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What About You?

An outline of a woman's face on the left, with intergalactic cloud formations and stars flowing from her head.
October 10, 1989
Body paragraph

by Nelia Odom

“I don’t know how you can stay at home all day!” exclaimed my new acquaintance, disconcerted by the news that I am a mother at home. “What about YOU? Don’t you want to do anything for yourself?”

It is not the first time I have encountered a question of this sort. I have been disconcerted myself by all of the negative things implied in the decision to forego, temporarily or entirely, a career in order to take up a life at home with children. My new acquaintance was not merely inquiring after my hobbies. Her question, asked without rancor, reflected the underlying ambivalence that many women today have come to feel toward the prospect of raising a family, an ambivalence rooted in a fearful misunderstanding of what goes on at home.

There is fear that being at home means literally that—being at home, all the time! There is the worry that in staying home a mother may fail to develop her abilities and may even negate her own inner life. There is the doubt that being a mother makes, in itself, any sort of real contribution. Time at home is time out.

How often do we hear of someone “taking time off” to have a baby or raise a family? No wonder women are getting the impression that time spent at home is time that really doesn’t count! No wonder I am so unnerved by my friend’s disturbing question, “What about YOU?”

What about me? I am certain there is not a mother alive today who has not asked herself that question. The greatest challenge of my past six years—and the greatest tension, too—has come from the struggle to give my two children everything I can while keeping something of myself alive at the same time. Like other mothers I know, I’ve been determined to keep some time set apart for myself, and I’ve used “my time” to pursue various goals and self‑improvement programs. I’ve taken up hobbies and volunteer work, exercise programs and diets, continuing education courses and periods of self-directed study. But I’m beginning to understand that even worthwhile and enjoyable activities such as these do not begin to make an honest reply to that disconcerting question: “What about YOU?”

I am finding that I simply can’t respond to that question with a litany of those accomplishments which are uniquely mine and which have nothing to do with my husband and children. I’m realizing that being at home, nurturing my children, creating the environment in which we live, being fully present in our home, IS what I do for myself. That is to say, the life of the home nurtures me, too, and helps shape me into the sort of person I’ve chosen to try to become. An old proverb says it best: She who waters others waters herself.

I’ve never been able to balance the equation that would enable me to proclaim that staying home is my “career.” Children are not production units, childrearing is not time on task, and my home is so much more than a work site. But motherhood is certainly a vocation, a calling.

Our children’s very presence in the world calls us, even in our sleep, even when we are away from them. Most new mothers recognize the degree of awareness formerly unknown to them. Even through the haze of utter fatigue is the light sleep that listens for the newborn’s cry, the knowing that the baby is wet but not hungry, or frightened but not ill. As children grow older and begin to suffer their share of childhood slights and injuries, we know whether it is their bodies or their spirits which is hurting more. We know not because of the books we have read or the classes we have taken, but because we are their mothers.

Motherhood is a calling, and what it gently calls forth from any mother who will answer is a depth of experience and a quiet maturity that more than equals anything acquired in the workplace. Raising children is not an evasion of the realities of the adult world; neither is it an indulgent exercise in ego gratification. But it can be a sure avenue for personal growth and development, a spiritual discipline of a unique kind.

Motherhood is unique as a spiritual discipline because its practice requires neither ascetic withdrawal nor contemplative silence nor the acquisition of esoteric knowledge. You cannot mother from afar, only from the very center of daily life. It is the little choices that I make every day as I practice my mothering, to be harsh or kind, giving or withholding, critical or affirming, which shape me and define me more clearly than any degree program or professional affiliation.

Mothering children calls forth a degree of selflessness and an ability to empathize that is hard to imagine coming by in any other way. Every mother knows that there are times when she has to put her own activities aside temporarily and attend to the needs of her child. When I was brand‑new at being a mother there were times when I found it almost unbearably irritating to have to do this. I found it unbelievable that my day could be interrupted so many times and in so many ways by such a small child! It was only through being at home, by having to practice deferring to another out of love on a daily basis, that I have come to be less afraid of giving and more assured that when we act in love there really is, eventually, enough: enough energy, enough strength, enough time to go around.

Raising children calls forth creative energy we may not have suspected we had. It seems natural and good that a mother (who, after all, was for nine months an active agent in the very creation of her child), should be involved in the creation of his environment as well and in the shaping of his days. The hardest task that many new mothers face is that of bringing shape and meaning to their day. At home there is no pattern, no schedule, no goal, until you make one. When my first child was an infant I had days when I was virtually paralyzed with indecision. What should we do today? Should we go somewhere or stay at home? Or invite someone over? What should we have for lunch? Should I try to finish all of the laundry today or attend to something else? What difference did it make? Having to constantly face such lackluster yet pressing details is one reason women today cringe at the thought of long days at home. But I found that by working through this initial period of uncertainty, I eventually found a new confidence and a renewed enthusiasm for the special freedoms being at home offers.

Despite the media image of household drudgery, years spent at home are years of relative freedom. When I worked, I did not have the freedom to keep daily company with friends of my own choosing. I did not have the freedom to set my own pace or, usually, to develop my own methods of doing things. I did not have the free use of my own time as I have it now. Every year that I am home I find more exciting ways to use that time creatively, both for my own satisfaction and for the benefit of my household.

Although being a mother requires me to focus on the lives around me, I also am kept painfully aware of my own shortcomings: my lack of patience, my sharp tongue, my sheer ignorance. Observing my interactions with my children has shown me things about myself that even my best friend wouldn’t tell me. As one of my friends remarked, “l didn’t even know I HAD a temper until Jack was born!” As for me, I didn’t know how overbearing I could sound until I heard my daughter repeating my words in my tone of voice to her younger brother. But now that I do know, I can begin to change.

I don’t think I exaggerate this point: in giving ourselves over for a time to the mothering of children, we allow ourselves to be changed in positive and definitive ways. Yes, of course there are other ways to pursue fulfillment and personal growth. Yet for the mother who will accept it, being at home to raise children offers a singular chance to achieve depth and complexity during what is, in our time, a relatively brief period of life. The daily life of the home offers opportunities to teach, create, reflect, encourage, love, grow. Every day brings a new exercise in self-control, concern for others, maintaining a vision for the future. We work to teach these things to our children, but they teach them to us, too. In the end, what more could we do for ourselves than to take full advantage of this special time?

Being at home certainly will change you, but it need not diminish you. It is as much about receiving as it is about giving, and the self you find at home may be a gift that cannot be purchased with the remunerations of the workplace. So I have to reply to those who are concerned for my well-being at home that what I am doing now—for myself— is raising a family.

What about you?

© by Nelia Odom

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