One summer day when I was on the verge of first grade, my mother's real estate license appeared in the narrow apartment-house mailbox tagged with our family's name. Mom must have been planning a career for a long while -- must have studied, worried, taken exams -- but I remember none of the preparation leading to this moment of triumph. There, suddenly, was my mother, laughing and doing a silly jig in the lobby of our building. I felt embarrassed by her display of joy. And as we set off on our day's errands -- in the T-bird without air conditioning, not yet considered a hardship -- I felt something else, too: wary.
Mom was, and still is, a real estate broker in Phoenix; her fortune was made on the Sun Rush of retirees, young families, and wealthy couples from eastern cities investing in second homes with golf-course yards. Her career has now spanned thirty years, during which time the boundaries of the city where I grew up have stretched to embrace cotton fields, farming communities and, finally, barren desert. I no longer recognize the landscape that sprouts a new house every minute, strips of Circle Ks and Target stores. Meanwhile my mother, who never finished college, has made a success of herself in the most American of ways.
I'm proud of her, of course. Her example, not to mention her income, helped put me through Bryn Mawr. But as a mother, I'm still trying to reconcile Mom's joy the day she got her license with my uneasy feeling that she gave the best of herself not to her family but to her work.
My mother worked.
I say this as though we are in opposition; as though staying home with two young children isn't work; as though the hours I put into writing and teaching don't register because I do half of it while my family sleeps. I've discovered, mostly by stepping on toes, that work is the dividing line among mothers. We converse carefully in language invented by the media -- balance, quality time, child care provider -- to steer the conversation clear of its red-hot emotional core.
In fact, I straddle both sides of this canyon, living what some would consider the worst of both worlds. Working at home, I have no occasion for sassy haircuts or silk Ann Taylor suits; I also have no relief from deadlines and the hovering threat of carpel tunnel syndrome. I wouldn't trade my way of working for anything, though. It took me 10 years of internal debate to take off my mother's mantle and do things differently, as my heart desires. My mother left us to go to her office. I stay at home, and keep my office door open, even when the babysitter's here.
My husband, also an artist, struggles as I do to find time to complete projects, to think and to dream. But the question of how much of his work life is safe to leak to our children is not one that consumes him. Just as I suspect it wasn't for my father, whose professional life is still mysterious to me. My mother, on the other hand, took my little brother and me to work sometimes, completing contracts while we made igloos with the cubed sugar on the coffee cart. We made friends of her customers' kids, played hide and seek in empty houses, were once offered ice cream by a nice lady from Chicago whose poor baby had spina bifida.
I knew Mom's work intimately; I breathed in her exhaustion every evening, and grew to meet her expectation that I pick up the slack. At seven, I could plan and cook a simple meal for our family and pester my brothers to clean up their toys. After years of practicing these housewifely skills, the domestic part of my life is the easy part -- easier done than thought about. My mother's gradual abdication of these chores is perhaps what makes me so deliberate about being home to make dinner, costumes, and birthday parties for my daughters.
But how do you work? people always ask me, meaning with children. I know they expect a lamentation about my lack of free time, about how my masterpiece withers in my brain for lack of oxygen while I'm busy toilet-teaching. When people ask, I usually answer: I want to be home with my children, not just when they're small and glad to have me, but also when they're teenagers whispering on the telephone behind a closed bedroom door. I detail the 20-ounce takeout coffees that keep me going in the wee hours, the fax and email that serve as my accomplices, the college babysitters who leave me in the lurch when they've got exams. A mother for five years now, I've become adept at the logistics. Even before I had children, I was well-practiced (as most writers need to be) at juggling paid work with work I do because it brings me joy.
But logistics are only part of the issue. The truth is, giving birth made me feel like a hero, convinced me that I am physically capable of withstanding more pain, and making a greater commitment, than I ever thought possible. The novel I recently completed is like another child I tended while my daughters slept. Writing it, I worked urgently, efficiently. Because two children had already, miraculously, grown inside me, nine months seemed like a reasonable deadline for the third.
In some ways, my conflicts are the same as any mother's: between self and other, between engagement with the larger world and engagement with one's child. And yet my choice to stay at home often puts me at odds with some of the women I admire most, with whom, educationally and economically, I have the most in common.
As a feminist, I believe it's important to Take My Daughters to Work, to have them witness me creating something more permanent than macaroni and cheese. But now that I have actual and not merely theoretical children, I can't help but wonder why we protect our kids from so many aspects of the adult world, and yet feel compelled to share our work lives with them so early on. Know my work, we seem to be saying to them, and thereby know me.
As a teacher, I do want my children to see me engaged in writing, so they understand that process is as important as product, and that the making of something is a way to express and enact hope. But what measure of my life can fairly be taken from my real children to give to my ambition? I don't claim to know.
"Who made me?" my older daughter has begun asking lately, causing me to think about the spiritual dimension of creativity. At five, she's dissatisfied with the egg-and-seed explanation, is already looking beyond her parents for the true author of her existence. I realize that what I most want to pass on to both my children is a belief in possibility, a confidence that we can and will save the planet with our infinitely resourceful hearts and minds. This is, I realize, just another version of the happy ending my mother told me.
I think creation -- for me, childbearing and -rearing, and writing -- is the physical expression of optimism, a kind of joy made visible. If this is so, isn't all work, though it may separate a mother from her children, part of this enterprise, and thereby worth the trade-off? Sometimes I think so. Sometimes I fear not. Since these lessons are taught by example, I need to get my story straight.
* * *
I remember my mother once putting on her black-and-white checked apron -- it must have been her day off -- and saying to me, "Let's make a cake."
"We don't have any cake mix," I argued, a child weaned on Hamburger Helper, Campbell's soups, seal-a-meal, all of the conveniences meant to liberate working mothers from home-making.
"We'll make it from scratch," she said, and I watched as my mother gathered together the simple ingredients that would accomplish what to me was nothing short of magical. I'm old enough now to know that the faith it takes to create from scratch doesn't appear from out of nowhere. You learn, you practice, you make mistakes.
Today, nothing my mother does surprises me; she possesses strength and knowledge I couldn't begin to fathom until I had children of my own. Children who may one day choose careers with more regular hours and benefits, who may choose to forgo having children, who may tell their friends incredulously, "My mother stayed at home."
I learn, I practice, I make mistakes. I know only this for certain: that when I create something from scratch, it's easier for me to have faith in the amazing. To believe, for example, that a convergence of energy could produce a Big Bang, or that God could complete the universe with a week's lead time. And this, to answer the question truthfully, is really how I work.
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