Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Plight of the Stay At Home Mom

Dear Friends,

Look, I don't like to complain.

Wait, who am I kidding? I love to complain! It helps to relieve stress, it can be expressed in the form of nicely organized lists, and besides, I'm good at it.

But when it comes right down to it, I know I've got it just great here. Let me first highlight a few of the remarkable and invaluable benefits of being a Stay-At-Home-Mom (SAHM)—in a nice, neat list:

1) The children get 100 percent me. Wonderful for attachment, emotional development, constancy, security, and steady love, love, love. Oh, and it's good for the kids, too.

2) Ideal for unschooling. More on this in future posts, but let me summarize briefly: child-led learning via shared life experiences. I am fully present to share and learn and discover with the children.

3) I have always wanted a job with no commute, no set schedule, and no dress code. I used to eagerly anticipate "casual Friday" jeans, but heck, now I get to wear pajamas all the time!

4) Such a savings on buying professional clothing, paying dry cleaning bills, and spending time coordinating shoes with belts. Now I might as well sell my iron on craigslist. (Oh, hey, that's a good idea--anybody need an iron in like-new, barely-used condition?)

5) More homemade meals, more homemaking, more housekeeping...but wait, I said I wasn't going to complain....

6) More flexible hours. For instance, I am typing this at 5:45 a.m. with one hand while nursing a finally sleepy, teething toddler who has been up since 2:53 a.m. working on erupting two-year molars while watching Bob the Builder construct houses on-site. (See, my daughter may be a budding multi-tasker already, too.) On second thought, maybe I don't want to delve into the 24/7 work hours of a full-time Mommy on the "benefits" list....

Full-time. Full-time. It's not the 40-hour work week anymore. Dude, that would be a breeze, compared to the 168-hour work week I've got going now. I've never worked harder in my life than in my current position as Mommy. And for the first year, I actually tried to do both: work outside the home and be a full-time mommy. Even though financially we were able to make ends meet on just one income (ah, if only we had one of those right now! More on the subject of my husband's unemployment below...), I initially resisted stopping work outside the home. It took me almost a year to figure out why.

Prior to 2005, I had spent my entire adult life as the primary breadwinner. I felt capable, competent, and confident. I was respected, relied upon, and—gosh—paid. The transition from former full-time career woman to SAHM, who completely relies on someone else for financial security—and food, clothing (well, fresh pajamas), housing, etc.—was incredibly difficult for me. It turned out to be a huge identity adjustment. It wasn't just a matter of a change in my source of income; it was a shift in who I am.

Although I tried to keep steadily (albeit part-time) working while full-time mothering for the first year, I was overwhelmed. Fortunately, between my own introspection and a series of conversations with my insightful and concerned husband, I came to my senses. It became evident what was best for us all. As my parenting philosophy developed, I discovered that my enjoyment of work, my professional accomplishments and my self-esteem boost from career successes, were far superceded by my joy and zeal for living Life with our children.

So, great! Faith conquers fear. I was afraid to rely on someone else to take care of me financially. I had worked hard to establish myself professionally, so I was afraid of losing ground on the career-building steps I had taken, and the professional relationships and networking opportunities I had cultivated. I had difficulty trusting my trustworthy husband to be there for me 100 percent. (Without going into great detail, let me just share that my husband is the first responsible grown-up with whom I have been in a relationship as an adult. More some other time about why I used to choose partners who seemed to need a parent themselves!). I was afraid I would lose myself in dirty diapers, baby drool, and applesauce-soaked onesies.

Well, I was called upon to take a leap of faith, and that I did. I jumped off this full-time mothering cliff and realized I could soar! Although the responsibility is immense, the rewards are bigger and better than anything I could have imagined. Even future professional successes I might envision would be empty without this amazing family to share them. Right now, I love being a SAHM, and I wouldn't have it any other way. I love cooking and doing art projects and snuggling in the middle of the day and packing a picnic if it's sunny and building elaborate train tracks if it rains. I have profound freedom and flexibility in my time with the kids, and I am immeasurably grateful for that.

So how can I possibly complain? I have embraced a broadened and preferred identity. I have a family to share everything with. I am building my confidence in a new field: mothering these children. I have no set schedule, no dress code, no commute, so now what's wrong? Weeeeeeeeeellll, it's that little thing I alluded to earlier: no income. Talk about having your faith tested!

Fortunately, my husband is a reliable (and loving and generous and dear...) provider. Unfortunately, being a proficient, knowledgeable, hard-working, responsible, and loyal employee is no longer assurance that you will still have a job. Companies no longer "take care of their own." So, it's here today and gone tomorrow; be cautious walking to your desk, 'cuz one morning you may be confronted by news of an unexpected early-morning meeting added to your schedule late after business hours the evening before, entitled "Structural Re-Organizational Meeting," the guest list of which includes yourself, your immediate supervisor, and--gulp!--HR. Pack your plants and family photos, and you'll be back home by 10 a.m. with a banker's box, a sheaf of severance papers, and a bewildered expression.

So, how does a SAHM handle this news? Geez, I thought we were all set (kind of). We'd made all sorts of adjustments, transformations, acceptances, and budget cuts to embrace our one-income household. If there were ever a more appropriate time for the Serenity Prayer, I'd be surprised. My husband becoming unemployed is entirely out of my control. And, for better or worse, his regaining unemployment is pretty much out of my hands, too. Very briefly--for about five seconds--we considered my returning to work. But our kids are too small and (thankfully, blissfully, healthily) attached to Mommy. Plus, I can't earn the same money Ben can in his field.

My new job, then, is to not freak out. Keep a calm port. Provide loving moral support. Do not nag or keep tabs (ah, the hand-wringing approach does neither of us any good!). I am being called upon to dig deep in my emotional and spiritual wells to just be. And trust. And think creatively and offer ideas.

It has been nearly five weeks now (ahem, yes, I'm counting) of accepting the situation, calming myself, reassuring and encouraging my husband, keeping normalcy for the children, and further whacking our budget to live like country church mice. As a friend of mine noted, a spouse becoming unemployed when there is only one household income is the stay-at-home-mom's (or dad's) "worst nightmare." Well, yes, of course financially it is. But you know what else? This is also an unanticipated opportunity to count our blessings. We are healthy. We are safe. We are warm. We are surrounded by loving extended family and friends like you, who have reached out and given generously to us with prayers, suggestions, networking opportunities, pizzas, moral support, and love. And that can soothe any mother's and family's spirits.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Oh, Good, I'm Anemic!

Dear Friends,

Once again I'm typing with one hand, while a little toddler nurses and sleeps on me, and a big toddler stands one foot away from the tv screen fascinated by the adventures of the Rescue Heroes. Having a tv is just one of the many areas I've compromised my initial (and as it turns out, unrealistic) ideals I thought I would adhere to prior to becoming a parent. Incidentally, I've not only accepted having a tv (honestly, it's a lifesaver now that there are two children to care for), but I'm actually quite sold on its benefits for introducing parts of "the world" to, well, frankly, the entire family! But, more on the appealing aspects of television viewing some other time...

No, instead, today I'm writing to share my good news: I am anemic! After recent blood work, my doctor informed me that my hemoglobin levels are slightly low, and recommended I begin supplementing with Floradix Iron + Herbs. A trip to Whole Foods, and a commitment to drinking the ill-flavored elixir twice daily ensued.

Now, many of you know I have a penchant for irony, or at opportune times, even sarcasm. But this time, I assure you I am not being ironic. I am genuinely thrilled to learn of my diagnosis of anemia. Because, you see, it explains sooooo much.

Going back for a moment to some of my pre-parenting ideals: I had expected I could keep up with my kids 100 percent of the time. I thought I could play every game, soothe every hurt, wipe every tear, tandem nurse on cue every time, and anticipate and meet every need of my family. Now, I admit defeat. I can't do it all.

But that's okay! In fact, it's great! What a wonderful accomplishment to try so hard and to apply myself so wholly, and to ultimately discover and honor my limits. And, to model self-care to the children, now that I am starting to get the hang of that, too!

Naturally, there is co-mingled a feeling of disappointment for falling short of one's ideals in the face of reality. Okay, I can grieve that loss and move on. The trouble, however, is that I was feeling really guilty for not doing everything for everybody, not jumping up and running and playing as hard as my kids need to, not cooking every meal from scratch, etc. I thought there was something wrong with me, that I couldn't keep up because I wasn't trying hard enough. I just need to do more; I must push myself harder, I told myself.

Well, there is just too darn much to do and there are too many demands for us stay-at-home moms to attempt to do it all ourselves, even under the best of circumstances and with the most hands-on husbands. I am still learning to ask for help (just ask my similarly independent-minded mother, right Mom?). I'm not superwoman, and I get that.

So, I've eased up on my ideals. We watch tv, eat grab-and-go snacks or--gasp! sometimes even meals, and clear paths through toys and art supplies to find a seat on the couch. I've started accepting offers of assistance. I hired a mother's helper (albeit briefly, as unfortunately that was one of the first sanity-saving expenses to go when my husband became unemployed one month ago). I've been taking steps to relax, recuperate and rest from all the hub-bubbity-bub-bub of daily child-rearing and homemaking.

That's all well and good and noteworthy progress. However, I still found myself unbelievably exhausted every day. And bearing intrusive headaches every day. And intensely nauseous every day. What was going on? Was I just "regular tired" from mothering two toddlers? Was I merely not eating frequently enough, or not drinking enough water with all of the whirlwind activity of Daily Life With Toddlers?

It turns out my new acquaintance, anemia, bears responsibility for many of these recent ailments. It's not that I wasn't trying hard enough, it's that my body couldn't do more because it wasn't processing oxygen efficiently. Aha! No need to feel guilty anymore (of course, there never was a good reason for that in the first place)!

A quick review of the symptoms of anemia from ehealthMD:

A person with anemia will feel tired and weak because the body's tissues are being starved of oxygen. In fact, fatigue is the main symptom of most types of anemia. The severity of symptoms is in part related to the severity of anemia. Mild anemia can occur without symptoms and may be detected only during a medical exam that includes a blood test.

Symptoms of anemia include:

Heart palpitations (rapid or irregular beating)
Ringing in the ears (tinnitus)
Difficulty sleeping
Difficulty concentrating

Common signs include:

Pale complexion
The normally red lining of the mouth and eyelids fades in color
Rapid heartbeat (tachycardia)
Abnormal menstruation (either absence of periods or increased bleeding)

What a huge relief for me to finally understand why I'd be wiped out for the day if I hurried around the kitchen tackling a big pile of dishes. I'd end up breathless, with a headache, and have to sit down for the next hour. No wonder I literally could not move from a chair after bending and swooping to clear up toys for half an hour. No wonder I couldn't play endless games of chase up and down the stairs, without my heart pounding in my ears for long afterward.

After I read the common signs and symptoms of anemia, I thought, Hallelujah! I finally get it! And, no more feeling guilty. Or pushing myself beyond my limits. And even better, now I have hope that I will continue to feel better, as anemia is entirely treatable.

Relief. Hope. Peace. Acceptance. Flow. Love.

For myself, my family, my doctor, my access to the internet, my letting go, and yes, even my anemia.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Why Can't You Behave?

Dear Friends,

Today, Ben didn't do what I wanted him to do. He misbehaved. He hit another person, so I hit him on the behind, just so he knows that hurting is unacceptable behavior. He ran into the street, so I yelled at him and grabbed his arm, just so he knows that is dangerous. He wouldn't eat the food I gave him, so I explained he could either eat that food, or none at all, because I didn't have time to be a short order cook. He wouldn't eat at the table, at the time I served dinner, so I told him that he could wait to eat, since we don't eat anywhere but at the table.

Ben was super dirty, but refused to take a shower, so I picked him up and plunked him in there anyway for a quick wash. Same with brushing his teeth, washing his hands, and changing his clothes—I mean, who wants to live with someone all dirty?

And don't get me started on bedtimes! If Ben will not go to sleep when I want him to, alone in a room down the hall, at the time I think it should be "bedtime," then there is going to be trouble. The best I can do is tell him it is "quiet time," leave him with a book—well, he can't read yet, so I guess a quiet toy—and shut the door, so I can have a little down-time.

When Ben yells at me, I take away his iPhone. When he throws something, I take away his laptop.  When he grabs something that doesn't belong to him, I snatch it out of his hand and give it back to the person. When Ben does anything I don't like, I pull him out of the room for a "time out," and sit down with him to explain all of the reasons his behavior is unacceptable.

I have read lots of magazine articles and online advice about how to control Ben and get him to behave how I think he should. I understand I must be persuasive, firm, tough if necessary; I must use discipline, time-outs, punishment, physical force as a last resort, and of course take away privileges.

Yelling, hitting, crying, grabbing, pushing, threatening, wiggling, running into the street, eating cookies in the living room, playing wildly at bedtime, refusing to bathe, being loud during naptime, forgetting to feed the dog, not helping with the dishes and housecleaning—what's a wife to do? 

No, I don't mean "mother." I mean "wife." What if my husband were not behaving in ways that I want him to? What if his actions did not fit the behaviors I expect and have in mind as "ideal"?

So here it is: If I attempted to "correct" my spouse the same way mainstream society would have me "correct" my child, we would be in a world of hurt.

If I hit, grabbed, yelled at, took treasured items away from, dragged into a time out room, forced into a bathtub, put a toothbrush in his mouth, insisted he eat at the table and only certain foods at certain times, and went to bed when I said so—to my husband? You would think I were a crazy woman. And if my husband did that to me? You would advise me to head to the nearest domestic violence shelter with the kids.

Okay. So there has to be another way. A gentler way. A loving, kind, respect-filled way to parent.

Perhaps I can start by trying to understand my children's behavior. What are they trying to express? Do they have all the skills and tools of communication they need to navigate relationships, share toys, and deal with feelings of frustration and helplessness in a world of controlling grown-ups?

I can envision a kinder, more peaceful world where, rather than trying to orchestrate my children's behaviors, I instead strive to lovingly model the behaviors that I'd like to see more of—both in my children and in myself (and maybe even in my spouse, for that matter).

Perhaps through their behavior, children are expressing an unmet need in the best way they can, given their limited life experience. Perhaps my family would be better off if I directly address what might be going on: attempt to figure out their need and then do my very best to fulfill it. Maybe I wasn't paying enough attention, and my child is communicating a mutual need to slow down and re-connect. Maybe we both need a "time-in" to snuggle up and eat cookies together on the couch. I have seen in action that when I make respectful requests of my children, they have learned to do that of me and others. What if my children had dirty hair for a week—is my relationship with them more important than a loss of dignity from being bodily forced into the bathtub? I say YES!


I'm back to finish this post. After percolating on this subject for the past 24 hours, I realize it all boils down to this: If I wouldn't treat my spouse this way—controlling, cajoling, forcing, persuading, and otherwise trying to mold him into my idea of "right" behavior—then I will not treat my child this way. My child is a fraction of my size, has not even a fraction of my power in the relationship, and is entirely vulnerable and dependent on me for their very life. I will treat this gift with care. My children are precious and inquisitive and learning each moment about every aspect of Life. They are watching my every move as to how I treat them and others. And I want to model my idea of "right" behaviors—my ideals—and pass those along in the most loving, gentle, cooperative, kind and respectful way possible.

Have I yelled at my children? Yes. Have I grabbed, nagged, pressured, threatened to take things away, and set arbitrary limits? Unfortunately, yes. Am I proud of those moments? No! Every time I have attempted to follow mainstream's guide to childrearing, I have instead experienced a profound dis-connect with my children and my internal guide of how I wish to be (call it a conscience). I am continually learning how to love my children better, how to parent better, how to be more compassionate and patient with them and especially with myself (and hey, how about my spouse here, too).

More than anything, I am learning how to become the person I hope my children will admire and ultimately wish to emulate. There can be no greater legacy than this.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

This Ain't No Party

Dear Friends,

Bowl of oatmeal? Check. Not-so-cold Winter morning? Check. Laptop-not-being-sold-on-Craigslist-at-this-point? Check. Ready to write.

Well, friends, I've learned a few things during this first week of our Expedition into the Uncharted Land of Unemployment. Here are some of my discoveries, do's and don'ts I can map out for you:


First of all, this ain't no party. This ain't no disco. This ain't no foolin' around.

Husband at home job-searching and building and exploring other possible income streams is NOT a vacation. It's NOT a stay-cation (thanks to my facebook friends for that newly coined colloquialism).

Driven by, well, fear, it is a potential pitfall for my husband to fall into round-the-clock searching, crafting, cover letter-writing, exploring, programming, networking, etc. And for me to support that by slipping food under the door, and aspiring to singlehandedly cover nearly all of the childcare, household upkeep, etc.

If this were a stay-cation, I would have languished in the freedom of having an immaculate house, organized closets, trimmed nails, braided hair, and otherwise being caught up on two-handed tasks. Instead, I've been my husband's 100% wind-beneath-his-wings, trying to carry the weight of everything I possibly can, forgetting Daily Life is a shared activity. A burden shared is a burden halved. Certainly my actions have been fueled by my own anxieties and fears of such trifling things as, say, not having a house or affording groceries.

So. That doesn't work. Our round-the-clock nose-to-the-grindstone approach is not sustainable. This is a marathon, not a sprint, after all. Yet, you don't know where or when the race will finish. Aha! Isn't THAT a metaphor for Life? Therefore, I should be a real seasoned expert at this Game of Life by the time an employment opportunity rolls around and we settle into our New Order. Stay tuned to see if I can sustain that moment-to-moment Zen-like presence, pacing and appreciation for the gifts and treasures Life brings.


Gifts and treasures nicely segues into my first do:

Do get rid of catalogues. You can't eat curtains (although you CAN wear them. See: Sound of Music.)

Do insist on daily showers (a repetitive theme here, I know, but unless you're a stay-at-home-mom, you might not fully relate to why this is such a fundamental and pervasive desire). My Week 1 "SUCCESS" tally: 5-1/2 (one was a bath).

Do watch Idol. Just because it's fun.

Do sell items on craigslist, but try not to freak out and compulsively check your email account for potential sales.

Do count your blessings before they hatch. A hopeful attitude is imperative.

Do observe how your list of worries has suddenly changed. Example: I used to worry that my husband would lose his job. Yet, it happened, and we are surviving. And: One week used to seem like an eternity; now 18 weeks (of severance pay) seems so very short.


Don't turn down offers of Two-for-Tuesday pizza with your parents. Self-explanatory.

Don't go to the library to play during the heart of cold & flu season. Illness might add insult to injury. Oops, if you do, ask to return the cold your family picked up there along with the borrowed books.

Don't forget the Serenity Prayer. It might help keep you on course on this uncertain land and in these certainly muddy waters. Perhaps along with reading my blog.

In peace and shared love of cartography,

Monday, March 1, 2010

Cons and Pros

Dear Friends,

Okay, newly stay-at-home-'til-he-finds-a-job-Papa is upstairs with the sweethearts; Mommy has the choice of continuing to eat dinner, or writing. I'll choose a little of each.

There are some fabulous aspects to having my beloved husband home right now. There are also certainly some drawbacks.

Let's start with the CONS:
1)  No income stream.
2-10) See number 1.

Well, that was straightforward. Now, onto the PROS:
1) Daily showers for me, as mentioned in my previous post. Highly valued.

2) The kids get more time with Papa—excellent for all parties, including me. Now I can hope to trim my nails, floss my teeth, braid my hair—any self-care requiring two hands—without essentially having to schedule an appointment a week in advance to do so. Oh, and the kids and Papa can bond, connect, share, laugh, enjoy, and otherwise become more deeply acquainted. Ben will come to know not only what each child's favorite outfit is (Logan: rescue animal shirt, Paige: the more pink the better), but also which spoon each prefers with which bowl for which type of food, which glass for which kind of drink, which commercials to skip-in short, all of the preferences one comes to know in those we deeply love and thoroughly know.

3) My husband gets a taste of the endurance race I run every day, day after day, week after week (hopefully not month after month for his sake and the sake of our future income!). It's not the sprint of errands and reconnecting and quick catch-up naps and intense re-creating of the weekends, but rather the pace-yourself-it's-a-long-time-'til-Friday trek. Except in our new Land of Uncertain Job Prospects, "Friday" no longer signifies the end of a work week for either of us. So we will both—well, really all—need to adapt to this new (albeit temporary) marathon with graceful strides.

4) Speaking of grace, it is a blessing merely to see Ben more. Walking through the kitchen for a snack, bouncing ideas off each other, brainstorming and sharing snippets of thoughts and ideas for short and long-term income sources. Quick, reassuring kisses....

5) Save on cost of gasoline.

6-9)  Save on cost of laundry/work clothing, shoe polish, haircuts, etc.

10) Hugging and holding and keeping the faith together. We are actually keeping a pretty positive outlook about all of the opportunities we are facing and visualizing and creating together. Because in the end, the most important thing is we have each other and our beloved family and our dear friends. And when it comes right down to it, nothing else matters.

PS. I am counting on you, dear friends, to remind me of this list, especially "PRO" number 10, when I am worried about living in a cardboard box, or Ben and I are getting on each other's nerves, or he and I forget to take turns being the one freaking-out vs. the one providing reassurances. Thank you in advance.