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Exploring Ambivalence

Lu Hanessian
Englewood NJ USA
From: NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 20 No. 2, March-April 2003, p. 44

I am sitting cross-legged in a hut in a dank village on a wet and humid afternoon with 12 Fijian tribesmen and their chief.

In the corner, a television camera is taping a travel show of which I am the host. I'm in my late 20s, married, living life on the fly, spending so much time on airplanes that I once reached for my seatbelt in a movie theatre. I eye the small bowl of kava that is being sipped and passed around the circle toward me, and, in spite of my demure smile, think, "No way am I drinking that stuff."

My turn. All eyes are on me as I bring the rim to my lips and pretend to take a swig. Big chief is no fool. He lets out a deep grunt of disapproval that hangs in the air like a thundercloud. I have apparently insulted him, his village, his people, his ancestors, and generations of tradition.

Fast-forward a decade later. I am standing naked in the closet looking for a t-shirt and jeans. My old favorite suit catches my eye. Taupe. Silver matte buttons. Tailored just so at the waist. Here it hangs, dust on the collar from lack of use, looking back at me broodingly, admonishing me, calling my ambivalence up from the bottom of the well.

"I'm coming," I call out liltingly to the two small people in the next room requiring diluted apple juice, toast with the edges cut off, a drum set made out of couch pillows, my attention, a few minutes in my lap, at my breast, in my arms.

It's not even noon yet and a war is being waged within me. It's the same battle outside me-the emotionally charged fray between working mothers and stay-at-home mothers-both camps crouched in foxholes behind enemy lines.

We judge each other harshly. And yet it is the rare mother-at home or at the office-who doesn't secretly wonder if what she has chosen is wrong, messing with her children's self-esteem, or devastating her own chances to live up to her fullest potential. We judge ourselves as fiercely as we judge each other. Do we condemn each other's choices because we question our own?

"I could never stay home," admits my friend, Julie. "I'd go crazy all day!" The hot lava of indignation rises to my cheeks. What does she think I do all day? Make Play-Doh sandwiches? We are in a covert struggle for recognition and validation in a culture where one's identity is measured in dollars, not sense.

Julie has meetings booked from breakfast to dusk. "Mommy, I want to be your meeting," her son, Gavin, says into the telephone receiver after dinner.

She thinks I've squandered my talents, wasted the best years of my life driving my children to music lessons, changing diapers, nursing on demand, answering their needs at the expense of my own. We terrify each other.

She hates to wonder about how much better off my children might be down the road because of my choice to stay home. I am loathe to think of how much better off she might be right now, let alone down the road, because of her decision to carve a piece of the pie for herself.

When mothers squabble over who makes the right choice, we are really defending our own lives and egos. We want to feel right. We want to feel in control. We want to feel competent. But the re-definition of oneself required after motherhood, especially when you've chosen to remain with your children, can be a challenge.

Working mothers often talk about their growth and self-fulfillment as if these were brass rings the stay-at-home mother could not possibly grasp. And stay-at-home mothers tend to perceive working moms as people who don't care about their children quite as much as the women who devote all of their time and attention to them.

"Well, I couldn't do it," my husband said this morning at breakfast, swigging his coffee. He is referring to being "home" with two children under the age of four. And I remember when I didn't think I could either. Just yesterday afternoon, for example.

I told him that when I find myself pushed past my point of no return- that individual, purely subjective point where my spirit feels broken and I cannot tolerate myself or my child in an utterly heart-wrenching way that I could never have imagined when I was pregnant-I must, nonetheless, be a responsible, compassionate, effective, loving parent. This requires me to dig deep into my well and pull myself back from the edge to a safe place where the smallest successful moment of mothering feels like a worldly triumph.

Mothering is hard, hard work. Staying home to raise children is a kind of surrender that can feel strangely and simultaneously forsaking and freeing. There's melancholy and loneliness at the heart of such a commitment of time, energy, and breath. It is the pain of giving one's self over to love for the ultimate purpose of letting go.

Mothers make choices and yet we can't seem to surrender to either the workplace or home in peace. We yearn to "have it all" without stopping to question what that actually means. We are conflicted about staying home versus working, because, honestly, we don't feel as vital as we think we might on the other side of the fence. In the eyes of the world. In the eyes of our children.

I think most of us harbor an unconscious need to long for something else-whether we are at home or in the workplace. There is a sense of missing something-ourselves perhaps-in the binding and bonding love between a mother and child. For some, that bonding can occasionally feel like bondage. For others, the very act of loving and nurturing children is the tallest of accomplishments, a fulfillment that knows no parallel.

The heart of our desire to escape the rigors and relentlessness of our routines beats in so many of us, in spite of our unwavering devotion to our children. It's a pulsing narrative that clangs like an internal gong on some days and not on others.

I admit I have gotten caught up in the momentum of mothering, at times accepting my running more than my resting state, as if the chaos becomes who I am. I catch myself thinking around the blur, viewing life through my high velocity filter. Does the speed gratify, even thrill me, while I grieve my lost serenity? Do I race through life in some unconscious effort to convince others and myself that I am an important, valuable contributor to society? And to whom am I trying to prove my worth?

The phone rings. My old television agent has news of an offer. The possibility to host a PBS television special on the Far East. Two weeks away in China. Twelve thousand miles away from my three-year-old, who is recently traumatized by the sun going away for the night, and my 10-month-old, who is currently nursing with great conviction. "I'd do it!" squealed my friend, Alison. But I can't. She looks at me as though I have just won the lottery and ripped up the ticket. But to me, it isn't about the job, the career, or the paycheck. It's about whether or not I can live well with my choices.

My neighbor, Alana, begrudgingly went back to work as an occupational therapist and put her six-month-old son in day care. Every time I passed her on the street, her face looked more and more drawn, her shoulders slumped, her demeanor full of melancholy.

My friend, Kim, never looked back when she decided to go back to work six weeks after her daughter was born. A neighbor agreed to care for Julia while she pursued a successful career as a television anchor. Seven years later, both are thriving. Who is to say how differently each of them would have fared had she stayed home?

Truth is, I'd make a lousy working mother outside my home. I'd be miserable beyond all reckoning. I would resent anyone in the office who required my presence on days when my children were feverish, squeamish, cranky, sad, frustrated, confused, worried, or joyful. I would feel oppressed by a work agenda that put my kids last. I would sabotage my position, enrage my boss, and get the flu a lot.

Ambivalence, I have come to believe, is not such a bad word. It's good for us to conduct a full investigation of our mixed emotions at every crossroads. My ambivalence has nothing to do with how much I love my children. It's not that I wish for another life or even regret the path taken, but rather that I am coming to understand the staggering complexity of my family's needs. This is much deeper than a mere choice between home or the workplace.

Some people may perceive staying home as mentally unstimulating. But I find that I think more now than I ever did in an office where the task was finite, the assignment limited to deadlines, and the outcome quantified. A project ends, and its results are measured in ratings, in consumers, in dollars.

The work of raising children has no such parameters. My anxieties and stresses are not about getting my child to music class on time or protecting him from traffic or making well-balanced meals. My energies are invested in staying tuned into my children's kaleidoscope of emotions, understanding their changing motivations, decoding preschooler behavior, re-evaluating my disciplinary strategies. What works? What was that meltdown really about?

Are his angry outbursts about misbehavior or his fears of separating? His grief about sharing me with a new baby brother? How do I deal with his momentary contempt without showing him mine?

Unlike my feigned sampling of one fetid brew in Fiji a decade ago, I know in my heart that I cannot fake good mothering. I cannot pretend to be in the moment, pretend to be paying attention, pretend I am interested, because my three-year-old would call me on it. I couldn't look him in the eye and pretend I didn't know he was right.

Children have a way of reminding you of who you are, even the parts you'd rather avoid. I've come to realize this is part of the hard "work" of stay-at-home mothering. Being with my children all day is infinitely more challenging work than anything I ever got paid for. I never felt loved at the office. I never questioned my identity when I had a title and a paycheck. I never apologized and truly meant it.

"Staying home" doesn't produce well-adjusted children. Staying in the moment does. Sure, I have choices. I could be a working mother or a mother working. Either way, I must question myself: Am I satisfied with where and who I am or do I wish I was somewhere or someone else? Our children know the difference.

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