I never thought of editing a magazine as the kind of job that had a guilt trip built right into it. Then I started Secular Homeschooling, and every day that I wasn’t the world’s freakin’ perfect homeschooler felt like a lie I was telling the whole damned world.
“How can you sit there giving advice to homeschooling parents?” my inner voice would scream as I tried to type up an innocent little article on fun activities for the younger set. “You yelled at your kid today! And then you went and reread that Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle book and daydreamed about being one of the moms in one of those stories! Those moms who got to clean nice empty houses and had plenty of time to bake and call their friends on the phone just because they felt like it!”
Of course, even if my kid went to public school, I wouldn’t have a life like that. I’d be scrounging around doing whatever paid employment I could find. I wouldn’t want to be a just-plain homemaker anyway. It would drive me nuts.
But when I have to admit publicly that my life is now literally driving me nuts, it’s nice to have one less source of guilt. I may be a mess, but at least I don’t have a job title that implies I’m managing to “have it all.”
I am, as the lovely Brits would say, not coping.
I am crying a lot.
I am screaming a great deal.
I threw a laundry basket hard enough to break it just yesterday.
And it’s all because I can’t stop being a feminist.
A feminist by my own pared-down, nothing-but-the-basics definition: a woman who insists on thinking of herself as a human being.
It’s not about homeschooling. It’s about parenting.
I am not a good parent.
Specifically, I am not a good mother.
I am a mother like Edna Pontellier, the main character of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening.
I, like Edna, am not willing to be a “mother-woman” and volunteer my own needs and identity to be subsumed by those of my child.
I’d give my life — my physical existence — to save my son’s in a minute. That’s a given.
But I’m not willing to give up half my life on a daily basis. I’m not willing to be only physically alive for his sake. And that’s what it feels like lately.
He needs exercise, so I rearrange my schedule to get him to the park or out on a walk every day. We live in the city and don’t have a yard, so exercise is by appointment, as it were.
I need exercise, so if I can fit it in around everything else that needs doing around here, I can get it.
His mind needs stimulation and education, so I spend hours online and in the library doing research, and more hours writing up classes and figuring out how to help him to reach his goal of becoming an engineer.
My mind needs stimulation and education, so if I can fit it in around the edges of his life, I can get it.
Ditto for my goal of becoming a published novelist.
If a life were nothing more than a physical existence, there would have been no conflict over Terri Schiavo.
If I could shove aside my own needs for the next four years or so, they wouldn’t be needs.
My son needs to be homeschooled. Our local public high school is a terror and he can’t go there. We can’t afford a private school. And anyway, his going to school wouldn’t be less stressful — it would just be a different kind of stress. I don’t want that any more than he does.
But something has to give around here, and I’m trying to figure out what it is.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
I wrote that and then I put this essay aside. I came back to it a couple of weeks later with no answers.
Things are, if anything, worse than ever.
The building I on-site manage has gone completely haywire, and I’m needed a lot — but I’m not doing a whole lot. I’m just locking and unlocking doors, wrangling plumbers and drywallers, and never knowing exactly when I’ll be needed to do more of the same. It starts in the morning and doesn’t end until after six or seven at night. So I can’t do anything uninterruptible, like work out or write anything that needs actual brain power.
My husband got a cold and then a viral lung infection and then a bacterial lung infection. He’s allergic to a lot of medication that would help, and his diabetes makes it impossible for him to take other medication that would help. He’ll be home from work for several more days at least. He’s been feverish at night, and we have to take him to the doctor if it gets higher than a certain temperature so we have to keep monitoring it. He also has to take his medication every six hours. We’re not sleeping a lot.
A friend of mine whose child I teach science wants me to teach three classes this week instead of the usual one, because that works better for their schedule. I had a unit worked out based on the dates we’d already agreed on, but now her daughter is angry about having to have “school” all the way through June when her friends get to start summer vacation earlier. These science classes aren’t from a boxed curriculum. They involve research and writing and scrambling for materials and experiments and online resources. I just called to leave a message that between the building and my husband’s illness, we have too much going on for me to teach tomorrow and I understand if she can’t reschedule — if that’s the case, we’ll see her next fall.
I’m feeling guilty because technically, I could physically stay up late, write the class, get up early, and teach the class. Provided I shove all my needs around the edges of other people’s lives the way I said I needed to stop doing, I could do that.
How dare I not do everything everyone asks me if it’s physically possible for me to do so.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
My son came into my room last week, while I was typing out the first part of this essay. Without asking what I was doing or saying “Excuse me,” he showed me something funny on Facebook. I told him I was working. He went out to the main room. A minute later, he called that our pet lizards were going nuts in their tanks and needed walkies, and as I knew, he couldn’t wrangle them both at once.
I helped him. Then I told him I needed to ask him a few questions.
Did he know that my writing was work? Not just in the sense that it’s difficult; but in the sense that, for example, a book manuscript I sold several years ago (and then collected a kill fee on) paid for his piano? And the magazine I used to write for and publish had purchased a much-needed new computer, among other things? Even the short stories and articles that were my first sales had paid actual checks. My blog postings are a message to the world that I’m still working, and a way of keeping my voice out there while I work to sell my first full-length fiction manuscript.
If it was hard to do and it made money or had the potential to make money, was my writing work?
He agreed that it was.
Very well. Let’s say that today, when the great lizard frenzy occurred, I’d been out on an errand and his father had been working at home, tip-tapping away at his computer with work he’d brought home from his office. Would my son have called his father for help with walkies?
My son looked crestfallen.
“No,” he said with admirable honesty.
So: in spite of what he said about agreeing that my work was work, didn’t his actions say something else?
Now: let’s say that instead of typing, I’d been cleaning the back bedroom when the lizards went berserk. Say I was up on the mini-step ladder dusting the stupid blinds. (I hate dusting blinds.) Would he have called me for help reptile-wrangling, or managed it somehow himself.
“I honestly don’t know,” he said.
I believed him. “So office work is 100% real ‘work,’” I said. “Housework is about halfway there. And writing isn’t work at all.”
His face had been crumpling steadily since the beginning of this Socratic dialogue. “I get it,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
He did get it.
It hasn’t helped much.
All morning I have been telling him that it is incredibly important to me that I finish a piece of writing — a specific blog posting about a specific aspect of feminist politics that is very important to me and is very difficult to write well about. All morning, I’ve been sitting at the computer tip-tapping away at said essay. I have made no secret of this.
The plumbers and drywallers can’t help interrupting me. My son can. And won’t.
Some of them are charming interruptions. I’m glad he’s glad I managed to bake cake today. (I’m glad, too.) And it’s wonderful that he’s 14 years old and still wants to give me a gentle hug or stroke my hair.
But the sweetest gesture in the world is scream-worthy if his timing remains so relentlessly off.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Coming back to this essay once again after several weeks away. Again, no easy answers. No answers at all, really. But I’m not willing to throw away all this writing and all the hurt behind it just because I can’t think of a neat, wrap-it-up ending.
All things considered, I guess trailing off and staggering on is the only way to go.