I Don't Know Why She Does It by Paige Rien

"Some mothers work because they have to -- others for their own fulfillment."
And there it was -- it might has well come in the form of a back-handed slap. Somehow because I am sensitive about my fulfillment -- that it's private and not for outside commentary, I felt like this sentence filleted me and left me for dead. I am overly sensitive for sure -- but on this topic, my sensitivity is off the charts. When pressed, do I have to work? Couldn't we downsize or live more frugally on my husband's income? Yes. Is my own fulfillment an appropriate reason to leave my son? Is that really the only purpose of my work? Somehow "my own fulfillment," sounded about as reasonable for a mother as a heroine addiction.
It doesn't matter that the speaker of this sentence is from another era in time, a different gender, a speaker of throw away statements and meaningless platitudes. It doesn't matter that I like what I do, that I'm good at it, and that I re-affirm these statements constantly. It is nonetheless some sort of painful cross to bear for me that being a working mother isn't a choice that everyone celebrates and respects. I guess I have to ask myself, do I respect women who don't work? Who only take care of their children and their home? Who seemingly have no other aspirations? Even the semantic choice of these sentences implies that I probably don't. I say I do -- that I am even jealous of a woman who can be that cut and dry about her life -I am still learning how to manage all the multiple simultaneous players -- there is nothing cut, dry, clear, simple or easy about the life of a working mother. And yet I assume that it is much more so on the side of a woman who has chosen to stay home full-time.
These statements about working mothers always seem to hearken the "greatest generation." Either they are uttered by someone who legitimately has membership in said glorified group, or they remind me of a much simpler era for women. An era that I certainly romanticize. When I was in college, I had a passion for vintage clothing from the 1930s and 1940s. When my roommate at the time was asked to describe my personal style, she said, "Paige dresses like she is waiting for the boys to come home." I certainly carry a romance for a simpler time -- of pure female domesticity. In turn, or rather in Jekyll and Hyde fashion, I have a passion and love for all the modern electronic, fact-paced complexity that makes up my life today. I both love and hate being a modern woman. I dare not give up all that I have that is career, work, productivity, and yet often I wish I could stay home and bake bread. The idea of living slower, simpler and less attached to things and achievements is attractive to me -- but not all of the time.
This is certainly the Gemini in me -- at once in rapture with two lives -- two options and two choices -- when you can really only have one at a time. This latest run in with the need/fulfillment assertion about working women, left me clenching my teeth. In a total projective non-sequitur I responded, "I think I'm a better mother when I do what I love." It was defensive and laced with the antagonism I'd swallowed all the previous times I'd heard this opinion. Am I a better mother? I guess my ideal -- of the war-time mother -- of the woman tethered to home and children and her kitchen, is not really what I want -- especially if the way to have it is to give up my creative work. On the flip-side I have colleagues and friends and peers, all lovely mothers, who appear to me to be supremely confident and content in their modern full-time-nanny-aided choices. They trust that their children will be OK, that their work really is important, that they can work by day and mother by night, or vice-versa, as the job might be. I don't have this confidence. I still battle each side -- not enough to quit my job, obviously. Not enough to hire a full-time nanny. Not enough to make more space on either side of my life. So I remain, often squished by both as they clash and conflict for each of my 24 daily hours.
I sit with this idea -- that I work to be fulfilled, even at the expense of my time at home. Is this OK? The veteran women and mothers in my life who I respect (both stay-at-home and work-outside alike) say that this is rudimentary self-respect. Of course it's ok you numbskull, I am sure they want to say. Motherhood is not composed entirely of self-sacrifice. I am also aware that playing with cooked spaghetti and singing the ABC’s to my fourteen-month-old is not getting the book written, or the room designed, or emails responded to. Some times I am aware of this – other times I revel in the cooked spaghetti games and chubby-cheek laughter. My chagrin on this topic comes from the notion held by many of the mind that maternal fulfillment comes after -- after the children are born, bred, put to bed and taken to school. After the work is done, and by the way, it never will be. I probably respect these women too -- I'm afraid enough or insecure enough in my own choices to think they are no idiots or domestic simpletons but that they might have a good point. The play, the songs, laughing on the floor – these often feel like the most important moments of my life.
I suppose I have multiple-maternal personalities. What makes it worse is that the concept of "enough", in literally any category, eludes me. I never know what is enough salt, enough skinny, enough money, enough stuff done for the day. So it's no surprise that I understand neither enough maternal sacrifice nor enough maternal fulfillment. Perhaps no one knows. Perhaps I need to continue to find out? It's uncomfortable -- like a blister -- not to know the answer and to know it will continue to press me for quite a while. Since I never know what's "enough" for a blog post -- I stopped to look up "fulfillment" in the online dictionary.
Fulfillment - a feeling of satisfaction at having achieved your desires. It doesn't say "fulfillment is a feeling of satisfaction achieved outside of the home -- quenching desires of the professional, outside world." Who is to say what a woman's desires are? Perhaps they are professional, perhaps they are maternal. Perhaps they are a messy sampling of both. The expression is my heart's desire, whether the satisfaction, the fulfillment comes from motherhood or work, or both or neither -- it's up to each woman to decide. So if I can go back to the statement that catapulted me into this argument -- a woman's own fulfillment is exactly what drives a woman to stay home or work outside the home -- if she of course doesn't "need" to do so.
We've given choice to women and we've in turn loaded the word fulfillment with notions of self-focus, if not selfishness -- something that can only be achieved at the expense of her family, some sort of oats she must sew that can't be done with mothering alone. I now believe that fulfillment is the ultimate creative project for a woman – whatever it is -- she decides what will fulfill -- how to do it -- and then to do it if she is graced with choice. And for me, graced with a life of choice -- it's certainly both -- I am not fulfilled completely by work, nor am I fulfilled completely by motherhood -- it's the union of both in my life which makes me feel FULL. The fullness is often overwhelming -- too much -- completely foreign -- in life which is often all about seeking. Perhaps it's this unsettling feeling of fullness that makes me question -- it certainly would be a lot simpler if it were just one or the other.
The French have this great expression to convey the comeback that came too late in the argument – translated, it’s “the witch in the stairwell.” My witch in the stairwell is certainly that “whether mothers work or stay home – it’s for their own (damn) fulfillment.” I’ll know for next time. Today my husband will take my son to the park so I can write and finish up some work. After which I will play with my son and put him to bed. At the end of the day, I will be filled with work and motherhood, literally, to my heart's content. It doesn't look like everyone's life (it's Sunday after all) and it's certainly what I need to do, based on my choice -- and perhaps that's absolutely enough.
Paige Rien is an interior designer, writer and mother of one adorable toddling boy (to date). She and her family live in New York.


earthgarden's picture

I got over my mama guilt at working eventually, because it came down to, I could not work, even when I was at home with my kids full-time I still found time to write, and to sell my writing. I couldn't turn off that creative tap. So when I needed to, I went out into the world ans yes, also worked at jobs. At the end of the day each woman has to make the decision based on what is right for her and her family and just quit comparing themselves and their lives to other women; to what other mothers are doing.

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wifemotherexpletiving's picture

I don't have any debate within myself about why I stay at home with my two boys, it was timed with a move and money and a lack of career-path-set-in-stone... but here I am, the second year of the first time since I was fifteen that I HAVEN'T worked. Its cool not to work, to have no timetable but one's own... almost like Wolfe's room of one's own but - not quite. We're poorer financially, certainly. And I readily and frequently throw my hands in the air and dream about working and being able to finish something more meaningful than the laundry or dinner. And then I think of all the stress and shit that go along with jobs, and bosses and nylons that bunch at the ankles, and I'm looking around at the mess that no one but me will tackle and it seems more palatable. I think we all do what we have to do, and I'd be working if I had to and I'm sure I'd like the change of pace. It would be nice if we could drop our guesswork/judgement about other women and their mothering. Its not all about the kids. reminding ourselves of that seems to be a daily task for those of us who've taken our 'feminism' classes. Sometimes I feel incredibly duped by the woman's movement... it sure didn't let me know what motherhood was going to 'fulfill' in my search for self-identity.
hm. complicated.



AustinsMommy's picture

between our Hera and our Artemis, our Diana and Aprodite.

People should quit being surprised when other people are multi-dimensional. We are all multi-faceted, and if we don't nurture ourselves, we can't thrive.

I think the old gods and goddesses were great references for ancient peoples, in helping them understand that we all have different hungers that push and pull us in our affairs. If a woman only wanted to have lots of children and stay at home, they said she had a lot of Hera. If the woman was well suited to business, negotiation, they would say she had a lot of Diana.

It's sad to think in such an 'enlightened' age we would have lost sight of these simple truths of human nature. That we're all different, with different aspects in varying degrees.

To say that a home all day mom has little or no ambition might get people pretty angry. Maybe not so angry if you definied 'ambition' to mean a desire for influence over others, great sums of money, and wealth and status. I think we all agree that too much ambition is where we go wrong in the world, and I think we'd also all agree that not having much ambition is, in any case, not really bad.

If we could stop knee-jerking and assigning value judgements to everything, maybe we could come to understand and accept human nature. That some moms like just being moms and some moms have to go out and be other things, for whatever reason. And that is't okay to just be who you are, however you're fulfilled. But then we couln't gossip nearly as much, right?

Don't be too afraid to be yourself. The alternative is always worse.

shadeshaman's picture

This kind of discussion completely sidesteps the issues surrounding single mothers. I do not work because I choose to, because I feel fulfilled by it. Believe me, housecleaning ain't all that fulfilling. I work because I am the only person supporting myself and my kids. period.

"...we can't solve global warming because I f---ing changed light bulbs in my house. It's because of something collective."--President Obama

"Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself; but talent instantly recognizes genius"--Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

earthgarden's picture

for example britney spears is a single mother. extraordinarily rich, but there are other single mothers not so rich and not so famous but who don't 'have' to work...some are divorced mothers whose ex-husbands pay enough child support/alimony for them to live on. others are widows whose husband's left enough life insurance. Still others are living on SSI/disability payments or settlement money from an accident. and some are like britney, they earned enough before they had children so they don't have to work after. I guess I am trying to say...just like some married mothers have to work because their husbands don't earn enough to support the family without her income, some single mothers don't have to work because they have income from other sources that will support their family.

So this discussion does not completely sidestep the issues surrounding single mothers...but I do feel most single mothers have to work to provide for their families.

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Creatress's picture
Submitted by Creatress on

Shadeshaman, thank you for saying it. I wanted to, and figured I'd just kinda have eyes rolled at me.

Mercury, I feel like your response addresses maybe 3% of single mothers. Why focus on those few who are lucky enough to choose? They're really few and far between. I'm right there with Shadeshaman. In my world of perfect, someone would come sweep me off my feet who felt called to work fulltime and who had health insurance so I could scale back to part time. That would be PERFECT, as far as I'm concerned. But alas, I don't have that choice. Period. There's nowhere to trim back, and even if I could afford to live on part-time wages, I could not afford to pay for our own health insurance (and I gather that pretty much no part-time jobs offer health insurance.) So I have no choice. Period. And I kinda resent these mothers who are all "woe is me, I do what I want and feel bad about it!" Because at the end of the day, they do what they want, they're happier, and good for them. I'm jealous. Wish I had that "problem" of theirs.

24/MN. Queer, veg, single, AP mama to DD1.5

25/MN and WA. Queer, veg, single, AP mama to DD2.5.

earthgarden's picture

Lots of single mothers are struggling and don't have the option to choose, that is so true. I was merely pointing out this not true of all single mothers, is all.

creative life | children
"No one can make you feel inferior without your consent." ~Eleanor Roosevelt

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Love is, above all else, the gift of oneself.
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freakinchillmom's picture

My husband is going to be staying home with the kids starting in September when I start my new job, and I haven't sensed even a smidgen of this kind of reaction by him or anyone. He has no internal conflict- he works in the construction industry, which is in a pretty sad place right now, and his job stresses him out. He's excited to hang out with the kids during the day and play. I don't think anyone questions his "lack of ambition" for staying home, any more than they would question his "lack of committment to his family" if he works full time. Double standards...

liesl's picture
Submitted by liesl on

Your piece totally resonated with me. Thank you for sharing. I feel the pull between work and mommyhood often, and feel like whatever choice I make towards one is a sacrifice to the other. But I, like you, need both. And why must I feel guilty or sensitive about that at all? But I guess it is our own internal struggles. I recently read a quote from the 4th Israeli Prime Minister who said, "At work, you think of the children you have left at home. At home, you think of the work you've left unfinished. Such a struggle is unleashed within yourself. Your heart is rent." -- Golda Meir
I guess this struggle is a universal one for "working-outside" moms.

~ liesl ~ MammaLogs