The parent trap

Yesterday was cleaning day. I washed, wiped, polished. I dusted, freshened, frenzied. I even scrubbed an inky handprint from the bathroom wall. It felt great. It was like getting a tiny high five. Great job, Shan!

The true mark of a thorough cleaning day is to tidy the kids’ bookshelf. It’s one of those low priority, high reward tasks. I sorted and stacked our cherished collection of board books, picture books and chapter books to perfection. I felt refreshed.

By bath time, I was still feeling great. I drew the girls a bubble bath in our soaker tub, a rare treat for them, and calmly cleansed the day from their skin (and the offending blue ink from my two-year-old’s hands).

I went downstairs to pour their milk. When I returned to the top of the stairs, I saw that in a matter of minutes, my bed-ready babies had laid out their many, many books in intricate, messy pathways along the floor.

I snapped. I yelled. Yes, from a healthy perspective this imaginative little mess wasn’t really a big deal. But to me, right then, it was. For three reasons: One, I like a tidy home. When our house is clean, I feel calm and in control. Two, we have friends coming to visit today. Sure, it’s unlikely that they will inspect our bannister for dust or even be impressed that our books are (were) alphabetized by author, but my tidying efforts lend themselves to an overall welcoming feeling in our home, and I like that.

And three, maybe most importantly, cleaning the house was basically what I did all day. This is what I had to show for myself. I did other things, but this was my big accomplishment. When the bookshelves were emptied onto the floor after hours and hours of effort, it was like a day’s work of data entry being deleted from my hard drive. (I chose data entry as a comparable to this aspect of stay-at-home parenting, because I’ve done both and know that either one can lead to insanity.)

I should point out that this pressure of what did you DO all day comes from me and no one else. Sure, there are mommy wars waging outside my window, but I’ve been a working mom and a stay-at-home mom, and I found both to be very, very hard. I chose to stay at home this time, for reasons maybe one day I’ll blog about, but that doesn’t mean I don’t sometimes wonder if I made the right decision.

I mourn the months lost of building my career just as I mourn the minutes that pass as my babies grow up. I love being here to help my children develop (and deliver them safely each day to school and beyond) but my thoughts also drift to what else I have to offer. When it comes time for me to focus on my professional self again, will I be ready? Since having kids I’ve gained and lost weight, lost and gained hair, and permanently misplaced some marbles. What will the state of my brain be when my kids are in school full time?

After my overblown explosion about the books, my three daughters and dear husband scrambled to replace each title on the shelves. I stood there, feeling utterly ridiculous that I cared this much but not quite ready to concede any ground. I could tell I was being appeased but not totally understood, which was ok, because I’m not sure I could have articulated my complicated feelings in that moment.

It’s not necessary, or even possible, for me to keep a checklist of daily progress as a stay-at-home parent. House clean: check. School fees paid: check. Children met expected developmental milestones today: check. Most days we’re lucky if we end the day without anyone (including me) shedding any tears.

But I do sometimes need some evidence of a productive day, outside of parenting, so I can foster that flicker of hope that I’m still a capable adult. While I’m busy preparing my kids for the outside world, it’s sometimes comforting, sometimes worrying to know that I will one day return to it, too.

Maybe we’ll never be ready. Maybe we will. But I guess the lesson is that if I’m here, home, now, I should make the most of it.

(Is that the lesson? Is it?? No really, I’m sincerely just guessing.)

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