By Any Other Name
By Jane Chin
I am at the Cheesecake Factory for dinner, getting into the home stretch with this five course “mommy’s night out” dinner: I've had the alcoholic drink. I’ve gone through the appetizer called "What Are Your Kids Doing This Summer". We have eaten our dinner entrees.
But before I can eat dessert (cheesecake, of course), I have to get through a course called, "Venting about Motherhood”.
One of my dinner companions is angry because her husband had filled out a form and wrote “Homemaker” as her occupation (she used to work as an accountant).
“Can you believe it!” She says, “I told him, ‘Don’t you dare call me a homemaker!’”
Her voice rises above even the din of the restaurant. I look at nearby customers to see if anyone has turned our way.
One of us asks her what her husband should have written.
“He should have put down ‘housewife’!” She says.
She sounds familiar in the words she’s speaking (very loudly) and the words she leaves unspoken.
I marinated in resentment in the inaugural year of motherhood. This resentment went beyond occupational labels and fatigue from the physical shear of childbirth, all the way down to the seat of my emotions. This was the small crack in what was supposed to be my protective bubble when I chose to be a stay-at-home mom.
My husband went back to work 6 weeks after our baby was born. He was more tired, of course, but he has lunch hour, sick days, and his “aerospace engineer” job title. I resented this part of his life that remained whole, intact, and pristine from the mess of a newborn.
The home office was my personal space where I could think, write, and otherwise type on the computer endless lists and plans for “getting to the next level” in my life, business, and career. This space shrunk first with the insertion of a crib next to the desk. This convenience saved me time from having to get up from the computer to check on my child; I could sit at the desk imagine that I was still connected to a chord that I had built to a world I once knew.
Then the crib was replaced by a clutter of board books, a Ukulele doubling as a child’s guitar, plastic blocks, felt-tip coloring pens (all missing caps), foam tubes, and a Hula hoop. These spared me from having to be my child’s constant playmate. A steady supply of Clif Bars For Kids and crackers on my desk saved me from having to go downstairs to the kitchen to get my child a snack.
I collected these minutes like quarters I could use toward a laundry list of “what to do with my life”. These conveniences changed the landscape of my personal space, and I resented that I no longer had a place I could call my own or a stretch of time to mull.
My husband said, but this is what you wanted.
As if I could only be sincere in my decision to stay home with my child if I felt happy and fulfilled all the time.
My mother said, but you did so well.
As if I would only be justified in my choice if I had failed in business or suffered mediocre career prospects.
I heard myself rationalizing, this will only be for a few years.
I didn’t know if I said this for them or for me.
I learned about what my colleagues and competitors were doing and I felt like a has-been. I'd grown used to measuring my worth by how much money I made and I felt newly impotent.
I’ve pretended most of my life to play the success game. I “faked it until I made it”, swaddling in an image of the ambitious and driven business woman. I didn’t start out feeling her confidence, but I grew into her. I liked that woman.
When I became mom I wondered who the hell was this person who now possessed my mind, and what has she done with that woman who wanted to rule the world.
This was not the part of my life where I wanted to “act as if”. I didn’t want to pretend that I couldn’t deeply love my child and, at the same time, deeply missed the person I used to be. I couldn’t say goodbye and leave that person at an office because she used to read and dream and write in these rooms. I was reminded of her from the business books she had on the shelf, the chair she used to curl up in to listen to Pink Martini, and the emails she still received from a world she has kissed adieu.
I thought transitioning from “working from home” to “staying at home” would be smooth, not leave my identity further splintered and ambiguous.
I tried taking a step back to gain perspective, as people recommended. But I could not disengage from myself the way a train engine disengages from its passenger carts.
So I shuffled back and forth through days of confusion, like a dance, sometimes feeling the peace in my decision, sometimes feeling gnawing doubt, all the while wondering who was feeling who at a given moment. Was this the benevolent mother feeling her impatient, ambitious self? Was this the driven business woman feeling her maternal incarnation?
Just because I believed that “staying at home” was important to me, didn’t mean the process wouldn’t hurt, the metamorphosis wasn’t painful, and that my conviction in the decision couldn’t be shaken.
My husband told me to take time for myself: Go to Kungfu class, get a massage, gather with other moms for a girls’ night out.
“My husband tells me I should go out! Get a haircut! Go shopping!” My dinner companion says, as the waitress sets two big slices of cheesecake for us to share.
I look at this woman sitting across from me and I see a verbal reflection of myself, right down to her explaining that she can’t leave her babies for long because her husband doesn’t care for their children the way she thinks he should care for them.
We dig into dessert, sectioning off thin slices of the chocolate cheesecake and the red velvet cheesecake. We take turns nodding our heads at our companion, still bursting with indignation. We acknowledge her feelings.
I too, believed that I must be in control to do motherhood right, to come through unscathed from doubt, and not screw up my child.
I closed my arms around these prickly conflicts and thorny issues of “Who am I?” and “Why am I Here?”, and let these tear away at my perspective and gouge out my self-confidence. I felt naked and vulnerable to eyes that look past me when I said that I was a stay-at-home mom, as if I was no longer here, no longer contributing, and no longer relevant to the world.
Then I realized that these had been my own eyes I felt casting upon me, that I was the one sucking out the marrow from my peace, and that I had not yet learned to say, Stop.