To be honest I didn’t even think of it until I found out I was pregnant.
I’d just enrolled in a doctoral program that only half felt right. It guaranteed no great career, but I couldn’t resist the promise of an ever-higher education. Everyone’s greedy for something.
But then it dawned on me: At the age of 31, I was endeavoring to raise a child after decades without being around any. I had literally no idea what I was doing. I may as well have decided to breed peacocks for a living.
Sure I’d nannied here and there, and yes, books offered some comfort. But unlike earning a degree, this, the most consequential undertaking of my life, demanded much more than my mind. Parenthood insists we learn by doing. It demands we incorporate our bodies.
I’m far from the only mom I know who’s struggled to get on this wavelength. Across every state and ethnicity, American women are waiting longer to have babies. In some ways the sabbatical between our own childhood and our kids’ prepares us for parenting – that’s the ideal, anyway. Take time to work on your own issues! Indulge and let go of pipe dreams! Dally down a few romantic dead ends! If possible, get a formal education and try to save some money.
But somewhere along the line, the cosmic terrain of childhood comes to feel so far away. I had forgotten how real that world truly is. Like, really real. As real as the snails in the dirt that I’m too tall to see.
My daughter, now three, has goals that are at least as important as mine. She requires attention, affection, and alone time just like I do. She longs for the comfort of structure yet needs space for spontaneity just as much as I do. So why is it so tempting to colonize her consciousness with the anthems of my own?
Because a very troubling thing happens when adults and children are sifted apart by the artificial schedule of industry. Adults, under constant pressure to “work” get this silly notion that work is the most important thing in the world. And since that is our domain, we figure the whole world must be as well! Children merely live within it, right? Not as full humans, but premature adults – untrained little workers good for cuteness, comic relief, and future productivity.
Their destiny, we assume, is to do what we do, but better. They’re here to replace us, and we’re here to show them how.
But saddled with that imaginary burden of passing down all knowledge, adults miss out on a great wealth of understanding that could, if only we’d notice, actually get passed up.
Luckily I couldn’t maintain this arrogance for long. See, I was blessed with a very “spirited” child, who scoffs at all I read about raising her. By nine months old, she’d scrambled my brain smoother than her green bean purée. One day while reading Victor Hugo and pumping milk on the train to class, I got a text from the babysitter saying she could no longer bear the screaming. Distraught, desperate, I spilled the milk and cried.
Women can and do raise babies while writing dissertations, I knew this. I’d girl-crushed plenty of my professors who seemed to have it all. They inspired me to plan a lovely life with reasonable timelines and worthy goals. Nonetheless in my body, at the level where I actually feel the surroundings in which I put myself, suddenly all my logic made no sense. I could no longer talk over the protests of my actual sensory experience. Something had to change.
I’ve never been comfortable discussing this time. Reflecting on motherhood can feel so self-indulgent; it often resembles complaining, bragging, and excuse-making all at once. I felt guilty for struggling with a choice I knew to be a direct offshoot of privilege and good fortune. But this made the jolt into a new phase of life no less harsh or lonely.
Ultimately, withdrawing from school and thus my career wasn’t so much a decision as an admission: things change. I could deal with that, but grieving on the go took its toll. I barely got to say goodbye to the person I always thought I’d be. There was no time to soothe the ache where school had leant a sense of purpose for so long.
How do I introduce myself now? Who am I when I’m not passing tests? What if I can’t be happy as a stay-at-home mom? These questions led me to accept another truth: I need to always be learning – and that’s OK, but it’s time to enroll in a new curriculum, one where student and teacher overlap.
Because kids have their own embodied intelligence that can inform and enrich the mental kind. It’s not good for everything, like choosing bedtimes and dinner menus – some decisions are still up to me – but I’ve come to think of parenting less as raising my daughter and more as meeting her some place in the middle where we’re both always learning.
This is my purpose now, to pursue a degree of learning that doesn’t go higher so much as deeper. While I once feared being a “bad feminist” for not leaning in, I now proudly explore a feminism that dares to branch out – into terrain where my body’s wishes matter, where children aren’t secondary citizens but brilliant collaborators, and where the value of my daily effort is felt rather than scored. I am, I guess you could say, a stay-in-school mom.