I’m 36-years-old. To some that age is old and used. To others it is young and vibrant. Yet still to others it is just…36, and to them, we are all in the same boat. So, forgive me beforehand if I sound whiny or rude, ungrateful or unwise, or just plain silly.
Life is hard. And I don’t mean in that “putting food on the table and a roof over our heads” kind of way. (That’s a reality to think about too, but I’m discussing a different kind of hard.) It’s the kind of hard that deals with the dynamics of relationships – being a parent, a daughter, a sibling, or a friend. For a while it seems easy. You just sort of grow up, hang out with your best friend, have a few catastrophic moments of social despair and recovery, and float into relationships on a deeper level – in a way that impacts the heart and emotions in a new and exciting way. You fall in love (for real this time). You get married. You have babies. Love grows. Time sails. Then…you hit a wall. A big wall. Wait…that didn’t happen to you? Maybe this is just my story.
Something has been happening, and it has progressed slowly over time. It has been building – waiting and sleeping in between when things seemed to run smoothly – until the right time to explode all over the place, breaking perspectives up into tiny little pieces. Then you sit there, clueless, wondering what just happened. You look at the shards of glass – reflections of bits and pieces of memories, ideas never brought to fruition, broken dreams – and you try to decide: Do I sweep all of this up and throw it away? Do I start over new, building new perspectives upon a clean slate? Or, do I even begin to put forth the effort to try to piece this back together, inspecting every single aspect down to the tiniest detail until I can put my finger on exactly where I went wrong? Surely there must be more than one place, and surely this will take a lifetime to repair. Is it even worth it?
My mom always has this thing that she says that gets to me: “Don’t say that about yourself! You’re not just a stay-at-home mom. You’re too sharp. You’re capable. You do so much.” Really? Well. But that is exactly what I am. I am a stay-at-home mom. I suppose that means I failed.
Look. I have this notion that many people don’t realize what it is that stay-at-home moms do. Many people say, “I would love to stay at home.” They say it in a way that insinuates that they would love to be with their children. They would love the freedom it allows. They would love the time they would get to put life into a neat and orderly manner.
I have news. That’s not how it works. At least not for me.
I was once a girl who fell in love with a boy. He had a huge brain with ambition that he didn’t even realize was there. He doubted himself. He didn’t know how to dream. Yet, he amazed me. I loved listening to him speak. I loved the way he looked at me, how attentively he listened, and how much he cared. His eyes gave him away. They were sincere, purposeful, gentle, and kind.
I was a girl who was a bit lost. I had a great sense of humor, an optimistic outlook on life, and I wasn’t afraid to take chances. I liked excitement and adventure. I didn’t buckle down enough to do well in school until my early 20’s. Prior, I travelled to Utah and California. I enjoyed meeting new people, especially people who were different than me. I was (and still am) extremely relational – everything hinges on the relationships we build, the way we impact lives around us and what we learn from others. If we can’t be a good person and a good friend, then we really have nothing. People who were bad at relationships always seemed sad and upset over something. I never wanted that to happen to me.
I was irresponsible. He was not. He was extremely practical. I was always looking for the path less travelled. Relationships were important to me. He didn’t seem to have many. I believed that you should shoot big. He always thought that the only options were the ones that were already apparent and close at hand. He didn’t like to take chances. I thought the only way to get anywhere was through taking a risk.
But…it worked. Obviously. Something happened. Magic maybe. Fate. God. We did break up one time after dating for a few months. It was over our different theories of love and life. “Why do you think you fell in love with me?” I had asked.
“Because of a series of hormones in my body that attracted me to you,” he had responded along with more of the same about the science of the body and mind in regard to physical attraction.
“Sorry,” I had told him. “I can’t be with someone who loves me because their body simply responded in what seems to me a very computerized way.” ‘Good match, body. Check mate. You may proceed.’
I believed that love and life happened differently. I thought of life differently. It was more that we are all connected by forming these meaningful paths between people and places and things. Some of those connections are mistakes. We have to find our way back to the other side and burn the stumps at either end. But the other ones…those are worth their weight in gold. They form rich bonds that impact our life in a positive way. Those are the connections that change us a little bit in some way, that help us grow and succeed. To me, these connections are formed by the graces of God who instilled in us things like compassion, empathy, and love. Without God, we are nothing. There is no meaning, no purpose, and without Him we walk blindly in a straight line playing things as safely as possible. Without God there is no hope and no faith. ‘Good match, body. This one is a safe bet.’ I didn’t want to be (and never want to be) someone’s safe bet along their straight and narrow path.
The break-up didn’t last long. Obviously. The more I got to know him, the more I fell in love with him and the more I realize that this man was someone I wanted to take care of for the rest of my life – he needed that. He was really good at doing, but he didn’t know how to breathe and laugh and live. He set his goals low, assuming he was only worth a slight shift upward. He wanted to land a job working for Western Kentucky University where he had been employed through his last year of college. “Dream bigger,” I had told him. “You’re so smart. You have amazing ideas and you get down on yourself trying to contain them into small spaces.” So, he took his first big chance. He nervously interviewed with IBM, he got the job, and upon graduation we moved.
Over the next few years I learned how to become his biggest cheerleader. He needed that. I believed in him more than I believed in myself. I taught preschool, attended college classes, and eventually we brought a new life into the world. Considering my tendency to put relationships first, I decided to become a stay-at-home mom. I stopped going to college, we bought a house, and I took on a role as stay-at-home mom for the next 11 years, never in that time waning in any way whatsoever. I loved my family so much that it was incomprehensible to do anything differently. Sure, I had the thought in the back of my mind that I was wasting myself – sacrificing my own dreams – but it didn’t matter. My focus was on keeping the connections strong – those bonds along the paths that kept us tethered to each other. I couldn’t let them loosen. This was family. This was everything.
We had another baby. We moved. My husband became complacent at work, which is never a place he finds much comfort in. His practical side always told him not to worry too much – if it’s good enough then it’s fine. Let it be. He would walk through life with his shoulders slumped over like that if I let him, but I didn’t and I won’t. I can’t. I believe in him. He had put a few resumes out there and had been turned down. Encouraging him to actually polish them up and actually send them in was like pulling teeth. He had applied to one company a couple of times already. “I have been turned down twice already,” he had said.
“So what! Go for it again. Try. You never know.” He polished his resume. Again, he sent it in again. He got it.
He was so excited. It was an amazing opportunity. It was scary…sure. We had recently moved back to our hometown to be closer to family and this was with a company in another state. It would mean selling our house in a recession and him commuting until we could physically make the move to be closer to his office. The backlash we received from family was discouraging. “Why do you want to do that? You just moved here.” They weren’t happy for him. They were devastated. It made his new excitement lessen. He second guessed himself. Maybe they were right. Maybe we should stay here. It’s safe and calm. It’s predictable.
That didn’t last long. I wouldn’t let it. It’s not how I lived my life. I encouraged him to keep his head up, keep his shoulders straight, walk with confidence, believe in himself, and take a chance. It has turned out to be one of the best decisions he has ever made in his career.
We moved again. We had another baby. Money was tight for a while, but we made it work. Jackson focused on his career, as always. It consumed him like all of his thoughts had since I first met him. Our family and our relationships consumed me. It seemed to work well. We had balance. He went to work. I did everything else. And when I say everything else, I mean EVERYTHING. I became solely responsible for every single minute detail of our personal life. Was everyone eating well? Was everyone getting enough exercise? Was everyone getting enough sleep? Was everyone getting to the doctor and the dentist? Were we putting back money? Was the lawn getting mowed, the mulch getting spread, the clothes getting washed? Was my husband OK at work? I would be there to listen. His life at work would become so vivid through discussion that I felt I was going in with him every single day. I would help him navigate social situations, encourage him to go for new opportunities, never letting his belief in himself waiver.
Our oldest daughter started school and we quickly realized that the public system wouldn’t work. I handled it alone. I researched homeschooling, brought her home, and began the search for a good private school. I reworked our finances and figured out a plan. I got the girls into a good school. The shit hit the fan again, but maybe it was my fault? I didn’t sit my kids in front of a screen from birth. I read them books and did puzzles. I took them to the library consistently and to the orchestra and plays. We played outside. We investigated our surroundings. No wonder our oldest couldn’t sit still in a classroom, but apparently it had caused some kind of catastrophic damage. I researched the doctors. I made the appointments. I told my husband when to meet us there and for how long. I filled in his blanks. We went. We got a diagnosis. I shifted gears again by homeschooling and searching for a school to meet her needs. I put so much emphasis on making sure that everyone was OK. And they were. Things would get better. Everyone was happy.
In the meantime during our ups and downs with schools and education, my husband kept coming to me and talking about a position at work that they had trouble filling successfully. “Develop your own plan for the position,” I had encouraged him. “Write this all down. Make it into a presentation. Take it to the CTO.” He doubted himself. He would come and go in and out of our personal life, attending to his professional one. Eventually, I got out the pliers and fixed him to the couch. It was time to pull more teeth. He worked for weeks and through an entire weekend, and eventually he finished his plan. He practiced his presentation with me. He went in to the office and gave the presentation to the CTO. He got the position! I was so proud of him, as always. He is a brilliant man and a magnificent leader. He sometimes just needed reiteration from me that those things were true. I could never understand why he always doubted himself, but it was cute, like a lost little puppy so unsure of his surroundings with so much potential. I’m a sucker for those types of things.
In all of this time, I have missed something that I never realized existed until now. The thing is, I’m still not quite sure what that something is. I think a lot of people look at me and what I do and assume that I have it easy. I don’t earn a paycheck. My husband takes care of me. He works hard and I float around carelessly taking care of frivolous things. I’m not sure what this whole stay-at-home mom thing looks like for others, but for me, it’s constant work, and it’s not just physical work. It’s emotionally and spiritually draining. The balance was perfect for so long, but somewhere along the line it started to tilt ever so slightly and unnoticeably. I grew up learning that hard work was the equivalent of self-worth. If you didn’t work hard, you had nothing. And I did that. I worked hard. I made it into something, but I think that I took it a step too far. I not only assumed the responsibility of caring for our family, but I assumed the responsibility of solely carrying all of the emotions that come along with it. I felt for my husband and myself. He floated in and out of our personal life. He went to work. I did everything else. (I said that already.)
Here’s the catch, and it’s something we are just now catching wind of. Being a stay-at-home mom is hard work, and I love it, but I have a threshold that I have reached. For six years we have lived in a school system that doesn’t work for us. I never could figure out what it was, but with homeschooling the kids – taking on the responsibility of not only making sure that everyone is eating well, getting enough exercise, learning important life lessons, reading enough, bathing enough, have clean clothes to wear, learning to help out around the house, etc. – I am also now responsible for teaching them math and science an history. I’m responsible for helping the child learn to spell who never seemed to be able to. I’m responsible for reteaching myself long division and chemistry and reading up on junior high classics to be able to discuss the books with my 5th grader while also reading up on 3rd grade reading lists for the same reason. In between I try to get to the grocery store to have a healthy selection of foods to chose from, good meals to cook, and am trying to spend time with our preschooler who is learning to read and thrives on a bit of quiet and alone time with me doing things that just little kids like to do. I am also trying to take care of myself. Am I reading books for myself? Am I getting to run every day? Am I getting some time alone? Am I able to write, to think, to be a grown woman? Am I able to do a good job taking care of our day to day life? No. Not currently.
And this is where the pieces are starting to fall. They have been cracking and crumbling little by little, year after year, and I haven’t figured out how to stop it. I don’t understand it. The thought occurred to me that I should go back to school. Maybe I need to just not be a stay-at-home mom anymore. Maybe the kids need to be in school, in after school programs, and maybe my husband needs to spend more time caring for our personal life as well. Maybe he needs to hit his limit in his career without the time available to spend tending to it while I need to work on building my own career outside of our home. Is that what it is? Something is there. Something has to give. What’s the answer?
I get the feeling that I am looked at as not doing much – as taking the easy road – but I can tell you that those who view things that way in regard to me stay-at-home mom are wrong. I don’t think they understand the scope of things. Without me, my husband wouldn’t be where he is. He would still be working for the university he graduated from, living in the town he grew up in during his formative years, and playing it safe. He would feel an itch – a desire – to do something more and it would tear at him, but he wouldn’t believe in his own capabilities. He would be depressed and by now probably angry with himself and everyone else. He would be wandering and lost. I enabled him to move beyond that. I encouraged him to look further, to shoot bigger, and not in the form of things – never in the form of bigger houses, nicer cars, and an arsenal of jewelry and fine things. I encouraged him to never put a limit on himself as far as where he could go and what he could do in his career. I encouraged him to believe in himself. And why? Because I love him more than anything in the entire world. I believe in connections and bonds. I believe that life can hold a bigger and grander plan than what we can see right in front of our faces. As a result, he has become a successful man, a good father, and a Christian. He continues to grow and challenge himself. He is happy. Satisfied. I helped him do that. We do that together.
But…back to the threshold. I have reached it. I’m tired and frustrated. I’m out of ideas. I’m spread too thin, and as my husband’s demands at work grow, I’m spread even thinner at home. I have to relieve myself of something in order to mend the walls and restore balance. If not, something will give. It will explode. The pieces will be too many. I will go back over our life together and try to figure out all of the little places along the path we stepped that we should have chosen differently. But honestly, what a waste of time! What a worry! Why do that? Life is too short. Choices are made. People move on. Life grows. When we miss a step, we can’t go back and retrace. We can’t right our wrongs in the past, but move forward into the current, foreseeing the future, and make our changes accordingly.
We have an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to move our family into a better direction where we can restore our balance, where my husband can continue to grow and focus on his career, but where I can still keep everything glued together at home. I don’t mind it. I love tending to those bonds. They are everything. They are vital to life. Why would I chose to focus and tend to anything differently? Those bonds are the most important and delicate thing in life to me. Caring for those bonds is how I care for myself. It fulfills me to strengthen the ones that hold our little family together tightly. But, I am spread thin. I’m struggling underneath the weight of our personal life. And I need a release so that I can focus on what I’m good at doing: loving, forming, holding, being, encouraging, tending, supporting, caring.
And here is what irks me about other people: I don’t understand why others can assume that they can peer into a little hole in someone else’s personal life and assume that they see the entire picture. What someone on the outside sees is but a small piece of a much larger picture that can’t be understood from the outside looking in. It can’t be understood without heartfelt discussion and patience. It can’t be understood without understanding that there is more than one way to live life, and everyone will chose differently. It’s is what makes life interesting. It’s what makes life colorful. It’s what makes the dynamic of relationships either good or bad, but nevertheless important. It’s how we grow and live and learn from one another. If everyone did everything the same, we would all be basing our understanding of life and placing limits on ourselves based on what we see through a tiny little hole instead of trusting the bigger picture – the pieces we can’t yet see, but that which excites us and keeps us motivated to move forward.
My husband and I haven’t done everything right. We have made mistakes. We fight. We make up. We have downtime. We have passion. And one thing we have done consistently over the course of our relationship is look with excitement, hope, and faith in God toward those pieces of our life that aren’t yet formed. We seek to bring out those things in life that we know are there waiting to add richness and color to our life together. They are the pieces that help us form our larger picture. There is nothing worse I can think of in life than growing old and looking back and having all of our pieces lined up in a straight, predicable row of playing it safe. Instead, we already have lines and angles, crazy offshoots that went nowhere, but gave us great memories to laugh about, an amazing puzzle being formed that makes us who we are. It’s something we took a chance on. It’s something we have built together. And it’s crazy. In one area it may be a whole messy confusion of color, but then it comes together beautifully in perfect focus, like our firstborn child. College was a straight line for me. I got pregnant. It blurred drastically, but then it came together in big giant eyes and a wide smile. It came together in a perfectly created offshoot of my husband and I, an entirely new dynamic to our life together, another bond to tend to.
My husband and I…we will continue to grow and change. We will morph with life, bounding upward instead of settling for being stagnant and still. And because together in life we have a good balance of practicality filled with dreams, of responsibility filled with taking chances, of love built on the strong bonds that tether us together in our little family, we can’t go wrong, even if at times our bones get shaky and scared. Taking chances is hard, but it is worth a risk when the pressure becomes unbearable and the plan to move forward with it is good and sound. That’s where we are.
You know, there is an easier way out of all of this pressure. It’s as clear as day. We could pay cash for a house in our hometown. I could return to school and put the kids into a good school district there. I could graduate in two years with a degree and we could become a two income family. We could divvy up our responsibility in a perfectly balanced way of he does/she does. We could play it completely safe, tending to our practicalities instead of believing that we can do things our own way.
We can have faith in not only ourselves, but in family and in God. We can need each other instead of turning our backs during a time when life seems to be confusing and hard. Too many people do that. We are at the age when people are deciding that having a mortgage and children is too much responsibility. One is trying to move forward in their career while the one tending to family is deciding that family is too much to handle. They need their own space, their own independent life away from it all. They divorce, sweep up all of the shards of glass from their previous life and toss it into the garbage. They begin with a new slate, taking with them the mistakes they made the first time around and vowing to never do it again.
Us…not us. We’re going to suffer through it. We’re going to look at the pieces above our heads and carefully mend them together into our own unique design because it’s special and raw and real. It’s everything that matters – the bonds, the love, the tethers, the ties. Those are things that have to be strengthened and readjusted all of the time. It takes hard work. It takes effort. And that is what I do. I’m a stay-at-home mom, and that title encompasses many important things that may not seem like a whole lot to the outsider looking in, but to those within the family that they support every single day by what they do, it is a vital lifeline that keeps everything running smoothly, ensuring that love and peace and balance never falters. I couldn’t imagine a more important thing to be doing with my life. I look up, not down. I seek a way to make things better, not easier. I encourage. I grow. And I bring my family along on this journey with me. I’m grateful to have a husband who needs me – a husband who works hard and takes care of us so well, but who ironically needs help keeping his head up and his shoulders rolled back. Together, we will walk forward and hopefully some day, we won’t look back with any regrets. Hopefully by the time we finish this thing, we will have a perfectly unique and colorful design of our life we built together around bonds that were cared for and strengthened along the way. After all, I’m a stay-at-home mom. I know that doesn’t sound like much. But it’s what I do.