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ferns with sun shining
October 4, 1990
Body paragraph

by Nancy Vazquez

Back when I was dating, there were a few boys, and later men, who were put off by the fact that I was brainy and ambitious. I had the feeling they weren't quite comfortable with a girl who made better grades than they did or a woman who didn't hesitate to voice her feminist views.

I wonder about those men now. I wonder what they would think if they could see me folding laundry with my sons as we wait for my breadwinner husband to come home for dinner in our typical suburban house. I wonder what they would say if they knew that I had become a brainy, ambitious, feminist housewife.

Certainly this isn’t a role I expected to choose, not the “job” I thought would dominate the resume of my life. Yet on another level, staying home with my children is probably the only major life choice I’ve made without any agonizing and second-guessing. It was almost a non-decision: I can’t remember even discussing it with my husband. Instead, it was a gut-level certainty, something I felt rather than knew. If I were going to have a child, then I needed to be there to raise that child. Simple.

That certainty was reinforced by my firstborn as we navigated the waters of his infancy. In a way, it was a self-perpetuating cycle. Because I stayed home with him, breastfed him and slept with him at my side every night, he grew increasingly, and understandably, dependent on my presence. That made him in those first months reluctant to accept a substitute caregiver, which made me even more reluctant to leave him. After a while, he seemed a partner in my choice to stay home, always ready to remind me of the rightness of our lifestyle when I was inclined to question it.

Because I did question it. Making the decision to be home with him was easy, but living with it often wasn’t. I wondered if I was cut out for motherhood, a role that seemed to demand so much that was foreign to me. As a writer and editor, I was used to verbalizing everything, assuming anything important could and should be put into words. Yet as the mother of a newborn, I was stuck in a netherworld of nonverbal communication, where everything was tactile rather than verbal, emotional rather than intellectual. A well-crafted paragraph is very little help in calming a crying baby.

And I hated trying to figure out what to call myself. That ambitious part of me—okay, that vain part of me -- couldn’t quite pronounce the word “housewife” without gagging ever so slightly. I felt I had tumbled down the social prestige scale to a place that seemed very unfamiliar. Growing up, I had never known a housewife I wanted to emulate, never envied a mother at home with her kids.

Yet despite my unease about my role, I never reached for the classified ads, even turning down a part-time offer that came my way. I never considered looking for a way out. Part of that was because of my son, of course. Mothering a baby is remarkable -- no matter how sleep-deprived you are. Each time my son would laugh as I dried him off after his bath or he’d nestle against my neck and breathe his deep, contented baby breaths it was like a deposit in my emotional bank account, guaranteeing I could continue.

I drew heavily from that account, as I struggled with the fatigue, the tedium and the isolation of my first months at home. Later, when my son was a little older, he had a Disney sing-along video and one of his favorite parts was when the Seven Dwarfs, working down in the mine, would sing “Dig, dig, dig, dig, dig, dig.” That’s how it was for me when I hit a rough patch, a place where I felt I was simply not fit for the job of being my son’s mother; I’d feel myself starting to dig, hunting around for some part of my character as yet untapped, hoping it would be enough. Of course, parents often speak of how raising children teaches them they have unexpected reserves of patience. But I felt myself digging down for all sorts of things at a level I hadn’t known before— patience, yes, but also creativity and selflessness and humor and hope and love. Being a mother fulfilled ambitions I never knew I had. These days, having been home with two children for more than seven years, I think that being home has given me more than it’s given them.

What has it given me? In a word, depth. Being home with my sons taxes me constantly. And that’s precisely its power: because it is hard. I think of all the other jobs I’ve had in life as giving me breadth, a wider scope. But only this commitment to my family has given my life depth.

The other day I came upon a poem by William Carlos Williams, a poem I’d learned back in my brainy, ambitious student days. It’s called “Spring and All” and it ends with these words:

. . . Still, the profound change
has come upon them: rooted, they
grip down and begin to awaken.

I’m not sure what I made of those words when I read them in college, but now they make me think about how, in raising children, it’s easy to focus on what happens on the surface, to be enthralled by the spectacle of the growing and ever-changing child. But just as miraculous is what happens to parents. It may be all below the surface, but putting down roots and reaching new depth is an equally inspiring transformation.

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copyright by Nancy Vazquez

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