Op/Ed

Faith Gong: Things we don’t talk about: Work, family and mortality

I recently finished reading Kristin Lavransdatter, an 1,100-page, three-volume novel written in 1920 by Norwegian author Sigrid Undset. It won the Nobel Prize in Literature for its epic depiction of the life — the whole life — of a woman in 14th-century Norway. 

What surprised me was how contemporary much of the book felt. The title character may be managing her ancestral estate in medieval Norway, but for most of the book she’s frustrated with her husband for not pulling his weight, worried about her children, second-guessing her life choices, and feeling judged by her neighbors.

When I get together with other middle-aged mothers, we often end up discussing those exact things. 

***

A short list of what I hear from my female friends: 

-They struggle to find a satisfactory balance between work and home life, and never feel like they’re doing enough in either realm.

-Regardless of whether their partners or families help out, they are still responsible for the bulk of child-related logistics (even if they are the primary income-earner in the household.) 

-Most of their salary disappears into childcare.

– It’s almost impossible to find a job with a schedule that meshes with the kids’ school and activities. 

-They are often subjected to discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace, which many have decided it’s best to ignore. 

-Nobody is getting enough sleep.

How did we get here? Why are we still here?

***

Growing up in the 1980s and 90s, I understood that there was no limit to what I was supposed to be capable of as an adult woman: I was supposed to advance as far as possible in the professional arena of my choosing, while also holding a baby on one hip and looking pristine in my skirt-suit and high heels, with perfect hair — like Diane Keaton in Baby Boom. And I was supposed to be grateful, because now women had the freedom to choose everything! The message was never that you made one choice at the expense of other options: If you were doing it right, you could order the whole menu. 

My career path, such as it is, has zig-zagged from teaching to freelance photography to nonprofit management. I moved from New York to California for my husband’s graduate school. After he graduated, we moved — with three young children — to Vermont for his job. I decided to take a temporary break from paid work to help our young family transition, and one year off turned into a dozen. 

Now we’re raising five children between the ages of three and fifteen, and I am primarily responsible for the details of their lives. In 2016, I started homeschooling some of those children — which was never part of the plan, but I’ve loved doing it. At one point I was homeschooling four children at once, but now I am down to only one. We have no household staff, so I am helping to manage a house and 12 acres of land (complete with gardens and animals.)  I write this column, and the desire to write more is a constant background noise. I volunteer at our church, where I’m a deacon and my husband and I help lead the youth group. And for the past couple of years, I’ve been working about 14 hours a month at our local library. 

I often feel embarrassed about the seeming lack of constancy and direction in my life story. Am I simply lazy? Unmotivated? When I expressed these concerns to a friend recently, she said, “I think you’ve just had too many choices.”

***

According to society, I don’t really have a “job.” On forms that require me to list my job, I choose “self-employed.” When asked what I do, the explanation is so complicated that I usually say, “I’m mostly at home with my kids.” 

Often, the other person says, “Oh, it’s so wonderful that you’re able to do that!”

People usually mean one of two things when they say this, and the dividing line tends to be age. Older people — grandparents — typically mean, “It’s so wonderful that you’re adhering to traditional gender roles and giving your kids priority.” Younger people — my peers — typically mean, “What a privilege that you can afford to do that.”

I nod either way, while thinking: “Listen: This was never part of The Plan; this is not based on a philosophy of gender roles or optimal parenting strategies. I am in this place through a tangled web of life circumstances, including some choices I made and some choices I didn’t. I’m truly grateful for this life we’ve cobbled together, but I also have nagging guilt that I’m wasting an expensive college education. I feel a stab whenever one of my children asks, ‘Do you ever wish you had a real job?’ I’m also aware that those children won’t be around forever, so I feel increasing pressure to consider what comes next.

“And yes, I am privileged to be able to make these choices — many of my friends aren’t. But it’s not without sacrifices: We don’t take luxury vacations or buy expensive cars, for instance. I feel a nagging guilt that I’m not contributing more to our family coffers or setting a more empowering example for my children.

“Also, I notice that when I do work — even just those paltry 14 hours a month at the library — re-entering my house feels a little bit like walking into a demolition zone overrun by feral children. I worry that this is my fault: I haven’t ‘trained’ my family well enough to deal with my absence. Maybe I need to work more — or just work less.”

These are my feelings, based on my particular situation, but conversations with my fellow mothers reveal that this cocktail of guilt and bitterness isn’t unique to me, nor does it have much to do with the ratio of hours worked to time at home.

***  

There are so many variables at play. Does this sense of guilt, uncertainty, and imbalance apply equally to men and women? Or are women particularly susceptible, and is that due to biological inclinations or cultural expectations? Is the solution as simple as improved policies around health care, education, and employment? All these things are interesting to consider but are beyond my paygrade. They’re also ultimately not the biggest issue.

The elephant in the room, the thing we don’t talk about, is this: We are mortal. We are limited. Our lives only last so many years, our days only last so many hours before biology takes over and tells us to sleep. Our reproductive years are also limited by our biology. Our children do not remain children forever; our time raising them is finite. 

If you have a spouse, children, friends, extended family, you likely love them and want to spend time with them. There are probably other things that you love as well: work you do, art you make, skills you have. How wonderful! But another thing we don’t talk about is this: You will have to make choices. Because you are mortal and limited by biology and time, you cannot simultaneously do everything at 100% capacity. At most, one person can function up to 100%; you cannot be 200% or 300% of a person. You must choose things at the expense of other things. Sometimes this will mean choosing work at the expense of your relationships, sometimes it will mean choosing relationships at the expense of your work. This is basic mathematics. But we don’t talk about it because we don’t want to acknowledge its truth. We attempt to live as though we can do all things, but denial just makes us exhausted, guilty, angry, and bitter. 

***

I read Kristin Lavransdatter in a small book group with other mothers. During our first discussion, we veered onto the topic of gardens. I mentioned, casually, that my gardening at this season of life is sub-par because my nurture is split between my garden and my family. 

A young mother, who was wearing her newborn in a sling, has a toddler at home, and farms with her husband, exhaled in relief. “Oh GOOD,” she said. “I’ve been feeling so guilty about my garden now. Thank you so much for saying that — nobody tells you these things!”

I don’t have answers or solutions, but I will leave you with that scene. Because, at the very least, it should be obvious that working mothers of young children aren’t expected to have perfect gardens — or houses or bodies or anything else. Perhaps a start is to find one mother this week and tell her this. 

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, five children, assorted chickens and ducks, one feisty cat, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her “free time,” she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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