Squint your eyes and look closer
I’m not between you and your ambition
I’m a poster girl with no poster
I”m 32 flavors and then some
I’m beyond your peripheral vision
So you might want to turn your head.
“Mommy, am I going to work when I grow up?” My three-year-old asks as we climb into the car.
“Of course baby, you can be whatever you want to be.” I state emphatically, repeating the phrase that was repeated to me a thousand times throughout my life.
“Can I be a doctor like Daddy?” She asks earnestly.
“You definitely can be a doctor like Daddy. You can be anything.”
“Mommy, does that mean I will be a man when I grow up?” I freeze at three my daughter perceives that men work and women stay home, a feminist’s nightmare. I am conflicted on a thousand different levels. What message of equality am I teaching my daughter? Where have we come since the women’s rights movement?
Women of Generation X and beyond, grew up believing that we can be whoever and whatever we want to be. We learned from an early age that gender is not a professional barrier. Although some of our mothers may have been encouraged to go to college to get their “M.R.S. Degrees”, we were encouraged to go to college and get advanced degrees, so that we could have careers, break barriers, and crack glass ceilings. From the moment I could speak my parents taught me that I could be a doctor, a lawyer, an executive, anything I put my mind to (within the limits of the aforementioned list). I grew up believing these things and never doubting my intelligence compared to my male peers. My parents listened to my future goals, and although it was assumed I’d have a family, being a wife and mother was never mentioned in these conversations. To the adults around me, it may have seemed anti-feminist to bring up marriage and children when discussing my future aspirations.
For thirty years my identity was based on my academic and professional achievements. I was an academic, a legislative intern, and an attorney – the intellectual equal to any and all of my male colleagues. It seemed antiquated to think of the differences between the sexes. Women are equal to men in all ways. My professional achievements aligned well with the feminist principals of equality that were deeply ingrained in my psyche. But then I gave birth…
I became a mother and I decided to stay home with my children and everything I believed changed. I grew up being told I can be anything I want, but no one ever told me that anything may include being a stay-at-home mother and wife. I chose to do the one thing that nobody prepared me for. The crazy thing is that once I made the choice to stay home, many adults supported the decision as if there was no other option. If this is the case, then why was choice of being a wife and mother ignored until I gave birth? In fact, sometimes women criticized my female peers who chose to return to work full-time after giving birth. A best friend in the midst of a year long maternity leave confided, “I’m almost nervous to tell people I’m going back to teach full time next year. I feel like they judge me, I’ve even felt insecure telling you.” Was everyone preaching feminist principles of equality that they themselves did not believe?
For many (especially initially), our identities as mothers feel all consuming. No one can prepare us for the tremendous transformation that comes after the birth of our first child. As a stay-at-home mom, there was a metaphysical death of my former self, which I’ve grieved. However, this death occurred simultaneously with the birth of a new more expansive and vulnerable person. Many mothers share a common fear of not being seen for anything but this new identity. My friends have confided:
“I know it’s crazy, but I feel like my co-workers don’t respect my opinion anymore and just see me as a lame mom. It’s like they ignore ten years of experience and don’t think I can do my job anymore,” one of my closest friends complained after a business meeting.
“I feel like when I hang out with my brother, he doesn’t even ask me what I think about things anymore. He just sees me as a mom and doesn’t think I have anything interesting to say. Maybe I don’t have anything interesting to say anymore?” She admitted after choosing to stay at home.
“I feel like a part of me was lost when I had children. I love being a mother, but I am in a funk and I don’t know what to do.” She confessed as they sipped coffees and watched their kids play on the floor.
It’s late afternoon, we are at a BBQ, I’m sitting with my husband in the grass sipping beers and watching our children play. Another couple sits down beside us and introduces themselves.
“What do you do?” The man asks my husband.
“I’m a physician,” he answers automatically.
“What do you do?” His wife asks me.
“I’m a stay-at-home mom.” I answer automatically. It’s interesting, stay at home moms always answer this question differently, sometimes they just say they stay home, sometimes they follow it up with what they did before they chose to stay home, i.e., “I’m a stay at home mom, but I used to be a lawyer … I’m a stay at home mom, but I used to be a yoga instructor … I’m a stay at home mom, but I used to be a teacher,” like there is a need to be seen as something more.
In American society, the question “what do you do” is unfairly interpreted as “who are you” and this is where we all may feel lost and unheard. We are quick to put a label on ourselves and those around us, working mom, stay-at-home mom, doctor, lawyer, waiter, bartender, construction worker, sales clerk, grandmother, or artist. These are the things we choose to do every day, a piece of who we are, but there are so many pieces to the jigsaw puzzles of our lives.
“Babe, I’m so excited to write this piece on being a stay-at-home mom and how this identity seems all consuming. You know how sometimes I feel like the other parts of ourselves are ignored and everyone just sees me as a mom.” I slide my youngest into her highchair. “I’m still everything I used to be. You know, like the Ani Difranco song, ‘I’m 32 flavors and then some … I’m beyond your peripheral vision, so you might want to turn your head.’ … I can’t wait to write during nap time.” (This felt like an epiphany to me, though I’m sure it seems obvious to many of you as it did to my husband).
“Aren’t we all 32 flavors and then some,” he responds, “of course you are more than just a mom just like I’m more than a physician. If I described myself, I think physician may not even fall in the top five. Isn’t that the problem with society, we are so quickly labeled as our careers, but we are all so much more.”
Oh, thank you husband, this is not just about motherhood, choosing to stay home or work. This is about how quickly we label ourselves and how the labels limit us. This is about wanting our authentic selves to be seen. There was no death of my former-self; I’m still all here. I am most importantly wife and mother, but I am also writer, friend, sister, daughter, attorney, storyteller, defender of justice, and the list goes on. You are husband, father, son, friend, philosopher, dreamer, problem solver, basketball player, physician, and the list is endless. We are all so many things, and when you become a parent the list just becomes a little longer.