In Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, she describes working in the clothing department at Wal-Mart. All day, she’s responsible for cleaning up the continually unfolding mess, sorting, folding, and hanging clothes that customers have removed from the racks. Of course, her job is never finished. There are always more t-shirts in the changing rooms, sweaters unfolded, jeans carried off but not purchased. And the customer—you know, the one she’s “serving”?—the customer begins to look like the enemy in her Sisyphean slog toward making things neat. She cringes when she sees one coming. In a workplace with little freedom, flexibility, or opportunity for creativity, the customers aren’t the point of her job; they’re her opponents, existing only to set her even farther back on the unending road to ever feeling finished.
I’m horrified to realize how often, lately, I’ve thought of the little people in our house just that way. I crave a sense of completion. I crave the moment when everything is done and put away and quiet. And from that point of view, the people who poop and throw sweet potatoes and upend baskets of toys and need stories read and hair combed and medicines administered…they start to look, in my messed up, overtired mind, a lot like Barbara Ehrenreich’s customers. “Please,” I think, as I wipe one’s nose while the other clambers up my shirt. “Can’t you please stop needing things so that I can get on with…”
But get on with what, exactly?
Like everyone, I have a list of things I’d do with a quiet hour: sort old clothes, wrap wedding gift, vacuum stairs, shave legs. And beyond that: learn Spanish, run intervals, write poems. But is any of that enough to make up the life I really want?
Lately I’ve been in this little house of parenthood, pressing my face up against the glass, staring out at the free, free world. Why am I in here? Why?
This is nearly impossible to write about, because I fear I’m creating something my daughters will one day be able to read but not understand. Let me be clear: our children are fantastic and deeply loved. There is no chance I’d wish either of them away. I think you understand, though: I love my children fiercely. And sometimes I wish, equally fiercely, that I were not their mother.
Years ago, without children, dreaming of parenthood, I got a lot wrong. I missed, totally, how much I could sometimes not like it. But I was right (and I’d forgotten, until recently, that I’d even anticipated this) in looking forward to our child-raising years as a time of happy chaos. Of things being in disorder, always messy, a bit out of control, exhausting. I even craved the mess and rush, fearing, as I headed into fertility treatments, a constant life of dry, plain neatness.
I’ve come to know the chaos of my dreams well. The library books are overdue, the dishes aren’t done, and when did I last have a haircut? I’ve been letting the chaos get me down so much, though, that I’d forgotten happy could come in the same phrase. That I wanted this. That, really thinking about the alternative, even knowing what I know now, I’d make the same choice again.
I have thought so often about the alternate universe in which A and I were not able to conceive and have children. I think that some people who’ve been through infertility experience it as a great magnifier of gratitude. But when I think, “What if we hadn’t been able to have them?” I feel only a kind of rote gratitude, plus a heap of guilt for not liking it enough. And I forget that something came before the fear of not having this: the decision that we wanted it.
When I think, “What if we’d decided not to do this?”, that’s when I see that, however much I’d love to have more breaks from this life to do all of the necessary and fulfilling things on my list, the quiet and calm—the unending space and time for just me or even just A and me—wouldn’t be enough. Wasn’t, and still isn’t—no matter how much I crave the better parts of it—what I want for my life, for our lives.
Last week I read The War of Art. It’s about about what keeps us from doing the creative work we want to do, and one of its big themes is: Do your work. He means: You know what you’re here to do. Don’t waste time thinking about it, complaining about it, talking about it, or trying in a million ways to avoid it. You’ll never get it done if you don’t do it.
Somehow it helps me lose my awful attitude when I think of my kids as my work. Work in Pressfield’s sense: what I’m here to do, what only I can do.
I’ve never quite been one to think of motherhood as my calling. And I have other work in this world, too—fitting that in is a whole other story. But, indisputably, for a good chunk of my days, the care and love and education of these two great girls is it.
Thinking of it this way quiets me, somehow. I am not here (it is not possible) to quell all of their needs and finally arrive at some nirvana of peaceful, completed family life. I am here to see what my family needs from me, and to do it. And to find enough respite from this work so that, during the times when it’s mine, I can do it well, rather than pedaling fruitlessly toward its nonexistent end.
Whether this makes any sense or not, it’s what I’m using today to claw my way out of the hole.