My grandfather and great grandfather were chemistry professors, world-renowned in their field, winning many awards and much recognition for their research. My grandfather’s brothers were also all professors. My stepmother had a long and successful career as a librarian in an academic library. My mother’s father and mother, my mother, and all her sisters and brothers spoke multiple languages.
There is a dark side to all this achievement. My great uncle, who made tenure at Stanford, was considered a disappointment because he never published much of significance. My father did not complete his PhD thesis, was not accepted to the Foreign Service, and still feels bad about himself. His father’s childhood was marked by a succession of mothers (his died when he was very young) and nannies, with a father who never really connected with him. Once he grew up, my grandfather, however accomplished he was outside the home, was a difficult father, who bullied his only son. My mother’s family learned all those languages because they were refugees from the country they had fled as children, and most of them drifted around the world without feeling that they belonged anywhere. My mother, in particular, stopped working outside the home years before I was born, yet was no good at cleaning a house, inconsistent at cooking dinner, and eventually ended her own life in a deep depression, perhaps because she wondered if she’d really accomplished anything.
I grew up with the message that I had to live up to this legacy: that I had been given the gifts of languages and writing and a brilliant mind, and therefore owed it to the world to contribute to its body of knowledge and scholarship. I must rise above the ordinary.
It’s taken me years to challenge this legacy. To recognize that most of my mother’s family experienced happiness despite not always measuring up to my father’s family’s definitions of success. To recognize that my heart is just as important as my brain. To recognize that putting pressure on myself to rise above the hoi polloi is both arrogant and uncompassionate.
After finishing the first draft of my memoir–the thing which I secretly hoped would catapult my name onto that imaginary list of People Who Have Made a Difference To the World–I struggled to go further. I couldn’t motivate myself to do the simplest edits, or to write material that I felt was missing, or to make the large-scale revisions I knew were necessary.
Gradually I went from waiting for my book to tell me it was ready (by secretly poking it in my brain, almost daily, despite seldom looking at the physical manuscript) to really deciding to “put it in a drawer.” In fact, giving up on it, possibly for good.
It was a horrifying thought. The four years I’d been writing it, and the two years since, I’d been calling myself a writer. That title came with a certain cachet, a community of like-minded people, a little boost to my ego when I told myself I was going to be different than some of the casual dabblers I saw. I was going to make it, to finish my manuscript, to find an agent and get a book proposal and get published.
What was I if I was not a writer? I looked around me and realized I had been doing something already. I’d become a stay-at-home mom in a suburb of Seattle.
I’d grown up with many disdainful messages about suburban stay-at-home moms. They were intellectually lazy and small-minded. Definitely not cosmopolitan. They had given up on their careers. They were not fighting for the advancement of women. They were soccer moms, spending time in their giant gas-guzzling minivans with Cheerios crushed into the carpets, shuttling future superconsumer Americans from afterschool activity to afterschool activity.
Of course, I’d been a prayer group with both stay-at-home and outside-employed moms for years, moms who, yes, happened to live in suburbs. They were wonderful women. They were doing an amazing job raising one, two, three children, some of them with difficult needs. Accountants, and biologists, and former rocket scientists, and former Congressional aides. None of them were stupid or complacent or parochial. They were all feminists, many of them raising girls to be strong and vocal, and boys to be caring and equal-minded.
So why wasn’t I allowed to call myself what I’d clearly become? Why couldn’t I say that I was a stay-at-home mom, and say it with pride?
It’s taken weeks, and in some ways, years, to dismantle my self-image as someone who is clever and above all that housewife thing. Who am I if I’m not posting clever quips on Facebook, or sharing deep, insightful thoughts about the human condition, or liking and responding to great essays and posts about getting writing rejected, or posting pictures of flowers I’ve seen on my walks to and from school? (See how I avoid the stereotype of the mom who drives her son everywhere by walking him to school!)
My mother was a housewife and a stay-at-home mother. I grew up with the unspoken idea that perhaps that was part of what killed her–living her life through me, unsure how to separate herself from my own developing identity. Part of my struggle is to recognize that it is safe for me to be a stay-at-home mom. It will not kill me. I will not kill myself because of it.
Who am I? I’m still figuring that out. I’m a writer, and a singer. I draw and take pictures and make cards. I dress in bright colors and gorgeous patterns. I love to read. I make a lot of my own food due to recent health issues, and I’ve become a good cook and baker. I’m a faithful Christian who’s not above making an irreverent joke. I am a person in therapy, recovering from a traumatic childhood. And I stay at home, employed by no one else, managing things around the house with the help of my husband, so I can be present to my son when he’s out of school and be the best mother I can to him. Yeah, I’m a stay-at-home mom. And when I look at all the things I do, all the things I’ve been, all the talents I have and the way I’ve used them, that seems like a pretty big accomplishment. Right now, it’s enough.