Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Singing on the edge of time.

Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.
 Henry David Thoreau.

 It is October.  Correction: October is over halfway gone.

October is usually a very good month.  For some reason this October is different.  The weather has been good, the sky that intense blue it becomes in Northern California between Labor Day and the first serious rain.  We have gotten rain, but not a lot.  

The days are shorter, and for the first time in forever I find this disquieting rather than comforting.  The darkness does not bother me; the increasing sense of the passage of time does.

More and more people are dying from natural causes who are my age, or only a little bit older.  Steve Jobs was the same age as my older sister -- and younger than my eldest sister and my older brother. Yes, he died too young, but still...

When you spend years doing what I have the last two decades of my life, the metaphorical songs you sing are quiet ones: lullabies and campfire ballads, songs to lend strength to legs too wobbly to walk, to help minds exploring new horizons, and comfort hearts learning to heal from breaking.  Songs of love and encouragement, songs of lessons to be learned and fears to be faced, until the time when your voice ceases and those to whom you sing pick up their own song.

I have always encouraged my sons to have their own voices.  I have never been under any illusion that I am anything more than a steward, raising them to be unique and valuable people.  Perhaps as a result, I have three sons who are as different from each other as they are from me.  I am, I think with some justification, proud of this and of them.

But the songs, my songs,are becoming fainter and fainter.  I do not know where new ones will come from, what they will sound like.  I am not alone in this, many other mothers face this every year.  Given the economy, many other women and men are as well:  careers they held for years go away, and they are faced with people telling them they are too old to adapt.*

Had I not made the choices I did, to stay at home rather than continuing to work, I would not be facing this dilemma now.  I know that the circumstances of my family made staying home the best thing for everyone, but I still sometimes wonder "What if?"**

I feel like I am whining.  There are so many people who have it so much worse than I.  There are many families which would, for whatever reason, be better off with a stay at home parent, but where economic necessity forecloses that option.  There are many women who would love to stay home with their kids who can't because they need a job to feed and house themselves and their families.  I was lucky enough to have a husband who is well-employed and where doing the best thing for all of us was a viable alternative.


I am having a hard time finding my new voice.  It scares me that I might end up being one of those people Thoreau wrote about.

* I was in a workshop for "older workers seeking employment."  The teacher said "In [Silicon] Valley, if you are over thirty-five, you belong in this class."

** I have read posts online by women who claim that any woman who does not continue to work after her children is born is irresponsible.  I generally think this is just another volley in the mommy wars, and usually have no truck with it.  Every family's situation is unique to that family (and not, as Tolstoy wrote, merely unhappy ones).  Very occasionally, though, I wonder if they might have a point.


  1. There is plenty of important work to be done in the world. I agree that all adults should be doing some of it - that helps the world, and helps them feel their life has meaning.

    But: not all important work is paid. Some important work is parenting (which can be a larger job if the kids are special needs). Other important work is in the school system, or non-profits, or churches, or neighborhood associations, etc. You personally have done a great deal of this work since your children were born.

    If, today, in this deep recession, you are having trouble finding the kind of paid work you would like (which is how I understand your post), that is as much the fault of the economy as of any choices you have made.

  2. Thank you for your thoughtful and supportive comment, Erica.

    I think this is more than a manner of paid v. unpaid, at least for me. I do view parenting as worthwhile work. I know that you know how much work parenting is, especially when you factor in all of the "peripherals" that are really important -- involvement with schools and other volunteer organizations.

    (Somewhere in there is a rant about the actual value society places on parenting and volunteer work versus the value it claims it places on them.)

    I do not regret choosing parenting, nor do I regret the volunteer work I have done. I have done good in the world, and helped many others either directly or indirectly. (Thank you, though, for reinforcing my understanding of that. Sometimes I need to be reminded.)

    If I am honest, I remember exactly why it was that I left the workplace, and I know that it was probably for the best for everyone involved. Had I not had kids, I would have burned out at some point relatively early anyway. (Many years ago I took a workshop on alternative careers for lawyers. We were comparing Meyers-Briggs test results, and I asked "What do INFPs do?" "They *don't* become lawyers -- or they burn out fast," the workshop leader replied. While M-B is at best a very inexact tool, I think she was relatively correct in my case.)

    There *is* an strong element of frustration with not being able to find fulfilling paid work. And you're right: that's a matter of the economy.

    My unrest feels deeper than that: it is a matter of self-definition. To the extent that I am guilty (as are many people) of defining myself in terms of what I do rather than who I am, changes in role are unsettling. This is especially true when the roles one has chosen are relationship based: when the relationship changes, does that mean you are no longer the person you were?

    Rationally, I know that I am the person I always have been. But then the question I struggle with is -- just who is that?