I saw this yesterday and appreciated it so much I had to post it to Facebook, and I rarely post anything to Facebook other than links to my blog posts because my blog posts cover most of what is happening in my life anyway. But I thought this bit was brilliant. Brilliant not just because it was amusing but because it was honest.
It’s kind of crazy how much time some people are willing to devote to their careers. Their jobs come before family. Their jobs come before their health, their friends, their home. And for what? Money? A title? Some imagined (or real but not incredibly significant) career legacy? So few people land where Steve Job, Elon Musk, or Jeff Bezos did. Those men have made their mark on our lifetimes, but how long those marks will last remains to be seen. Who from the annals of history do we recall? The great philosophers — Socrates, Plato, Aristotle? Genghis Khan? Caesar? Napoleon? Consider the number human lives lived during the same period that these men lived and how few of those lives had a significant, lasting impact on the world, the dissemination of their genes into the proverbial pool, notwithstanding. Most of us will live quiet lives, so why do we stress ourselves out with long hours and dedication to work when ultimately our significance in this life will remain inside a small circle of personal influence. How much time do we lose in that circle by pawing for things that don’t really matter in our life’s grand scheme? Did we learn nothing from the 1974 Harry Chapin hit Cats in the Cradle?
It’s something to think about. I think most people know the most important things in life can’t be bought. It’s too bad so many of us don’t live that way.
A funny thing is happening in my life. People are suddenly deeply interested in my career choice. For twenty years, I have been a homemaker and 24/7 support staff for my children. During this time, when people would ask me what I did for a living and I would respond as I just have, they would immediately lose interest in their line of questioning. I figured that was either because they didn’t want further elucidation on my career staying with my children, perhaps hoping to avoid what they assumed would be inevitable potty talk or presentation of myriad baby photos, or because they figured that I had no intelligent things to say because I was only a homemaker and caregiver with no perceivable goals, accomplishments, or interests. There were many times at parties and social events when I felt ostensibly invisible. In this country, you are only as important as your job. Taking care of children and a home is undervalued when held up to other careers.
Recently, however, it seems many people I know are curious about my future plans. I’m assuming this sudden concern is because our youngest is finishing up the first quarter of his last year of high school. The question posed is always the same: “What are you going to do with yourself once both boys are off at college?” After decades of no one having any interest in my daily goings-on, I have found myself at a loss for a response to this question. I assume most people pose the question because they are wondering what work I will do now that my current employers no longer need me. Some people have asked if I will go back to my previous career as a scientific and technical editor. Some people have asked if I’m planning to go back to school since I have been out of the work force for so long and might need some retraining. Other people suggest maybe I could work at Starbucks or Walmart because my resume is a little lackluster what with the twenty year hiatus I’ve had. Their concern for my future is a little puzzling given their previous lack of interest in the goings on in my life.
So, I am going to take a minute to demystify my plans so people can stop worrying about what I will do with the extra hours I’ll be saddled with once Luke graduates next June. My plan is to retire. My tour of duty is over, so I am going to find myself again. Maybe I will work on writing. Maybe I will practice a lot more yoga and ride my bike. Maybe I will travel and visit friends I haven’t spent time with in far too long. Maybe I will work on creating new recipes that fit my old lady diet. Maybe I will play drums in a garage band. Maybe I will make a bunch of AARP friends and play pickleball. Maybe I’ll get weekly massages. Maybe I’ll get bored with all that and find a part-time paying job or volunteer at an organization that feeds my soul. Maybe I’ll do a little bit of all of it. I have no idea. But after twenty years of having my life schedule filled in with other people’s plans, I’m looking forward to making plans of my own, whatever that might look like. And the beautiful thing about retiring from a non-paying job is that I won’t be missing a paycheck. So, win-win.
I’ve been lucky and I’m still lucky. I get to retire from a non-paying job no one thought I was doing all these years. At least now I’ll have an answer when someone asks me what I do. When I meet someone new and they ask me what I did before I retired, though, I’m going to have to tell them I had a classified job with the US government so the conversations ends there. Life is funny sometimes.
While searching my brain for something to write about tonight, I found this gem on Facebook. I love the idea of flipping the script, taking something basic and turning it upside down until it looks a little more intriguing. When I was years and years younger, I did this with my career as stay-at-home mom. I told people I was a “Wildlife Manager,” which was infinitely more descriptive and appropriate. Seriously. Have you ever tried to manage two boys under the age of 5? They are a bit much.
So much of what happens in life is predictable, prescribed, and ordinary. We fall into boxes readily, like cats into taped off squares on the floor, because they make us feel secure. Student. Business professional. Realtor. Doctor. Parent. Dog mother. Athlete. When you meet someone new, what is the first place the conversation naturally flows? “So, where do you work?” If you’re lucky, you get a more nebulous, “What do you do?” We are comfortable when we can rely on these scripts. We feel good about ourselves when can give someone the elevator-chat, ten second version of our life, a version that usually revolves around what we do, not who we are, not what makes us happy or interesting or passionate. I think this is a crime.
I propose that we mix things up. Let’s stop talking about what we do. Let’s start talking about who we are. Wouldn’t a cocktail party be much more interesting if instead of starting with work talk (because who wants to talk about work when not at work, anyway?), we asked what someone’s first concert was or which television character they would invite to dinner if they could. And what if our ten-second, elevator-chat personal description went more like this:
“I’m Justine. As a child, I was terrified of anything having to do with UFOs. I played cymbals in high school marching band. I suck at throwing frisbees. I’m a die-hard introvert, but I love to plan parties that I preferably would not have to attend. Oh, and even though I’m 53, I sleep with a stuffed dog I named Eliot.”
Imagine what we would know about each other, imagine what we would learn about ourselves, if we stopped putting people into boxes based on religion, politics, and career and began talking to each other as if we were all the unique, interesting individuals we are. What barriers might we break down? What assumptions about others might we lose? I think if we started flipping the script, we might be able to raise the level of discourse in this country. Let’s re-enchant life by focusing on the parts of our human experiences that make life worth living.
Ever since I made the choice to leave my career and stay home with my sons, I’ve been overwhelmed by my choice. There have been periods of time when I felt like I was nothing more than a butt wiper or a housekeeper or, in darkest times, a slave. Some days it is hard to find the silver lining in my current career. But, no fail, right about the time that I am feeling 100% certain about my decision, some working woman or man asks me what I do. The standard response I get when I tell a career person that I am a stay-at-home mom is a simple, one syllable, “Oh.” Conversation over. Clearly, I have no longer have anything current or intelligent to talk about, and no one wants to hear about kids, so they leave. I am a serial conversation killer. I’m not exactly sure when the decision to expend my energy solely as mother and homemaker vaporized my IQ and decimated my inherent worth as a human being, but it happened. Working people get to ask me ridiculous questions about my personal choice without feeling an iota of impropriety. I wonder how they would feel about it if I questioned the validity of their career choice? Really? You’re a programmer? I’ve heard they’ve taught monkeys to do that.
I was fortunate enough to have a choice to make when I was 32: 1) have a career and no kids, 2) have a career and kids, or 3) have kids and no career. I chose what was behind Door Number Three. When Joe was born, I knew that what I really wanted was as low-stress of a life as I could have. To me, that meant not trying to juggle too many things. Steve worked. We could afford for me not to work. We came to an agreement. He puts money in our bank account. I run the house. We share duties with our sons. Our weekends are free to enjoy because I take care of the busy work during the week. As with any choice, it has both good and bad points. The choice I made means I clean toilets and mop floors like Cinderella because we can’t afford a maid. It also means, however, I can go to yoga during the day when my kids are in school because I am my own boss. Like anyone else’s life, my life is a balancing act to keep things working. But, make no mistake about it, I work. Every day. Seven days a week. I get no paid vacation. No bonuses. No salary. But it’s worth it to me because our four lives are more peaceful because of what I do.
To be fair, I know that the work I do is invisible to those on the outside (unless they catch me at Starbucks having coffee with a friend while they’re on their way to work and suddenly I’m no longer invisible). And this is why people feel free to interpret something they know nothing about. Still, I get tired of answering condescending questions. To that end, today I invented some succinct responses to lessen the agony of being asked them repeatedly:
“When do you think you’ll go back to work?” Never. Work sucks.
“What did you do when you worked?” I was an adult film star.
“What do you do with all your free time when the kids are in school?” Day drink.
“Don’t you get bored?” Oh…when I get bored watching Oprah, I take a nap. Crisis averted.
Really, people. I am doing the right thing for me. I only get one shot with my boys. I have to do my best the first time around because it’s the only time I have. Ask any adult child about their relationship with their parents and you will know this is true. Time with our children goes by fast. I have six years left with my beautiful, deep-thinking, first-born son. It will be over in the blink of an eye. I know I have been fortunate to have a choice, and I know that what is right for me is not necessarily right for others. I don’t begrudge anyone their choice. I simply wish others would believe that there’s more to me than my lack of a paycheck. Right now, I’m somebody’s most important person, and that won’t always be the case. Someday they will no longer need me. I bet I will not be on my death-bed regretting the inordinate amount of time I spent with my sons in their youth. I will only regret acknowledging stupid questions about the smartest choice I ever made.
The other day a friend and fellow “stay-at-home mom” had a moment of frustration and ranted a bit on her Facebook status. Her post listed all the things she does on a daily basis and then noted that someone close to her remarked that she doesn’t really do anything. I read her post and felt complete empathy. Many of my blogs have been tyrades about how frustrating and thankless the job of Mom can be.
Then, today, I came across a Facebook post from a working mom friend of mine. She’s currently in-between jobs for a short period of time, so she was at the park listening to the birds, sipping a latte while her house was being cleaned, and thinking that she would like to be a “house frau,” presumably so she could enjoy more moments like that one. Now, I know my friend meant no disrespect to stay-at-home moms. As long as I’ve known her (over sixteen years), she has worked outside the home full-time while raising two children. I know how long and difficult her days are, and I know how devoted she is and always has been to her children. I can understand how she would be enjoying a brief reprieve between career positions today and thinking that it would be nice not to have to work at all.
Still, I had to reply to her post to remind her that, as a certified “house frau,” I can attest that I can’t afford someone to clean my house because that’s what I agreed to do when I gave up my income to stay home with my boys. I told her that I have to clean my own house, which (let’s face it) sucks and cuts into my time to sit, worry-free, in the park in the morning sipping my latte. There have been many times when I’ve looked at Barb’s career, her housecleaning service, her professional wardrobe, and her European vacations, and felt something akin to a twinge (or perhaps a seizure-full) of jealousy. I know, though, that her life, while seemingly more glamorous than mine, is a lot of frigging work too.
I’m in something of a transitional period in my life right now. While still technically an unemployed, stay-at-home mom, I’ve made the decision to work on my writing. Between this blog and my book, I’ve been spending between 4-6 hours a day writing, researching, and trying to grow my platform. While this has been a boon for my sense of self and my creative mind, I’ve found myself becoming overwhelmed, cranky, and increasingly depressed. Why? Because I’ve discovered that I can’t do it all. I can’t keep a clean house, cook for my family, run the errands, be homework coach and chauffeur, wash and iron clothes, and develop my writing into something that might perhaps segue into a paying career.
Remember that commercial for Enjoli perfume? That stupid commercial vexes me. Ever since I was 12, I was sold the idea that a woman should be able to do it all without struggle. I should absolutely be able to have a career, cook for my family, keep a clean house, care for my children, and have the energy to seduce my husband nightly, right? I’d like to bitch slap the men who came up with that ad. Oh, come on. It had to be men who envisioned the Enjoli woman. That ad is a fantasy. There isn’t a woman in her right mind who would tell you that at the end of a long day, during which she had spent at least eight hours in an office, then cooked dinner, cared for her children and put them to bed, what she really thought about was making her husband feel like a man. More than likely, what she actually thought about was a glass of wine, a locked door, a long and solitary soak in a tub, followed by a collapse into a bed where her husband would let her get some sleep.
The other night I had a Come-To-Jesus meeting with my husband and our sons. I told them that as much as I would love to be able to continue writing, I cannot do it if I do not get some assistance from them. Because our financial situation has not changed, I can’t afford a housecleaning service. I need them to pitch in if I want to be able to devote myself to writing. This was not an easy conversation for me because, the entire time I was asking for help, I was feeling I had failed my inner-Enjoli woman. What I was really doing, however, was not admitting defeat but instead recognizing that I had been trying to do the impossible and be the unattainable.
No one can do it all or have it all. We all sacrifice. The grass isn’t greener anywhere else. It’s not easier one way or the other. We make choices and then we live with them. On a good day, I get to yoga, manage to knock a couple things off my to-do list, and find time for a shower. On a good day, my working friends knock something off their to-do-lists, maybe get a kudo from their boss, and perhaps get to enjoy an uninterrupted lunch for an hour. But, most of the time, we all just settle for the best we can get, which is most certainly nowhere near having it all.