Monday, March 07, 2011

Becoming Ma Joad

What I have managed to collect so far for the baby's nursery.

A couple of weeks ago, I was at an event with a warm acquaintance from grad school. I was delighted to see her because, although circumstances weren't right for us to pursue an actual friendship while studying, I thought she was a neat person and would gladly pursue one now, especially since she has a 5-year-old and a 3-month-old. I would love to build a circle of intelligent women with children who sometimes think about the world the same way I do: through the lens of policy, economics, organizational theory and systemic incentives and limitations. This would calm my fears that I will become unbalanced after my child is born, thinking only about how many poops today and the price of laundry detergent.

So, when she told me that she and another mom from grad school (whom I lovelovelove) were starting a business together and were making a presentation the next week, I didn't think twice about telling her that I would be there. I was a little distracted and didn't ask any questions. I just assumed: two U of C graduates + business presentation = something I would be interested in.

It probably won't surprise any of you that I showed up at her house to find a coffee table arrayed with cleaning supplies, cosmetics and "nutricueticals" and that I then had to sit through an hour and a half of a power-point presentation on the benefits of becoming a preferred customer by buying a subscription for $50-$70 worth of the stuff every month. A good percentage of the pitch was also focused on persuading us to host similar presentations in order to receive a cut of other people's subscriptions.

I was disappointed but not overly so and I was suitably impressed at a meta-level at the presenter's skill and earnestness at making what was clearly the company line sound like she was coming up with it on the spot.  I even thought I would actually sign up until I realized that we just don't spend $50 a month on those types of products.

The experience has me examining who I will be once this baby is born.  What will give my life meaning when I am exhausted but the dust bunnies keep piling up?  How will I keep from becoming selfish and forgetting that Jacob needs a partner, too?  How do I avoid becoming the type of person who sells non-perishable household products for a living even though they used to be passionate about changing the world?

I had dinner with a new friend the other night and she shared with me her trepidation regarding starting a family.  She said she just didn't feel ready.

I remember that once I said that to my own mother, years ago, as she peeled me a pear while I sat at the island in the kitchen and did nothing.  I commented that I didn't think that I would ever be able to serve my children so habitually.  My mom said, "No one is ever ready."

Can I tell you something, though?

I feel ready.

I feel like I've spent the last 8 years of my life acquiring a toolbox to help me realize when I have lost the plot and then to help me adjust and get back on track.  I have been practicing a spirituality of imperfection to come to terms with the fact that - because I am human - I am bound to make mistakes.  This is the way it is supposed to be.  So, I don't have to freak out or deny that I screw up every once in a while (or even every day, or several times a day).  Freaking out or denying won't change the fact that it happened or help me make sure that it won't happen again.  So, I acknowledge and examine mistakes that I make - including any feelings that come along as consequences - and try to mitigate the damage before moving on and trying not to do it again.

And then I do it again.  Because I'm human.

As far as I understand it, that describes parenthood, as well.  We do the best we can and still, we screw up often.

The parents that I do not want to emulate tend to be the ones who freak out or deny that either they or their children could screw up.  They go to great lengths to help themselves believe that they can control the outcomes of their actions.  Then, other people have to walk carefully around them so that they don't snap.

However, the fantastic parents that I know are the ones who laugh at themselves and move on.  Or they cry and move on.  Or they scream in frustration, break things, remember to breathe, call a friend and move on.  They set up loose systems to help calm the chaos and mostly remember not to get so focused on the systems that they forget the goal.  

I think I'm getting pretty good at that.  I feel like I have quite a few successful experiences in my history of rolling with the punches or recognizing when I haven't rolled with the punches and figuring out how to back up and fix whatever had broken because of my rigidity.

With this realization that my Batman Utility Belt is now pretty useful, I begin to get a sense of clarity about who I will become when working professionally to change the world is no longer the center of my life.  Last weekend, I wrote this note to the baby in his/her book that we write weekly notes:
I am just sort of trusting in good faith that spending my days changing the world on a nuclear level by helping you develop into a stable and loved human being will be equally fulfilling [to my professional work].  There will be the logistical tasks of making and keeping house around you, as well as the administrative tasks of creating a culture in which a harmonious family can thrive.  I want you and your father to be able to contribute to our life together as much as you receive from it.  I want to make sure that you both know how integral you are to all three of our lives now.  Life will be less good for all of us if any one of us is unable to be fully ourselves. So, I will work hard at encouraging the two of you - as well as paying attention to my own needs - to make sure this dynamic is possible.
Coming up with this mission statement has been very emotional for me.  It's HUGE.  To live my life for others, peeling pears because it makes their lives more pleasant?  I'm already good at living for myself and will continue doing so.  Professionally, I have been gaining expertise at living my life to achieve an objective (which usually involves helping others).  But to make my primary focus two other people?  There is something very noble and spiritual about that.  However, I am scared of it in the way an alcoholic is scared of getting sober.  I have no idea what my life will look like or who I will be once I start acting on that decision.

There are four, things that make me nervous about making this choice.  The first is that this is such a traditional arrangement.  The woman changes her focus from her career to her family and the man brings home the bacon.  In the case of our kosher home, the man will be bringing home the brisket.  Because the man is bringing home the brisket and this is stressful, he has less time and energy to worry about the social calendar, extended family dynamics and learning exactly which small crunchy snacks the toddler is allowed to eat.  So, because they are partners, the woman becomes the expert in those things to ensure that they are attended to.

I have plenty of friends who switch this up because it works better for their personalities and their earning potentials for the man to safeguard the harmony of the family.  We don't happen to be one of those families.  This should be fine.

However, there is this whole historical precedent that continues to inform a culture where most women must take on this role; they have no choice.  If I choose it for myself and do not oppose the systemic injustice of misogyny that is still institutionalized in our society, am I contributing to the problem?

Ultimately, I will choose what is best for my family but I think I'll always be a little conflicted about it.  This weekend, I attended a conference with other members of my church's leadership team and we got to hang out a little bit with Bruce Reyes-Chow.  The conversation turned to enneagram personality types and I was reminded that I am very clearly a 1 - "The Reformer". Can I really make a choice for my life that will not directly and positively impact the suffering of others?  Is it selfish to have children of my own who will require me to take my eyes off the prize in order to be fair to them?  I can't see myself getting comfortable with this anytime soon.

Another fear that I have is that I will become a little unbalanced since every report of parenthood I've ever heard seems to describe unending exhaustion, isolation and insecurity. This makes me worry that Jacob and I will fall even further into traditional household roles, becoming Everyone Loves Raymond, where I have particular ways that things around the house must be done and Jacob's only option for navigating those obstacles is to become the bumbling husband who sometimes "babysits" his kids so mom can get out for a half-hearted book group that exists for the large glasses of wine served.  I know that women do this because they feel under-valued in their roles and so grasp for whatever power they can get.  This often means that they create territories where they are the expert and defend that territory fiercely, insisting that the dishwasher be loaded in a particular way and that Junior certainly will never be able to fall asleep unless he is sung to in a specific way that dad can't possibly duplicate.  I have always thought Hanna Rosin did an excellent job describing this trend in her article The Case Against Breastfeeding in The Atlantic.

Similarly, I fear going too far with the Defender of the Hearth identity, taking over too many tasks and making Jacob feel infantalized because of my low expectations of him, which might alienate him and drive a wedge between us.  I also want to always have the ability to see those things that make me admire him and respect him.  I don't want to lose my delight in the fact that I actually get to hang out with this hunk of a guy or lose the self-esteem boost that I get because this man thinks I'm awesome or lose the constant sense of gratitude I have that the universe aligned in such a way to help us find each other in just the right moment when we finally able to recognize the benefits of a life together.

Finally, I fear losing my edge and thinking that becoming a direct sales person is a good use of my time.  I love having smart conversations with people about education policy and local politics.  I care a lot about how Christians engage the world on topics of injustice and race.  If I need to make more money, I want to use these unique skills and passions to do so.  At the same time, I can understand how direct sales is appealing.  The more time that you dedicate to using your high levels skills, the more energy that you have to take away from cultivating a safe emotional space for your family to reach their full potential.  If you can work a simple job, all it costs is your time.

What I need to do is let go of these worries and trust that the type of person that I become as a result of my choice to be the glue that holds my family together will be someone that I like.  I like most of the people that I have been in my life and this identity shift will probably not deviate much from that pattern.

My mom told me once that when my younger brother and I were little, the three of us conspired to "surprise" my dad when he walked into the house after work.  We "hid" in the fort we had made of cushions and jumped out and ran over to him when the door opened.  Mom must have thought of it when she heard his car pull into the driveway.  Later, my dad told her that coming home was the best part of his day.

I want to be deliberate like that about the interactions my family members have with one another.  I want to create the space for it.  I included the picture of the nursery-so-far at the beginning of this post because I look at those newly-painted orange walls every day and get excited about the start I have gotten on tending to my family in this new way.


ABG said...

Wow. Thanks for your honesty.

By way of encouragement, David left his job shortly after Josh joined our family--and he's also Type 1.

Preserving Beauty said...

love, love, love it