There was a time, not long ago, when I thought staying at home with children would be easy. I was a newlywed, and although I was working full time, I also felt primarily (even solely) responsible for making our first apartment feel like home. This involved dinners cooked from scratch daily, as well as the complete roster of household cleaning duties. In hindsight, I was suffering from a severe case of June Cleaver Syndrome, and while my husband certainly didn’t expect this level of achievement from me, he also wasn’t about to speak up and demand to wash the dishes himself. I knew the standards I’d set for myself were incompatible with working outside the home, but I kept plugging away, knowing my end goal was to care for my family full time time. I used to daydream about how much easier things would be when I could start cooking earlier in the day, freeing up more time to enjoy with my husband and our (then hypothetical) little cherubs in the evenings. I would be able to keep up with the laundry through the week, rather than being faced with a mountain of it every Saturday morning. Yes, life would be easy, and I would excel at it. We would live in a spotless home, eat healthy, homemade dinners every night and raise little, exceptionally well-behaved geniuses with permanent smiles plastered across their impeccably clean faces. I would even tend a garden and write a book in my spare time.
My reality check arrived two years later, in the form of a tiny pink bundle we’ll call E. She was perfect–she was everything I’d ever hoped for. My new job description, on the other hand, fell somewhat short of my lofty expectations. All of the sudden, instead of working under close supervision and producing results that could be quantified, I was working in relative isolation, accomplishing tasks that would need to be done all over again within a few hours. I missed the validation that came from hearing I’d exceeded expectations on my latest project. Also, my house was not spotless. While she only knew how to make one type of mess, E commanded a great deal of my attention. Some days she was fussy and would cling to me, refusing to be put down anywhere. Other days she was happy and so adorable with her giggles and squeals, I couldn’t tear myself way from her. In good times and bad, she had a way of making the time pass more quickly than I ever imagined it could.
Was it hard to keep her clean, fed, rested and entertained? Not really. Was it hard to complete the basic chores required keep our household running? Sometimes. Was it hard to keep my morale up when performing the same mundane tasks on an infinite loop, with minimal adult interaction? YES. I didn’t have any mom-friends, and my old childless friends couldn’t really relate to my new lifestyle. They couldn’t imagine how staying at home with my baby could really be all that hard. Neither could I…and yet it was. I missed the moments of solitude I had once enjoyed while driving to and from the office. I missed the feeling of solidarity that came from commiserating with coworkers over a hot lunch I hadn’t had to prepare. Giving up those things was a small price to pay for seeing my daughter grow and change before my very eyes. I didn’t miss a single one of her milestones. Our time at home together was sometimes sweet, sometimes hilarious and sometimes frustrating. Overall it was priceless, but I wouldn’t say it was easy…at least, not in comparison to my life before she arrived.
These days, E, Mr. Mustard and I share our lives with a delightful little micro-person I’ll refer to as C. When I tell you that C is happy to be here with us, I mean that she is positively ecstatic just to be alive every day. The unfettered joy that illuminates her tiny face is eclipsed only by the happiness she brings to each of our hearts. Is it hard to care for C? Not at all. She’s as ‘easy’ as E was, and this time I have some idea of what to expect from her as she grows. Meanwhile E is in the final stages of graduating from a baby into little girl. She uses her potty, communicates beautifully, and seeks to help me with her baby sister at every opportunity. I could never have asked for a more amazing child. Is it hard to keep up with E? YES! It ‘s not only hard–at times it’s impossible. She is two years old, after all, and she has more energy than anyone I’ve ever known. It would be a challenge to care for her alone, but throw in C also, and I am in way over my head.
By now, I’ve come to accept that I won’t be truly alone with my thoughts again for many years. I’ve found solace in a community of other moms who face the same challenges and get to experience the same joys I do. So life at home has gotten easier from a mental/emotional standpoint, but much harder from a strategic one. Now I struggle with knowing how to respond to synchronized crying. As I wander the house with a baby on my boob and a toddler clinging to my leg, I wonder if I’ll ever make it out the door again. And if I do, which child should I load into the car/grocery cart first? I also wonder what color my living room carpet is, as I get my daily workout in by carefully stepping around the all sharpest/most breakable toys in the pile. I ask myself, is it really this hard, or am I doing something wrong?
I finally did make it out the door last week, to visit the post office and take C in for check up and vaccinations. The post office is a particularly frustrating errand to run, because there are no carts, and the distance from the parking lot to the counter doesn’t warrant the use of a stroller. I had to unload both kids and carry/herd them a distance of about fifteen feet to the entrance of the building, try to pick up my package in less time than it took E to pick up and throw a stack of empty boxes, and then get everyone back out to the car and strapped in. I was exhausted by the time we got to the pediatrician’s office. C was found to be healthy and right on track with her development. As the nurses prepared to administer her shots, E announced that she had to use the potty. I asked her to wait just a moment, and as the sound of C’s heartbreaking cry filled the exam room, I glanced over and noticed E had stripped down to her skivvies.
The whole appointment was a disaster, from my perspective, and I thought we’d never make it back out to the car. I love my car. It’s the one place where I can strap my children into restraints and take my eyes off of them for a moment. To do so is not only considered a wise parenting decision–it’s actually required by law! My girls seem to enjoy it too–C always goes right to sleep while E sings along with the radio. Sometimes, averting our eyes from our own struggles even for a fifteen minute drive is enough to provide us with fresh perspective. On this particular trip home, I found myself near tears at the thought of how hard life can really be. As frustrating as my day had been, I understood the difference between difficulty and hardship. Difficulty was wrangling a mini-streaker in the halls of a pediatrician’s office while comforting a baby who’d just received two shots in her little legs. Hardship would have been hearing that something was wrong with my baby and having to schedule further testing. Difficulty was the two hours of effort required just to leave our house that morning, but hardship would have been having no shelter for my family to begin with. Is it really that hard to lead an ordinary life as the mother of two small, healthy children? No. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, by a long shot, but in the grand scheme of things I realize I’ve got it easy. The mishaps and setbacks that bring me close to my breaking point now will all seem funny when I look back on them later, and that isn’t the case for everyone.
Is raising children for a living really as hard as stay-at-home parents make it out to be? It’s actually harder, and more rewarding than words could ever describe. It’s a delicate balance of profound gratitude and prolonged exasperation. It’s a daily struggle to maintain perspective and to impart life’s most fundamental lessons to the impressionable young minds in our care. There is never enough time to do it all, and there’s no way to avoid making mistakes. But if there ever was a calling in life so noble as to warrant the sacrifice of one’s career, sanity, and personal hygiene, it would be parenthood.