It was day four. My eyes were tightening at the inner corners. My brows were cinching together and down, as though linked to my under eye with a draw string. My bottom lip, too, pushed up over my top teeth, giving me a truly sour sneer.
I’m not immune to bouts of poutiness. Good gracious, no. A quizzical or contemptuous glare is also a familiar guest to my visage. But the combination pout and glare, and its long stay, was strange. On the evening of the fifth day my facial expression was not just strange. It evolved into absurdity; along with the anger, resentment, woe, and waywardness, cinched up in there was also exhaustion, confusion, and the glint of humor in my eyes.
Five days prior, my husband and I decided I would stop looking for a career path. A variety of standard factors played into that decision: time, money, day care, our desired family culture, and a body at rest staying at rest. After our daughter was born I stayed home, which meant I gave myself a year to focus on her and not look for a job. Despite that year’s allowance I was consistently checking job postings, going to informational interviews, and submitting resumes. I got a 10-hour a week job at the Unitarian Universalist society because WORK. IS. EVERYTHING. and no career paths were opening up for me. Then I took an elective work schedule at Cornell Team and Leadership Center, so I could work whenever I wanted and it was convenient for my family.
Still, despite the two jobs I had, and despite the mothering and spousing I was doing, when we decided I would give up looking for a full-time career track job, I kinda lost it in this very particular way: I glared at Ravinder for a week straight. I was as touchy as I’ve ever been. Every comment uttered within the walls of our house was heard only as a searing indictment of my failure to make money or a deliberate erosion of my abilities to parent and pull equal weight at home. (Ravinder loves to cook and is wonderful at it, so he does all kitchen-related things: cooking and dishes and cleaning the kitchen, so you can see why I might feel my contribution to homemaking was lacking.)
Work is everything. That is the culture into which I grew. As a New Englander I was forged in the cultural systems born of the Puritan work ethic. Ethic is the hidden garden, here. Work is morally right and laziness, as evidenced by joblessness, is a moral failing. In an effort to be far removed from moral judgment one naturally aimed to secure a job of high regard or high compensation. Teacher, lawyer, scientist, doctor, civil servant. In recent years we’ve seen an overcorrection to this attitude and now we have a perversion of the opposite: only manufacturing jobs are morally just while all elite jobs are morally compromised.
This is deeply ingrained in me because my parents adhere to this ideology and my father, in particular, has a problematic devotion to work. I had an absentee father during my childhood and youth, and whether it was the cause or the social balm, work was the reason maintained for his absence. The message I received was that work was the most highly regarded, most virtuous thing, and ought to be prioritized above everything.
Everything: sickness, friendship, self-care, and, family.
Born of a macrocosm that valued capital over human well-being and a microcosm that prioritized work to the point of neglecting family, you can begin to see why I might freak the f^@& out over my decision to be a stay at home mom for the next ten years.
One day of a bad mood is not uncommon. Maybe you got up on the wrong side of the bed. Two days is less common, but maybe it’s jet lag or somehow environmental. Three days of crankiness is extremely rare. All signs point to angst. Day four is unheard of unless you are depressed…. but depression consists of lethargy and feeling nothing. You don’t have energy to argue and be snippy and glare the glare of a thousand burning suns. Day five of moodiness without a cure or insight is unimaginable.
On the evening of day five my bad mood distinguished itself from me so I could see what sort of animus I’d been hosting. I could see clearly and appreciate its power and ability to make me behave like a caged animal. For me, humor and interest can creep in here. I’m like Raleigh St. Clair observing Dudley:
How interesting. How bizarre. Subject is a good mother, good partner, intelligent, hard-working, engaged, and optimistic person. Latest tests reveal extreme touchiness, a by-product of self-doubt and resentment. More tests must be done.
It is amazing. A few seeds of resentment and self-doubt can grow into unprecedented levels of touchiness. The seeds of resentment, always present but never cultivated, are that I didn’t grow up in a culture that valued motherhood. There were no signposts or markers encouraging me to achieve the title, stay at home mom. No culture of celebration, prestige, or honor. In my family, the only thing that mattered was my dad’s work. Everything took a backseat to that, so I learned that nothing was as important as work. My dad’s work. Not my mom’s.
The self-doubt of course pertains to my value as a partner and mother. I don’t get a paycheck. I have no time card to punch and no coworkers nodding hello to me from across the room. These proofs of a workday don’t exist and their absence disoriented me for a while. So much so that a simple comment like, “where did you put the diaper bag,” mutated into an accusation of disorganization and ineptitude. There’s only a slim logical connection between the comment and the translation I heard, but caged animals aren’t logical. They’re terrified and driven only by a survival instinct that results in an attitude of “so help me, I will storm out of this cage, climb up your body, and latch onto your jugular with my razor sharp fangs, if you do not get out of my way!”
This is not a sustainable way of being.
I figured out a way to get the validation I need. Ravinder has to say, “you’re off duty” when he is home from work and ready to hang out with our daughter. This tells me he sees what I do as work. Simple. Helpful. It is a huge morale booster. We tried it without saying those words, but it didn’t result in the same clarity and subsequent calm, so he uses those magic words. That statement also gives me permission to switch gears. Sometimes that means I get to write or read. Sometimes its time for housework. It’s not a vacation, but it gives me an opportunity to accomplish valuable things I did prior to motherhood and need to maintain as an adult.
I also did a back of the envelope statement of my worth if we were to hire someone else to do what I do. It wouldn’t eat up my entire projected salary, but it would be a significant chunk of it. Add another kid to the mix and we’re in the red.
Finally, I fish for positive feedback from anyone who says I’m lucky to be a stay at home mom. I want to know more about why they say so. I’m greedy for any words of encouragement and approval. I suspect that will fade in time and I won’t be so desperate for it, but right now I’m just getting used to the idea of my primary job being that of a mom to my kid. I’m filling a huge void of positive cultural feedback about motherhood. That’s how it was in my life. Happily, I’ve met lots of people who grew up in households where the primary homemaker’s job was truly valued.
I’m learning. Maybe some day I won’t need such clear points of validation, but right now, these things are very helpful. Sometimes I determine, from these reference points, that I’m doing a good job. Sometimes I just get some proof that I’m doing a job. If I didn’t have access to those things, I’d maybe not be a caged animals but I’d be damn defensive and still very touchy; it’d be bad for our household. Really bad.