I’ve really enjoyed the Working Moms discussion over at FMH, these are thoughts I’ve had since participating there.
There was a point, right before my first child started crawling (and getting into everything, and making massive messes everywhere she went) when I felt like I had really gotten the hang of the housewife thing. I had finally learned how to cook meals that we actually enjoyed eating, thanks to my girl Rachel Ray, and there were usually steaming meals on the table soon after my husband got home from work every day. The house was clean, all the cloth diapers were scrubbed, dried, and stuffed, all my husband’s shirts were ironed and ready to go. I had it DOWN.
Most other areas of my life were in order too – I had gotten to the point where I didn’t hate living in Utah anymore. I lived next door to a dear college friend we’ll call Amy who procreated, gestated, and lactated on about the same schedule I did, so I was supported and inspired in my goals of godly womanhood. Spiritually I felt like I was in good standing too – I could readily ask, and receive answers to, my prayers in full trust. Looking back on it, I was also a pretty awesome mom too – my formerly colicky, strong-willed child now slept, ate, and pooped like clockwork. She and I were a great team and she was happy.
But I was suicidal. I wanted to die. I hated my unambitious husband and wished he would just give up and leave me so I could have something concrete to pin my misery on. Being tethered to the destiny of someone who was happy to wait tables for the rest of his adult life didn’t seem reason enough to end my life, and I knew that was only a small part of it. I felt worthless, like someone could swap me for a mother gorilla and no one would ever notice. I had prayed for months to be strengthened in righteous motherhood, to get the hang of housekeeping, and by all counts, that weakness had been made into a strength. But I was still miserable, and I didn’t know why.
Back up one year.
We had moved to Utah completely by inspiration. We would never have chosen this place for ourselves, but we felt really strongly like my husband’s ridiculously high-paying job might be in jeopardy, so we prayed and both received the same answer: Utah or bust. So we left, I dropped out of school, and the next month his former employer went under in catastrophic splendor along with every other sub-prime lender in the country.
We hated Utah. HATED it. The way people drive, the way they judge each other. Luckily we found like-minded friends in our neighborhood and made friends quickly and easily. I worked a job I was really good at, but felt guilty for enjoying it so much – I attended a married student ward in Provo and heard weekly messages that stressed the importance of starting a family as soon as possible and of preparing myself to be a stay-home mother if at all possible, so I knew I’d have to abandon my job eventually. It was just a way to pay for my maternity medical bills.
Fall semester approached and brought with it the first of what would be an annual tradition every year afterward: a massive surge of wistful longing for classes, homework, and above all, learning. I had already given up on my dreams of being a research scientist – I wanted to be a good wife and mother, and there was no way I could achieve that working in a lab all day. Amy next door, who had been an architecture major when I first met her in a singles ward, changed her major to Home & Family Something-or-other after making similar assumptions, so I decided if she could survive the shame and disappointment, so could I. But it left me feeling empty. I wanted to learn. I wanted something that challenged my intellect.
So I walked into an academic counselor’s office after work one day with no forethought whatsoever, just curious and hoping to get something started for the winter semester. I just wanted to take classes. Any classes. Preferably European History or Linear Algebra. Something hard. She asked me about my interests and talents, and she seemed shocked (as everyone always is) when I showed her a transcript full of upper-class math and science. But I told her I was leaving all that behind for something more motherhood-friendly. She brought up graphic design, and I felt a cosmic push even stronger than the one I’d felt when I met my husband. I could do that, I thought. It would be perfect.
So less than a week later, I was in classes. It wasn’t the challenge I was hoping for, not even close. There were times when I looked around at my classmates – carefree slacker artsy types at least 5 years younger than me – and wondered frantically “what the eff am I doing here??”
It wasn’t until my daughter was born and her colic and my postpartum depression hit me upside the head like a tube sock full of quarters that I let the incredulity get the best of me. I dropped out. I didn’t need a career, I told myself. I’m not supposed to have one anyway. By then, my husband had a decent non-food related job and we were doing fine. So, as someone who only finds meaning in actually accomplishing things, I set out to succeed in my chosen career as a stay-home mom. I took it very seriously and made it a matter of prayer and fasting. I called upon my Savior to help me master the lifestyle I assumed He wanted for me.
And he did. He really really did. But it wasn’t enough. So I tried to kill myself.
One night, I laid on the kitchen floor in an emotional heap while my husband clowned around with the baby trying to get me to laugh, and the phone rang. I answered it right there on the floor. It was that same guidance counselor letting me know that a web development major had just opened up. There were even night classes available, and I only needed 30 more credits to finish with a degree. I had been building websites for years, something she knew, but I hadn’t really kept up with the latest programming languages or technology trends. This time there was no cosmic push, not like last time, but I knew better than to wait for one. This was my lifeline, clear as day. I enrolled right away.
It turned out that I was really really good at building websites. And I loved it. Not the same way I had loved science, but it was enough. Through my husband’s connections at work, I was already doing some web work on the side when I graduated, so by the time my daughter turned 2, I was working over 20 hours every week and earning almost as much as my husband. I was turning down potential clients every other day just because I didn’t have enough time to do it all.
That’s when there was another push. The Spirit rapped on my skull and said “WORK MORE.” I was flabbergasted. I already had substantial mommy guilt – I had gated off the back porch and would sit working by the open screen door with my laptop while my toddler played with a couple of stray cats for an hour. Surely I’d go straight to hell for not fostering meaningful interactions with her during that hour, right? Surely she’d end up turning tricks in crack houses saying “If only my mom had spent a little more time with me!”
I talked to my husband about it and he shook his head at my paranoia. “You’re happier now than I’ve ever seen you, which means Baby is happier too. Work is the difference between life and death for you. Do whatever you feel is right.” So I prayerfully decided to hire a babysitter so I could work more – just 6 hours every week so I could attend meetings with potential clients.
The guilt nearly ate me alive.
And within a month, my husband lost his job.
Everything was clear now. Finally I understood. The clients that magically showed up on my doorstep without me even seeking them out. The nudges and promptings to take new projects on when I was sure I’d never have enough time. My work wasn’t a stumbling block between me and my divine role as a mother, it was a means for blessing me and my family. It was a clue in finding my divine role as Pepper. Mother, wife, entrepreneur, intellectual.
My husband applied for jobs for a year. A full year during which he finished up his schooling, cleaned, acted as alpha-parent from 9 to 5, and searched in vain for jobs. I still cooked, handled our finances, did some cleaning, and took care of our daughter while he interviewed or went to daytime classes. And in that year, I had it all. The beautiful family, a great marriage, a joyful pregnancy, and a fulfilling career that I was succeeding in. My husband was an excellent caregiver, and my daughter loved the time she spent with him. To this day, both my kids know they can ask either of us for nurturing or for fixing, reaching or lifting, kissing or hugging. Those aren’t gender-segregated roles in our house.
But I digress. All doubt had been removed from my mind that working was what God wanted me to do. But still, I got comments from neighbors that suggested that they thought it wasn’t. “Are you still working full-time? Oh, your poor little girl!” “Won’t it be wonderful to leave all that behind once he finds a job?” These sentiments from people I respected and considered role models ate away at my confidence. Should I be enjoying my success this much? Was my husband failing me in some way by turning down part-time or low-paying jobs that would barely meet our needs? As I entered my ninth month of pregnancy, which coincided with finals week, graduation, and the newly-desperate search for internships and employment, I became overwhelmed and forgetful. I panicked. I shouldn’t be this burdened, I decided. This wasn’t my role, it wasn’t my responsibility. If only my husband would do his part, I could devote my time to my daughter as I was meant to do.
So once he did find a job, I referred out as many clients as I could and got down below 10 hours of work every week. Surprisingly, I was still really good at the housewife thing, even with two kids and a couple of steady clients. But that same old emptiness came creeping in again, followed by full-blown depression and anxiety. This time, though, I didn’t hit rock bottom the way I did before. And this time I didn’t hesitate to increase my babysitter’s hours so I could work more during the day.
And this time, there was no guilt.
Between myself, my husband, my kids, and the Lord, we’ve found what works for my family and keeps everyone happy. And I don’t have to explain that to anyone. (At least… I’m working on not feeling the need to explain it. I still feel like people misunderstand me most of the time, but I’m working on considering that their problem, not mine.)
Especially because my husband just lost his job. Again.
Can I just tell you how fabulous it is to be able to actually start and finish a project in one work day? Sometimes even in one sitting?? It’s so gratifying. Yes, his unemployment is scary for us, but that’s one of the perks – actually finishing projects.
And that’s why I work, in a nutshell. So I can start things and finish them. It’s a small break from the repetitive tasks of motherhood that have to get done over and over and over, and the back-burner hobbies and dreams that keep me awake at night, always wondering “when is it my turn?” and feeling selfish for even wondering it. Working doesn’t mean I magically get out of those things – I still consider myself a full-time stay-home mother. And I still sweep cheerios off the kitchen floor 3 times a day. But that feels like a relief after a couple hours of deadlines and complex adult interactions every day, which feel like a relief after breaking up fights and putting kids in time out all day.
So it’s not vector calculus or nuclear physics, it’s not my lofty feminist dream of scientific discovery. But it’s repeatedly saved me and my family from the jaws of despair, so that makes it the perfect career for me.