The Interview Series: Full Heart, Empty Mind

IMG_20150220_170714My first impression of her was of a young, energetic, highly intelligent young woman exuding ambition, replete with a tailored tweed suit. I was told she hailed from a political family in the Midwest, and as a third year law student, was more serious about the cases as an intern than almost any of the attorneys in the office. In the intervening five years since we met she had finished law school, become a licensed attorney and state assistant attorney general, gotten married, had her first child and moved across the country. I was intrigued by her experience as a stay-at-home mom after such a hard-charging set of career years. I knew she had left behind a sterling reputation as an outstanding lawyer and respected colleague, and speculation about her political ambitions was often discussed. We talked one night after she’d put her eight month-old son down, and she gave me a look into her dramatically different new life as a mom, making observations and assertions about her experience that seemed to fly in the face of current conventional parenting wisdom.

The mommy world is like an alternate universe, where other moms seem only to talk about kids, she began. Adult interaction has been limited since her son was born, and joining support and educational groups for new mothers has helped her feel more comfortable in her new role. Even so, she senses she’s forgotten how to interact with adults and listening to other women talk about kids eighteen hours a day isn’t helping. “I wish for these grand, complex discussions with adults and I’m on the floor knocking over blocks instead.” She talked about feeling a regression of sorts–from spending large amounts of time in detailed and intricate thought about the law to being alone with an infant and the often, in her view, simplistic tasks associated with his care.

Before I could ask if she felt social pressure at the mothers’ groups to exhibit total fulfillment in caring for her child (a phenomenon whose evidence I’ve gleaned mostly from social media statuses and photos) she came out with, “I feel like my brain has died. I’ve lost my edge.” She explained that in part these feelings come from being inundated with low-level decisions. “My days are these all-consuming mindless tasks. My edge has been replaced by whether I should roast or steam the zucchini for dinner.” I was surprised by her openness about the drawbacks to stepping away from her career to care for her son. I allowed myself a moment of idle wonder about the response she’d receive on social media if she were to attach her name to these observations. Is it OK for a woman to need more intellectual stimulation than her child can provide? Is she allowed to long for paid work because it fulfilled her in a way life at home with a child doesn’t? Do her feelings mean she doesn’t love her son? While personally understanding her feelings as valid and individual, my head swam with society’s judgmental questions.

She expressed worry at the idea of staying out of the workforce for five or more years to raise children. That amount of time out of the workforce would mean significant retraining in her field. “I’m ready to get back and be a contributing member of society.” I asked her to explain what she meant. “I feel worthless at the end of the day, there’s nothing grand to report. I did nothing beyond keeping a child alive.” She sighed as she told me the day seems to slip away as she cares for her son, and she finds all other household tasks have gone by the wayside, making her feel even less productive. I wanted to understand why she doesn’t feel parenting counts as contributing to society. She talked about finding it difficult to articulate what a day with her son is like, to articulate the experience in words. She finds the job to be largely thankless, but talked animatedly about bonding with her son, saying it was a source of great reward. Ultimately, however, she requires external validation–the type you get from a challenging and engaging career.

If choosing to raise her child in place of lawyering leaves her feeling lacking and even worthless at times, why is she doing it? The answers were simple, and painted a picture of choice heavily influenced by external factors. For one, she had been very sick and injured after her delivery. While she had taken prenatal classes, she felt unprepared for the “fourth trimester”, the first three months with an infant. “I expected to feel like shit and I did. I needed help to even move.” It turned out she was experiencing several serious post-delivery complications and she spent the first four months of her son’s life very ill. Before she understood her conditions she and her husband had packed up their house and moved 3,000 miles across the country, six week-old son in tow. Her husband had just finished his PhD and had been offered a position on the opposite coast. She had been on maternity leave when she resigned from her attorney job to move out of state. Upon arriving in her new city she had no friends, family or contacts, and was struggling to care for her child while laboring under complications for which she had no name. Once their source was discovered, she had to have surgery and was physically laid up for months after her son’s birth, limiting her mobility, both career and physical.

With no contacts and a long convalescent period, transitioning into a new job shortly after moving was unrealistic. “I had the baby at the move, right before. We moved across the country with a six week-old.” There was no one to do childcare while she searched for a job and built a network. It made more sense to stay at home. Even now, seven months after moving, boxes remain unpacked in their new house. It now made sense how many obstacles would have had to have been overcome to land a new law job within weeks or months of moving. Had she and her husband chosen to stay on the other coast, she would have gone back to her job within several weeks.

I asked her to tell me whether her life at the end of her twenties was conforming to the vision she had as a younger woman. She talked about being a very old first time parent by the standards of her Midwestern peer group. She knew from a young age she wanted to be a mother. She had been raised by a stay-at-home mom, one of four kids. She described the model of motherhood she received from her mom. “My mom didn’t work outside the home, but kept the books for our family business. She had a lot of hobbies and interests, and her kids were just a part of her life.” She meant to distinguish kids as a facet of their mother’s life, as opposed to the purpose of it. “My calling in life isn’t just to be a mother. I’m also not sold on being a lawyer forever.” As a younger woman she envisioned she would have a legal career, which she expected to be satisfying and tangible (external validation!). She believes her life is indeed mostly conforming to her vision. The only surprises have come from not giving a lot of forethought to how having a child would change her life.

How has it changed her life, beyond spending her days staying home as opposed to working outside it? Her experience of her physical self, for one. “It isn’t my body anymore. Sometimes I need a moment where someone’s not on my body, watching or touching me.” She misses having an “unfettered adult life”. She talked about looking forward to being her “own person”, making clothing choices not based on breastfeeding, the ability to have a drink or two, eating what she wants. Her son has had some bad reactions to certain foods she’s eaten and to coffee, limiting her options during this period of breastfeeding. “The little things add up to losing control over my body.” And of course there are the concerns previously discussed about losing her intellectual edge.

What’s parenting been like for her so far? She explained that she and her husband had spent time talking about the life they wanted to have with their child, before he arrived. They agreed that their son would be integrated into the extant family of two, and that they would enjoy making him a part of their lives, without entirely structuring a new life around him. In that way, she described feeling different from peers. “The kid becomes part of the family, life isn’t shaped around the child.” She is applying her mother’s model.

Other mothers have told her that if she’s worrying about her performance as a parent, then she’s doing it right. I asked what she felt they meant. “Caring a lot goes a long way. It’s about understanding development and assisting in it.” She added thoughtfully, “though you can go too far into helicopter mode when the kids are older.”

What does she want for her son? “I’m against kiddie crap,” she declared. What is “kiddie crap”, exactly? “Commercial, material stuff geared toward kids. I want my son to experience the world.” I asked whether she was alluding to tech products marketed toward children, children in strollers wearing headphones and playing on iPads. Yes. At eight months old her son reaches for her phone. “He sees adults staring at phones and grabs for them,” she lamented. How much screen time does she engage in while at home with him? She describes trying very hard to limit phone and TV time while she’s with him. “He can sense if I’m present or not. I have a big responsibility to teach him how to interact.” She finds it easier to stay engaged as he’s gotten older, and talked about using a breastfeeding app to help her track his feedings. It sounded like the modern dilemma–use technology to support competent, safe infant care, and bury your face in a screen where your child can’t access you, all at once.

I wondered if she plans to have more children, and whether she thinks she’ll go back into the workforce. While she misses the intellectual stimulation and fulfillment of working as an attorney, she understands going back to work will complicate life. It will necessarily limit the time she spends with her son, and this makes her sad, the idea of trying to squeeze in family time. She does want another child, and likes the idea of her son being old enough for daycare at that time, in order to spend some one-on-one bonding time with her second child, as she was able to do with her first. But at the same time, daycare is a rather terrifying prospect. In her job at the attorney general’s office she was in charge of daycare licensing and saw many unsafe, bad centers. Staff had criminal records and a lack of common sense, to name a few problems. She would need to do major research into a facility to feel comfortable. Ideally, she would work part time and care for her children. She’s unsure what type of paid work that might be. The point is, she wants to feel good at the end of the day.

What is the most extraordinary part of life with her son? It seemed to be breastfeeding, which has taught her the “miracle of the human body.” It amazes her to be able to make the nutrients to help her son grow and thrive. In fact, she and her son are in a class called “La Leche League”, which provides breastfeeding education and support, a community which she thoroughly enjoys. And what about when she finishes breastfeeding?

She’s already told her husband that on that night she will go into a room alone, shut the door, drink wine, smoke weed and listen to music. Her body will be her own, and her son will be outside the door with dad, waiting.


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