When Haley was little and I was pregnant with Jake, I had a conversation with a dear friend that troubled me for many years. We were talking about motherhood and babies; I was expecting and she had a newborn. I’ve forgotten the crux of the conversation, but I will never forget something she said: “The only thing I’ve ever wanted to be is a mother,” she said, her face happy as she patted her son, who was slung over her shoulder in that milk-drunk contented sprawl that babies have. “I don’t want a career or anything else. I just want to be a mom.”
Her comment troubled me because not only was that not how I felt (or ever had felt), it is what our culture (we are both LDS) tells us we are supposed to feel. An ideal LDS family, it seemed to me then, was one with a husband who had a fantastic job that paid for a big, beautiful house and provided enough money that the wife could be a stay-at-home mom, happily raising her children. (Who would all grow up to also have this ideal life.)
While I did want to be a stay-at-home mom, I also had other aspirations. I wanted to finish my education. I wanted to travel. I wanted to be a mom and other things. And I had always wanted that; when I was a little girl playing with dolls, I never just mothered them. I took them to imaginary places. We went on airplanes together. I got them dressed and took them to the babysitter and then picked them back up. (The “babysitter” was another doll.) Even as that very little version of myself, I wanted to be a mother but I also wanted to be other things.
And the fact that I wanted that AND felt, to my very-young and still-learning-about-being-an-adult self, to be wrong somehow. Like the aspiring part of me was someone I had to tamp down and control.
But life has a way of teaching us what we don't know we need to learn.
I did get to be a stay-at-home mom, something I wanted desperately to do when my kids were young. I feel blessed that I had that time, even though it was difficult.
When I had to start working away from my kids, because of financial difficulties, I was devastated. Angry and frustrated because I thought I had chosen what I needed to choose in order to continue to be blessed in that way. I always felt lucky to be a sahm, even though I always had those aspirations, because I wanted to have that time with my kids, have those experiences that can only come when you’re at home all day with small children. It was difficult and sometimes I felt lonely and lost, but I never resented it. When I had to give it up, the devastation came because I didn’t get to continue having those moments. I wasn’t ready to stop being a stay-at-home mom, and those years of working full time as a teacher were difficult.
But they were also rewarding. They taught me that I could find happiness and satisfaction in many different roles. They gave my children some positive experiences that shaped them in ways I couldn’t have. They also taught me the value of choice, of considering my options and striving to choose what was right not just for my family but also for myself. They taught me the value of my aspirations.
During my time of being a mother, I have also been a student, a writer, a teacher, and a librarian. I have been a person who makes things and who teaches other people how to make things. A runner, a hiker. Even a traveler (although not nearly enough).
Now I am in what I am starting to think of as the post-minivan time of motherhood. We only need a car with four seatbelts, and car seats are a thing of the past. It’s been years since I had little ones; I’m in the middle of teenagers and new adults. And I still have aspirations. I still have many things I want to do: write successfully to a wide audience; travel to many more places; hike as many peaks as I can. Inspire more people to love books and libraries. Run another marathon or two or five, run even more half marathons. I have even started to imagine myself becoming active in local politics. And: I plan on continuing to take care of my children, even if they are no longer children. I hope their futures intertwine with mine, I hope they find good spouses and I hope their spouses want a relationship with me, too. I hope my kids become parents one day. If they want. More than anything, I want them to find lives that they love, lives that are ideal for them. I want them to choose the things that will bring them the deepest happiness which is, I’m convinced, not based on fulfilling someone’s idea of what is ideal but their individual and unique versions of ideal.
And I hope through all of that to be a mother to them.
A few days ago, I had a conversation with a dear friend that’s been troubling me a little bit. It’s such a different format of conversation than the one I had twenty years ago with my old friend (who did, by the way, achieve her desire: she has a large family and has been able to stay at home with them), over Facebook, so I could write the exact crux of it. But what matters is her concern: what will she do with herself when her youngest child heads off to school? Who will she be? How will she bear having those days of actively mothering her little kids come to an end?
What troubles me is that she only feels sadness about this new chapter in her life, not excitement. Don’t get me wrong: I, too, was sad when Kaleb headed off to first grade. But I was also excited for the time I had to pay more attention to myself. I’m troubled for her—that she might mourn too long, or always look backward instead of focusing on what is here before her. Motherhood is a blessing, but it is not the only thing that defines us. It troubles me because our culture sometimes focuses on motherhood without acknowledging that we are all, also, other things, and that the intense work of mothering small children always comes to an end. They grow up. What you will be when that happens is up to you, and that choice is also a blessing.
Our conversation, though, also helped me to understand again a knowledge I am continually relearning. When I look back over the shape that my life has taken over the past 25 years, I do feel blessed. Lucky, even. But I don’t have that ideal LDS family. I don’t have the big, beautiful home on the bench (preferably near a temple). I have adult children who aren’t interested in the church. I have my own struggles with my faith. But between the opportunities God blessed me with and the choices I made, I have been able to find my own ideal, too. Or at least, I am in the process of creating it. I won’t be finished making it until I am finished with my life.
This is what I didn’t know when I had that long-ago conversation with my friend: her desire to be a stay-at-home mom wasn’t bad, and my desire to be a mom and something else was also not bad. Like motherhood itself, my aspirations for an and are God-given. They are part of who I am and to deny them is to deny how God made me.
I cherished my days as a stay-at-home mom. And I am cherishing my days right now, in my post-minivan world. I am a mother and I am many other things, and that, for me, is the ideal. And I think it should be everyone’s ideal: find who you are. Choose who you will be. If that choice is staying at home, do that if you can. If that choice is being a mom with a career, do that. The ideal image of the perfect Mormon family is only that: an image. Perfect is what you create for yourself.
Perfect is the act of choosing, with all of the attendant messiness that happens after. Perfect is embracing who you are. Perfect is knowing that is ideal.