Saturday, June 4, 2016

The Search for Personal Fulfillment

It's been a while, I know. The year so far has been a good one, which has been a refreshing change. My last two years were tough. Two years ago I spent much of the year in a miserable pregnancy. The kind where the days drag by so slowly and you can't believe you have another two first-trimester months left of horrible, nauseous half-living. And then the two months you were counting drag to three, then four. And after the nausea finally lessens, there is horrible hip pain and bronchitis and sleepless nights. My pregnancy with Anna made that whole year drag.

Then last year, my amazing husband was working full-time and was full steam into a master's program and had a busy church calling. I didn't see him that much, and when I did see him, I was already so tired. Our number one piece of advice for newlyweds has always been to spend time with each other, because at least in our marriage, we found very early on that doing so made a huge difference in our relationship. Last year, we were reminded again why spending time together is so important. Because two tired, over-worked people who only see each other between 10 pm and midnight don't make the happiest pair :P

In December and January, we reevaluated. David cut some things out of his schedule. He initiated the change and did it cheerfully, but I knew he was sacrificing. Dave is a dreamer and has always had big ambitions. He is very good at seeing what he should or could be doing to get to a certain desired point. And I know that through this whole master's program he has seen doors that are closed to him because of his family, even if they are simple things like joining clubs on campus to network and be involved in exciting projects for extra learning and growth. Just as he supported me through my Cambridge program, I would of course support him in all of his opportunities, but I'm not sure either of us realized how hard it had been on us until he cut back. In December he had nothing on his to-do list and it was a wonderful change.

I mulled over changes I could make too. I realized we needed date nights (cause previously we didn't have any. Bad idea when the kids come around folks). But I also needed to make some personal changes. I realized I needed some kind of outlet for personal fulfillment.

I've become interested in the topic of personal fulfillment for moms. It's a hard world for stay-at-home moms right now, and I'm not even talking about the social stigmas. I imagine that for much of the history of the world there was a built-in community for moms. This could be an idyllic idea, of course; I'm no historical anthropologist. But I tend to imagine people built into closely-knit communities of neighbors and extended families, where kids played together and moms shared the work and the child-rearing. Even in America, don't we have those ideas of suburban houses filled with stay-at-home moms and packs of kids roaming, exploring, playing ball, riding bikes, wandering into and out of their neighbors' houses, everyone knowing each other and providing a safety net of care, support, and encouragement? Like I say, maybe the idea is idyllic, but I think the reality was closer to that than to our very isolated modern world. Now, while I stand at the front window doing dishes, I might see a lone adult out walking his dog. I see a few kids come off the school bus and disappear into houses down the street for the rest of the night. We wave to our next-door neighbors when they get into or out of their car and we've had brief conversations with them a few times, but that's the extent of our acquaintance. And we know few of our other neighbors.

I think there are still neighborhoods where the moms pull out their lawn chairs and sit together in a row chatting while they watch their kids play together, but I also think that is becoming less and less normal. Which means that for most moms, being a mom is an incredibly lonely job. And if I the introvert feel the oppression of loneliness, I can't imagine what it must be like for my extroverted friends.

And so I've been watching my mommy friends and acquaintances and wondering if they are having a hard time like I was having last year. Over-worked, over-tired, under-stimulated, under-socialized.

Multi-level marketing programs of all kinds have been bursting on the scenes among my acquaintances recently. I have seen some recent criticisms of programs like that, most of which blame "the [oppressive] culture" for making moms feel like they HAVE to stay home with their kids, guilt them into not working, etc. Their conclusion is that since they feel they can't work out of the home, MLM is the only way they feel like they can contribute to the family income or find a personal outlet or whatever. I'm skeptical about such criticisms, because it seems to me that in our world, it is easier for a mom to work than to stay home. Our society basically preaches that if a household doesn't have two incomes, it can never succeed financially. The social reasons I've discussed above make a work environment attractive to a mom, since work is a place where friends, or at least adults to talk to regularly, abound. Work is also a creative outlet, and even if the work you are doing isn't particularly important in the grand scheme of things, the satisfaction derived from being immediately useful and accomplishing a project well is important. Not to mention the fact that contrary to the assumption in the criticisms I've read, it's becoming less and less socially acceptable for women to do the antiquated job of "homemaking." So anyway, I'm disinclined to think that myriads of women are forgoing these and other benefits of working just because they're worried about being judged by some portion of their cultural group.

I think the clearer reality is that many moms DO want to be home with their children. Because even when being a mom is so. hard., it also fills some deep and immense void in us, that usually we didn't even know was empty. The sheer force of love, wonder, laughter, amazement, beauty and snuggles that our children provide really does fulfill in a profound way. And often, therefore, we can't imagine leaving these miraculous, incredible little ones with someone else for most of every day. If there's any possible way to do it, we want to be there with them to teach and guide, play and giggle, hug and hold. Even when a lot of the time is spent doing thankless, drudging, repetitive tasks, or in begging these precious little ones to listen to us just once.

As for me, I have a small slice of experience as a working mom. I went back to work part-time after Madelyn was born. I think I knew myself well enough to know that I would need a transition...I had been working full time AND writing my master's thesis (I really discourage anyone from doing both of those things at once by the way) up until right before Madelyn was born, and I worried that it would be hard for me to go from beyond-full-steam to nothing. Or if not nothing, then at least a very, very quiet life at home all day long with a newborn. And I had work that was going to be unfinished if I stopped. I'm not very good at leaving projects undone. So I had a wonderful two months of maternity leave, where I basically read one young adult novel from the library each day while I snuggled my baby girl, then I left her some mornings with Dave and some mornings with a friend while I went to work for a few hours. The balance worked for a while. It started to become less okay with me, though, as Madelyn got older and could start, for example, waving bye-bye when I dropped her off. We moved out-of-state when Madelyn turned ten-months-old and at that point I stopped going to work, but I had already decided that even if we didn't move, I would stop before Madelyn turned one. I wanted to be there with her. Even with all the other things that I knew would be hard.

And I think a lot of these MLM moms are the same way. They WANT to be there with their children. Because mothering is amazing.

But as fulfilling as mothering is, as much as it fills to overflowing part of us, I'm becoming more and more convinced that for some mothers anyway, mothering doesn't fulfill ALL of us. We still need outlets for personal fulfillment, for connection with the wider world, for obtaining a sense of satisfaction when sweeping the floor for the fifth time in a day just doesn't quite satisfy. Other moms have figured that out for themselves, and I started to realize my own need for personal fulfillment right as the year was turning and I was looking into 2016 with a sense of listlessness. As 2016 started, I was "just a mom," with no ambitions, no goals, nothing to look forward to.

A couple of things helped change my outlook. Dave was a big motivator. He has always encouraged me to develop myself outside of my normal roles. HE has been the one pushing me to probe for open doors and try to make connections with people who might provide opportunities. I was playing my flute a lot in December for different holiday programs, and Dave mentioned how much I seemed to enjoy that. Normally, I don't play my flute a lot anymore - can't really when the girls are awake, and my time after the girls are asleep is so precious that fluting is not usually my priority. But Dave was right, when I was playing, I was happy. So I started looking into community bands or orchestras and I sent out some emails. I got a little emotional when I heard back from the nearest band that they had plenty of flutes already and didn't need me. I think by then I'd latched onto the idea so fiercely because Dave had helped me realize that I needed something just for me. I was bitter about the "rejection," I felt like I'd needed that band so much.

The second thing that prompted me to start looking for "something" was a book I received from my mom for Christmas - The Happiness Project. It was interesting to hear someone else vocalize the need to actively seek fulfillment. The author's own search for increased happiness was engaging enough, but more than anything, I needed her push to make changes for myself. To be proactive in seeking satisfaction.

I didn't sit down after that and make a whole long list of new year's resolutions. That wasn't for me this year. But I found two "things" that I hoped would make a difference. Two things that I jumped into, basically on a whim, but a determined, desperate kind of whim. One was a big new, intellectual kind of project to work on. It's been wonderful. I have a towering stack of well-worn books from the University library (thanks Dave's student status!). I have a notebook devoted to research notes again. I'm learning and outlining thoughts and ideas for a purpose again, with a hope of being useful to others. As I mentally review my day before bed, I feel like I'm more satisfied with the time I've spent with my girls and the time I've spent picking things up off the floors because I can also include in my list the satisfying study I did during quiet time or before bed.

The other thing was a chance to be out, just me, and socialize for a set time each month with other women. I joined a book club. Someone I knew from the Jerusalem Center posted an off-hand remark and tagged other members of her book club. Normally when I'm considering contacting someone (about anything cause introvert), I mull and dither. But this time I didn't think about it, I just contacted her immediately, even though I hadn't seen her in years. I asked her about her book club and where they were located. She graciously invited me to join them, even though I was a stranger to most of the group. Despite my normal social inhibitions, I jumped at the chance. Now once a month I have a "me" outing to look forward to, where I get to let Dave put the girls down to bed and I go and talk about intelligent things (books), and, just as importantly, I get to talk unreservedly about everything affecting my life (because turns out, the same things that affect my life affect the lives of the other women there). It's a breath of fresh air.

There have been other things to help me this year: trips (Dave and I have been saving for the big trip to Florida we took last month)...turns out, big or small, I need things on my monthly calendar to look forward to; lunches with a dear friend; periodic dates with Dave and a less demanding school and church schedule that allows him to be home a little more. But I do feel like those things alone wouldn't have made such a dramatic difference in my daily mood and level of satisfaction without the personal academic project and the set chance to socialize with other moms.

So there you go. My long, rambling musings about personal fulfillment as a mom. I don't know how many will read this, but if any of you would ever like to talk to me further about what has helped YOU find fulfillment, especially when raising little little children, I would welcome the discussion! I want to know how to better help myself, how to better help friends, how to be more self-aware. I want to know that others have been there before me and found ways to bring meaning and fulfillment into their lives. So yes, friends, please, whenever we have the chance, let's have that discussion.