When I was growing up, I loved reading stories that had anything to do with babies and motherhood. I remember reading about the coming-of-age ritual of wearing your hair up in the Little House books, and wishing I had something like that to mark a transition for myself. I remember stories of girls who cared for children, who adopted children, who had children of their own, whatever the ultimate plot point, these are the things that stood out.
When I finally had children of my own, I had somehow concocted this image of the perfect mother and housewife. My idol was some strange conglomeration of Ma Ingalls, Maureen Johnson Smith Long, and probably some goddess of an Amazon. I felt guilt over no longer working and bringing in money, so I built up this image of the perfect housewife as the “job” I now had to do in order to earn the living Brian was providing for me and our children. While the triplets were still in NICU, I stopped painting my nails and cut them short so I wouldn’t accidentally scratch their skin. I started wearing my hair up all the time, ostensibly out of practicality but also with the thought of that prairie rite of passage in the back of my mind. I started making lists for myself of housework, laundry, ironing Brian’s shirts, and I pursued these “job assignments” so industriously that I regret not spending more time in the hospital with the babies. (Although after a few weeks, the NICU became an incredibly boring place with little for me to do except sit in a rocking chair with one baby or another.)
Over the next years, as my babies grew and multiplied, I continued my struggle to become that perfect wife and mother. I pursued various home organization programs with varying degrees of success but consistent loss of direct time with children. I went from one modest hairstyle to another, again with the idea of practicality but also with those idols in my mind. Putting my hair up like a Latina Texas housewife was neat and easy, and it made me think about being able to cook everything from scratch, even the most elaborate baby food and tortillas. Wrapping it in tichels got my hair out of my face while it dried, and it made me feel like a focused, virtuous housewife. Letting my hair down became more than an expression, it became the reality of resuming my “real” persona when the children were absent or asleep.
In other words, the face I was showing my children (and much of the rest of the world) was a mask.
On a slightly different note, I have realized that I do not learn by instruction, not really. I can absorb some ancillary instruction, but I primarily learn by diving in and doing. I can’t learn a programming language in a class, or through a textbook; I have to sit down and start coding, looking up things as I need them, and only after I have done that a few times can I get some benefit from asking for guidance or looking through a book for tips and tricks. I don’t pick up a language and retain it by studying a book, but I can jump in and start talking and reading and tack on words as I encounter them (which is why DuoLingo seems to be working so well for me, I think). Knitting, cross-stitch, math, even swimming or skiing, I don’t seem to do well with instruction or lessons. I learn and progress best by jumping in and doing, and asking questions along the way.
I remember how I learned to ski. I didn’t ski until I was 15 years old, and it happened to be a first that year for my mother and brother as well. She signed all three of us up for lessons. They stayed with their groups all day. Only a couple hours into my class, though, I became fed up with waiting for everybody and left the class, along with another boy. We sped down the hill, went back up to the hillside restaurant for lunch, and then skiied on our own for the afternoon, up and down and passing our class. My mother was furious, feeling like she had wasted her money…but I ended up skiing better by the end of that day than the rest of the people who stayed in that class, and it cost nothing to leave it. I’ve tried other group skiing classes, but the same thing happens: I get bored or distracted, and either do something stupid or leave. When I go one-on-one with a teacher, though, we go up and down and the teacher gives me tips. I spend just an hour or two getting a list of tweaks and tips, and then I can spend a day or two by myself working it out, no class or teacher. Cheaper, in the long run.
I remember all of my physical skills being the same way, whether learning to swim as a child or learning hardanger embroidery or double-knitting as an adult. I sign up for a class, scan the material, and take off on my own, learning as I go and using the instructor as a springboard for questions. It’s what I was doing with Kender while we still had access to services from the school system, following his lead and learning with him, while using the teachers for questions and tips and advice.
What brings both of these together? A reading I got recently saying, essentially, to go with the flow.
My patron god is often seen as one of chaos, although I prefer to think of it as not being bound by rules. I do better, I learn and progress and accomplish more, in chaotic environments where I pursue a goal free of the confines of a prescribed plan or somebody else’s pace. I work better alone, able to move and change directions at a whim (and able to assume full responsibility for any consequences), than I do as part of a team.
Why on earth have I spent so much time trying to fit my home, my motherhood, my life into this neat, clean “homeschooling housewife” box that is defined not by my end-goal but by other women around me and imaginary women in books, by all this external imagery?