I’m a stay-at-home mom.
I’ve been one as long as I’ve been a mom, nearly 17 years. Before that I was a stay-at-home wife.
This is not the life I ever wanted. And when someone asks me “What do you do?” I still feel embarrassed and stumble around an answer that feels weak and unconvincing, even to me.
It’s been on my mind a lot lately. We’ve been talking college and career with our oldest son; I’m invested in his interests and opportunities. I remember what it was like to be discovering my gifts and learning to use them. I remember being excited about possibilities. This month is also the 20th anniversary of my graduation from seminary and my ordination. Not only am I nostalgic for the version of myself who was going to be a career writer, I’m also nostalgic for the version who thought there was a call from God behind it all, and a call ahead of me pulling me forward.
After all these years, it still sits very uneasy with me, to be not-working. I never chose to stay home with kids, and definitely never dreamed about it. In fact, my timeline worked the other way around. We got married young, right out of college. I graduated early, but my husband-to-be was ahead of me. He was on the seminary-and-vocation path while I was finishing my last semesters of college. Several years later, in a basically unilateral move, he joined the Navy as I began my final year of seminary. By the time we had kids, it was already clear our moving-around military life would make it nearly impossible for me to be employed.
I love my husband, and I love my children, and I love our life together. I don’t love the Navy (I try not to love inanimate entities; no matter what, they will never love you back) but I’m grateful for the financial security and the varied experiences it provides us. I’m proud of my husband’s ministry to sailors and Marines and their families. I’m glad for the ways he has grown through that ministry (and I’m glad I’m not the only liberal in the family anymore!).
But this is not the life I ever wanted, and it is not the me I wanted to be. I believe motherhood is real work, valuable and necessary work, but it was never my dream—and 17 years later, it still isn’t. I’ve been a better mom than I thought I’d be, and have enjoyed it more than I thought I would. Still, I have never been able to shake the feeling of waste: waste of the degrees I earned, the skills I learned, the experiences I loved. Waste of the gifts I nurtured. Waste of the call I believed in.
I still kick myself for all the time I’ve let go by without figuring it out. What am I supposed to be doing? And—with no job experience, no lasting community, and no longevity anyplace we live—how?
Over 21 years as a Navy family, my resentment (and sometime rage) about this hasn’t been a constant… but it has bubbled up regularly. There have been times, even recently, when I couldn’t bear to answer the thought: Would I do it all again?
Now I’m very aware that my “full-time” life’s work as a mom is on the downhill. We’re considering a timeline for military retirement, and my husband has health issues that may hasten that day. In a relatively near future, our life may look dramatically different, and I may have freedom—and the necessity—I’ve never had before to do “real” work.
I don’t know if I’m at a watershed moment here, but last week I was planting a garden, turning neglected dirt and topping it up with nutrient-rich soil, and being all nostalgic and ’90s and listening to the Indigo Girls. And during the song Watershed, I stood in the raised bed, dirt in my Crocs and sweat dripping off my nose, and I cried.
Listening to tears.
It has taken me a long time to learn to pay attention to tears. (Of course the deeper I get into perimenopause, the more tears there are and the harder they are to ignore—so I might as well attend to them.) I’m functionally an objective and practical person. I like things that make sense, and decisions based on emotion often don’t. Listening to tears may never prompt my choices (even if I wanted that!), but for me, tears are a “tell.” However much I want to be poker-faced, tears show me what I really care about.
This watershed—and these tears—aren’t only about being at the fork in the road; they’re about doing real work, work that matters and that uses the tools I bring. I’ve always believed (or at least hoped) that my education and abilities would matter… eventually. I’ve always believed (hoped) that the call I thought I heard would turn out to be true… eventually. Lately I’ve been less confident about any of that, but at this watershed, I want to listen. I want to attend. I want to feel the sweat and the tears and the tired muscles and the smudges of dirt on my cheeks.
At this fork…
I’m starting to suspect that in life there is never just road—it is all forks.
The song says at the watershed, at the fork in the road, “you can stand there and agonize ’til your agony’s your heaviest load.” I’m ready to set it down. Because maybe, after all, there’s not one right choice, one right way. Maybe there’s not even a particular calling to a way that is meant for me.
Maybe all there is… is way. And going.
This month on the blog, I’m going to reflect on work. I’ll be looking for way in whatever arises over these next few weeks—in letting go of old ideas, discovering where I need to grow, and weeping over cares that catch me off-guard. I hope you’ll come along, because however alone we may feel, we’re at this watershed together. “We are trav’lers on a journey; fellow pilgrims on the road” as the old hymn says. It’s the only way.