My last post was a story I couldn’t tell until after my parents were gone—about how my father told me to get a “nice part-time job” when I complained of the difficulty of managing both a full-time job and two small kids. The other half of the story is what my mother said.
My mother in the “I don’t know how you do it” era
As I’ve written before, my mother was a stay-at-home mom all the years I was growing up. Her years as a school librarian didn’t begin until I was long gone from my parents’ house, although my younger brother and sister were still at home when she worked. At my father’s insistence, my mother never got paid for her librarian work in the Catholic school where my siblings went to school, which clearly cemented her job as secondary in our family.
In contrast to my mother, I worked 50+ hours/week in the corporate world throughout the years my kids were at home. I got paid well, but it was a demanding role. My husband’s job took an equal amount of time. He was also an officer in the Naval Reserves until 2001, which took many of his evening and weekend hours.
A Cub Scout float
Somehow, my husband and I also fit in all our kids’ activities, such as school programs, basketball and volleyball, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, piano lessons, swimming lessons, and the odd assortment of birthday parties. We made costumes and floats, and attended science fairs and school plays and ball games. One year it was T-ball, and a later year we had football.
Dyeing Easter eggs
We celebrated and decorated for holidays, though never to my daughter’s satisfaction. We read out loud to our children most evenings until well after they could read themselves.
A mask for some activity
I had a rule that each child could only participate in one sport per season, but that was about the only limitation I imposed. (My daughter still blames me for not letting her play soccer in addition to basketball. Who knows? Maybe she would have played in the World Cup this year.)
We didn’t have more or less on our plates than other couples we knew, but it was still a frantic time.
My mother’s reaction to hearing about my life when my kids were little was to say “I don’t know how you do it.” Every time we talked, as I described what my family was doing, which kid was going where, and what my husband and I had on our work and home schedules for the week ahead, she would say, “I don’t know how you do it.”
Reading to my son
As I said in the earlier post, a lot of what kept me going was stubbornness. That, and just doing what came next—whatever was most pressing at the moment—whether it be writing a legal brief or getting a kid to basketball practice. There wasn’t a whole lot of thought that went into how I did it. I was too busy doing it.
But I still wanted to whine. Particularly to my mother.
Reading to my daughter
We all want someone who acknowledges how hard life is. Isn’t that what mothers are for, even when we’re grown? I thought it was. I wanted someone who had raised kids already to listen to me complain. Someone who would pat me on the head for doing such a good job under very trying circumstances. Someone who thought it was all right to cry about it once in a while.
When my mother told me, as she seemed to every week, “I don’t know how you do it,” she cut off my whining.
What I wanted to tell her was “I’m not doing it well at all. One kid went to school sick on Thursday, and the other forgot to do homework. Nobody is getting to bed on time, and I’m late turning in a position statement that was due last week.”
But if I said that, what could she do about it? She didn’t want to hear that I was having a tough time raising her grandchildren and that there were days when I didn’t think I was handling my job very well either.
So her comment cut off my truthfulness—that working in a professional job while raising kids is really difficult, that there is never time to do anything as completely as you want, and that most of the time is spent worrying about the next task rather than enjoying life in the moment. I could never tell her the truth, and had to make light of my challenges.
The problems I faced are probably true of every life. Most of us are never satisfied with how we are doing. We strive for more, to have more time both for leisure and for work, to wring every iota of productivity and pleasure out of every minute. And we never succeed.
We don’t know how we do what we do, let alone know how to do more.
So now, when my children come to me whining about their lives or seeking advice on how to handle work or social or other issues, the two things I never say are (1) go get a nice part-time job, and (2) I don’t know how you do it.
Because they won’t settle for a nice part-time job. And I know how they do it. They do it the same way I did—they grit their teeth and do the next thing. Moment by moment. They don’t always do it right, but they do the best they can. That’s how I raised them.
When have you felt cut off in your ability to discuss a problem you had with someone you trusted?