Friday, December 30, 2011

Other Expectations

I said I wasn't going to post this until after the holidays. But I think it needs to be purged in 2011 so that I can go back to posting more regularly in 2012. So. Here we go.

Fritz is going out of town early in the new year for a conference. In the recent past (since Mattias was born), he's been avoiding out-of-town conferences out of deference to me. I'm pretty afraid to spend more than 2 days and nights alone with just the boys. We attempted a two night trip last year. I mean: Fritz was gone for two nights. And the two night trip was, in fact, something of a disaster. Both boys got sick, I was sick, Fritz returned to utter chaos and a wife in tears. I more or less forgot the details and just remembered it as 'hard'. But Fritz didn't forget anything. He has avoided conferences ever since.

[photo removed]

It's really difficult for me to explain why it is so hard to be alone with the boys for multiple days. If you are a parent, you might be thinking, I get it. But if you are not a parent, you might be thinking: what is wrong with this woman? I understand thinking that way, because I ask myself what is wrong with me all the time. But being alone with the two boys for days is so maddening. Imagine your worst day at the office. Perhaps that would mean constant interruptions and noise and carrying around 30 pounds on one arm so that you can't carry anything more than a book with your other hand. And there's no way to take a quick break, if you even think of leaving the room without your 30 pound weight, you are subjected to panic and crying and someone even likes to join you even while you are sitting in the loo. And then, you think, thank goodness for bedtime! But somebody wakes up for water and somebody else is coughing and can't sleep and by the time one is asleep the other one is awake for more water. And then you wonder what happened to those two hours that you were going to use to load the dishwasher, change over the laundry and use the loo in solitude. But all you can do is crawl into bed and then someone wakes up because he drank too much water...

Oh, and I make additional excuses for why I'm unable to be alone with the boys for more than 48 hours. There's no grandma nearby to help. There's no regular daycare or childcare or babysitter. The boys are especially demanding.

I can go on and on, just like my sons.

But yet, other parents, under similar circumstances do it all the time.

My own mother did it for several months when I was 6 and my brothers were 4 and 2. My father was transferred by his employer and moved ahead of us. He was gone for about two weeks at time. We stayed behind, 3 kids and their mother, waiting for our house to sell.

I called my mother the other day to ask just how she managed to do it. Here is what she said:

"It was hard. I remember I called your grandmother and complained. She wasn't very understanding."

"Well. That stinks. She should have been more empathetic."

Here, my mother defended my grandmother's lack of empathy. I offered a rebuttal and we reached an agreement that my grandmother's general personality is a product of depression-era-no-nonsense. My mother took it a step farther suggested that she and my aunts developed extensive empathetic abilities as a result. Feeling like I still had not uncovered the secret to being alone with the boys for multiple days – and this conversation was headed in a less than helpful direction – I asked again:

"But, still, Mom, how did you do it? How did you stay alone with us kids for days at a time?"

My mom sighed, "I didn't have your expectations." Um...

"What do you mean?"

"Oh, Ann. You have all these things you want to do; and you had all these professional plans and dreams before you became a mother. I didn't have that. I knew I was good with children. I just wanted to be a mother. That is what I wanted to do."

"So...why did that help you stay alone with us kids for several days?"

"Because it's hard when you change your expectations."

I think about this. I think about the obvious question: am I NOT suppose to have expectations? Or are my expectations suppose to revolve around ONLY motherhood? Because she didn't raise me that way. And I'm not that way, anyway.

She is right: I had expectations - I HAVE expectations. And some – many? – of these expectations have very little to do with motherhood. I'm still not really sure how this affects my ability to be alone with the boys for several days. But I think maybe I get the gist, even if I'm not really willing to accept her suggested consequences.

study time
It is that time of year when I am forced into reckoning with my Other Expectations. Once a year, my license as an architect comes up for renewal. Once a year I put it off until the last minute. I complete continuing education requirements in the fastest and cheapest way possible: reading books and taking tests to qualify as 'structured learning' while (this year) the boys tear apart the house and climb all over. In a more ideal world, this continuing education requirement could be my link to the real world of architects. A chance to get out and socialize with adults! Adult architects! Next year, I think every year.

At this time of year, I also think intensely about all the things I miss about practicing architecture: the concrete problem solving, the coordinating and REAL planning, stomping around job sites, and even the zen-like typing movements of keyboard shortcuts while drafting. I think about my classmates and past colleagues, many of whom have very successful careers. And I have vivid nightmares revolving around various forms of professional failure.

Yet, as the boys reorganize the house and I cram information about heating and cooling systems into my rusty brain, I am reminded how very difficult it would be to be working professionally.

Have I told you that my dream for me would be to work part time? I worked 10-15 hours a week for about a year and half. Noah was under 2, we were still in Munich. I loved it. For me, it was great.

For the rest of my family, it was NOT GREAT. The problem was that since my job was mostly teaching, and it was already ONLY part time, it was difficult for me to call in sick. Instead, Fritz frequently and repeatedly missed work when the Tagesmutter (a woman who does home daycare) got sick. Or when her kids got sick. Or when her husband got sick. Or when her cat got sick. Or when her neighbor's cat got sick. No, just kidding on that last one. Noah himself got sick repeatedly and entered his phase of life as (what did the German pediatrician say? Oh, yes:) a bronchitis candidate. Here in the US, they just write ASTHMA on his charts. Eventually, Fritz insisted we quit the 'undependable' Tagesmutter and he recruited Oma to come and live with us for a few weeks at a time. Recruiting Oma was an option in Germany, where Oma was only 2 hours away by train.

I guess this is pretty normal stuff. Normal stuff for any family with two working parents. Additional problems accumulated: When Fritz was also teaching, it was more difficult for him to take off. And Fritz's grant writing; the necessary engine that drives this whole self-sufficient family unit, fell through the cracks. We vowed to make changes for self preservation. My job was just frosting. I'd stop working.

I used to say that I was waiting for Fritz's elusive grant that would secure life for a few years. THEN I would look for a paying-job.

But that grant came about 6 months ago, and I'm still here, paying-job-less.

Most of the time, I don't really know what to say for myself. And I do feel like I need to say something for myself. I feel like I need to bridge that gap between all the various expectations I have and the way my current life only fulfills half of my expectations. I'm not bridging the gap. At least, not yet. Instead, I'm slowly beginning to mentally defend this staying-at-home. I'm still not very comfortable with it. Even in my mind, the defenses feel mystical or whiny or weak or overly-sentimental. The defenses are based around the boys, who *I* (believe-it-or-not based on my frequent belly-aching around here) actually think are pretty awesome human beings. I'm determined to keep them as awesome as possible. All these years at home with them are starting to feel like maybe this Being at Home thing has been An Investment that can't be thrown away lightly or changed too readily. And I've got expectations for the boys and all their ongoing awesomeness now, too.

But the expectations of myself as mother? Seeing myself as a good mother, or thinking I'm good with children, or even wanting to be 'good with children?' I may be willing to credit the awesomeness I see in my sons to the State of Being Here at Home with them, but I don't feel that I can credit Me. As long as I know that I'm sitting here, half thinking about my Other Expectations, it's hard to feel good about my mothering efforts. But I'm not ready to let go of the Other Expectations. Those Other Expectations feel like a part of me, too. And in fact, Other Expectations have been a part of me for much longer than this motherhood thing.

after painstakingly avoiding words like 'gun' and 'shoot' for 4 years with Noah, he still figures out the concept using a hollow wooden tube and dowel. WHATEVER.
In this season, we naturally think about expectations. We think about expectations of Santa, expectations of presents, expectations of giving. We think about expectations in the form of New Years Resolutions. As children, we also had expectations that were not just seasonal. Maybe we dreamed of being professional athletes. Maybe we dreamed of being President. Maybe we dreamed of being firemen, or bus drivers, or doctors, or architects. What expectations do we support and encourage in our children? What expectations do we not really intend to follow? What expectations do we allow to fade?

Do expectations fade?

When I told Fritz about my conversation with my mother, he thought she might be on to something:

"You are always saying that you aren't good at mothering, or that other people are better at mothering, or that you aren't meant to do this. Maybe you're making your own self-fulfilling prophecy."

Maybe, maybe not.

Maybe some expectations just come more easily than others. Maybe it's difficult for me to let differing expectations coexist.

the way wrapping presents went
This is what I CAN say here, now, December 30, 2011. This is the type of resolution that I need to go forward: I think there is a personal cost of holding onto my Other Expectations. That cost is ongoing conflicting feelings. It seems to me that holding onto differing expectations is not necessarily holding onto conflicting feelings. My personal conflict does seem to be getting less conflict-y each month. But in some regard, I find a degree of healthiness in letting myself feel conflicted. It feels important to be able to say: "Hey, there are BOTH good things and not-so-good things." Also, I like to think that holding onto my internal conflicts gives me more empathy for others. And you know what else? I think conflict in people is interesting! It gives us laughter and humor! It makes us human, it inspires change and growth and discovery....

Nonetheless, my conflicted self is sometimes a hard thing for my family and friends, and even myself, to accept. We're conditioned to want clear answers and wholistic truths about who we are and how we feel. And I, well, right now, I have none: more than that: I want none. For now.

Noah: Mommy?... Mommy?

Me: (daydreaming)

Noah: Mommy? What should I be when I grow up?

Me: (Pause..consider...pause...stall) Hmm...

Noah: Mommy, what should I be when I grow up?

Me: (Pause) How about a person who helps other people? (Pause) What do you want to be?

Noah: I want to be a mommy. Can I be a mommy? I want to be a mommy, okay?


Shalini said...

Your (or Noah's) last line killed me. This is beautiful, and I identify with EVERYTHING you've written. I worked part-time as well, and that, too, would be my ideal situation, but for the part where it is incredibly difficult, yes, when someone gets sick. Ugh. I could have written this post! (But less thoughtfully and beautifully). And I am so, so scared to be alone with the kids for more than a day. A day is more than enough to tire me out completely.

Pregnantly Plump said...

I understand. I do. Sometimes I hate to tell people I stay at home. It's not very accepted here, and I've had people ask me why? Why did I get a degree if I was just going to stay home? Plus, I can't really escape the boys. When they are being frustrating, I can't just go to work and get away. It's better now that Little Elvis is in school full time. Hopefully no one will get sick for this trip. I hate when Bob travels, too. I try to come up with some sort of small, fun activity for each day or evening to give us something to look forward to. In Virginia it was a little more difficult, because we weren't around family. So I got lonely. It's nice being close to family, and not just my parents. If they are both working, or busy, I can take the boys to visit one of my grandmothers, but I would think there are a lot more cultural, fun things up there. My mom used to live in Denver, and I remember loving the museum with the dinosaurs.

Katie (Mama May I) said...

First of all, I had to read this three times. So much of what you say here, so much of what you're feeling, resonates deeply within me.

One thing I kept thinking of while reading this was the chapter in Elizabeth Gilbert's book "Committed" - when she writes about a conversation she had with her very wise, very independent grandmother on marriage and having a family...

"...they (her grandmother and the women before her) cut up the finest and proudest parts of themselves and gave it all away. They re-patterned what was theirs and shaped it for others. They went without. They were the last ones to eat at supper, and they were the first ones to get up every morning, warming the cold kitchen for another day spent caring for everyone else. This was their guiding verb and their defining principal in life: they gave."

When Sully was born I gave up my full-time job. Even though I held on for just over two years after he was born, still working one day a week or so just to get out of the house. And, like you, just that one day a week wreaked havoc in our home, and me.

Just last week I browsed Craig's List, wondering if "the" job was lurking somewhere for me...I don't even want a job outside of home right now. But I do. But I don't. But I won't. What am I thinking?!

I think your mom is right - we have so many more expectations than they did. And we're giving in to those expectations to raise our children during the early years because deep down it's what we're wired to do, maybe even really want to be doing - only we don't know how to fully accept that AND kiss the hubby as he makes a mad dash {happily hidden, of course} out the door in the morning. {making a living as an architect is more than just the frosting!)

Or, we're giving up our career building years and wholly don't want to be, although I only have a few friends who work full-time and very happily balance that with motherhood. The rest I know who are working deeply long to be home more - at least during these years of nursing and sleep-less nights and early bonding before grade school begins.

And before I type a novel in your comments, I'll end here by saying that this is where I think "other expectations" comes in. As exhausting as it is most days, being as present as possible while my little ones are this young is the very heart of where I want to be right now. I know I'm so much more than a mother. I fully know what I'm giving up. I've accepted it - even though I've been unemployed for less than two months and I'm already browsing jobs. Probably because at the rate our little ones are growing up, I know that two years from now, when they're both in school all day, will not be very far off. And then...

I say keep that architecture license up to date. It's not your role as wife or mother, maybe not even a role at all right now, but it is your role as you - when you're ready to tackle it again with two arms instead of one. And then...perhaps your boys will not only want to be a mommy but maybe even architects, too. :)

Anonymous said...

I could comment so many aspects of your blog. Others did and it shows that you hit a nerve - mine, too. It is good to have expectations when the time ist right (or just before the time is right). Meaning: don't expect too much too soon. Better to call it a dream - a vision? You wrote other posts about wonderful things you did with the boys that you enjoyed - great! I am a mom whose husband traveled a lot for work, and I had to lower my expectations in oder to stay sane. But now things have changed and I take my time to do MY things, things that I have put off for a while, a long while. I once heard of 'sequencing moms' and thought this was a great idea - how it works in practice, I don't know - but it might help to keep spirits up. (sorry, more than two cents)