How much of ourselves do we owe our children? When I became a mother, how much of myself did I promise? When I became a mother of two? Of three? Of four?
I shouldn't have willingly taken on this role four times over if I didn't want to spend the majority of my waking moments fulfilling this responsibility, right? If I am considering spending less time with them than I am currently, am I wrong for doing so?
The fact that I have been trying to write out these thoughts since January, and still cannot determine my ultimate opinion, should hint to you how deeply these questions require me to delve into my life values to answer. I have repeatedly become trapped in swirling, incomplete snippets of thoughts and a heavy blanket of guilt, and have set the decisions aside for another day. Months have passed now, and I am still at a loss.
To be honest, I have become increasingly desperate to change something about my situation. My utmost and sincere gratitude towards my husband for his current role in being the only financial support for our family has not faded. He has never once acted like it is "his" money that he is allowing me to use, or dwelt on the fact that with his same salary as a single man he could have significantly more discretionary income then in his actual situation of supporting a family of six. But in my own head, the fact that I am once again a financial dependent, just as I was throughout my childhood, has begun to frustrate me.
In no way will I ever agree that spouses who stay home with the children "have it easy", "are spoiled", "owe their working spouse complete care of all household duties so they don't have to lift a finger at home", "are not contributing", "are sitting around being lazy all day" or any of the other myriad absolutely ignorant opinions that people apparently still hold, as they can be found everywhere online, on any parenting post that brings up the debate. Every single one of those ill-informed individuals should stay home with their own children full-time for three months, and watch their opinion change.
But what is entirely true, is that being home with children full-time is extremely different than pursuing a career. And I am starting to struggle deciding what I want in this, or perhaps allowing myself to want what I do, and still accept who I am with that potential decision.
I delight in growing, changing and progressing in my skills and abilities as an adult human. But those words feel hollow now; just a statement to make myself sound accomplished and driven that holds no truth. Full-time motherhood does not provide much room for intellectual rigor and professional growth. Perhaps it does, and I am simply missing the mark, not wise enough with my time to fit it in. But what I have personally been experiencing, is that full-time parenting often involves entirely too much household management and cleaning for me to settle in and enjoy my children. The clutter fills my home, screaming for attention. The dishes cluster over my counter tops, the Cheerios crushed and mixing with the dried rice grains stuck to the floor under my daughter's chair, blending with the sand, sequins and left over scraps over paper and a few spare toys that have been dropped and abandoned throughout the kitchen and dining room area in the last 24 hours of our closely shared lives.
I wake up, and my natural instinct, once I have shaken off the lingering desire to remain in my bed, hidden beneath the covers and drifting back into delicious and restful slumber, is to get something done. I should finish up the dishes I was too tired to complete last night, take out the trash, or start the laundry, put away the toy cars strewn everywhere or replace the fifty books back on the shelf that my youngest prefers scattered on the floor. Or perhaps I could unpack the last few boxes, or actually clean my bathrooms for the first time in weeks, maybe I could sweep the back porch that has been strewn with small stones, clumps of dirt being ground into the patio rug, shoes that should have been brought inside but were forgotten in the rain, scattered toys and crumbs of food that are drawing in the flies? I really do need to go through the growing pile of mail, mixed with doctor's receipts, the children's school papers, retirement fund statements, HOA documents, a magazine, a car tax bill and a few articles I wanted to read. But what actually needs to be done is finally calling to schedule the dentist appointment, calling the plumber back who left the faucet dripping, setting up the kids with their new schools (Should I really home school Charlie as he is asking? Does Eliana need to be in a better school than the one around the corner? What about a charter? We have never tried private, should we now?), finalizing our will, calling back Xfinity who keeps saying we forgot to return one cable, set the kids up with better savings accounts that earn them more interest, set up a well check so I can get the shots records I need for the kids and also check on my own general health.
But wait, I am actually home to be with my children. They need another glass of milk, and Willow hit Charlie again, but oh, it was only because he was purposefully scaring her and taking her bag that she packed full of books and little items she enjoys. Actually, Eliana is mad that Willow has that bag because it really was hers originally, make her give it back. No! Scarlett finished her eggs and let me know by dumping the rest off her plate and smearing them around on the table and onto the floor to mix with the milk droplets that she purposefully shook out of her "spill-proof" cup a few minutes ago. Mom! Charlie is putting his foot in my face! But she is sitting in my way, I was building a track here. Scarlett, no! Put that back, that's mommy's. Can you play a game with me, Mom? I can try, but you know it will be hard with Scarlett. No, MY mommy. You can sit here on my lap baby. Ah! Can you pick that piece up before it gets lost that she flung over there? Mommy, can I have crackers? No, we literally finished breakfast ten minutes ago. Screaming ensues. But I WANT them! Yes, I know, but I think you can...Mommy, mommy, it's your turn. Okay, one second Charlie, Willow, you have to stop screaming, we will have a snack later. But, I'm hungry!
The dishes still sit there three hours later, having only grown in number. The laundry may have been switched, one load carried upstairs, only to be added to the growing mountain already there, sitting rumpled and unfolded in my bedroom. The bathrooms are now worse, toothpaste smeared more heavily on one of the counters, a child's clothes thrown absentmindedly in a heap on the floor, evidence of where they changed. More books have been removed and asked to be read. The floor is in desperate straits in the kitchen, gritty crumbs coating the bottom of your feet with every step you take. The coloring books were taken out and then abandoned, the markers strewn across the floor of the family room.
My children like to be home. They don't see any of the mess as a problem. I would almost say they prefer it. Any area I do ever get organized or clean, whether through my own effort in stolen minutes here and there, or with their assistance, peppered with complaints from some, and unending screams and moans from others, they immediately move into the cleared space with their next play idea and leave it layered back over again with clutter in moments. I discovered during our recent move, that this has nothing to do with owning too much in our first-world home life. We had almost entirely cleared out the house to make sure it showed well and made the move easier once the day arrived, putting the rest in storage, and yet they still managed the same phenomenon.
When I spend my day focused on them, engaged in their play, helping them navigate conflicts, creating fun moments, taking them out into the world and generally spending my time in my role as mother, which is what I tried to sign up for as full-time mother, then household tasks sit stagnant and worsen in their disaster. Yet when I spend my time caring for all the household tasks, the children's requests for my attention and engagement do not stop (on the rare occasions they do, I feel terrible anyway because it is only when I have turned them down enough times in one day that they are discouraged and give up). And as I complete the chores, I realize again and again, that my only satisfaction in them is when the task is done; the house is clean, the counters clear, the laundry put away, the floors beautifully shining. I despise the actual tasks themselves. They do nothing for me. There is no interest, no intellectual stimulation, no gain in knowledge or skill. There is only the drudgery of their absolute constant need for completion. Because to be honest, in a family of six, they are never finalized. The mind-numbing call of household maintenance tasks is always beckoning for more.
I want to enjoy my children. And I do. But when my "job" is watching them and caring for our home simultaneously, it is becoming increasingly difficult for me to do so. I start to only see what I will have to clean up after them, instead of enjoying the "pond" they are creating from our kiddie pool. I start to only see the clutter, disaster and tasks instead of their joy, enthusiasm and interest. Their continual desire for attention from me begins to feel stressful and overwhelming, instead of welcome and delightful, as I observe too many days of not enough household maintenance completed, leaving our environment too messy to function in, groceries needing to be restocked, projects delayed month after month, phone calls for appointments only made with the screams of my children in the background as one minute away means plenty of time for someone to injure a sibling and become destructive.
I love my children very much. I do. But how much do I owe them of my time? I want to spend most of my time with them, but perhaps it is becoming a desire for some time, not all. I wanted this rambunctious, multi-faceted, personality-filled family life for them to grow up in. But am I alright with myself turning away from being home with them full-time? Can I accept that my desire for that was a stage of our lives together and that we could have another stage now that looks very different? Why can I applaud those around me for pursuing their careers and parenting simultaneously, with no false note in my joy for them, and yet feel such cloying guilt when I consider the same?
My oldest enjoys school, and has absolutely no interest in homeschooling or even in considering any option other than public school when I mention them. My two youngest are ready for social interaction with children of their age in a group environment. The baby has been two for a few months and is extremely verbal. She enjoys other children, walking up towards children at playgrounds and social gatherings to engage. The third oldest as been asking to go back to her "class", the daycare she was in with Charlie before our youngest was born and I stopped working. She remembers it and enjoyed it and wants to see her friends there and play, dance and do the activities they provide. I could assuage my feelings of guilt with the three of them, particularly if I could find them a part-time daycare, only three to four hours of care away from me each day. But right when I started considering some version of stepping away from full-time parenting more seriously, Charlie, unknowing of my dilemma, announced he would like to homeschool in the fall, for fun. He wants me to make it fun, to have less rules, less structure, more joy and play in his learning and more freedom to pursue his own interests and set up his learning environment to fit him better. He has remained consistent in his request for a few months now. I have given him neither a final yes or no.
In my current state of mind, already trying to determine if I can forgive myself for even wanting to step away from my mothering responsibilities for a portion of every day, all I hear in his request is, "Mama, do you want to spend time with me?" "Mama, do you want to have fun with me?" "Mama, can we create something together?" He does actually really enjoy school so far, having just completed first grade. I wouldn't be resigning him to somewhere where he is sad or feels unsafe by sending him to second grade at public school in the fall. And yet all I can think of when I consider saying no, is that it will be felt by him as me saying, "No," to all the questions above, and to my youngest, who is perfectly content to stay home with me and is very attached to her mama. Can I truly say, "No, Charlie, my current set up where daddy pays for everything and I stay home full time isn't working out for me. I am going to sign you up for school and put Willow and Scarlett into daycare, after I find a job so I can afford it. No, Charlie, when you are asking for more time with me, I will be setting my schedule up for less. When you are asking me to help you have fun learning, since you know yourself well and know you prefer more freedom and creativity in your situation, I will be sending you straight back into the environment that requires rules, structure, adult-chosen learning and strictly enforced rules to function as an entity. No, Charlie, I won't be creating with you, I will be creating on my own, away from you and your siblings. No, I do not have to do this. It could certainly allow for more breathing room in our budget, but I am blessed with the choice whether to return to employment or not."
Can I say those things by putting my children in school and care and accept myself? Can I give myself grace? Can I allow the part of me that desires intellectual rigor and progress as an adult professional in society to have a stage, however limited I may choose it to be still?
Will I let myself change our home life situation and find peace and joy with the decision? If I don't change our situation, will I continue to feel this anxious sense like I am not completing something I am here in this world to contribute?
Yes, a spouse, children, family and friends are the greatest blessing, absolutely. But must my children also be my greatest work? Can I not relish in them in my personal life, but have an entirely separate vocation? I want it to be so. Yet, the shadows of guilt and fear cling to the corners of my mind and heart as I try to let myself move into this new stage.
What if my children think back and wonder why they were not enough for me? What if my children question if I loved them, or why I had them, if I purposefully chose not to dedicate my time to them?
More than any accomplishment, more than any career, more than any intellectual stimulation for myself, I want a relationship with my children. I want them to know they are loved, deeply and endlessly by myself and their father. I will give up whatever is needed of my personal life to make sure they feel desired, wanted, enjoyed, and delighted in for their own unique selves.
So I ask again, how much of ourselves do we owe our children? When I became a mother, how much of myself did I promise? I don't want to toe the line, teetering precariously over the edge of where they may not feel deeply desired and loved by me. I want them to be doused in the security of my joy and delight in them. I want us to be friends when they are older, and an endless support for them now and in that future.
But what if some time away from them fills me emotionally? What if some time away provides me with joy to draw from to share with them? What if creating my own space, solely in the adult sphere of life, energizes me, when constant time with them only drains my cup? What if time away truly makes me love them more, the absence genuinely making my heart grow fonder, allowing me to miss them, rather than be overwhelmed by them?
What is right?
P.S. If you enjoyed this post, please read my previous ones as well. I always love to hear your thoughts, reactions and experiences in return!