existential crisis: a stage of development at which an individual questions the very foundations of his or her life, whether their life has any meaning, purpose or value.
Last week Margie was on vacation. I took the week off to be home with K, O, and M. It was a week I was very much looking forward to. It was all that I knew it would be: the joy, suffering, elation, dread, relief, anxiety, fulfillment, boredom, connectedness, isolation, and never-ending-questioning that each of these sorts of weeks always is for me. I spend much of the time thinking, “See! This is how it would be if I was a stay-at-home-mom!” juxtaposed with, “This is nothing like what it would be if I were a stay-at-home-mom.” I become obsessed with daring myself to imagine what it would be like if I didn’t have my career in tow. I become uber-obsessed with the never-ending-excruciating-questioning of my most major life choices, philosophies, and foundations. And the experience of being home full-time with my kids for a week always ends with me on the couch with a glass of wine tearfully pondering the meaning/purpose/value of my very existence in life, and Braydon sitting in the chair with a glass of wine carefully analyzing my existential crisis. It is very cathartic and therapeutic and it always makes us both feel better but it almost never gets us anywhere. And then we get up the next morning and go to work. And the honest truth is, I don’t even know where I want to go with all of this— except— I know for sure— that I want to somehow find peace with it all. And I worry, greatly, that I never will. Which deeply disturbs me. Because I feel like I’m wasting way too much time emotionally and psychologically caught up in my tortured questioning of my very essence during this phase of my life. On one hand, I believe this sort of questioning and self-identity challenging is one of the most important quests in an individual’s life. On the other hand, I find it pathetic and repulsive that I have the privilege to indulge in this sort of higher-level-philosophical-meandering. I mean, shouldn’t I just be grateful for all that I have and be done with it? Shouldn’t I just be able to be happy with it just being what it is? But the problem is, every single day that I leave my kids to go to work I feel like I might cry and it takes at least five minutes down the road in the car before the lump in my throat subsides (and some days it never does). I miss (like, really, really miss) my kids when I’m away from them — even for an hour — and I hate not being there for every single second of their lives lived. I love making our house a home, making simple suppers into lovely dinners, running the show, and being Mama. And the other problem is that I feel (at least, enough of the time for it to matter) deeply committed, passionate-toward, and called-to the work (outside the home) that I do. It is almost embarrassing to even write that, and honestly, I don’t want to explain all of that right now (and I definitely don’t want to appear to be tooting my own horn)– but as any student who has ever taken a class with me, or as any person who has ever heard a public talk by me, or as anybody who has ever worked closely with me can attest– I actually have a gift for what I do. The work I get paid to do is work that I believe actually matters and needs to be done in the world. I can only explain it like this: In terms of my work, I believe — almost all of the time — that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing in this world. The problem is that this work is wrapped up (and inextricably linked) with a demanding career that requires constant tending. And that takes me away from my kids. And that means we require childcare. Which subsequently results in me not being with them all the time. Which means — and this is the bottom line — I miss out. Yes, my kids miss out on me too. But I’m not so egotistical to think that that is too much of a problem. I know my kids are in part as awesome as they are because of the various important influential players in their life— and these people include their babysitters and nannies and teachers and other care-givers. My kids need Margie, and I want them to have her (all that she is; not “just nanny”) central in their lives. And I am a better mother when I get away from them, do meaningful work in the world outside of our home, and come back feeling like a relatively whole and internally fulfilled contributing member to the greater good. However... and this is a big ‘however’… I can’t seem to stop being haunted by the feeling that I’m missing out.
I know what I’m missing out on because I’m close enough to my children, and spend enough time with them, to be fully aware. I know all the tiny details and nuances and moments that I’m not there for. And I hate that. I also know the work of being home, and I am thankful to be able to get away from that for awhile each time I head out to my office. Honestly, it is a mixed bag. But it is a very complicated, messy, jumbled-up, fuzzy, and more-and-more-showing-the-wear-and-tear mixed bag. I’m not delusional enough to think that I’m alone in this. I know that I’m not. But that doesn’t help make it any easier on me. Whether I am or not, I continually feel like I’m a stranger in a strange land, pioneering some new frontier, and flying in uncharted territory. The demands of work and home just are not getting any easier. The quest for that elusive “balance” just seems more and more daunting as each week, month, and year unfolds. None of this resembles in any way what I thought it would be. None of this is anything that I (or we) were prepared for. None of this is easy to explain or understand. It is what it is. But it is not easy. And, to be frank, I really think that it is something that only someone who has ‘been there done that’ (or, even better, is there and is doing it) can even somewhat relate to in any real way.
I go off, and I come back. I’m at home, and then I’m at work. And everywhere I am, I feel this deep nagging angst. The existential crisis continues. And continues. And continues. And just when I think that I might be rounding the corner, I realize that I’m not– that the corner is not there to round and nobody seems to have any answers for me. Either that, or, this corner is oh-so-very-very-sharp and nothing that anybody could ever say or do would make it any rounder.
So, at lunchtime on Friday of last week I asked the boys what they would like for lunch. Normally I give them 2 or 3 simple options (peanut butter and jelly sandwich? turkey and cheese sandwich? or yogurt?) and they choose one of them and that is that. But I left it wide open and just asked them what they’d like. Kyle piped right up and the sweet little thing said (and I have no idea how he came up with this because I haven’t done this in a long, long time– like maybe over a year), “Can you make us heart shaped sandwiches? You know, the ones that you press into hearts with cookie cutters to tell us that you love us?” It wasn’t what I had expected them to request, but once it was requested there was no turning back. So, of course, I did it. I painstakingly made their bologna and cheese into lovely little hearts and presented them their plates oozing with love and sweetness and telling them how much I love them to infinity and beyond. And the three of them sat on the couch and ate their little hearts out while watching a video — and the boys asked for seconds and believe-it-or-not I even actually did the whole thing again and made them another round — and — they were in mommy-at-home-heaven. And I sat there with them, eating the cookie-cutter-remnants of the crusty cut-off pieces of their sandwiches, and watching them eat their lunch and all I could think was, “I wish I could do this everyday.” I know that these heartwiches are completely pathetic in so many ways and on so many levels. (It is semi-humiliating to even admit that I made them and I’m sure plenty of folks out there would enjoy having a heyday scowling at my Martha-Stewart-Esque-Heartwich-Ridiculousness.) And yet they represent a lot too. They say, “mommy loves you so much that she’ll take the time to cut out these precious little sandwiches for you”; they say, “I love these kids so dang much that I’ll do this ridiculous thing for them”; they say, “there is time for this” and/or “mommy has made time for this”; and, amongst many other things too, they say, “there is nothing in the world more important than this right here and right now.” There is good and bad, right and wrong all wrapped up in that. No child should feel entitled to such things on a too regular basis. We all need to know that we aren’t the center of the universe. However, there is absolutely nothing wrong with filling them up with a little uncensored love-fest every now and then.
So, if I were home full-time, I would be tempted to make heart-shaped sandwiches everyday. I would be ridiculous (I know I would). If I do what I do now — with a whole career in tow — it is scary to think of what I’d be doing if my time was entirely devoted to my kids and home. I know myself well enough to know the pitfalls that I’d encounter and the problems I’d create. My kids would not be who they are. Braydon would probably hate me. I’d surely hate myself. Still, none of that makes it any easier to kiss them goodbye in the morning, knowing that Margie will be playing Candy Land with Kyle and Owen, and putting Meera down for her nap, and making my three precious ones their lunches (lunches that are never as good as “Mommy Lunches”). Nothing about that is easy. Nothing.
And so it goes. And, as anyone who has ever gone through this knows, this post barely even scrapes the surface of it.