Sometimes people ask me what I plan on doing after I finish my M.A., and sometimes I answer honestly, which is of course “I don’t fucking know.” But other times I answer by explaining my “plan,” which at the moment, is to apply to PhD programs in English literature, with an emphasis on American Studies. And quite often, the response I get is something like this: “Are you sure you should be putting your children through that?”
It just happened the other day. A fellow grad student asked me that very question. I looked at him dead in the eyes and responded “If I were a man, would you be asking me that question?”
He laughed and said “no.” And then I told him he was a douchebag and we both laughed. And to be honest, I wasn’t really offended, because I don’t really get offended that often, but especially when people say stupid shit and then own it.
As hard as this may be to believe, I frequently say stupid shit.
But I must admit it got me thinking. I’ve been surprised by how many people have responded to me with that exact question when I tell them my “plan,” (I’m putting that word in quotation marks because come on, really? a plan? Can you have a “plan” with three kids and a husband and personality like mine? My first “plan” was to get an M.A. in English…in 2-3 years. IT’S BEEN SEVEN. Case closed.).
And the thing that really got me thinking is how that voice, “are you sure you should be putting your kids through this?” has been like a low hum in the back of my mind for the past 11 years, yammering the same message in relentless monotone: “But what about your KIDS? What are you doing to your KIDS?”
You know why it hurts? You know why the question stings?
BECAUSE I DON’T KNOW, people, and I never have.
I have never known what’s “best” for my kids. How the hell should I know?
I’m not them.
Okay. Fine. I know a few things. I need to love and nurture them, teach them what it means to be a decent human. I know I need to tell them the truth, hold, hug and kiss them, own my shit when I screw up with them, too. I know I need to take them places, expose them to the world, ask tough questions, make them work, teach them some fucking manners. I know I need to help them find out who they are, whatever that looks like, and back the hell off in case who they are doesn’t match who I think they should be…But mostly, all I really know is that my job is to help them grow into the people they are meant to become.
Beyond that, I have no idea what the hell I’m doing here.
And yet, people continue to ask me these questions as if I’m supposed to have some sort of answer. I’m supposed to like KNOW. Is there some sort of guidebook I’ve missed? Were other mothers endowed with a mother-compass, guiding their feet along a well-marked path toward the Promised Land of perfect children developing into perfect adults?
This woman once wrote on my blog “You’re only as happy as your saddest child.” When I read it, my stomach did a flip on itself, because quite frankly I think that’s the biggest crock of bullshit I’ve ever heard, and its implications made me a little sick.
The happiness of my children composes my own? Nonsense.
That’s the most insidiously selfish statement I think anybody has ever told me in regards to parenthood; it’s the most fucked-up thing I can imagine putting on your kid. Imagine that: “Hey kids, you are not only responsible for your own happiness, but you are now also responsible for MINE. So don’t blow it! ”
In other words, you are not free to live your life, because I’m dependent on you for the worth of my own, which means if you blow it, you’re not just ruining your own life, you’re ruining mine. So just remember that, kiddo, when you’re out there trying to navigate the insane waters of existence: YOUR MOTHER will never be happy unless you’re happy – so add that to your burden, please, as if life itself isn’t quite enough.
Um, thanks, but I unsubscribe from that theory.
Sorry, world, but I am not defined by my kids.
There. I said it.
There are these children in my home, and I love them with every shred of my being, and I am devoted to them with all my heart, and I try my best for them every day, but they are not me.
And I am not them.
And there’s this side of me that has other plans, and it always has, and it isn’t quite fulfilled through the making of lunches and cleaning of houses and doing of homework. I care about the parent-teacher conferences, but they aren’t the most important moment of my week, ever.
I am not ripping on stay-at-home moms. I feel silly even writing that disclaimer, but I need to be clear. What I’m saying is that I believe with all my heart that the greatest gift I can give my children is an example of a person who has grown fully, into herself, becoming the person her heart yearns to be, walked the path her soul has carved, bravely, firmly, lovingly.
Whatever that looks like.
If it’s getting a PhD she does it completely.
If it’s raising goats and canning pickles on a farm in Vermont, she does it completely.
If it’s working as an administrative assistant at a law firm 45 minutes away, she does it completely.
If it’s home-schooling 5 kids, making lovely dinners for her husband each day by 5pm sharp, served with a smile and warm heart…
Then by God, she does it completely.
And she does with everything she’s got, with all that she is, like there is nothing else in the world. She does it like a warrior. She does it like a champion.
She does it like a goddamn rockstar.
Because those kids will watch that, ladies, and they will learn. They will watch it and they will see a human brave enough to live, brave enough to drop the ideas of the world, shake their expectations, brush their judgment off her heart like a bit of dust on the shoulder of an old wool coat.
And they’ll learn, as she moves, as she struggles, as she walks out the door to write that paper, as she comes home after one more day of what has become a bull-dog like devotion to her cause, as she straightens the pillows on the couch, tucks the baby in, falls exhausted into bed, one more time, they will learn:
To thine own self be true.
Like a boss.
To thine own self be true.
And I guess we’ll know then, someday, when we watch our kids soar into themselves without looking back, with the strength we found in the moments we didn’t know, didn’t know what was best for them, but held on anyway to the truth in ourselves, because there was really nothing else to do.
I guess we’ll know, then, when we watch them live in freedom, and find ourselves doing the same, that it was “best,” for them.
And for us.