I was going to do something big. Something that meant something. I mean, that ‘s what I always believed. When I was in the fourth grade, I won a national gymnastics title and I thought I was going to be the next Mary Lou Retton. In the sixth grade, my “academically talented” (we called it “AT”) peers and I were charged with creating and managing a family budget. My income came from lectures and books sales. Because, naturally, I was a world-renowned child psychologist who wrote best selling “how to raise your kid” books. In high school, I survived a multi-fatality car accident – that, I was certain, meant God spared me because I was going to impact the world in a big way someday.
As an undergraduate, I was a member of several honors societies and naturally landed leadership positions – the executive board of my sorority, President of the student body. I lobbied on behalf of students at our state and national capitals. I lunched with the university Chancellor and other administration on a regular basis. I was honored with the most prestigious awards our university offered. My husband teases that the hardware I sported at our undergraduate graduation totally weighed down my 5′ frame. I went straight into a Ph.D. program where I earned straight As. Every step of the way I received glowing feedback and was mentored by phenomenal teachers and professors. And I wouldn’t let them down. I would do something important one day.
Fast forward nine years, and I’m a stay-at-home-mom (SAHM). This is not where I envisioned myself. In fact, stay-at-home mom was never on my radar. My mom worked; I would work. I would do it all and be it all. But in 2004 I found myself pregnant with twins. Just weeks prior to learning of my multiple pregnancy, I was weighing competing job offers for a staff psychologist position at universities on opposing coasts. I knew I might be pregnant, but I didn’t expect twins. Looking back, I have a chuckle with God because He knows I’m a girl who goes big or goes home. I knew I couldn’t start a new job and be a new mom to twins at the same time while feeling good about my efforts in either arena. I turned down both offers and opted for an adjunct professor role back in Texas. At 28 weeks, I was put on bed rest. My teaching assistant completed my lectures as I corrected my graduate students’ papers from bed. I had my boys at 36 weeks and was completely overwhelmed for the next 18 months.
Here is where my struggle for meaning began. Mind you, my graduate work was centered on career development research. I studied the variables that impacted people’s career choice and specialized in helping others find work that satisfied them and gave them meaning. When I say struggle, I’m not saying that I grapple with the meaning of life. No, it’s not that. It’s the day-to-day monotony of motherhood that I struggle with. I remember, several years before I had kids when I was a graduate student … I was in a Bible study, in which a woman who had recently quit her job to be a SAHM said she was having a hard time finding the “joy” in vacuuming. I remember thinking how I would die for the opportunity to have the biggest “to-do” on my daily task list be vacuuming. Now I absolutely understand what she meant.
It’s been eight years since I graduated with my Ph.D. in counseling psychology. I’ve yet to be licensed as a psychologist for various reasons, but mostly because I’m a mom. It’s not for lack of trying. I won’t bore you with the differences in state’s requirements for licensure as a psychologist … but, in short, I tried to rack up “hours” in a way that met Texas’ requirements while allowing me to be the mom I wanted to be to my twins. But, when I moved to Wisconsin, the Wisconsin licensing board wouldn’t accept the way I accumulated those hours. So, after moving back to Wisconsin I threw in the towel – I’m not a licensed psychologist and probably never will be. So much for my sixth-grade dream of being a famous psychologist.
Staying at home with my twins, who were not happy babies might I add, made me feel crazy. I was so busy, but my mind was so bored. Even though I was terribly sleep deprived, I started moonlighting as a work-at-home consultant. I did this on and off for five years. While I felt like I was contributing financially to my family and I had something to think about that extended beyond sleep and feeding schedules, I knew it was impacting the way I parented my boys. Remember, I’m a go big or go home girl. Please know that I’m not saying that all mom’s have to choose between work and family. I know amazing working moms who function in both worlds incredibly well. But, for me, I have a very hard time doing both. I knew I couldn’t be working when my boys were awake, but I found myself losing my patience with them because I wanted to be working instead of playing cars on the playroom floor. My mind was always on work. I scheduled conference calls during nap times. But, as all moms know, we can’t “make” our kids sleep. My heart pounded in those moments when I needed to call in for a meeting, but my boys were crying in their cribs. One day, I prayed the customer on the other end didn’t hear Chase screaming endlessly in his crib. This had to end.
So, I hung up my consulting cap and threw myself completely into my mom role. I bake bread every week. I never buy granola bars or mac and cheese – I make them from scratch. If I’m going to do something, I’m going to do it right. The problem is … I don’t find fulfillment in these things. I don’t like to cook; I don’t like to clean. A mom in my Texas Twins Club (yes, I served on the executive board), once told me she went to college just to find a husband with which she could start a family. She loved being at home with her young twins. She watched cooking shows and had a large dry-erase board mounted in her laundry room on which she sketched out her weekly cleaning routine and checked off each task as she completed it. She was born to do this and loved it. How I wanted to be her. I wanted to love the mundane daily routine of a SAMH. I longed to feel like I was doing something meaningful, something important.
I’ve prayed about this. I’ve meditated on this. I’ve fasted in efforts to hear God’s voice – where is the meaning in this for ME? I’ve learned that, for me, I’ve depended on external reinforcement for my meaning. Translation: I’ve leaned to depend on other people telling me that I’m doing a good job in order to believe that I’m doing something meaningful and doing it well. The grades, awards, and stellar performance appraisals at work fed me. They told me I was worth something, that I contributed meaningfully. As SAHMs, we don’t get this regular feedback. Well, we get feedback, but it generally doesn’t make us feel good about ourselves. We get tantrums and turned up noses at dinner. No one thanks us for filling the pantry, making dinner, or ensuring clean clothes are in the dresser drawers. No, our kids, like I did as a child, take these things for granted. We only hear from the peanut gallery when favorite jeans aren’t clean or when the orange in the lunch we packed was sour. We don’t get our mom report card or performance appraisal for at least two decades after we take on the role.
So what do we do in the interim? Gaining insight into the fact that consistent positive reinforcement fed me has helped me not be so dependent on it. Because I know that I felt worthwhile only when someone patted me on the back, has made me less dependent on those kudos. And when I really need someone to tell me I’m doing a good job, I ask for it. People cannot read my mind. When I need reinforcement, I ask, “Did you like dinner? Did you notice I scrubbed the floors? How do they look?” Yes, this is fishing, but it helps. When I’m feeling desperate, it gives me the pat on the back I need to feel like my day was worth something.
But, as I mature, my dependence on these kudos wains. Being a mom matters. Kids don’t raise themselves. And in a day and age when kids get swallowed up by TV, video games and the Internet, I find solace in the fact that I’m here to talk meaningfully to them, make them homemade meals, and that I have the time to demand that they follow through on their chores instead of letting it slide because I’m too busy. Because my boys will grow to be the men that I helped mold. As men they will be husbands and fathers. And they will impact their wives and their children. The mom I am to them today helps shape the husbands, fathers and citizens they are tomorrow. That matters. And maybe, I’ve developed the maturity to argue, that matters more than being a famous author and psychologist.
I’m also insightful enough to know that I’m susceptible to depending on my kids’ success to determine my mom grade. If they turn out to be lawyers, doctors and supportive husbands and fathers, then I’m a successful mom. But, I’ve seen those parents that depend on their own kids’ success for their self-worth, and I don’t want to be one of them. When my boys succeed, I feel proud, but I give them the credit. When they fail, I’m sad, and I help them find ways in which they can do differently next time. I can’t take the success or the blame – we don’t build self-responsible kids that way.
Life is just different than I thought it would be. I’m not successful in the way I thought I would be. I hope my mentors see me as a success none-the-less, because they helped shape the woman that I’ve chosen to be. Instead of being in the headlines, I’m working behind the scenes in a supporting role. This is my lesson – I don’t have to be the star, at least not now. The other day, Noah, one of my super-special 8-year old twins looked at me with his Beetles-style long hair and sweet eyes and said to me, “Mom, you have a good spirit. You’re the best mom I know. And I know a lot of moms.” Maybe our performance appraisal isn’t decades in the making after all.