By a Thread

by - January 16, 2019

Nearly weekly I'm hearing of mother-friends in a similar season of life, with kids in elementary school or slated towards middle, heading back to their careers or starting off in new vocations. They are doing what is called "going back to work". It must be relieving for them to no longer have to answer the question that everyone is thinking and some explicitly ask, "So what will you do now that the kids are in school?" I've witnessed this migration for a few years. Some friends blossom a hobby or side-gig into a successful small business, some increase their hours in a part-time job, and some head back to school to dive into new careers. This movement has the regularity and a predictability of the ocean tide, where the waves come up high, linger for awhile before rushing back out to the deep. If you are the wave that lingers too long, you risk being the wave that sinks down into oblivion in meters of thick sand while the rest of the tide is back to churning the ocean floor.

Several years ago, I found myself longing for a third baby out of a not-so-veiled desire to prolong the season of life, when staying home was a clear sacrifice and justifiable choice as babies have constant demands that either require a full-time parent or part-time hired help. I could see clearly through my intentions and the incorrect belief that I only mattered in as much as I was filling the role of birthing and bathing and patting little booties. I could see my fear of the unknown. As my youngest headed off to kindergarten, I gave myself permission to sit still for the year and not rush to fill the void of those six hours of silence and solitude each day they were in school. That year has become four years of not-so-still solitude as I've been volunteering at school and staying busy with teaching part time, gardening, pottery, chickens, and running errands for the house and family.

However, with those unscripted years has come the anxiety that I'm being left behind, that I am the wave that stayed to long and watched her potential vanish on the shore. Left behind from what forward movement, I can't exactly say. As it is, there is nowhere I particularly long to go. When it comes to goals and aspirations, whenever I have really wanted something, I've been able to accomplish that thing with hard work and determination. In sixth grade I was terrible at softball, but I wanted to pitch. Why? I suspect there was a measure of vanity. I liked that it meant that I would get to play and touch the ball constantly rather than being relegated to the outfield. I was not quick or skilled enough to man a base. It's probably the same reason I loved playing catcher as well. I didn't mind squatting, and I loved trash-talking the batter in the style of Porter from The Sandlot, and I loved that every play involved me. In sixth grade, anyone could play catcher. We were just verging on fast pitch, but in our rec league, the ball was never pitched too fast, and throwing the ball back to the pitcher didn't require too much strength or accuracy. However, pitching would require fastidious practice. It required precision. I couldn't do the pinwheel fast pitch, but I could slow pitch across the plate, and after hours and hours of slow pitching to my dad in the front yard, I got to pitch a game for an inning. I even caught a drive straight at my face out of pure reflex. And once I had pitched that game, I was good, I was done. Check mark the box.

There were other goals. I remember knowing in fifth grade that I would get a PhD. I didn't have a clue in what, but I figured that with my intellect, it was a goal I should have and could accomplish. I knew I wanted to be married by 24 and soon start a family. Beyond that, I didn't really have a plan.  By the age of 27, I had checked off the big boxes. I finished grad school. My accomplishment and intellect were further validated by the offer of a teaching job after two failed applications to tenure track positions. The first kid was born, and then another, and then all time stood still. I kept pace in teaching, maintained the hobbies, and my life's ambition became to get a good night's sleep and  keep those boys alive and thriving. It sounds honorable, but goals for your kids aren't yours to keep, not forever. Just as time with our kids is sand in a sieve, so are our goals for them. At some point our goal for them is that they have goals for themselves. They need to run on their own passions and drive, not on our fumes. 

I find myself in late thirties not having a goal for myself, not one that I can list out steps towards achievement, not one that I can measure and check off a box for. It's exceedingly discombobulating as I've started waking from young parenthood and the motion picture reel that seemed to pause when the boys were little is moving in fast-forward to catch up to current time. It feels like we are only moments from blast-off (we've been watching Lost In Space as a family so blasting off feels relevant). The confusion I feel is on multiple levels. I am concerned that professionally I have not realized my earning capacity or climbed the ladder in a way I should have, that would have helped more with household expenses and investing in the future security. I am concerned that I do not even have the desire to climb that ladder. It's as though I'm mutually disappointed that I haven't accomplished a goal that wasn't mine to begin with (or if it was mine, it was only turned and smoothed like a stone in my palm for a season) and am disappointed that I don't have any alternate goals to relieve me of my duty to that first one. The typical career path is a goal I have envied in others, it is a goal that I probably could have fought to achieve, but ultimately it is a goal that I chose to veer from. I veered not entirely in another direction, but just far enough from that I didn't experience pain of labor towards it or the the fruits of achievement, but could see it out the corner of my eye. 

This is the journey so many of us stay-at-home parents take and which so many of us who were sold the college to career to successful adult map. We flirt just outside the path we feel we should be on, just close enough to torture ourselves with shoulda coulda woulda, and forever hanging to a rope that year by year is slowly unwinding and snapping thread by thread. We pin our identity to the idea that if we had the will, we could accomplish that very thing which we aren't sure we still want or ever truly wanted. We know we could have been great, so we are great. We could have climbed that ladder, so we are high. Until we realize we are in fact not great and not high. The ground below is full of mystery, guarantees no soft landing, but it thrills our senses. Do we reach up a hand to see what it's really like up on the ledge and silence that call from below, or do we answer the wildness of the rivers and trees? In this season of dangling, I momentarily close my eyes. There is a wind blowing that I have clenched every fiber of my being against, white-knuckling to that rope, slowing twisting in indecision, letting envy and improper self-understanding paralyze not only my movement but the very breath in my lungs. In this clutching, I prevent my soul from breathing in new life.

I know I'm not alone in this feeling. Just today I spoke to a mom who left a six figure career to stay home and raise kids and is now teaching kids in public school. I have another friend who was rocking corporate before kids and is now rocking something that was just a shared love with her mother and grandmother. I so admire these women and their fearlessness. I love how they cut lose to find a new path. Meanwhile, I know I am not meant to live a life climbing ladders, sliding down chutes, wondering if I will cross the finish line with something to be proud of. I love achieving, but it is not what stokes my fires. For the entirety of my life, making, creating, writing, dreaming, exploring, learning, sponging up knowledge and sharing that with others is at the core of who I am. For me to be who I am requires the stillness and solitude that I've carved out in my home, experimenting in the garden, making pottery, pouring out thoughts on this blog even. I often restrain myself from writing what's there in my heart because it might just be too honest or vulnerable. It's not very professional. It's debasing. But one thing I've learned over the past year is that my life does not feel worth living if I can't be raw and vulnerable. If I can't connect on a deeper level with the people in my life, I am desperately lonely and feel utterly purposeless. I remember being told I just needed to sell myself and play the game, but that is against the very fabric of my nature. This girl ain't for sale. I am not even comfortable selling my pottery! Seriously, it makes me blush.

So what if what we need goes against the grain of what we've always thought we should do? There is freedom to take the elements we love and release those we don't, use the gifts we've been given and build into other people without having to reach the ledges or climb the series of ladders we've falsely believed were ours to climb. One of my favorite versus in scripture is John 3:8, "The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit". The truth is, no one can give us permission to let go, but if we long to be blown by the wind, we can't cling to fear. It's impossible to reinvent ourselves if we are still conforming our minds to an ideal of who we should have been. No one can pry our fingers from whatever we have them wrapped them around. It has to be our decision to evaluate when to climb and when to drop -- when to reform and when to demolish.

I make a lot of bowls at the potter's wheel, and sometimes I fuss with something until it's what I had in mind, force it to conform to the form in my head, but during the process, the piece has gone through changes and failures that will most certainly be pronounced after firing and alter the shape from what I intended. I'm learning to either start over or allow the piece to take on a new form. Ultimately, what is needed is a little imagination. Talking to a friend tonight, it hit me that often my own fear is just a lack of imagination. Eventually those waves that linger too long do make it back out to the ocean. Their path may take a little longer, but they do arrive.

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