I Never Expected to Love Full-Time Motherhoodjuin 30, 2020
In my early adulthood I fully absorbed the queer ethos that being different was a strength, not a weakness. I imagined living a life that would challenge rather than conform to social norms, and harbored no hope (or wish) to become a wife and mother.
But 12 years ago I fell in love with someone who wanted a more traditional life, and now, at 44, I’m both — so my new status as a stay-at-home mom seems a little karmic.
When the New York City Department of Education released our four-year-old daughter, Marty, to our full-time care amid the coronavirus outbreak, I was prepared to die of ennui or lose my sanity entirely.
The longest stretch of time I’d ever spent at home with her was a full month after she was born, and while it was painful to be wrenched from her so soon, I longed to return to work. My spouse, Sabrina, who stayed home with Marty for four months after her birth, would have opted for a double root canal over another full month of mommyhood. We were both wrung out.
No wonder our dads (hers a lawyer, mine a computer engineer) were so chill and content throughout our childhoods, while our stay-at-home moms often seemed harried, exhausted and snippy.
But a few months into my new role, I’ve found that full-time motherhood and domesticity is helping me manage my anxiety by providing clarity and comfort — even pleasure (spiked with tiny thorns, of course) — during these dark and uncertain times.
To be clear, I’m not romanticizing a sad, traumatizing and difficult moment that has undoubtedly placed a greater burden on women. Studies show that mothers spend more of their day than men caring for children and have been stretched thinner than dads during the pandemic. The reality of simultaneously maintaining a household, looking after children and working full-time can be brutal, and I’m aware of the extreme privilege of being able to largely rely on my spouse’s salary to keep us afloat while I look after our daughter.
That said, if there’s a silver lining to being apartment-bound until at least the fall, it’s that I’ve gotten to know Marty more intimately and deeply than I’d ever been able to in my pre-pandemic days as a working parent.
Marty, who stomps through the world with a punk-like fierceness, nearly always challenges our daily routines around brushing teeth and giving it a go on the potty. Like a lot of kids, she saves her gold-star performance for her pre-K teacher, while pushing every imaginable boundary at home. So I was sure that without the structure of school, my days would be pure mayhem.
But I was wrong. In the first few weeks of remote learning, when the novelty of schooling me on how to school her was still fresh, she took charge like a CEO, instructing me on how to organize the day. She completed assignments with almost uninterrupted discipline, traced letters and numbers with surprising gusto, created fun games around her learning and even heeded my calls for bathroom breaks. Who was this person?
I’d never met this version of her before, because my interactions with her had largely been a series of fits and starts; I’d rarely gotten long stretches of time with her to see how she manages her moment-by-moment existence. Looking at her behavior over a larger expanse of time, I now realize she’s not as temperamental and contrary as I’d thought. But it took some adjustments on my part to help bring out her best self and mine. Here’s how we’re making it work together.
Parent the child you have
I once read a quote from the CEO of Sleep Number, Shelly Ibach, about how effective leaders adapt their management style to the individuals on their teams, and it stayed with me. Rather than minding my pre-established beliefs about how children should behave and how to make them conform to this idea of good behavior, I realized that I needed to start tailoring my parenting style to the child I have, who does not respond well to rigid rules or full-throated commands. Instead of firmly declaring my dictates (my usual, old-school modus operandi), I started to express my wishes via a furry, green puppet monster we named Scraggy.
If Marty resists a trip to the bathroom, I’ll tell her that Scraggy is not potty trained and needs to learn from a big girl like her. If she isn’t eating her food, I say that for every bite she takes, she’s feeding Scraggy’s starving belly. It works much more effectively than what I’d really like to say, which is, “Dammit, sit down and eat your broccoli!”
Set up a relaxed routine
Following a daily schedule, as we’ve all been advised to do, is helpful too, but not with the pressure to adhere to it strictly. I keep my expectations simple and relaxed, which admittedly is easier when attempting distance learning with a 4-year-old.
We may not complete every assignment on time, and we may actively deviate from the curriculum to go where our interests lead us — for example, learning about how germs spread on Sid the Science Kid or about other galaxies on Brainpop.com. Marty, whom I’d prematurely pigeonholed as artsy due to her actorly temperament, is extremely inclined toward the sciences, requesting to watch and rewatch videos about the solar system, particularly Saturn, her favorite planet, and the moon. That reminded me to let go of any firmly forming beliefs about who she is and what she likes.
Allow them to be bored
I enforce two hours of independent free play (one hour in the morning and one in the afternoon) that encourages her to use her imagination. I don’t even give her a prompt. Borrowing the language of pre-K, I say it’s time for “center time” and offer few choices: She can play dress-up, build structures with Legos or Magna-tiles, do an art project or make “food” with Play-Doh in her pretend kitchen.
She’ll often make up impressive Dr. Seussian raps or songs that are gleefully nonsensical, or engage in dramatic play that fuses characters from multiple Disney movies who are on some very urgent quest. As Sherry Turkle, a professor in M.I.T.’s Social Studies of Science and Technology department and author of Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, once said, “Boredom is an essential part of our creativity and emotional development.”
To boot, it gives me a break to do what I’d like in those 60-minute time slots. And although Marty interrupts me multiple times, I always reel her back out to her own creative universe, and slowly she’s growing accustomed to the expectation.
Find your anchor
Throughout the day, I’m also maintaining the house. It’s perverse to say, because traditional forms of housework are still unevenly shouldered by women, but I’m finding the clarity and concreteness of domestic tasks grounding.
As someone who suffers from severe generalized anxiety disorder, the physicality and simplicity inherent in folding laundry, cooking a meal or cleaning a dish secures me in my body and helps me find solace in what acclaimed meditation teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn calls “moment-to-moment awareness.”
I’m not suggesting it’s all bliss. Parenting 24/7 amid a never-ending list of responsibilities has challenged and exhausted my patience daily — and I do lose it with Marty several times a day, even locking myself in the bathroom for a cry on a number of occasions. But the immediacy and corporeality of mothering also helps anchor me in the present, dissipating my cataclysmic conjectures about the future.
I recently reflected on all of this with my mom, a fierce, no-nonsense Greek woman, who promised me the monotony of it all would soon kill the thrill. “Call me in a couple more months,” she said. And it’s possible, maybe the satisfaction I’m deriving from full-time motherhood stems from the novelty of it, but it might also be the result of a new urgency we all share, to attend to the things that matter most because our lives are so fragile and fleeting.