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February 21, 2013

I am having one of my periodic bouts of self-doubt about my place in the world. (Show me the person who doesn’t.) This one was prompted by the classic mistake of reading the online profile of an old friend, who is outstandingly successful in every one of his several fields. I know he’s not exaggerating, either – sigh – because there is a media trail to prove his claims.

Pleasure on his behalf was quickly followed by a wave of critical introspection. I’ll spare you the running dialogue in my head, which became tedious even to me. The gist of it is to question the worth of a woman, for whom all the initial advantages provided by hard-working and loving parents have been compounded by marrying into a privileged position in society, choosing to become a non-earner at home with her arms in the sink or the washing machine.

This is a question older than feminism. The pros and cons of being a full-time wife and mother swirled around my head while I compared myself to those who manage to be simultaneously successful parents, volunteers, entrepreneurs and money-earners. At last I gave into the temptation to ask my younger son for his opinion. He is on half-term this week, and has been sitting at the kitchen table drawing and chatting while I stacked the dishwasher and washed the cutlery at the sink.

‘Do you think it would be better if I went out to work?’ I asked. ‘I could earn some money for us all.’

‘No!’ came the decisive answer. ‘I like you being here all the time. I need you here for cuddles!’

Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he, you might drily think. Yes, he would. And he did. And for now, I realise, that is enough for me.Image


You might enjoy some other takes on this topic in Instant Sunshine and Falling down a wormhole in the kitchen: music as time-travel,

while there is a longer article on the subject in You know that dreaded question at parties? I have an answer…

39 Comments leave one →
  1. February 21, 2013 1:57 pm

    To be wanted as yourself by your children must be brilliant. I have no children and have never had a normal working life (due to health reasons), so I’ve never experienced either and I used to constantly compare myself to other people who did have children and who did have normal working lives. But d’you know what? It does no good at all – we are who we are. At base, we’re all similar human beings, regardless of how we were brought up, whether there was money or not, regardless of where fortune has placed us in the present and will place us in the future. And on top of that, we’re the sum of our inner selves and the people we’ve brought into this world and those who brought us here and surround us: our loved ones.

    I have a theory that the ultra-successful people actually have a disadvantage – they tend to work to formulas and leave behind individual creativity. They have a single focus and if that is removed, they flounder or they move on to something else that is formulaic. Isn’t it better to have what we have and know that at least we’re appreciated for the many different areas we’re good in?

    • February 21, 2013 2:17 pm

      Yes. Yes it is. It’s good to hear you confirming the more sensible voice in my head with your own wisdom, acceptance and compassion. I know that I am extraordinarily blessed, and most of all in my children. But creativity comes in countless ways, thank heavens, as the many voices of the blogosphere show us. And we all share the experience of learning to reconcile the person we once were with the version we have become, as your own most recent post shows! I hope your weeks ‘off’ will be healthy for you. 🙂

  2. February 21, 2013 5:22 pm

    I think many moms at home with children have had exactly the same thoughts you have had. It is hard to be home because there is no measuring stick for success, no wage increases, no promotions….well unless getting to fold more laundry is a promotion (LOL!). My husband and I joke that we are radicals because we are more traditional as I am at home with the children and we have more children than most. I guess the real question is “what is success?”; is success only what the media and consumerism dictate or is it what makes us happy….of course this is coming from someone who is about to paint fish on driftwood (LOL!).

    • February 21, 2013 11:08 pm

      I LOVE the idea of painting fish on driftwood! 🙂 Great idea.
      I suppose that we are also ‘radically traditional’ in our marriage, though you beat us on the children tally: I always knew that three would be my coping limit, and in the end we have been blessed with two. It’s good to remind ourselves (myself?) that there are so many lives which do not fit the mainstream but which are happy and fulfilled. Perhaps my problem is only that I have come from a very mainstream background, so accepting less conventional criteria for success still feels difficult. There was no way, for example, as a post-grad student, that I could have admitted my secret ambition: to be happily married! Yes, the lack of yardsticks in home life can leave you bewildered after getting used to them in paid employment. On the other hand, doesn’t a hug or a drawing from one of your children make it all worth while? 🙂

      • February 22, 2013 2:27 am

        The painted fish on driftwood are to hang off our fence at our island house,I wanted something a bit funky since the island is a bit artsy.

        I also wanted to share something with you that happened yesterday as it kind of fits the theme of how our lives follow different paths than what we originally plan. Last night I was writing up my artist CV. Let’s just say the “art” portion of my life has been on hold between running a home-based business and running around after children. Well an opportunity for a submission came up, and I had a piece that fit the exhibition’s theme, but I still needed to do a bio, CV and artist statement. Believe it or not, my life has detoured so much from the “art years” that I actually had to Google myself to fill in the exhibition information. My children didn’t even know there were “art years”. I am still laughing about having to Google myself…but it got the job done. I hope this gave you a giggle!

  3. Toffeeapple permalink
    February 21, 2013 6:16 pm

    I never wanted to go to work after I became a mother so I stayed at home and led a rich life which the whole family shared in. Mum’s are supposed to be at home, I feel.

    • February 21, 2013 11:16 pm

      Aha, another radical traditionalist! (See Deb’s comment above.) I too always knew that I would want to bring up my children myself, if possible.

  4. Nancy Lemke permalink
    February 21, 2013 6:22 pm

    You also reach who knows how many other people with your kind and honest voice, sharing bits of your life, adding to the network that connects us. And that is a very valuable contribution to this fractured world.

    • February 21, 2013 11:18 pm

      What a very touching and thought-provoking comment, Nancy. Thank you so much.

      • Myst permalink
        February 25, 2013 2:19 pm

        On that note, you have been unknowing companion for a very long time, and posts like this make my day, as I feel I’m connected with real people with real concerns and self-doubt – just like myself. For that, you have all my grateful heart!

  5. February 21, 2013 8:29 pm

    We all have to take decisions through life, sometimes they are forced on us (can’t afford to live if we don’t both go out to work), sometimes it’s less obvious (if I stay at home with the baby/child/children then we can’t have holidays or very many new clothes or visits to fun places, and what happens if the car breaks down?) but I think a lot of us, certainly me, would be very happy to be able to stay at home and look after the children as a priority, and hopefully do other useful things as well. And obviously having the father as the stay-at-home parent is the alternative option.

    I came into the second group; my husband earned much more than me, and I tried to contribute by saving before the children, planning food obsessively and selling our house without using an estate agent! Things were tight, and we’re not as well off now as we might have been, but it all seems worthwhile.

    You have to have your priorities. I think raising the children comes first, whichever parent is the one on hand. After that the main thing is keeping yourself mentally and physically fit as far as possible in order to do that and to get as much out of life as you can. Also, although it seems an unending prospect when your children are small, there will be many years after they are independent for you to do your own thing. If someone wishes to have a high-power executive position in a company this attitude is obviously unlikely to work, but if you are in a position to chose voluntary work, or in your case there would seem to be historical research with possibly literary and photographical possibilities to pursue, then the years after child rearing can be full of possibilities!

    I’ve just retired, and the media attitude seems to be that I should be working for another ten years or so (though that would be taking jobs away from younger people!) so I’m feeling guilty too.

    So, think you’re doing a grand job!

    • February 21, 2013 11:25 pm

      Barbara, thank you very much for your wise words. We all seem to manage to feel guilty about something; it must be part of the human condition!

      Honestly, though, don’t think I am complaining about being at home raising children. It’s my choice, and I think it’s an important – the most important – thing I could be doing. I guess it’s just that sometimes I can’t help wondering what others make of my choices. So I am really enjoying hearing the wry, independent, sane voices of you and other commentators. Thanks for taking the time to write.

  6. February 21, 2013 9:21 pm

    DB, we all make our own contribution in the circumstances in which we find ourselves and you are blessed that your contribution is so valued by those who matter most. Making a stable and happy home for your husband and children and supporting them in their lives is real and important work even though it doesn’t leave a media trail. Few of us are as high-profile as your old friend, but that doesn’t make us any less valuable and unique.

  7. boyd hussey, (Douglas Ontario Canada) permalink
    February 22, 2013 2:49 am

    “Mistakes? I’ve made a few…” So goes the song. I think we like the song because it is so affirming not because of what appears to be its bravado but because we did what we chose to do and did it as well as we possibly could for whatever that means. You didn’t choose to be miserable but rather loving and caring. You didn’t choose to push your way to the front of the line but rather watched and applied what you saw through your introspection filter. I for one am very glad you have been doing what you do as i am sure your family is too. Your friend is hopefully doing the same in his way. Boyd

  8. February 22, 2013 8:22 am

    15 or 20 years ago, I was thinking the same as you: the girls were toddlers, I had given up a good job, we’d moved to rural Wales, my life had changed beyond recognition. I had exactly the same self-doubts and self-criticism. But now, I have a wonderful relationship with the girls; they know me (and I them) so much better than if I’d carried on with my job and found a childminder; and they have grown into confident, kind, honest, caring people. Sometimes I look back and think, “Where would I have been, now?” – and of course you only see what you’d like to see, and you don’t remember the parts of your job that used to drive you mad. I used to receive lovely little drawings like those in your photo – still have some of them, in fact – they tell you all you need to know!

    • February 25, 2013 11:23 am

      The drawings are pearls beyond price, aren’t they. You share such a wealth of ideas and creativity on your blogs; it is very heartening to know that you recognise this state that I am in and that you have built something wonderful out of it.

      The rewards of a career are many, but they seem very hollow next to the reward of a good relationship with our children. I know that I will never regret having this time with them when they are small, building them a solid foundation of love and pride and self-worth. Already my elder son is growing away from me, but my prayer is that these foundations will stand him in good stead.

      • February 25, 2013 12:52 pm

        I’m very sure of it – and he will only grow away from you in the sense that you’ve given him such strong roots.

  9. February 22, 2013 2:04 pm

    Dear DB – another thoughtful and thought-provoking post. I think we all try to do the best that we can in the circumstances in which we find ourselves – and those circumstances are sometimes beyond our control. Sometimes, we have to make hard and uncomfortable decisions but we hope that we are doing them for the right reasons. I don’t think that the terminology is particularly helpful, especially the phrase ‘full-time mother’. Every mother I know, and I include myself, thinks of herself as a full-time mother; one doesn’t stop being a mother when one crosses the workplace threshold . . . nor when one’s children are fully-fledged adults and have long since flown the nest.

    I would love to have been able to spend more time at home as a mother; my personal circumstances dictated otherwise. I had to work to support my family; the alternative was unthinkable. However, I agonised over whether being a mother who worked outside the home as well as within it somehow made me less of a mother. I remember discussing this with my daughter when she was in her teens and she simply gave me a very old-fashioned look and told me not to be so silly. (Yes, our children tell us all we need to know!)

    And now that teenager is a woman in her forties, doing immensely valuable (but not very well paid) work that truly does change children’s lives for the better. She brings compassion and wisdom to everything that she does and I am enormously proud of her. We are extremely close and I count myself truly blessed to have this remarkable woman as a daughter. Even so, I occasionally wonder if I did the right thing and then I shake myself down, give myself a good talking to and, looking at my daughter, remind myself that I must have done something right, at some point . . .

    As Buddhists would say, it’s having the right intention that counts and that whatever we do, we should do from the heart and with love. Which is what most mothers try to do, I think. And it sounds as if you are, at this point in your life, doing exactly the right thing, for all the right reasons.

    • February 25, 2013 11:37 am

      Thank you, D. Thank you for sharing your own hard-earned wisdom with someone who is still feeling her way, and for your sensible words of encouragement.
      I agree that we have not yet found helpful terminology. The phrase ‘full-time mother’ made me mentally wince even as I wrote it, for exactly the reason you give. I wish there was some shorthand I could use when put on the spot, as at a dinner recently when the successful entrepreneur next to me said abruptly, ‘and do you work?’ and I floundered for an answer before his increasingly unimpressed gaze. I have spent all weekend thinking of answers, too late: l’esprit d’escalier’!

      • February 25, 2013 11:53 am

        If I may butt in here, my standard response to that question when my children were small was “Not outside the home”. That usually gave the questioner pause. 🙂

  10. Erika W. permalink
    February 22, 2013 2:47 pm

    I am in my 70s so with me it is ‘What have I done that was useful for myself and others? I end up with a pretty good list . At more morose times I make two lists: what is good in my life? and what is bad? The good always far outways the bad and I end up feeling rather cheerful.

    At present, after two surgeries (hip replacement and shoulder tenotomy) within the last 5 months, I am practically pain free for the first time in 2-3 years, except for my old friend arthritis, and I am so happy I could burst!

  11. Erika W. permalink
    February 22, 2013 2:59 pm

    I want to add: “and when life is awful beyond your control, remember that the future is waiting and it can only get better. My first husband died n 2 days from an unsuspected brain tumour which suddenly bled, leaving me at age 33 with two young children and a part-time job started for fun, 5 months earlier. Very little insurance and, on the whole, all round emotional and practical devastation. Now, looking back I doubly appreciate the friends who jumped in–one even giving 2 months’ income in cash until my bank accounts were unfrozen and insurance payment arrived. I applied for and got a full-time library job at the university where my husband had taught and I part-time lectured.

    Now, I am very happily 36 years into a second marriage, have wonderful adult offspring and grandchildren and the words which mostly describe me are happy and content.

    • February 25, 2013 12:16 pm

      What a dreadful experience you went through, Erika. Even after all this time, you have my great sympathy. Your sunny outlook is inspiring.
      I do like your idea of writing lists. Yes, the need to be useful is very strong, and that is an area of my life I want to work on.
      You have lived with pain for many years, as I remember. I rejoice that surgery has helped you! Thank heavens – and doctors. 🙂 Thanks for taking the time to write: I am happy for you.

  12. February 24, 2013 10:29 am

    As mothers we beat ourselves up either way. My advice – go easy on your self. My children would say about our mothering dilemmas ‘#firstworldproblems’.
    I have had to work all through bringing up my children – back to work when they were 6 and 7 months respectively. You’re very lucky to have had a genuine choice – enjoy it!

    • February 25, 2013 12:21 pm

      Hah, yes, I often think something along the lines of ‘first world problems’ (can’t find a hash key) when I write about my life! I am very lucky. Silly really how much sometimes we need others’ approval. So, thanks for encouraging me.

  13. February 24, 2013 6:32 pm

    I saw this quote today and thought of you. “To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best day and night to make you everybody else, means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight, and never stop fighting.”

    ~e.e.cummings (1984-1962), American poet, painter, essayist, author, and playwright”

    • February 25, 2013 12:23 pm

      Ooh, thank you for sharing that, Sian. Good old e.e.c. I suppose that anyone with the slightest hint of self-awareness is fighting that battle! I’ll keep trying. 🙂

  14. February 25, 2013 4:20 am

    I’m still learning from you, but I’m trying to achieve my goals. I definitely love reading everything that is posted on your site.Keep the aarticles coming. I enjoyed it!

  15. February 25, 2013 12:27 pm

    P. S. Deb, I love your story of Googling yourself! I hope your children are impressed to learn that their mum had a secret life as an artist once upon a time…

    Perpetua, ‘not outside the home’ is an excellent answer to the ‘do you work’ question. Thanks for that. I’ll try using it next time!

  16. February 25, 2013 3:19 pm

    A little late with the yard needing attention over the weekend.
    Do not beat yourself up over this. It’s priorities.
    Active parenting and raising children is a serious job and hard work.
    Most of what needs to be said has been written above.
    Whether any one likes it or not, kids do better if there’s a parent at home – available and involved. (It’s a sacrifice to put your life/career on hold, but they need the attention now)
    As people are finding out here, those “stay at home moms” are the glue holding society together: raising well balanced happy children, doing charity/church/community work, creating a nurturing community and home environment…constantly teaching values and supplementing information from schools.
    Being the guardian of that house/estate is guarding history for future generations, too.
    People rarely notice earthworms, but without them soil is just dirt and doesn’t grow things well.
    Even the smallest action changes the world. To each his own.
    You do make a difference – and are ensuring your sons will be headed in a positive direction to do that after they are grown.

    • February 27, 2013 11:16 am

      Thank you, Philosopher Mouse. I agree with what you say absolutely. And I just love the aphorism about earthworms!

  17. hmunro permalink
    February 25, 2013 5:06 pm

    I am so sorry for the dreadful delay in my reply, DB. I hope your other readers’ wise words have buoyed you a bit — and I hope it’s clear how much we value and appreciate you.

    It’s natural (and an inevitable part of being social creatures, I think) to look at others’ lives and question our own choices. Success is a beguiling seductress! But she’s a terrible mistress, and she often exacts a terrible price.

    So instead of looking outward, consider your own happiness. Are you leading the life *you* want? Do you feel loved and valued by your family?

    The Dalai Lama once said that the purpose of our lives is to be happy. The highest calling is to be true to ourselves and make a positive difference in whatever way our gifts and circumstances allow.

    Measured by those standards, I would say you are a RESOUNDING success. (And I’m sure hundreds of DB readers around the globe would agree!)

    • February 27, 2013 11:26 am

      No apology needed, of course, Heather, it’s just so nice to hear from you. You are kind and generous as always.
      The Dalai Lama’s comment is worth pondering, and reminds me of the ‘Gross National Happiness’ as they have in Bhutan. Happiness is much-underrated in the consumerist West: it seems valued only in spirituality, whether self-taught or in philosophies and religions such as Buddhism and Christianity. Our priest told his congregation recently that we have a duty to be happy! Indeed, several times in the course of the Sunday service, the priest lifts his open hands and says ‘lift up your hearts’, to which we chorus, ‘we lift them up to the Lord’. Just saying it makes you think about it, and maybe helps to lift the dark clouds a little. And in being happy, hopefully we can spread a little of it around. Happiness is not a finite energy, thank heavens. 🙂

  18. February 28, 2013 2:45 am

    I am glad that you don’t work “outside” – then you wouldn’t have time for your wonderful blog! Here is another quote, similar to e e cummings:
    “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”
    ― Ralph Waldo Emerson
    I’ve also heard that you should never compare your insides to anyone else’s outsides. You have no idea how content your “successful” friend is. You’re in a good place.

    • February 28, 2013 8:01 pm

      ‘You should never compare your insides to anyone else’s outsides’: I love that! 🙂 Thanks for your lovely comments.


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