Tuesday, January 29, 2013

On becoming a working mom

Of Dreams and Reality

As a little girl I dreamed big dreams.  I dreamed of being a lawyer and a child psychologist.  I dreamed of travelling the world as a sign language interpreter.  I dreamed of going away to college and studying abroad.  At the end of all of these adventures, I would meet a man and fall in love.  We would marry, and I would have beautiful children to raise in a beautiful home.  I dreamed such beautiful dreams that I never made a plan to turn them into a reality.  I was so busy dreaming and living a “fun” teenager existence to worry about such trivial matters.

When I was eighteen, I awoke from my beautiful dream with a harsh reality.  I was going to be a mother.  I had a high school diploma, one semester of college under my belt, an ex-boyfriend who adored me and wanted to marry me, and a basket of dreams.

I reached into that dream basket and pulled out the dream labeled “motherhood.”  I set the rest of the dreams up on a high shelf, not knowing if I would ever return to claim them, but not able to leave them within sight for fear my heart would break.

I spent the next few years young, poor, married, and raising my daughter.  When my husband told me that we might go bankrupt, I sent my eighteen month old to a sitter and got a job as a secretary.   He went over the road driving a truck, and I lived in a trailer with a hole in the floor and opossums living underneath us, but every month I paid down those bills.  I bought milk with pennies in a Ziploc bag, but I always fed my child, and every month I paid down those bills.  A year later, my son was born and we moved into a small house with real floors and real walls.  I quit work to be a stay-at-home mom, and I finally felt like I was living the life a good Mormon woman should live.  I stayed home with my children for a year.  We lived a step up from poverty, but I stayed at that little house with those babies and we built forts and we colored pictures and we created games and make-believe worlds where my children rode horses and discovered new lands.  It was a type of paradise, but always there was a nagging feeling in my mind. 

Always, there was this feeling that I was not me.  One day, I looked in the mirror and saw what I had become.  I wore baggy pants, tshirts, and clogs every day.  I wore glasses, no make up, my hair in a ponytail.  I read voraciously, but I did not learn anything new.  I was a housewife, a mother, a Primary teacher, and a good Mormon woman.  All of these are beautiful things, but I knew that this was not what I was meant to be.  I looked at myself, and I realized that this is what I was telling my daughter she should be.  I was 21 years old, I had been married for three years and had two children.  I was poor, bored, uneducated, unhappily married, ignorant to the world, and all I had that brought me any joy was my children. 

I thought of what I wanted my daughter to be.  I thought of my mother’s words of wisdom, “you are living the life you choose.”  I knew in that moment that I did not want this life for my daughter.  I did not want to be this person.  I did not want to live this life.  I grabbed my dream basket off of the shelf, and I made a bold choice.  I applied for college that day.  I applied for financial aid.  I made a choice to become the person I wanted to be- the person I wanted my children to look up to.

I am grateful that I lived by a university that offered the program I wanted to take and cheap family housing.  I am grateful that I was able to receive enough financial aid to pay for my tuition, my education expenses, my children’s day care, and my fuel so that my husband would allow me to go to school. 

It was easy for me to decide what I wanted to be.  I didn’t have to worry about choosing a career that children would fit into one day.  I had to worry about choosing a career that would fit my life, where I spent most of the week as a single parent.  I had always loved English and I had always been a teacher at heart, so I decided to become an English teacher because it is the “perfect mom job.” 

Going to school as a mother has huge disadvantages.  There were no fun parties, no study groups, no late night library excursions, no clubs, no sororities, or any other activities pertaining to “normal” college life.  I never got to study abroad, and when the trips were announced, my heart would always sink.  I never went to a single football game or choir performance- my children were too young to sit through that. 

Contrary to popular belief, going to school as a mother does have advantages.  I excelled in all of my classes. Every professor I ever had knew me by name.  I sat in the front of all of my classes, asked questions, and listened to every word the professors said.  I went back to class four days after my son was born, and received a standing ovation from the professor and the other students.  I was different, and everyone could tell.   I worked hard.  I took so many hours that I had to receive special permission from the Dean.  I worked straight through the summer, and I never stopped.   I achieved consistently high grades and graduated summa cum laude.  Why?  Every moment I spent in school was time away from my children.  It was my money (that I will be paying back forever), but more than that, it was my sweat and my tears, and the tears of my children when I was away.  It was the hours I spent on the porch in the summer watching my children play while I read “The Tempest” or “Macbeth” and the neighbors looked at me strangely as I held one end of a jump rope as I continued to read.  It was the nights my children fell asleep on the couch watching a show because I was writing a paper. 

In the end, I graduated from college with my husband and all three of my children in the audience.  I had the announcer include my maiden name when he called me. “Emily Grace Miller Chidester,” he said, and my heart nearly burst.  It was my dream to graduate as “me,” and I did.  My daughter and my sons heard my name as I walked across the stage and received my diploma.  It was as if I had been given back myself, and it was liberating. 

I became a teacher two weeks later, and I have been teaching ever since.  I not only became a teacher, but I became the mother that I want my children to have.  I became a woman who does not accept the reality I am given.  I became a woman who holds onto her dreams and never loses sight of them.

This is the reality that I leave for my children.  We do not have dreams; we have plans.

Sabbath Day

Sunday morning dawns bright,
clear and radiant
It is early, but this day is here,
and I must embrace the end
of my week as a mom
I must begin the last day
of joy
We will eat a large breakfast,
and smile and laugh
We will sit through a service
at the church my children choose
we will sing hymns and pretend that
the world is wonderful
We will go to the standard Sunday meal
at Grandma's ranch,
but I will hurry us home
to clean,
to fold laundry,
to play a game,
watch a show,
walk the dog
anything that gives me time
to touch,
to kiss,
to ruffle the hair,
to laugh with,
to share with
the children I will lose
I have enjoyed this week
this glorious week of motherhood
Sunday twilight falls quickly,
dark and empty
It is early, but night has arrived
and I must let go
of my time as a mom
the Sabbath Day ends
I let my children fly away
sit in my empty nest
and wait


Monday, January 28, 2013

50% Mom

When I found out that I was going to be a mother, I changed the course of my life.  I quit thinking about what was best for me, and began thinking about what would be best for my child.  I went from being 100% self-centered to being 100% child-centered.  I spent the next 14 years of my life putting my children first.  I spent my days revolving around the universe I built with them- I was the sun that warmed, fed, clothed, nurtured, bathed, entertained, scolded, hugged, loved, and cuddled their small, growing celestial bodies.  Oftentimes it was frustrating.  Often times I felt alone with the weight of our little universe on my small shoulders.  But every day I found joy.  Every day I found at least a moment of pure bliss with my wee growing children.  It sometimes was found in a giggle, a hug, a pat on my cheek, or a stolen moment of my three loves reading to each other on the couch. 
The point is that every moment, every day, every year was spent on growing my children.  Their projects were my projects, their successes my success, their bedtimes my bedtime, their waking hours were my waking hours.  And it worked.  For 14 years, we lived in our beautiful universe.  We lived through storms and hurricanes and breezy, summer days.  For 14 years, I was a full-time, 100% mom- and it was everything I was meant to do. 
After five years of divorce and their father asking at various points along the way, my children decided they wanted to live with their dad 50% of the time.   No matter how it broke my heart, I knew there was no holding them in orbit around me forever.  It was I who had allowed their father to leave our universe, and I could not ask them to stay with me alone any longer.  I let them go.  Now, I get to have them every other week.  Every other weekend.  Every other holiday.  Every other riding lesson, and every other Wednesday night dinner at Grandma's house.  I thought that- with time- it would get easier.  I thought that the grief would lessen and I would adjust as time went by.  I thought as we worked the kinks in our schedule out, everything would be okay.
My children say they like it.  They say they are adjusting well.  They like the day and time we switch.  They want things to be fair.  Oh, the double-edged sword of teaching my children justice!  My children are happy- so they say, and who am I to know if this is best for them?  I want them to be happy.   I want them to know we are all here- holding them in orbit between us.  They are always held up in the gravity of our love, they just rotate around us now, instead of us around them.  They absorb my love and my strength as they circle around me, and then they fling out further than I ever wanted them to and grow from the strength and the love of their father.  Their world is bigger than my world now.  They have grown and continue to grow with such a galaxy to explore, and I cannot deny them that.
But I am not okay.  The grief does not lessen, instead it grows. 
I have my children for one week.  On Sunday, their father brings them home at 7:00 pm.  Jason and I are anxious.  We have made a late dinner because they are always hungry when they arrive.  The house is clean, our arms are open, and the children come banging in- scriptures, backpacks, helmets and all.  They pile it up and we start talking about the week.  My butterflies begin to fade as they settle in and I hear about the week.  They show me their tests, their papers, and share the details of a church lesson, an event from school, or a list of all the things we have to do this week.  Within an hour, I am overwhelmed with chores, and lists, and schedules.  My mind is frantic with all the work there is to do, but my heart is full, my arms are full, and I can smell the warm and sweaty smell of my babies as I snuggle into them and say, "oh, how I am glad you are home with me."
I run myself ragged through the week.  I feel guilty if I try to take a moment to myself.  If I want to read a book, or write a blog entry, or hide out for a moment of peace, I instantly berate myself, "how could you want to be away from them?  How can you waste one single, precious second of your time with them?  You have only half the time now, you cannot waste it!"  There is no rest.  I run until I literally can run no more, and then I collapse into a dreamless sleep and begin again with swim at 5:30 am.  Exhausted, but contented, I live my week 100%.  When a child wants to go to a friend's house, I have to overcome the desire to say, "No!  I only have you two more days," and let them go without an ounce of sadness in my voice. 
On Saturday before they leave, I wash all the clothes.  The laundry must be done and folded and put away before they go, or I will have to look at it, and fold it, and put it away in their empty rooms.  Rooms are cleaned, beds are made, and all their rubble is picked up and put away.  It hurts too much to find that errant shoe on Tuesday night.  I unplug the nightlight, or I find myself looking into the room where my son should be each night.  Their doors are never closed, or I would find myself peering in, half hoping that a child is accidentally behind.  And so our last day ends in chaos, with mom stressed out about everything being done.  We try to play one last game, or watch one last show, anything to keep me from looking at the clock- but I always do.
On Sunday before they leave, I begin counting down.  I look at the clock, "5 more hours."  I look at the clock.  "Only 2 more hours."  And I start to get shaky, and nervous, and my stomach begins to churn.  I can hardly sit through dinner, but we will eat this last meal of the week together before I send them off. We load them up in the car- scriptures, backpacks, boots and helmets.  We drive them over and I squeeze them each one more time before I send them off.  "I'll see you Wednesday," I feebly say as I kiss their little heads and send up a silent prayer that they will be at church on Wednesday night. 
The week rolls by- quietly, peacefully, painfully.  I work late every night.  I clean the house, or go to my mom's, or write in one of my blogs (obviously, the kids are not here tonight).  I get so much accomplished, but the emptiness is never quelled.  I cannot seem to fill it. 
This week, I cannot be a mom  I try to shut off the worry, the concerns about homework, the desire to hug and kiss and say I love you to each child every morning and every night.  I turn it off, or I go crazy.  I turn it off, or I annoy them with persistent messages and frustrate their dad with a gazillion texts and emails about everything they should be doing.  I am a 0% mom this week.  I think to myself, "this is not what I was born to do."  I think to myself, "this is the price I pay for divorce.  This is the price I pay for my children to have the life they want," and that is enough to shut off the selfish voice in my head.  It is a busy week- full of all the things the childless woman does to keep from remembering she is childless.  Is it bad for me to say that this is worse?  Because I have children, but I am not with them?  They are out there playing, eating, learning, smiling, laughing, and I am not there to witness it- is this a failure beyond the inability to conceive?
The worst- the very, absolute worst feeling about all of this comes on Sunday night before they get home. This is the part, the secret, hidden, evil part that I don't want to write, but it is a part of this cycle, and I must.  Before they get back home, even as I anxiously prepare, a little, evil part of me is overwhelmed and frightened to become 100% mom again.

And so the cycle goes.  I bounce between 0 and 100- and average out at 50.  I feel such feelings that I never thought were possible in motherhood.  I ache for that feeling of safety and routine that comes with the motherhood of my early mothering years.  I remember each time I wished for a break from my babies- and I cringe.  I yearn for my children to be home with me every night.  All the time I took for granted, all the minutes I wasted or wished away, I want them back.  All those moments I will never have- they are already lost- lost before they even are. 
I think sometimes I am a failure, but I know sometimes, when I see my kids in action, that I have succeeded somewhere along the way.
Joy and Pain.  Full and empty.  100% go.  100% stop. 
This is my life- the life of a 50% mom.