Saturday, March 29, 2008

Thinking about all sorts of things

I've been doing a good bit of writing this past week but not much of it has made it here, unfortunately. If you've really missed me, you can peruse this thread at 4Real where I think I contributed enough material to fill several blog posts.

What has me thinking even more--and on weightier matters--is Sally's recent post on the clash of vocations. It surprised me, actually, that the post inspired so much thought on my part. I never would have said before this week that I felt a "clash of vocations" in my life. For the first three years of our marriage I did work. I was a librarian and then a Residential Life Director for Washington, DC, interns. Both of these occupations earned much-needed money for our family while Eric chipped away at a Ph.D but neither job was a second vocation. I was a librarian only to kill time until I could start being an RD--a job which would then allow me to be a stay-at-home Mom. The RD job was part-time, all from home, and my co-workers graciously put up with Joseph's presence at staff meetings. Ideal. Once Margaret came along it was too much and Eric gave it a go for a year but now we're living like grown-ups, paying rent, and desperately job-hunting.

Despite past employment I have for some time seen my primary, and really my sole vocation, as that of wife and mother. This really drove my college professors nuts. One wanted me to get a Ph.D. Several thought I should go to law school. All thought I was throwing away all my gifts by wanting to be "just a mom." I do not have a single regret and I'm not posting here to defend the vocation of motherhood. But, for the record, I think it is completely possible to be one hundred percent fulfilled and satisfied by a life devoted entirely to one's family. I adore my children and I hope we have lots more but I have been wondering of late whether this "just a mom" thing is enough for me.

I suppose where I'm feeling the lack is in the exercise of my intellectual powers. Not to suggest that I'm more "powerful" than average in this area but I know something is lying dormant in there. It would also be nice to contribute economically to the well-being of my family. It turns out I'm not the only adult in the family who thinks that would be nice. And given that our preferred places to live rank pretty high on the cost-of-living scales it wouldn't be so bad to have a little extra coming in.

But then I consider, also, that I have pretty high ideals in how to parent my children and how to be available to them. And I want to support my husband's vocation. And, um, it would be nice if that huge pile of laundry were folded on a regular basis. How to balance it all? I feel on the one hand too busy to take on mere work just to earn money and on the other hand like not all of me is being challenged and utilized in the way I currently live my life. I would certainly just get "some job" if I had to in order for our family to survive but we're not there, yet, and I'm certain that "some job" would not satisfy the lack I'm feeling.

I wonder if taking a stab at doing something in a disciplined way would seep into other ares of my life to positive effect. It's tempting for me, prone to despair as I am, to give it all up and refuse to do anything until I learn to get the laundry folded every single day. I just need to work and work at that and when I get it, then I can move on. I'm not convinced that this is the best approach, though because of two recent breakthroughs around here.

The first was actually in Eric's life. He's been cranking really hard on this dissertation. He sprinted for weeks to get all the writing done and then the extra little bits of work and revisions that came after were threatening to overwhelm and, I daresay, he was teetering on the edge of burnout. In my classic, hands-off way I sat him down and made him give me a list of all the things he ideally wanted to accomplish in a week from dissertation work to prayer time to time with the kids. Then I made him a schedule and--surprise!--it all fit. In a normal week Eric does have time to get everything done and still do all the things that make his life worth living. It was a revelation for both of us and he is able to leave for work on Saturday morning knowing that he only needs to put in a certain number of hours before coming back home to tend to other things including taking Margaret out for a walk so I can make our Lord's Day dinner in relative peace. I really, really wish I could do this for myself but I'm not sure that housework and children can be scheduled as rigidly. But I'm thinking about it.

I also had a big revelation during Holy Week about the dishes. Some of you are really going to laugh at me but I don't care. I'm terrible about doing the dishes. I too easily come up with an excuse to leave them overnight and then wake to them in the morning. The sight of the dishes in the sink and on the counter when we get home from Mass completely destroys my morning. I get angry and tense and often yell at my family and slam cupboard doors and such. It's very bad. One morning I said, "I dread coming home to our apartment." I'd never said that before and, thus, never really realized it before. In the back of my mind I knew that the messy kitchen would be waiting for me and all the way home from Mass my agitation would increase. Sometime during Holy Week, without realizing it, I made the cognitive leap from my morning stress to my evening activity. I finally realized that it was totally worth it to sacrifice my limited free time in exchange for waking up to a clean kitchen. The dishes have, for the most part, gotten clean every night since.

Parenting my children and maintaining my home are the most important aspects of living my vocation and I have a long way to go in these areas. But I can't simply exert my will and try extra hard and magically create lovely children and a beautiful home. I can keep slowly cultivating good habits and slowly I will grow in maturity and virtue.

In the meantime, what can I do to feel more balanced? I have always nurtured hopes of being a writer. I've never called myself a writer because mostly I'm not and I've never been published anywhere of note. Eric and I will occasionally come up with an idea for a New York Times bestseller to be written "someday" in our copious free time. There's the hope, too, that getting published could help with that economic contribution thing I mentioned earlier.

But, well, I can't be a writer if I don't write. On the day when Eric and I realize that we actually have time to write that paradigm-shifting book of ours, I'm not going to be much use if I haven't been working at the writing craft. Next time I see someone looking for articles on a topic I know something about I'm probably not going to have time to whip up something from scratch and another opportunity will be lost.

I love to write. I may never publish anything but it's a satisfying hobby for me, at least. I have stacks of journals--mostly of the navel-gazing, sentimental, whiny, and immature genre but recent entries have been more substantial. I've got a couple blogs. My homemaking aspirations really only serve as a loose framework within which to practice writing about life. I'm tentatively considering adding "writer" as a facet of my vocation and committing to working at it in some way every day: blogging, journaling, working on drafts of essays or articles. Maybe it will "pay off" in concrete terms one day and maybe not but I do hope that some project that brings me outside myself will give me more energy and focus for all that is going on inside my life in the day-to-day.


Mrs. T said...

Susan --

I'm not laughing at you about the dishes. I SO hear you. I have often had that feeling, too, about dishes and other clutter (currently my house is full of boxes, and our main bathroom is torn up, because I felt I had to refurbish it to sell, and then got the stomach flu -- very useful homemaker I've been this week!). And I slam doors and snap at people as well.

I really admire your schedule-making and your proactive approach to it. We have wangled over schedules for years and never found one that we could stick to. I need to try again to get us more on a grid, so that what needs to be done can be done.

And you are right about practicing craft. I've always thought of writing as akin to piano-playing -- you can't expect to play a sonata if you haven't been playing your scales, and so much of writing IS playing scales. Keeping a journal is playing scales. Doing poetry exercises is playing scales.

Sending things out to be published (if you haven't got somebody asking for them) is a job unto itself, and that part I've just given up for now. I used to do it assiduously, but that was before homeschooling. The reason I have somebody asking for things from me now is that I sent him poems for years, and we had a lively correspondence which I guess suggested that I could maybe write prose, too. As with anything, there's a whole lot of un-artistic, networky, administrative-type stuff that goes with pretty much any artistic endeavor -- my sister-in-law is a painter, and she has to bang through a lot of the same stuff -- which takes time and energy. I'm grateful to have had the years I had to lay some of those foundations, though in certain moods I really wish I'd spent them having more children instead. But there you are: "Two roads diverged in a yellow wood." Anyway, for you that publishing grunt-work might be a "later" kind of thing, when the kids are older and more independent. So for now, you keep playing scales.

And in truth, mothering and homeschooling do become more intellectually satisfying as your children get older. The difference between just having littles, and having bigs and littles, is tremendous in my experience. Even though the littles are doing littly things, the bigs are reading meaty things and want to talk about them, and that's tremendously satisfying. I really had far more of those "is this all" moments when all I had were littles. Now it's more that time is slipping away (I'm 43, probably through having children, and feeling ooooooold lately . . . ) on a large scale as well as a daily one, and I'm feeling the drive to accomplish something on the writing side, especially since I've got someone asking me to do it. But balance is always hard . . . I need to take a page out of your scheduling book!

(and now the teenager needs to write the second draft of her term paper, so I've got to give up the computer and go back to painting the bathroom)

Robyn said...


This was a fantastic post. I loved it. I am crossing my fingers that your writing appears on your blog more so that I be in on the whole thing! I love reading your stuff.

Go, Q, GO!

Anonymous said...

Susan -

I have been a SAHM for 26 years now. Everything you say resonates so loudly with me. Especially when *I was at your stage of life*, there was lots of internal conflict. Not that I wanted someone else to take care of my children so that I could work or so that I could spend more time in a more intellectually stimulating environment. But still, and I fully admit that this makes very little logical sense, I didn't want to be *just a houswife* or whatever description one might apply to my unemployed life. I also felt it was VERY important to care for both my husband and children in a loving, self-sacrificing way (not a *doormat* way, but the true and loving sacrifice of seeing them as my vocation, instead of seeing them as obligations I had taken on). Before being at home, I had been (maybe I still am?) an attorney. VERY intellectually stimulating, etc. Also, pretty much incompatible with my idea of how I wanted to run my home, marriage, mothering, etc. There was just no way I could function properly in my wifely/motherly vocation if I was waking up at 3 a.m. to write down the 7-page argument that had gelled in my head while I was supposed to be busy sleeping. At least function properly as I defined functioning properly. So, I was pretty much torn, and I spent a lot of time thinking about how I could do and be what I was supposed to do and be. It was an internally wrenching period of years. Now, after being at home, mothering 6 children (4 of whom are still at home - one commuting to college, 3 being homeschooled), I've reached self-acceptance. I don't *work at my profession*, but those skills are daily put to the test as I try to teach my children how to treat each other fairly, how to react to the rest of the world in its many dimensions, how to balance so many things, while leaving them the personal space to work through, increasinly, their own lives, as they mature. When I was out their receiving a paycheck for being all sorts of intellectually stimulated, and, I admit, I truly enjoyed solving problems in that sphere, I was very unfulfilled on other levels. I wasn't laughing with my children, or getting hugs, or feeling the satisfaction of a job well done on a more essential level.

So, my bottom line is that life has all sorts of trade-offs. Ideally, each person can find a comfortable balance; but that balance is often achieved by living through (sometimes extended) periods of time when the weight of one set of satisfactions is shifted to one or another side of that balance. And, it's all part of the journey.

Just my 2 cents.


Susan said...

I appreciate the encouragement, everyone. I do try to be mindful of how temporary and fleeting this stage of my life is. I think the practical upshot of all of this, at least for now, is that I'm just thinking differently about something I was already doing. I used to spend time blogging or journaling and feel guilty about it. I think changing my attitude to embrace this part of who I am will give a bit more balance to my life. I didn't emphasize enough in the original post, either, how much this is a point of connection with my husband. He's an academic and writing is a very big part of what he does both for work and for fun. I don't always understand his subject matter as much as I'd like so I think we both appreciate having a similar hobby to pursue together and in a parallel way.