Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Status of Being at Home

There have been days in the past two years, when I looked forward to buckling the boys into their car seats, closing the car doors and walking VERY SLOWLY around the car to my door. In those few seconds – how long could it have been? Thirty seconds, if I went really, really slowly? – between closing their doors and opening mine, even if both boys were crying, there was almost silence outside the car. Not counting weekends or weeknights (when Fritz's presence theoretically allowed me to walk out the door of the house alone) it felt like those few seconds were the most reliable seconds for mental peace and physical space during my day.

In those moments, the mental peace was enforced by our physical distance: I felt the boys were really, truly safe sitting there, buckled into their car seats. There was nobody clinging to me. Nobody was able to hit, scratch, or pinch anybody. Also: the car was not moving, so there was little need to worry about traffic. Nobody was going to accuse me of neglect or stare at me critically, even if the boys were screaming about the injustice of the seat belt or the glare of the sun. I was off the hook for answering nonsensical questions. I didn't need to shush anyone to keep him from disturbing a nap. I knew that we were about to get in the car and go somewhere. That meant things were about to change: we might be driving away from bad (or good); we might be driving into good (or bad). But either way, there was hope; hope that The Next would be better. I would say a little prayer to steel myself as I SLOWLY walked around the car.

Such a small thing.

The days when I clung to that walk around the car are over.

Life with the boys is getting easier. When I write this I cringe a bit because easier is all relative, isn't it? - there will always be new challenges. (Hello, 5 year old son.) But the intense physical closeness and the needs of very young children are just...tough. Really tough. They burned out my mental reserves far more than academic tests and essays, presentations and meetings, or all-night architectural projects ever did. These days I can say: the physical intensity has eased up. The boys are finding their own spaces - sometimes with each other, sometimes alone - and mostly farther away from me. I have space! And I'm so, so happy to have a little bit of space. I am more than content to move quickly around the car, no longer desperate for a few moments of enforced distance.

Still, I'm tired; my reserves are low. And I'm really prickly about this whole stay at home mothering business right now. I feel like I've been a volunteer for 5 solid years. Yesterday, I found this calculator online. I imagined myself a full-time job so that I could calculate how much of a financial hit we've taken by me staying home. Saying that my salary should be about such-and-such on the open market, doesn't, of course, mean that I would actually get that. Also, in the end we wouldn't take home all that money free and clear. Which is why this calculator is good. It takes into account of those things that we currently do without, and we would most likely add to our budget: a second car, work clothes for me, child care, more eating out, a house cleaner, etc. It also considers the way that the tax situation would change to accommodate two working parents. According to the calculator, me working full time would mean about 12K of additional disposable income each year - that's after I pay for my house cleaner, etc. Not insignificant. I think Fritz's yearly (dream) scuba dive trip is in there somewhere, and probably a yearly trip to see family and friends in Germany. (Assuming one could get vacation for such things.)

It occurs to me that even without the additional disposable income, getting out of a childless car, and picking a piece of lint off a nicely pressed suit while walking across the restaurant parking lot for a lunch date with Fritz could feel like a real step up. NOW THAT'S PERSONAL SPACE! I think.

On the other hand, I hold tight to the instinct that all of this Doing-Without is paying off 1) with regards to my children  2) with regards to Fritz's career and 3) with regards to our family. There are lots of sentiments I could type about how hard I know Fritz is working for us and how much he is sacrificing. But I'm not him: I don't really know most of that stuff, because I've never been in his shoes. I could try to imagine, but these days I try to respect each person's right to express their own thoughts. (That might be some sort of Mothering Side Effect, as I used to be an expert at telling people what they were thinking.) What I DO know is that when Fritz takes care of the boys for a few hours so that I can have some time alone: there is no greater gift for me. It is a gift that ONLY he can give. It's better than walking around the car, doors closed, boys buckled in. It's better than a restaurant parking lot at a lunch. And it lasts a lot longer. I feel entirely at ease, knowing that Fritz, with whom I asymmetrically balance this journey, is with them. I think to myself: I hope that he, too, feels this way. Although I suspect I may be a little more conscious of this feeling than he is.

So, you know what? There's 12K a year we don't have to play with, but in the end, I have A LOT of influence and hold a lot of power in this house. A good Cost Benefit Analysis will be both quantitative and qualitative. It's taken me a while to realize how many other kinds of capital I'm accumulating. I'm putting it in a bank account for later when I decide to do something. 

About doing something? Well, I know what it's NOT going to be (at least in the foreseeable future): volunteering. After 5 years, what I want to do most of all is whatever I want to do. Entitlement is such a dirty word these days, but that is exactly how I feel: entitled. If there's not a law that says I get to do whatever I want for several hours a week after the last five years, well, there should be: somebody get on that.

I'd like to make stuff (for myself). I really miss making stuff. Making stuff with tools. I'd like to buy a saw and wood and maybe some more concrete to make some specific furniture pieces that I've designed in my head. And I'd like to design and build a playhouse and maybe some birdhouses. There seems to be something highly ironic about an architect who decides to make houses for the birds. But I'm okay with that,  there are some kick-ass ironic architects out there. Everywhere I look, I see things I could make, projects I could do. It hasn't always been like that in the last two years. In fact, it's only recently that I feel able to think about this. More money would be nice, but money is far less important to me these days. Somehow, it's my soul that needs the creative outlet more. It NEEDS to be solving physical problems that don't involve kids. It NEEDS to be operating on its own projects for several hours a week. It NEEDS to be working for me, myself, and I.

I hear the words of my mother: Do you NEED it, Ann, or WANT it?

I don't know when this is all going to happen. It might be another 15 months. Noah will be in full day kindergarten in the fall, but I'm dragging my feet on enrolling Mattias in preschool. I don't know: it's money, it's Mattias' age in the fall (2.5), it's the fact that Mattias is a different child than Noah. Can I do the mental gymnastics of nonstop kid duty for one more year? Can I wait one more year to do whatever I want for 9 hours a weeks? What do I need and what do I want? What are the costs and what are the benefits? I'll need more than just an online calculator.

Just don't ask me to do any volunteering next year, okay?


Pregnantly Plump said...

I feel like this a lot. I'm frustrated about our water problems, because I have plans for our summer that include refinishing furniture and sewing. I hope you'll get to work on your tree house design.

Katie said...

I feel like we're processing in a parallel universe today.

I'm also pretty sure you'd design and make some pretty kick-ass bird houses. :)

Anonymous said...

Made me cry - such wonderful words!

rooth said...

If we could trade alone time like playing cards, I would gladly give you some of mine that I seem to have plentitude of these days. I know you'll be able to figure out exactly what you want and what works for your family. That's why you're Mom :)

Tarable said...

The kids strapped into the car with the doors closed thing. I really, really get that.

The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world, Mama. It's all yours and you definitely deserve some soul quenching time to do whatever you please.

Simply Bike said...

Wow, what a powerful post! You express so many things that one comes up against when being the "stay at home" parent. I particularly like the line about "asymetrically" sharing the journey with Fritz. I know the feeling. I never thought his would be me (ha! how cliche!) but we're definitely moving into that asymetrical direction of me working from home and being a full time caregiver to our daughter while T. is propelling his career forward and working outside the home.

I can't say that I'm not still working on my career and, in a way, I have many more freedoms to do what I actually want to do now (write) rather than what I'd have to do if I were pursuing a traditional academic track. But it is hard to balance being a full time mom with writing during naps and after bed time and I find myself holding it against T. often. Despite the fact that I CHOSE this route and was the decidedly more vocal one in opting not to put C in daycare.

Ahh.... the myriad of emotions and feelings. That's why I love this post, it so well explores the complexity of it all. Thank you for making me feel less alone in that this morning.

Can't wait to see those awesome (bird) houses you'll be designing and making soon enough!