work full-time until both are in school.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about my decision to be primarily at home.  In retrospect, it seems that it wasn’t so much a decision as the path of least resistance; things seemed to flow in that direction and I didn’t do anything stop them.  It helped that I was in graduate school when my daughter was born and so could simply opt out of teaching for two semesters. A big reason I didn’t want to work was nursing-mother laziness; I flat out refuse to pump. Another is my belief that this is what’s best for my children, but I’ve known for some time that this cannot be my sole or even primary reason; this has to be what I want for myself. Likewise, I recognize that I cannot do this in expectation of some sort of future payoff; I cannot expect or hope that my children will be any smarter, kinder, or better adjusted than those who spent less time at home. The experience of this time has to be its own reward. In this regard, parenting has been one more teacher in what I have come to recognize as my personal life’s work: living in the present, staying in the moment.  As a dance instructor once said to me, I could enjoy the process more.

A friend told me recently that she could never stay home full-time and asked me how I do it.  I have asked myself this very question, and I find it difficult to answer because I don’t really feel that I am “doing” anything.  To me it feels similar to being pregnant: a relatively small amount of time devoted to a particular state of being.  Being pregnant, like taking care of small children, is often demanding and exhausting and tedious and frustrating, but we don’t ask ourselves how we “do it.”  We just do.

So I decided to interpret this question literally. 

Mommy's juice

Here, roughly in the order in which I employ them, is my list of things that get me through the day:   

  1. Coffee
  2. Twenty minutes of yoga or Pilates, subject to comments from three-year old and interruptions from baby
  3. NPR
  4. Out of the house from 10-1, preferably with mom friends *
  5. Nap with baby for one hour in the afternoon while non-napping three-year-old watches PBS **
  6. NPR
  7. Assign husband to three-year-old the minute he steps in the door
  8. Get into bed immediately after children are asleep
  9. Read New Yorker or novel for forty-five minutes
  10. Sleep ***

 *          Mom, or Dad, friends are the key to success.
**        Some people, including myself, consider this cheating, or at least bad form.
***     As much as possible with night-nursing baby.

– AC


Better Than Happy

I recently watched a documentary hosted by Daniel Gilbert, a psychology professor at Harvard, called This Emotional Life.  The documentary is a look at the most recent psychological and neurological findings on what makes us happy. Two days later I read a book review in the New Yorker discussing three new books on happiness, one of which is co-authored by Gilbert. In both his book and documentary, Gilbert cites the finding that having children makes people less happy.

Since then, I have been consumed by this assertion. There is a dissonance to it I cannot make sense of.  If having children is our primary drive in evolutionary terms, then doesn’t the fact that doing so makes us less happy have profound implications not only for that drive but for happiness itself?  I feel, as I’m sure most parents do, that my daughter is unquestionably my greatest source of joy, despite the fact that after several straight hours of playing doll house I would whole-heartedly agree with the mothers from Gilbert’s study who rated caring for their children, in terms of the pleasure it provides, below jogging or napping and only slightly above washing the dishes. In fact, I can do them one better: at least while I wash dishes I can listen to NPR. So when I say that my daughter is my greatest source of joy, am I simply falling back on some of the cognitive tricks I learned about in the documentary?  These tricks include, for example, assessing our happiness based on our expectations, rather than the experience itself, and rating experiences and objects higher on a scale of happiness when they are things we are stuck with. Lorrie Moore, in her novel The Gate at the Stairs, seems to put all of this in qualitative terms when one of her characters says (and I paraphrase) that having a baby ruins your life, and therefore becomes the best thing in it.

Photo by Olaf Hajek, The New York Times

I want to resist this finding, even if that desire is just a mind trick of my own. So here is my question: is there something more satisfying, more fulfilling than happiness? I can’t define what that might be, but something I witnessed recently suggests, to me, that there might be.

My extended family shares a beach house in a part of Rhode Island that is magical for children. At the end of our road, perched on a ledge that drops to the ocean, is a beautiful stone house with a blue painted tower.  For most of my life, no one was ever there.  It just stood empty, looking out at the sea. As children, my cousins and I knew little about the family who owned it other than the fact that the mother had died and the father and two sons were too heartbroken to return, yet couldn’t bring themselves to sell it. We embellished the story by telling each other that the woman had died in the tower, making the house haunted in our imaginations.

Last summer, a man came to the house with his wife and tiny daughter.  The man looked older than most who have such a young child – maybe fifty – and was obviously someone comfortable with the sea.  He had thick muscles, a deep tan, and plunged joyfully into the roughest surf, the strongest undertow.  His wife was younger, beautiful, with red curly hair.

Last weekend I walked past the house with my mother and daughter and commented that someone had been using the house again.  I asked my mother whether it was one of the sons of the woman who had died.  My mother said it was, and then told me what she hadn’t told me when I was child – that years ago, before I was born, the woman had driven to some nearby woods and gassed herself in her car.

I thought of how the man had looked last summer, at the water’s edge with his three year old daughter, already fearless.  That is why he is here, I realized.  The joy he wants her to experience—that he feels in watching her at this place he loved as a child and loves still—is greater than the pain it brings him as the place of his mother’s death.

Does his daughter make him happier? Not to the best of our knowledge, I guess. But the greatest significance of that finding is, to me, that having children gives us something else, maybe even something more, that we can’t begin to understand.

– AC

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