Sunday, September 26, 2010

A Liberated Woman? Tracing the Path of My Life

This month's selection for my book club was When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present (which I reviewed here). I loved this book. It sets forth an engagingly written history of the women's movement, and consequently has had me examining my own life's path as a woman - as a modern woman. At the heart of this mental analysis I've found myself undertaking of my life is the question: have I lived up to everything the women who fought so hard for women's rights wanted? More specifically, have I let them down by deciding to be "just" a housewife, a fate so many of those women of the previous generation fought against?

A Brief History of How I Got Where I Am

At my book's club's discussion of When Everything Changed one evening this last week, our members were invited to bring along their mothers; these are the women who belong to the generation that lived through the women's movement as adults, whereas most of our book club members (the daughters) were only babies or young children through most of it and so have no actual experience of having lived on both sides of it. It was fascinating and wonderful to hear these older women's experiences and perspectives.

Were I not estranged from my own mother, it certainly would be interesting to pick her brain about these issues and her experiences. Her experience was much different, I think, than most of the members' mothers who were present at our book club discussion. Most of those women were college educated and had pursued some kind of career before settling down to raise families. My mother is a bit younger than most of the mothers there that night - she was born in 1946 and I'm guessing graduated high school in '64. She never went to college (neither of my parents did; they both came from blue collar families, and I don't believe any of my grandparents went to college either). Instead, she went to beauty school and was a beautician for a year or so out of high school, then got knocked up by my dad (at a time when getting pregnant out of wedlock was still very shameful) and had a shotgun wedding. I'm pretty sure my mother never aspired to anything beyond getting married and having kids anyway; it was just the expected path. So she and my dad were very young when they got married - my dad was 18 and my mom 19, they had three kids in three years. They had very little money, and my mother ended up going into the workforce when I was 4, out of necessity. She started in an entry-level position for an insurance company and was able to work her way up over the years, despite having no college education. She and my dad were divorced by the time my mom was 26. They were part of that explosion of the divorce rate of the early '70s, and suddenly my mother was a single mother raising three kids. What I remember growing up is that she always felt she was nothing without a man - this was a constant theme, and one she openly lamented about. After she and my dad split up, she very quickly got a boyfriend and moved us all in with him - within a year of her splitting up with my dad. And that, of course, didn't work out in the long run, so we were always moving around, she and my dad got back together for a while, then split up again, then my mom got remarried to some other guy for a short time - eh. Always looking for happiness and thinking some man was going to provide it for her. So in some ways, although my mother did enter the professional field and did well, I don't think she ever had the mindset of a "liberated" woman.

So, raised in that environment, I don't think any aspirations were ever instilled in me. My mother always seemed to be in survival mode and looking for her own happiness, mostly in the wrong places and at the expense of her kids. The subject of college was never brought up, but my brothers and I were told from a very young age that once we turned 18, we were expected to either move out or start paying rent to live at home. I somehow did develop my own aspirations, but I think they were more influenced by my peers having aspirations than anything that was instilled in me by my parents. I very much wanted, and fully intended, to go to college. I enjoyed school and did well (until I started drinking and smoking pot, that is). I had big dreams! For a while I wanted to be a veterinarian, and eventually I started dreaming of being a doctor (which makes me almost laugh and almost cry when I think back on it; it seems so lofty and nearly ridiculous now). But my life took a series of detours, which I take full responsibility for, and I never made it to college. Instead, in a desperate attempt to escape the unhappiness and abuse I lived with at home, I dropped out of high school in my senior year and ran away from home at the age of 17, leaving the state with the first boyfriend I ever had. In a big way, my mother all over again: looking for happiness and salvation in a man (really, a boy). So at the age of 17 I left my dreams of higher education behind and set up housekeeping and got a job.

I followed my mother's example of getting married very young, too. That boyfriend and I got married when I was 19 and he was 21, though not because I was pregnant (in fact, we didn't have a child until we had been married for nearly ten years). Eventually I did home study and earned my high school diploma, but my dream of going to college seemed long gone. Working full time and bringing in money to pay the bills was a necessity.

After a series of transitional jobs, including cashier at a Greek restaurant, microfilm camera operator, receptionist, and manicurist, I went to a vocational college for a year and got my paralegal certificate and landed a job in a small law firm. Finally, a bona fide career! Still, thoughts of having a family of my own were always on my mind, and as the years passed (and my then-husband and I were faced with fertility issues) I became more and more desperate to have a baby.

Finally it happened, and everything changed for me. I saw the world through a whole new lens, and suddenly everything I did outside of taking care of this little creature who had grown inside me seemed meaningless. I had to return to work when Kevin was nine weeks old - I had no choice, we depended on two incomes to pay the bills. I will never forget how hard I cried when I had to drop Kevin, practically still a newborn, off at a babysitter's house so I could go back to my job with the law firm, which suddenly seemed utterly unimportant and trivial. I was a mother now, for god's sake! Who cared who was suing whom or for what? And I found myself suddenly caught in this awful tug-of-war, with a boss who was generally pretty unsympathetic to my new status as a mother and who still expected me to give the 110% of myself I had been giving before having a baby, and these horrible feelings of desperately missing my baby and feeling like a limb had been severed or something. I remember I cried every day for months after I returned to work, my inner voice screaming, "THIS ISN'T RIGHT! IT ISN'T NATURAL TO GROW A BABY FOR NINE MONTHS, GIVE BIRTH TO HIM, AND THEN HAND HIM OVER TO SOMEONE ELSE TO TAKE CARE OF!"

Still, I continued working until Kevin was 5 1/2 years old - until a few weeks before Joey was born. Somewhere in there, my first marriage, founded on abuse, lies, alcoholism and drug addiction, finally imploded, and I eventually got married again, to Michael (and the rest, as they say, is history). I worked as a paralegal for 11 years before I quit to stay home with my ever-growing family. And I was really good at what I did working for that law firm.

When I left on maternity leave with Joey's birth approaching, my intention was only to take an extended leave. Michael and I scrimped and saved to fund a six-month leave of absence, but during that time, with Michael getting a raise and our refinancing our house, we discovered that we actually could make it on Michael's income alone. I remember when I officially told my boss I wasn't going to return, he told me that he'd have a place for me in a year or two when I got bored at home. I remember it bothered me - he clearly looked down upon my deciding to be "just a housewife."

And Here I Am

And here I am, eight years out of the workforce now, and with a whole house full of kids. I never dreamed I'd end up with six kids, but I found I had a hard time stopping. I don't think it takes any kind of expert to figure out that under it all, I've tried (and succeeded, I think) to build the family I never had. Maybe not the best reason to have kids, but there seem to be all kinds of reasons people have kids, and who knows which are the right ones and which aren't?

Growing up, I never pictured myself one day being a stay-at-home mother. It was instilled in me from a very young age that You Have To Get A Job And Work To Earn A Paycheck. So, although I wasn't sure exactly how I was going to achieve that, I never questioned that having a job of some sort outside the home was my fate. And truthfully, until I had my first baby, I quietly ridiculed women who stayed home to be mothers. It seemed like they were copping out in some way, taking the easy way out. (And I don't think I was alone in having those feelings; I think there's been an almost complete reversal of the old standards. What used to be expected of women - to stay home and be mothers and wives - is now held in pretty low regard among a large part of today's society.) Then I had my first baby and suddenly wanted nothing more than to be able to stay home and take care of him. And until I actually quit working to stay home, I had no idea how hard it really is to be a stay-at-home-mother. I'm sure I don't have to tell anyone reading this that being a mother is a 24-hour a day, 365-day a year job. You may love it, and you may find the ultimate fulfillment in it (or not), but it is grueling, often tedious, lonely, and almost completely thankless.

And to a large degree, I feel like I've lost, or sacrificed, a big part of myself. "Mother" has become almost my whole identity and sense of self. I'm not sure anymore who Lisa is outside of being a mother. I try to nurture some of my own interests, like my book club, and writing, that have nothing to do with my kids in order to not completely lose myself, but I often feel a distant feeling of panic when I think about all of my kids one day leaving the nest. I fear that I will be one of those women who goes off the deep end when all her kids are grown and gone, living their own lives. I adore my husband and truly enjoy his company, but I honestly have a very difficult time picturing it being just me and him.

And then there's the issue of work. Will I or won't I return to the workforce in some capacity eventually? Michael has remarked plenty of times about my going back to work part-time when all the kids are in school, and this calls up feelings of fear and resentment in me. With at least a couple more years before all the kids are in school, I will by that time have been out of the workforce for at least ten years - what the hell will I be qualified for? And even when all the kids are in school, there's still after school to consider, and summer breaks and winter breaks and spring breaks, and sick kids, and doctor appointments, and . . . what kind of job does he think I'm going to get that will accommodate all of that? And to be perfectly frank, I've become very comfortable, with all its pitfalls and downsides, being a stay-at-home-mother. I like being my own boss - that's one of the best perks of the whole deal!

Anyway, I think this is something many people don't think about when a mother quits working to stay home and raise a family. How long will she stay home? Will she be qualified to go back into the workforce at some point? Will it be practical for her to do so, even if it becomes necessary? I know we certainly didn't ask ourselves any of those questions.

Back to my original questions: have I lived up to everything the women who fought so hard for women's rights wanted? More specifically, have I let them down by deciding to be "just" a housewife, a fate so many of those women of the previous generation fought against?

I guess it all boils down to having choices, which previous generations of women did not have. They stayed home and raised families because they had very few alternatives. If they needed or wanted any kind of career, it was most likely as a nurse, a teacher, or a secretary, and even in those jobs, once a woman got married, and certainly when she got pregnant, she was let go. Today, women have choices. They can pursue higher education at the same schools as their male counterparts; the professional field is wide open to women, and women can now expect equal pay for equal work. Women can choose to have children or choose not to, they can choose how large or small their family will be, they can choose to work outside the home while raising their families, and they can choose to stay home to raise their families based on their individual circumstances and desires, and not on what society expects or allows.

I have chosen to stay home to raise my family not because women belong at home raising families, but because it's where I feel I belong. I had a career while raising a child for a number of years (and that was only with one child!), and it didn't work for me; I couldn't do it all - not without great cost. I couldn't give my best to anyone - not my family or my employer - and it cost me a lot of happiness. I believe my kids benefit from having a mother who is here at home with them. And despite my sense that I've lost a part of my identity in immersing myself almost solely in motherhood, I nevertheless believe that I'm finding more happiness and fulfillment in staying home to raise my kids than trying to maintain a job outside the home as well as raising my family. I feel that I'm doing the right thing for myself and for my family; but this is a personal choice, not something foisted on me. Therein lies the difference.

What do I hope to instill in my own kids? I'd like my kids to expect to go to college. I'd like to instill in my kids that they can be anything they aspire to be with hard work and determination, regardless of their gender. I hope that being raised by a stay-at-home-mother does not instill in my daughters that they shouldn't aspire to anything else, though if they themselves become SAHMs, that's a fine life to choose if it works for them. I'd like to instill in all of my kids, boys and girls alike, that although it's wonderful to have a partner to share one's life with, they shouldn't expect someone else to provide their happiness and meaning to their life, that those things need to be found and nurtured within themselves. I'd like to instill in my kids enough confidence, self-respect, and love for themselves that they'll never tolerate abusive relationships.

Sometimes I wonder what my life would be like had I made different choices. What if I had gone to college? Where would I be now? Sometimes I feel like I passed up what might have been a really wonderful and enlightening experience, but mostly I don't have regrets. All the choices I've made have led me to where I'm at now, and I'm pretty content with where I've landed. And thankful to have had choices to make.


Mumofone said...

Thankyou for that wonderful post. Thankyou for your heartfelt honesty.
Thankyou for putting into words what thousands of us mothers feel but are unable to articulate.

Anna Alexandrova said...

Excellent post indeed. Our lives are very different as you know. Every time I return to your blog I glance at the poem "I'd rather me a mother". "Beautiful," I tell myself "but certainly *not* about me". And yet you remain a feminist icon for me. You are wise and independent-minded, you built a healthy family despite a bad history, you don't fall for ideologies, you listen to reasons, you are self-aware and ready to doubt, and you are so incredibly articulate. What more does it take to be a feminist?