I have recently planned my mother’s funeral with the clear-eyed precision of an accountant and the organizational skills of the activities director at the assisted-living facility where she lives. And I have done it within a budget where there are no line items for grand final wishes.
My husband and I are folding clothes on a Sunday night. Bless him for helping me tackle the mountain of wrinkled shirts and pants. Not to mention that we were running out of underwear. And bless him for not blaming me for letting the laundry get so out of control; I blame myself enough for the two of us. It’s all bound up in my underlying confusion with regard to work and child rearing.
What prompted me to think about whether I’m actually in or out of the workforce is a recent cover story in the New York Times Magazine by Judith Warner on women who opted out of working outside the home in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Mostly these women—and it’s a very select group—left lucrative jobs to stay home and raise children.
Reevaluating their decision almost two decades out, these women have decided to go back to work. For some, it was figuring out what to do with too much time on their hands now that their children were older. For others, it was the only option after divorce or other economic difficulties. For example, one woman’s husband had been a higher earner who was adversely affected by the 2008 recession. In any case, Warner asserts that, “the culture of motherhood, post-recession, had altered considerably too. The women of the opt-out revolution left the work force at a time when the prevailing ideas about motherhood idealized full-time round-the-clock, child-centered devotion.”
I mention that the group Warner’s research is based on is select because, for the most part, these women are well off and well educated. The majority of them are white and live in affluent neighborhoods. Her article doesn’t touch on women for whom staying at home was an economic sacrifice—women whose net pay would appreciably shrink when childcare became a line item in the budget. As far as I could tell the women in Warner’s article did not significantly alter their lifestyle when they initially left the workforce. But they had measured their worth by their paychecks and ten or fifteen years out, they were unable to assess that worth without a dollar sign in front of it.
I suspect that my situation is more typical of the women who opted out of the formal workforce. I can pinpoint the exact moment I knew that I would stay home with my kids while they were babies. My first-born was a couple of months old and we had had a difficult, colicky night. I was up every couple of hours with her. After her five A.M. feeding I brought her into bed and we fell asleep until nine in the morning. That’s when I knew that I didn’t have the fortitude or the organizational skills to balance a job outside the home with new motherhood. I’m in awe of women who have done both. I know it’s not easy. I know it’s not magic.
But I also knew I wasn’t a 24/7 type of mother. I wanted to write. And so I began to freelance with an eye toward going back to work when my children were in school all day. When they were, I went back part-time as an Internet magazine editor until I was laid off. That was ten years ago. At the time, my husband and I decided that it didn’t make economic sense for me to pursue full-time employment. He was able to support us and our version of luxury was having me at the ready for our children.
I became a full-time writer seven years ago. My income is not that significant. But working from home or the library, I’m always around even if mountains of unfolded laundry surround me. I’m working on a book that may or may not get published, but my husband understands that I’m driven to do it if only for the accomplishment of telling my family story.
Which brings me to the crux of the problem with women who opt in or out. The husbands portrayed in Warner’s article sounded unreasonably difficult. One woman complained that as her kids grew older, her husband’s role as the wage earner and hers as the de-facto housekeeper became problematic. Warner quotes her as asserting that, “I had the sense of being in an unequal marriage. I think he preferred the house to be ‘kept’ in a different kind of way than I was prepared to do it. If I had any angst about being an overeducated stay-at-home mom, it was not about raising kids, but it was about sweeping.”
Raising children is an art, a soul-giving endeavor. Housework is drudgery. These high-flying husbands didn’t appreciate that cleaning was their responsibility too and if they didn’t like it they should hire a house cleaner.
The advice I would give my daughter is not whether or not she should opt-out and then back in when she has children. It’s to marry a partner who will fold clothes with her while watching reruns on a Sunday night with nary a complaint.
I’ve just bought a new calendar that spans from August to August. August is my Rosh Hashana—the head of a new year that holds milestones and obligations. But before I stash my 2012-2013 calendar in the recycling bin, I want to trace the arc of my ordinary extraordinary life over the past year.
Amidst the panoply of doctors’ appointments and deadlines there is one entry last August that stands out for me—the day we brought Anna to college for her freshman year. I noted it on August 17. Just a quick note to remind me (as if I could forget) that we’d be headed up and out of town. No details of how tightly the car was packed, how my freshman-to-be was so nervous she barely said anything during the six hour ride. There is no mention that on the return trip home, I cried for hours, Ken drove in a funk and Adam was too stunned to talk.
Then in September the world jolts back to life from the summer and there are dates with friends, book readings and more work deadlines. Sandwiched in between spurts of activity is a weekend trip put of town. Other than that brief mention, there is nothing about Anna’s homesickness and our family’s adjustment to Anna away at college. The high holidays are penciled in, but there is no way to infer that Anna would be at school for the holidays—her first time away from us on Rosh Hashana.
Last Rosh Hashana also marked the first time we allowed Adam to go to school albeit for only the second day. That decision was a momentous one for Ken and me. Neither of us had ever attended school on the high holidays under our parents’ roofs. Adam’s well-reasoned request begged the question of whether we had done the right thing to send him to a preparatory school where he bears the workload much like Atlas holds up the world.
October and November blur together except for one bright spot where we go back to college again for an official parents’ weekend. In less than two months our girl has carved out a lovely niche for herself in a big university. She gives us a lengthy tour of the campus and we walk through her busy schedule. Ken and I breathe a sigh of relief. She loves school. She has wonderful friends.
In December we learn to live with Anna all over again. It’s been over four months since she left for school. She has her own way of doing things and we have ours. Life is a series of adjustments and malleable curfews. Adam leapfrogs over the December dilemma in school—Hanukkah blending into Christmas—and all is well in preparation for the New Year. But I have a note in my calendar—Newtown, December 14. Small children gunned down in their classrooms. What my calendar doesn’t reflect is that I’ve carried images of these children in my heart alongside memories of my own children at that age.
By the middle of January Anna is ready to go back to school and we are more than happy to support her return. The past month has been cold and dark and very, very busy. Anna’s high school friends have been ringing the doorbell late in the evening and their powwows go on and on into the night. My girl regularly sleeps until eleven in the morning. And Adam complains about returning back to school from his relatively short vacation.
In my calendar the death of a young family friend will disrupt February forever. In March there is another school vacation for Anna. More late night powwows in our den until Anna finally leaves for school the day before Passover. My Gregorian calendar records an early Passover and my heart is slightly cracked when Anna decides she can’t miss a day of school and stay on for the Seders. Her reasons for finding a Seder at school are sound and sensible. My mind tiptoes around the question that if she were closer geographically, would we have had her for the first night at least.
In May Anna comes home and there is a flurry of activity, which somehow doesn’t include her replacing her expired learner’s permit. The calendar records her appointments and duties to which I must drive her. I secretly love this busyness. I’m a juggler by nature and parenthood has always been the perfect venue for me. By June we have our summer schedule in place. Adam masters the T and my girl finds a dependable ride to work. The calendar goes quiet for weeks until Anna’s July birthday.
I’ve already filled in the new calendar a bit. Appointments, deadlines and social engagements—yet I very much live the solitary life of a writer. We’re up to year two of college for Anna and that ever-busy junior year of high school for Adam. As I flip through the still blank months, I’m reminded that I am no longer that younger self who can squander time. And no matter how much time fate has in store for me it will never be enough.
Dear Future Child-in-Law:
I’ve been dreaming about you for a long time. I’ve already conjured you with a heady mix of my imagination, my heart and my soul where you are the perfect mate for my child. A romantic like me might say you complete my child, but the truth is my daughter and son were whole and perfect from the day they were born.
I’ll admit that I’m a little jealous of you. You will know my child like no other person in the world. And you will take my place as the primary person in her life. It’s hard to cede that top spot to you even if it is right and natural. But if all goes well I won’t be giving my child away so much as gaining another child. Let’s face it: initially you and I are solely bound to each other through my daughter or son. I pray that I will be gracious and wise enough to welcome you into my life as if you were my own.
It has always amazed me that two people can come together and make a family from love and optimism and grit. No matter how much you think you and your beloved have in common, you are two distinct and different people. It’s the ensuing friction and magnetism that makes marriage so challenging and compelling.
Before I go on, I need to make it perfectly clear that if you ever hurt my child, you will have to answer to me. I don’t care how old he is. As long as there is blood coursing through my veins and breath powering my lungs, I will be fiercely protective of my child. I know this sounds like bravado. It’s not. I recognize that I will sometimes disagree with you as well as witness you and my child having a row or two. I won’t step in; it’s not my place. But if I ever see you truly hurting my kid physically or emotionally, nothing will stop me from coming to her aid.
I also need to tell you that I hope you are Jewish. I will respect my child’s decision to marry anyone that he loves. I won’t stand in the way if you are not a Jew. However, if I’m completely honest with myself, I have to admit that if you are not Jewish a part of me will be disappointed. Judaism’s values and the paths it forges for us in the world have shaped our lives for the better. I hope Judaism will do that for you too and that you will bring up my grandchildren as Jews. This is not to say that I won’t grow to love you as much as I would my child’s Jewish partner. Notice that I used the word “grow” to describe our relationship. Any in-law relationship has to put down roots.
Let me also make it perfectly clear that being Jewish won’t instantly endear me to you. More than anything, there are practical considerations for choosing a Jewish partner. In my mind, Jews share a unique vocabulary and set of feelings with one another. I love the fact that I can go to any synagogue in the world and follow the service in Hebrew. To me, that’s a grand metaphor that speaks volumes about marrying a fellow Jew. Marriage is hard enough without adding a different religion to the mix. I also have to confess to you that I spent a lot of blood, sweat and tears to give my children a Jewish education. Both of them went to day school. I can’t say that either of my teenage children is traditionally religious. But their hearts and souls are Jewish. This is not an empirical point. I’m just a mother who knows her children. And I’m a wiser adult who once thought that marrying a Jewish partner was secondary to love. I suppose that in some cases it is. All I’m saying is that marrying a Jew will more likely give me Jewish grandchildren.
I can see where you might misinterpret my desire for a Jewish child-in-law as bigoted. I promise you that it’s not. My wish for Jewish grandchildren is as much demographic as it is spiritual. We Jews are a vocal yet tiny minority in this world. We can’t afford to lose whatever little ground we cover. Having said that, I’ve told my children early and often that I love them unconditionally. Unconditional love, though, does not necessarily equate with happiness. It simply means that I’m committed to my children for life and, by association, to you as well.
When each of my children became a bat and bar mitzvah, the rabbi’s charge included a blessing that Ken and I have the joy of escorting our children to the huppah—the marriage canopy. I look forward to that day. And I look forward to meeting you, new child of mine.
The first thing that went wrong was the lock on the door. It didn’t work.
Our friends S and R generously lent us their Cape Cod condo the weekend of Father’s Day. They were away and Ken was on an extended business trip. I thought that a quick outing to the Cape would nicely break up the time while he was away. We unlocked the door of the condo just fine, but locking it was another story. I leaned heavily on my technologically savvy teenagers to figure out the lock’s mechanism. No dice. None of us had a clue about how to work our friends’ door.
My first inclination was to call Ken who was a continent away. After all, the man can walk me through complicated computer problems over the telephone. But I quickly realized that, as talented as he is, even he could not figure out how to work a lock he had never seen. The kids and I did the next best thing. We called a locksmith who, five minutes and $65.00 later, showed us that all we had to do to lock the door was lift up the handle.
And then it hit me like a megaton of bricks—this is what single parents go through every day. They don’t have the luxury of calling on a partner to get them through a rough patch. I can remember the extensive debates Ken and I have had over the years about little things like low-grade fevers, sleepless babies and fussy toddlers. Tylenol or Advil? We had no idea what we were doing, but it was less scary to be in the dark together.
Here’s another thing about our weekend away—driving. I had to do all of it. Ken always does the driving while I snooze in the front seat. This time it was completely up to me to get my kids from Point A to Point B since neither of them has a driver’s license. That’s a lot of pressure on someone with a lousy sense of direction that doesn’t like to drive.
But one of the biggest things that I learned on that fateful weekend was that Anna and Adam weren’t thrilled to be so far from their friends. That’s right, I’m not their whole world anymore. Not even remotely. So I expended a lot of energy on trying to make them happy. Unfortunately, the two of them have very different ideas of happiness. One likes the beach; the other hates it. One likes the movies; the other is not so keen on sitting in a theatre for two hours.
I finally ditched the kids and called Ken from a coffee shop. “They’re driving me nuts,” I said breathlessly into the phone.
“I think what they’re doing is developmentally normal,” he said. “At this stage, they don’t want to hang out with us that much.”
I knew that Ken had spoken the unvarnished truth. I even accepted that truth; it was just hard to see it in action.
By the end of the weekend we had had enough of one another. My children demanded that we leave the Cape a day early. No Monday morning departure to beat the Sunday traffic for this solo driver. They couldn’t stand to be away from home for another minute. That’s when I did something I swore that I would never do as a parent: I gave them the “You do not appreciate me” speech. I hate to admit this, but it was not the first time I’ve done that.
“I am, “ I said in my best martyr-like voice, “only as good as my last favor or the last thing that I bought for you.” Then my kids got into a row with me about how that wasn’t true as we waited to be seated for brunch. People were staring.
At the table their bottled-up resentments came tumbling out. Adam was still furious that we didn’t go to his favorite beach, missing out on eating the best onion rings on the face of the earth. Anna had passed up several invitations of a lifetime that had been sent in rapid-fire text messages throughout the time we were away together. And I took out a small loan to take them to the finest restaurants and buy them the loveliest souvenirs.
“Neither of us asked you to bring us here,” Anna said. “This was all your idea,” Adam said. That’s when I really blew a gasket. “You have no idea how much I do for you.” As soon as I said it, I heard how flat and clichéd the comment sounded. Of course, my children had no inkling of everything Ken and I do for them. How could they? They’re not parents yet.
As for me, I am humbled and awed by those parents who bring up children on their own with grace, wisdom and the hard-won experience of figuring out how to lock a door.
The young woman sitting across from me at the dinner table talked enthusiastically about her research at the MIT Media Lab. She was involved in designing prosthetics that would enable a person to climb a mountain or run a marathon. She was also graduating the next day from MIT and on her way to a masters program clear across the country to study mechanical engineering. Only 14 percent of engineers in this country are women and my niece is one of them.
My nephew graduated the day after his sister and is off to college to pursue his dream as a video game designer. At the other end of the table, Anna is telling my sister-in-law about her internship shadowing a cardiologist. She’s been scrubbing in to observe procedures like putting in pacemakers and defibrillators. “And you don’t feel like fainting when you see all that blood?” I ask in disbelief. Adam is excited to start a research internship in a lab studying stem cells.
These kids alternately awe me and make me weepy. When did they become young adults with interests and expertise so far from my own area of knowledge? When did I stop becoming my children’s primary confidante? Their first line of defense? I don’t write to their teachers anymore about this or that or send notes that they have to sit out recess because of a cold. They advocate for themselves. I watch Anna explain to a server about her severe dairy allergy. I used to do that stuff.
My role as a mother is undergoing a radical realignment and I’m not ready. I’ve known that my kids would only belong to me for a finite period of time. They’d grow and want to stumble into the greater world on their own. What young adult wouldn’t? I did.
So it was with great reluctance and more than a bit of trepidation that I let my children take the train down to Manhattan to stay with their respective friends for the weekend. I know there are kids younger than they are that literally travel the world by themselves. I also know that my kids are more than capable of taking trains and catching subways on their own. They’ve spent extended time away from home at camp and on school trips abroad. But this was a new adventure for them, navigating New York City on their own. Adam told me not to worry—in New York you’re never lost for long. You just count. I wasn’t concerned that he’d get lost, I was hyper about him looking like he was lost.
There are books written about parents like me. The classic on the subject of the overprotective parent is by Lenore Skenazy. She wrote a book called Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts With Worry. After her book came out a few years ago, she was on the Today Show with her then nine year-old son whom she allowed to navigate the New York City subway system without a cell phone. It was jaw dropping for me. I thought about Skenazy when I interrogated my almost sixteen year-old about his pending maiden voyage on the Times Square shuttle. He shrugged me off and said he took the T in Boston. And then I remembered he’s the kid who debates at school and speaks Spanish fluently. My niece the engineer backpacked through Europe after her senior year in high school. At her college graduation dinner she told us a story about dusting off her French to ask a hotel concierge where she could do laundry. And my computer science nephew will likely be acquiring skills to control a drone someday.
It’s thrilling to watch this generation put down a stake in their future. But does that future include me as a mother? Friends with grandchildren assure me that there’s a Round Two in the mothering game and it’s even sweeter the second time around. One friend went so far as to tell me that if she had known how wonderful grandchildren were she would have skipped having children and gone straight into grandparenting.
I have no doubt that my niece, my nephew and my own children will have a great impact on the world. Like any experienced chess player, I can see the endgame already. And my part is to let go and wave goodbye after each milestone. The other day I was helping Adam through some disappointing news. I sat on the edge of his bed and he said that he felt like a five year-old. I told him that sometimes we need to feel like a little kid to be nurtured.
For the moment, though, I’m going to pretend that the only changes I have to cope with in the near future are to wave goodbye at the train station and cheer on my niece and nephew for receiving their diplomas.
If you grew up in the 1960s or 1970s, it seemed like there was a spaceship launch every week. A rocket was followed by a plume of smoke, and off the brave astronauts would go into the unknown, possibly bumping into God.
Launching a spacecraft is one thing. Bringing it safely back to earth is another kind of business. Launch and re-entry have been on my mind quite a bit this past month when Anna returned from her first year of college.
As Ken and I launched our girl into higher education last August, the venture made nervous astronauts out of the three of us. It was a bit of a bumpy start, but that did not last too long and soon enough, Anna was orbiting her new world 300 miles away. She had a successful launch and last month, we all had to reverse course for her to re-enter our atmosphere.
Depending on your perspective, this return was either a setback or a simple change of venue. I’d say it was a little of both. Just as spacecraft re-entry can be a very tricky business, so is getting your college freshman acclimated to home life again. Note that when an object enters the earth’s atmosphere it experiences a few forces, including gravity and drag. Gravity has a natural pull on an object and will cause the object to fall dangerously fast. Think of this as your college freshman reluctantly comes back to home life, reacting to the natural yet disturbing force of your parental gravity.
Moving back home can prove to be a challenge for college students.
The earth’s atmosphere contains particles of air that a falling object hits and rubs against as it descends to the earth, causing friction. The object experiences drag or air resistance, which slows it down to a safer entry speed.
You and your returning freshman will have your own version of friction. True enough, your child will experience drag and air resistance, but in the end will not be happy to adjust her life to a safer entry speed. Again, take a lesson from physics in understanding that friction in relationships is, at best, a mixed blessing. In addition to causing drag, it also causes intense heat.
In researching the particulars of space-shuttle descents, I came upon some physical realities that make re-entry safer, and in the case of a college student returning home for the summer, a bit smoother. Any astronaut will tell you that re-entering earth is about attitude control. In the case of space flight, this is not a psychological term, but instead refers to the angle at which the spacecraft flies. I submit that similarly adjusting one’s view of welcoming your college student back home also has to do with attitude control. You and your child are in your own private descent back to family life, and how you adjust the angle of your relationship is the key to success.
Don’t make a rookie mistake and think that loving phone calls and happy Skype sessions while your child is at school will translate into a seamless transition back home. In reality, we parents are the ground crew to our children’s ongoing launches. You and I both know that she’s still under heavy parental support, but it doesn’t feel that way to a daughter who has been in charge of her own schedule for the past nine months. Your child believes she is a high-flying adult living on her own.
We can cull further lessons on our kids’ return to home life by understanding the descent of a space shuttle. In order to leave its orbit, a spacecraft must begin the process of slowing down from its extreme speed. The parties, the 2 a.m. pizza call, the constant flow of company, all of that comes to a screeching halt back at the ancestral home. Just as a spacecraft flips around and flies backward for a period of time to slow down, your college student will need to thrust her life out of orbit to return back to your home base.
The descent through the atmosphere can be a bumpy ride. Once a spacecraft is safely out of orbit, it turns nose-first again and enters the atmosphere in a position akin to a belly flop. The nose is pulled up to what is called an angle of attack, which stabilizes the descent. The lesson to learn here is that friction is inevitable and even necessary to guarantee a safe landing.
Landing a space shuttle today is a lot different from landing one of the Apollo missions, of my childhood. In those days, the astronauts returned to earth in their command module and made a dramatic splash in the ocean. Today’s shuttle lands more like an airplane and glides into a landing strip, deploying a parachute to slow it down.
In the end, does the re-entry of your college student look like the big splashdown of one of the Apollo missions or is it the smooth computer-assisted glide of a shuttle landing? We’re still working it out at our house, and the return back from dorm living vacillates between the two, feeling as mysterious as the heavens.