Cal left his pumpkin at home by accident, so when I went to drop it off at his classroom (ordinarily in such cases I leave the forgotten item at the front desk and someone from the office ferries it upstairs to the classroom so as to minimize disruption--however, in this case the pumpkin was gigantic and when I offered to carry it up myself they happily left the hoisting to me) I kind of got roped into coming back in later that afternoon to help Cal's teacher with the activity. Honestly, my first instinct when the teacher asked me if I could be an extra set of adult hands (in the setting of 26 fourth graders wielding a variety of hollowed out gourds and serrated blades) was to beg off because look man, I'm busy. But that response was a reflex, ingrained from years and years of having to say no to stuff. Because I actually wasn't busy that day. And having the time to do things like this in the kids' classroom was precisely the reason that I went part-time in the first place.
Which brings me to the topic for today, which I have deliberately been shying away from because the kind of honesty with which I want to discuss this is precisely the kind of thing that causes fistfights to break out in the comments section of The New York Times "Motherlode" blog. (Leaving aside the truly questionable decision to call a parenting series "Motherlode," because random puns aside, parenting is only for ladies, y'all!)
Joe and I agree that since I have made the move to go part-time at work, the quality of our home life has never been better. The benefits are obvious--I have more time to spend with each kid, I am more connected with what they are doing at school and at home, we can actually schedule doctors and dentist and teacher appointments, we are all eating better, acting out less...the list goes on and on. And there are moments every single day when I think, "Thank god we finally decided to do this." The mornings I spend with Nina after the boys are off at school. Time that I get to carve out to spend with Mack alone, which I hardly ever had a chance to do before. Having time for actual conversations with Cal, who for all his idiosyncrasies as a young child is actually turning out to be a pretty cool and funny kid. These are the obvious good things. These are the things that make it clear that the decision to dial back at work was worthwhile.
But of course these are the things that just make parenting in general a joy, and between these clearly treasured moments are the interstices, the webbing, the connective tissue that binds the important bits in a dense fiber of the banal. Because for every morning I spend with Nina watching the sun rise over the Chattahoochee there is of course an entire day of chasing down lost shoes and changing diapers and washing clothes, cleaning up one mess in the kitchen while Nina is creating the next mess because allowing her to create the next mess is the only way I can buy time to clean up the first mess. For every special afternoon with Mack there is the endless run of school pickups, school dropoffs, making sure that lunchboxes are packed and thermoses are not lost at school, corralling shoes and socks and sweatshirts and more socks, items which surely must walk around at night after we're asleep because otherwise there's no explanation for how they spread out and hide all over the house. And for every pumpkin carving activity I do at the kids' school, there is an hour of sweeping up sticky pumpkin seeds, picking up strips of newspaper and magazines that have glued themselves to the linoleum with bioglue, and wiping down desk after desk with antibacterial wipes and hoping to god that the janitorial staff at night come equipped with mops. (Though to be clear: I was more than happy to help, and Cal's teacher was a brave, brave man to even consider staging the mass class pumpkin carve-a-thon without a second adult around. We could have probably used another two or three adults, to be honest.)
It is in these moments, with the brooms or with the wet rags or running in and out of the supermarket or picking up the dropped (well, hurled) sippy cup again for the five hundredth time that I think: It doesn't have to be me doing this. This does not involved an advanced degree, or special training. ANYONE could do this. Or, perhaps more precisely to the point: I took a 40% pay cut in order to wash dishes and do laundry? DOES NOT COMPUTE.
(This is the part where people start polishing their pitchforks. Hey, you missed a spot!)
Look, I know that it's not the special advanced skill with which I drive to carpool or wash the dishes or make the school lunches that the time worthwhile--it's the fact that I'm doing it for my kids that makes it special. I get that. And I also get that, with parenthood, the amazing moments are not in the majority--that it is, in fact, the intermittent and punctuated nature of the awesome moments that make you get up each day and do all the non-awesome stuff over and over and over again. And that's probably true about most things in life, though I'm beginning to find that there's something different about spending a full day parenting rather than a full day being a doctor: it feels less special.
(And here is where you start jabbing the pitchforks. Jab on, gentle village people! Miss ye not the tender essential organs!)
And when I say "special," I don't mean to say that my kids aren't special, or that my parenting them isn't special. It's just that in the mundane moments, it feels like anyone could be doing this. I didn't need to go to college or medical school or spend five years in residency training to do that stuff. My educational background, or training, or the years I spent before I had kids doesn't inform my daily parenting in any meaningful way. It's just me, doing what millions and millions or other people are also doing at the exact same time--probably I'm not even doing as good a job as many of them are, because HAVE YOU SEEN PINTEREST? Just me, momming it up like a character in a Sunny Delight commercial, part of the hoarde, one of a type, a piece of a marketing demographic. And that's the part that doesn't feel special.
And the thing that bothers me is that I never considered myself someone who needed to feel special, or who cared about status. I don't make people call me "doctor," I don't wear my diplomas around my neck on a giant chain, and I think I've worked most of my professional life to try to put aside whatever ego may manifest in my persona because quite simply I don't think it serves any purpose. But obviously it must have mattered to me more than I thought, because while I recognize the luxury of spending more time with my children, and for all my whining I have plenty of help in keeping this family going; I still sometimes think, this is it? THIS is what I miss work two days a week to do?
Because at work, it sometimes seems like the significance of what you're doing is obvious. That the answer to the question, "What did you do today?" could be succinctly summed up by saying: I'm a doctor, I take care of patients. Boom. Instant credibility. Credibility to whom, unclear--perhaps it's just to justify things to myself. But on the days that I'm "off" with the kids...
So, what did you do today?
Well, after breakfast I dropped the boys off at school, then I took Nina to the park. Then we came home, and while she took a nap I cleaned up the kitchen. Then I started to prep stuff for dinner, but then she woke up, so I gave her lunch. Then I cleaned up after lunch. After that we kind of played a little bit out back, and then it was time to pick up the boys again. So we did! And then I finished making dinner. And then everyone ate and I cleaned that up.
You know, when I say it all like that it sounds like I didn't do anything.
But then how come it took up the whole damn day?
But then how come it took up the whole damn day?
Obviously this is something I'm still working out in my brain, and clearly part of it is that there are societal indicators of what is considered "important work" that I have allowed to imprint on me (despite the fact that I obviously know that raising my children is important work, therefore the need to take more time to do it right). Also obvious to me is that this probably reflects poorly on my personality in some way--some sort of egomaniacal needs that are not being met by the quotidian tasks of parenting three young children being chief among my deficiencies. But I am curious, particularly after reading this article in the Times a few months ago--does this experience of "status loss" or this sense of becoming unmoored from part of your identity ring true for anyone else who decided to take one step back from a career that has in many ways defined them?