Is motherhood a career? An identity? An escape? A calling?
Your identity is in this constant state of chaos and change and influenced sometimes positively and sometimes negatively. What this leads to is a very inconsistent emotional and spiritual life. These are the things that may explain you, but they do not define you.
I have long struggled with the idea of motherhood as a “career,” and spent many difficult hours in prayer and conversation about my own journey towards motherhood. My eventual decision to leave my full-time job at Carnegie Hall in pursuit of a combination of freelance opportunities in performing, writing, and consulting that would also allow (“allow”) me to serve as the primary caretaker of my first child and our home was . . . far from easy.
My husband likes to call me the “COO” (Chief Operating Officer) of our family, which I very much appreciate. I imagine this is partly because I do sometimes wonder if he has any idea where the light bulbs are or any clue how to operate our new washing machine (despite being a rock star at other things, like cutting my son’s fingernails, which I appreciate IMMENSELY. And making a totally killer blackened salmon). I also imagine this is partly because of the fairly flattering definition in Wikipedia:
The COO is responsible for the daily operation of the company, and routinely reports to the highest ranking executive, usually the Chief Executive Officer (CEO). The COO may also carry the title of President which makes that person the second in command at the firm.
But do I appreciate this genial nickname that he has bestowed upon me – “Hollingsworth Family COO” – primarily because it gives a name to what I do? It somehow transforms the otherwise mundane-sounding title of “mother” into something that sounds like a respectable career, a title to claim and be proud of – one that connotes honor and somehow justifies the way that I spend my days.
Why do I need a title, and a job description, to feel worthy, worthwhile? Why do I cling to these things to give me a sense of identity?
I loved my job at Carnegie very much. Yes, it meant putting other career and creative ambitions on the back burner, but the work was wonderful and fulfilling and my team of colleagues amazing and inspiring. After the birth of our first son and those first eight weeks of haze and glorious moments and exhaustion and emotion, I felt conflicted about leaving him so soon to return to full-time work away.
And so it seemed time to explore other options. It seemed the right thing to do for our family, and it seemed in line with what I thought my faith indicated about the priority of mothers and of families. But even though it was a tremendously difficult decision, I know deep in my heart that it was hard for me to tell my colleagues that I was leaving for two primary reasons:
- I didn’t have a new role at another esteemed organization. I couldn’t say, “I’m leaving because I’ve accepted this other great position.” I couldn’t tell them my new title, give them a new business card or phone number or email address. I had none.
- I wasn’t sure that I totally believed in why I was leaving. I was torn, and not at all certain that I wasn’t making a mistake. I was “just” going to be a mom? At least, for a little while, until I started to get other work sorted out?
Why was it so hard to leave without another title, another job description to hold on to? Why didn’t I believe that it was enough to say I was leaving to be with my son, to be a mom? Yes, I was planning to pursue freelance work. Yes, I was eager to try on some new professional hats and put my varied experiences to the test. Yes, I wanted to get back to those creative dreams that had been simmering patiently for a few years.
But I was also leaving to be a full-time mom. To do laundry countless times a week and plan meals and pay the bills and change thousands of diapers and spend hours on the floor reading Brown Bear, Brown Bear and singing The Itsy Bitsy Spider (that music degree sure comes in handy).
And I wasn’t sure that I believed this was “worth” my time. Or “worth” my experiences, my expertise, my degrees. I thought I was worth more.
I thought I was worth more because I found my identity in my accomplishments – in the things I had done. As in the earlier Mark Driscoll quote, my sense of identity – and perhaps more importantly, my sense of worth – depended very much on what I did, and what title went along with my name. The things that I did defined me:
Musician. Writer. Arts administrator.
Freelancer, consultant, half-marathon-runner.
Sadly, this doesn’t feel like it’s enough for me – being a MOM. I’ve continued to search for an identity, for the right words and titles and lines on my resume to shape my sense of worth. I am afraid of being defined solely, primarily, as a mother. I am afraid of allowing this identity to identify me.
I am afraid that others believe that a MOM is somehow LESS. Less worthy. That a mom – who works long and grueling hours but does not receive pay, and has no concrete job description, benefits, or vacation days – is therefore not worthy of respect.
I am afraid others believe this because I, too, have believed it.
But I am learning.
As I have watched my son grow and develop over the last twenty months, as I have explored my doubt and questions and jealousy with my therapist, I have slowly come to believe that being a mom IS worthy of respect, IS enough. And is possibly the most beautiful and important identity that I’ll ever have. My own mom gave me the above card when my son turned one. She told me it was true. And I believed her.
To the world, I may be one person, but to one person, I am the world.
Everything my son learns about the world at this age, he understands through me. He sees and perceives through me. He senses when I am scared or angry, frustrated or tired or sick. He intuitively picks up on my emotions and moods and stores away each bit of information in his sponge-like mind. I convince him to eat vegetables with an enthusiastic face and elevated voice; I soothe him after immunizations with songs and gentle touch.
How could this not be the most important thing? Shaping a human being? Teaching him about the world? Loving him and nurturing him and creating safety and security for him so that he has the courage and confidence to explore and experiment?
But it’s still a struggle for me. I envy my husband, who gets to go to work and ride the subway alone (alone!) and who can have lunch with a friend distraction-free without simultaneously paying a babysitter. I envy his career, the money he makes, and the way he is able to think about his time.
There are terrible, frustrating, exhausting, grueling days. Days when I think, My son would be better off in full-time daycare. Days when I think I would love him more if I saw him less. But my heart tugs. I am his world. This is a privilege, a gift to be cherished, a short period of time that can never be replaced or recaptured.
People around me (for the most part) reinforce this message. I try to listen to them on the days when the voices in my head are the loudest.
I envy those moms who are fulfilled at home without the internal dialogue that taunts them into believing that mothering isn’t enough, that staying at home is a cop-out or a waste or lazy. I envy those moms who don’t doubt their roles or their identities. (Where does our identity come from? Read my next post for some of my struggles and thoughts.)
I want to be one of them. I want to believe in motherhood as a career choice, as a viable vocation, as a worthy identity. I want to believe that it is enough to say: I am a mom.