When I was very little, there were many things I wanted to be when I grew up, from Wonder Woman to a Charlie’s Angel to a garbage man. I always thought I would be something other than just a wife and mother. This was instilled in me by my own mother. But when someone asked who I wanted to be like when I grew up, I knew that I wanted to be like my grandmother. She was always kind, remembered everyone’s birthday, she crocheted doilies, and sat in her rocking chair always ready to hug me when we visited. Considering she’d had eleven children, and by 1986, forty-four grandchildren and innumerable great grandchildren, that was no small thing.
Everyone in her family loved her. I decided that when I grew up, I wanted to be the recipient of that vast amount of love and wanted to always be smiling, never angry or sad. To me, my grandma represented unending love and happiness. Of course I could not comprehend as a child how much she had struggled in her life, and I never saw it on her face until she learned that she was dying. It was as if all the years of poverty, pregnancy, hard work, and worry had revisited itself on her face at the age of 85, and the realization that the love she had given and received would not earn her immortality was too much to bear.
She died on my eighteenth birthday, and I idolized her even more for having hidden those years of struggle for so long, and never putting it on anyone else. My mother could not compete with that as I grew up. She had worked her whole life; first on a Minnesota farm as a child, taking care of three younger brothers, and then as a waitress, a stewardess, and eventually an employee of the Southern Pacific Railroad, where she met my father. By 1986, she was a high-level supervisor for the State of California’s Department of Justice, and proud to say she made more money than my father. She warned me to never be dependent on anyone for money or for happiness. “No one can be everything to anyone,” she would say. “Eventually even the best of men will disappoint you, and then you will need to find ways to make yourself happy.” Much of this view had been born out of seeing my grandmother on a farm, pregnant or nursing for twenty straight years with a husband who was a lousy farmer and a difficult father. Ten of her eleven babies were born at home, one of whom was 14 pounds and caused her to be sick for months after delivery. My grandma found joy in her children, but also great difficulty, due to her lack of options. And while my mom had seen the years my grandma suffered, I had only seen her rocking, crocheting, and smiling.
Feminism was not an issue of debate in our house; it was assumed that women should have the same opportunities as men and have reproductive choices. Mom had seen what life was like for women without these rights. In 1968, at thirty-five years old with a fifteen-year-old son, my mother was surprised to find out that she was pregnant with me. She was a full-time working woman with very limited maternity leave, so I was put in daycare at three-weeks-old, and stayed with one babysitter or another until I was ten. She decided to go back to school while maintaining her full-time job in 1973, and by 1986 she had a Bachelor’s Degree in English.
I felt quite deprived of her as a little girl and it didn’t matter how many vacations, mini-golf games, or trips to the mall we took together. I always wanted more attention. I pestered her every minute I had with her; in the mornings, the evenings, and on weekends. My mom would tell me how she had to fight ten other siblings to get any alone time with her mother. She thought I was getting more attention and more things than any child could want. After all, every other mom in my neighborhood worked, as well as almost every woman in my extended family. Staying home with children was seen as an option only for the very wealthy or the exceedingly poor. Why, my mother thought, would anyone do that when they could work outside the home? Her generation had secured a place for women in the workforce, and staying home, financially dependent on a man seemed like a terrible step backward.
My parents were not religious. The subject of religion honestly didn’t come up in discussion in my house. No one told me not to believe in God, but we never went to church, and all holidays were secular. My primary babysitter was Lutheran and I had two good friends who were Catholic. Some of my great aunts were Seventh Day Adventist, and I lived in a black neighborhood, where many of our neighbors were Baptist. I joined a Baptist church at eleven-years-old and quit going by twelve. What struck me was that each religious friend or family member positively knew they were going to heaven when they died, but each was also sure that my other friends were not. I once asked at Sunday school whether my father, who was not religious, but a good man, would go to heaven when he died, and the answer was “no.” So I began to ask, “How does anyone know who else will go to heaven?” As an adult, I did not choose to be atheist. I am simply unpersuaded by religious arguments.
When it came to mothering, as a feminist and an atheist, I had no set rules or traditions or texts to instruct me as to what I should do. Even though my grandmother, my mother, and I haven’t any religious notions of what a mother should be, they both taught me to have a solid innate belief of what a mother should be; kind, understanding, loving, and when necessary, demanding.
Despite my grandmother’s hard work and my mother’s independence and career, when I became a mother at twenty-eight in 1995, I decided to stay home to raise my babies myself. My husband’s work was very demanding with twelve-hour graveyard shifts, and we only had one car for several years. We lived in small apartments until we bought a small house. Having only worked in secretarial positions, I told my mom that I just couldn’t see any job as satisfying as watching my children grow every day. “You may change your mind about that,” she replied. “It may not turn out to be as satisfying as you think.” Even so, I determined that I should raise my children based on empirical evidence. I knew from experience that babysitters often think of the kids they as mere paychecks; that they instill in them their own ideas of God, morality, and politics, and they make them eat lima beans even if their moms don’t. Who could I trust to love my kids and teach them better than me? No one. I also worried that I would never know how my child’s day was in daycare until they could talk. A baby can’t tell you he was shaken to quiet him, or how much Benedryl she was given so that she would nap, or whether that bruise really came from a stumble while learning to walk. So I made the firm decision that I would stay home. Over time I was able to babysit other children for a little extra income, and prove that it could be done with love and compassion. And, contrary to what my mother said, it was satisfying. Until it wasn’t.
As much as I wanted and loved each of my three babies, I have found that my mom was right. It has not always been satisfying. She saw while growing up the eighth of eleven children that most of motherhood is hard, emotionally-draining work. Changing diapers for the first week may be adorable, but if you’ve had more than one child, you know fairly quickly that the third or fourth year of diapering is messy and tedious. Children are also relentless in their demands, and pregnancies don’t always go smoothly. I found that after fifty-three hours of labor and an emergency cesarean my body did not know how to deliver a baby instinctively. I don’t think the medical community takes into consideration just how traumatic pregnancy and delivery can be for many women. They may say that postpartum depression is chemical, but it is just one of many extremes a mother’s body and mental state suffers in nine short months. And if you are a woman for whom motherhood and bonding does not come easily; if you are desperately poor or if you have no partner to help you, you can become very isolated very quickly. What comes naturally to most parents doesn’t come to us all, and babies suffer when this is the case.
My mother was also right that it was a mistake financially for me to be dependent on another person. Even a perfect couple can have insurmountable difficulties, and my husband and I were not close to perfect. After seventeen years of marriage, and for a variety of reasons, my husband decided he wanted a divorce. I never expected this would happen, as few people do, and it remains the one great disaster of my and my kids’ lives.
I believe that I have grown to Mother. When I first held my baby Austin, I finally knew why my arms were the way they were. They were shaped to hold him. I see my daughter, now ten, cradle her cat and rock her to soothe her. But a cat is never rocked in the cat world. Her mother did not hold her and rock her and hum to her. My daughter does this instinctively because she is growing to become a mother, and someday, she will learn that these actions are meant for babies.
When I became a mother I finally understood the purpose of my body. When milk comes in or when you pat the baby over your shoulder, it finally makes sense. This is what my body is supposed to do. This is how humans have survived for millennia. A baby can’t see clearly, so seeks out the two eyes and mouth of its mother. We never lose this instinct to find faces; in mountains, on toast, and even on Mars. A baby smiles and is rewarded with smiles, cooing, and praise, and so it learns to smile again. As mothers, we feel this beautiful happiness in caring for a newborn, so that we will bond sufficiently with them before they grow into toddlers. This bonding must sustain us for eighteen years; a very long time compared to the rest of the animal world. Mothers have existed since humans have existed, and certainly our methods of mothering are different across the ages and across the world. But the desire to nurture, to mother is almost universal. It is not the same for fathers; they have evolved to deal with different aspects of parenthood.
It’s been 114 years since my grandmother was born, and the issues surrounding motherhood and mothering have changed greatly. Birth control or working for a decent wage were not options for my grandmother. My mother has often said that if birth control was around in 1932, she would have never been born. She does not say this arrogantly, as if she had no right to live, but with sorrow for her mother. Knowing that her very existence was a tremendous burden on the one woman she loved the most has been hard for my mother to live with. And yet my grandma never put that burden upon my mom or any of her children. My mom may not have been a conscious choice, but she was loved. She raised me in a different time, a time of choices for women. When people tell me that women shouldn’t work, shouldn’t put their kids in daycare, and have an obligation to stay home, I think of my mother. While she got great satisfaction from raising my brother and me, she also loved to work and I would never take that away from her. How selfish a notion, that my life should have caused my mother to limit her education, ambition, or independence in any way.
What I learned from my grandmother and mother is that there is no one right way to mother a child. Each mother must take advantage of the options afforded to her in her time, place, circumstance, and according to her personality. Do what works for you, your children, and your family. My Mom played on the farm. My brother got to watch TV. I got to play Ms. Pacman. My kids have every Lego kit we could afford. Enjoy them, your husband, your friends, and yourself, and like the baby-bonding, it can sustain you through the inevitable times of uncertainty and insecurity.
I chose to stay home and I hope I’ve done a good job raising my children, but now it’s time for me to become independent, by circumstance and by choice. I trust my kids will understand, particularly when it’s their turn to parent. I still would like to be that grandma someday, rocking, crocheting, and smiling, with open arms and no trace of past worries on my face. But first, I need to be like my mom, with an education and a steady job that I enjoy. How lucky I’ve been to be loved and influenced by both women.
Kara was born in 1968 and raised in Sacramento, CA. She lost her father in 1985, got married in 1994 and has three great kids. She moved to Forest Grove, Oregon in 1998 and divorced in 2012. She has studied philosophy since 2001, has stayed home with her kids for 18 years and provided daycare for 8 years. She is currently going back to school to obtain a degree in paralegal and hopes to one day go to law school. Her mother lives on the Oregon coast, an hour away, and they talk every day.