An alumna reveals excerpts from a homemaker's journal
"When my son was born I became a mortal."
From the poem "The Angel of History," by Carolyn Forche
When my son was born, I became a homemaker, a practitioner of the nearly forgotten domestic arts.
Actually, I was a homemaker even before Benjamin was born three years ago, so there's more to it than raising young children. Occupation: Stay-at-home mom. Preoccupation: Finding some significance in what I do.
The others moms and I at the library's story time or at the park avoid talking about what we did before kids. But lurking about is that awful urge to categorize by job title. Someone told a colleague at the university that she was wasting her Ph.D., her self (as if they were the same), when she stayed home for several years with her kids.
I feel like I live on another planet when I read about my peers--high-powered careers, assorted achievements, fame, fortune. I'm not succeeding (by any typically accepted standards), not overcoming adversity, not contributing to the common good.
All of which begs the question: Doesn't what I do matter?
On the way home from our walk, saw the one-year-old twins down the road playing with their eighteen-year-old Mennonite babysitter. I asked her if the girls thought she was their mommy, because they see their own only a couple of hours a day plus weekends. The babysitter's been taking care of the kids since they were six weeks old. . . . one of them is very clingy, cries and cries when she leaves at 5:00 p.m. I tried to imagine Benjamin apart from me for most of the day, not even knowing me really. A bubble of anguish started to surface. After he was a year old, since we needed the money, I tried going back to teaching writing, only twice a week. I couldn't handle it, even though Ed was staying home those days in the morning and working late every night. I ping-ponged between two worlds: from the intricacies of the comma to hanging diapers on the line. I was exhausted from reading essays and the intensity of classroom acrobatics. Milk would leak through my blouse if I stayed too long. In the face of these unpleasant thoughts, I shifted to something more neutral, like how much it must cost to pay this girl for childcare--that is, until I remembered the demands of rising bread dough at home.
Luckily, Benjamin has rarely been sick. It could be the rugged Polish-peasant ancestry, or the midwifed birth, or the home-grown food, or the naps, or the limited exposure to other kids, or the long-term nursing. People look at me like I'm from Mars when I tell them I still breastfeed him. Just before naps and at bedtime, I explain. But maybe that's one reason I'm still exhausted. He's ready to let go soon--am I? I'll still be waking up at night for trips to the potty, though. Can't believe I haven't had an uninterrupted night's sleep for more than three years. . . . Mom and Dad here from Ohio for Mother's Day. Mom says I'm spoiling Benjamin. I say, "Hey, how can someone be spoiled on a single income. Since when does paying attention amount to spoiling? I'm trying to meet his needs." Needs . . . mine seem to have been erased at his birth. I don't know how I could ever do this with more than one kid.
At times, Benjamin's nonstop singing, babbling, questioning has me ready to blow. I think I'm going to cry if I hear "Play with me" one more time. Some days I can't even think my own thoughts. "I don't want a tired mommy." Maybe at forty I'm just too old for this. "I don't want an old mommy." Often look forward to after supper when Ed is home and I get to wash the dishes and listen to my own breathing for a few minutes. Was thinking about parents who take a break from jobs or careers, then return to work when the kids are old enough to hustle onto the school bus--it's a relief, as one mom put it. But I'm in for the long haul, not sending Benjamin to school. We'll learn by doing at home, outdoors, in the community, with a variety of people, with books, wherever his needs and desires take him, at his own pace, unevaluated, unschooled. Read an article on home schooling in which a critic exclaimed, in utter disbelief, "But how can you stand to be around your kids all day, every day?" I hope I won't be alone in this adventure. Perhaps this will be not only the best way for Benjamin to learn but also a means of strengthening our family, the soul of homemaking.
Stay-at-home mom, teacher, writer--slots I don't really fit into. I didn't leave a career, just jobs (lots of different jobs), and I have none to go back to even if I wasn't planning to home school. Funny now to recall how more than ten years ago I returned to Kenyon for a philosophy department career-day-type gathering. Was quite embarrassed at the round-table discussion to admit I had no career, no job in either of my philosophy or biology majors. Hesitantly proposed that it's O.K. not to know what you want to do, for interests to change over the years. Confessed to currently cleaning other people's houses, growing herbs and vegetables, teaching as a graduate assistant in an M.F.A. program so that I could get paid to write poems.
Am ready for a break. Darn jiggling of the canner weight keeps waking Benjamin up. What am I going to do when he doesn't need naps anymore? Thinking about work--how I don't get paid for anything I do. (How many hats does a homemaker wear?) Feeling guilty for not earning money. The hygienist working on my teeth said, "Don't you have any marketable skills?" as if I'm some sort of commodity. Benjamin still demanding "a story when you were a little girl" (a new one) every nap- and bed-time. That makes more than seven hundred a year.
I keep reading as much as I can on child development--not necessarily for tips on what to do, but to give me some perspective. I discard a lot of the suggestions, mainly use common sense for particular situations, really try to know Benjamin throughout his continual metamorphosis from baby to boy. Have been close to breaking my no-spanking vow several times. Can also understand the temptation to plop kids in front of the television for a break. We got rid of the tube several years ago with some reluctance. Unfortunately, it's almost impossible to find playmates for Benjamin who don't watch TV.
Still don't know what a successful homemaker is, what achievement means in this context: that the toilet has been scrubbed when visitors drop in? Remembering to take wet clothes out of the washing machine, or to soak the beans for supper? The ability to navigate a spirited child's constant demands and defiance? I need to trust the intuitive sense that the way I live and the work I do, no matter how seemingly insignificant, is meaningful and essential--even though there is rarely acknowledgment. Except perhaps for the pop of a good seal when opening a jar of vegetable soup or peaches midwinter. Or when my son, for no reason, gives me a big hug and says, "I love you."
Cheryl Lachowski and her family (which also includes her husband, Edward Lachowski) live in Decorah, Iowa, where she is a homemaker who home schools her son. Her poetry has appeared in Kansas Quarterly, Prairie Schooner, and Southern Poetry Review, among other journals. Her poem "Phi Beta Kappa Key Class of '78" appeared in the June 1986 issue of the Bulletin. Lachowski, who holds an M.F.A. from Bowling Green State University, is currently completing a collection of her work, to be entitled "Homing."
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