Monday, September 12, 2011

American Girl

It was a great summer, but it’s been a morose Back to School season. My daughter is mourning the end of summer, and dreading the newness of fourth grade. She is anxious and fidgety, emotional and restless, mostly because she doesn’t have any of her old friends in her new class. The only way my husband and I can see this glass as half full is by reminding ourselves that we’re lucky that she hasn’t started her period yet. Teen aged hormones are like Miracle Grow on complicated, intense, girl emotions. To make matters worse for all of us, I’ve had a publishing deadline, so……………. I’m STRESSED OUT.

I’ve been a mom who has worn three different hats for the past 17 years. I was a stay at home mom for the first three years of my son’s life. He was an easy, fun baby, and I really enjoyed my role as a stay at home mom. But as my son got older, I was concerned that he’d see me as a one dimensional female who didn’t do anything but take care of other people. So I threw myself into creating a new cartoon strip, “P.S. I’m a Girl” (pre-Sex in the City – about four realistic women who weren’t obsessed with men). Soon after, I started teaching art to preschoolers and loved it so much that I turned my focus completely toward arts education.

After my son entered public school, my passions grew and I ended up starting an arts education nonprofit so kids in my community could have art in school. I ran it out of my house for about eight years. This worked out well when the time came for us to adopt our daughter, because that meant that I could be at home with her, too.

I learned the hard way that “having it all” isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. When a woman chooses to work from home, what she is really doing is moving from juggling tennis balls to juggling bowling balls. There is no end to her work day, and their is no line between work and home (in other words, her kids really don’t care, or notice, if she's working or not). “Can I ________?, Where’s the _______? and MOM!!!!!!” is the soundtrack to the Stay at Home Working Mom Show.

After my daughter entered school, I was able to get an office outside of the home. That became my happy place, as I hadn’t been alone in silence like that in over fourteen years. Sometimes I would just go there and sit there and do nothing, soaking up the quiet and solitude. I could hear myself think. My nonprofit really grew during this time, and I became a successful working mom. But that, too, has had its own season.

The recession forced us to make some cuts, just to stay in the game. As a result, I found myself with less to do, because there was less money to do anything with. Frustrated, heartbroken, angry, I turned to my own art to help me ride out the economic and emotional storm.

Which means I have been spending a lot more time back at home - working from home. I’m either painting in my art studio in the back yard, drawing cartoons on our dining room table, or I’m obsessively working on my laptop, AND keeping my nonprofit going, AND trying to be a good mom, which means I’ve squeezed in summer play dates, trips to the beach, and four day camping getaways, all on a really tight budget.

This all leaves me feeling on some days like I haven’t accomplished anything at all, because I’ve tried to do too much in one day. I may reach one goal on any given day, but because I have so many other goals waiting to be checked off of my list, I can’t feel much satisfaction in completing anything. Maybe it’s a Work At Home Mom Thing. Or Super Woman Thing. Or an OCD Thing. Whatever it is, I’m frazzled.

Some of my mom friends who work outside of the home feel guilty because they feel like they don’t spend enough time with their kids. And some of my mom friends who stay home with their kids feel guilty because they don’t bring in any money (or they would really like to get away from their kids). Then there is me and some of my work at home mom friends who feel guilty because we’re trying to do it all, all at once, and be good at it, but we know we can’t. While we’re tending to our kids, we feel pressure to be working, and when we’re working, we feel like we’re neglecting our kids. The house is always a mess. We never feel like we’ve nailed “it” (whatever “it” is). There isn’t a boss or any co-workers who mark the end of our work day with “Thanks” or “Good job”. We don’t have to dress for success which means we usually don’t. We get used to the stay at home mom chic (t-shirt and sweats) which gives us more guilt if we absent mindedly end up somewhere in a public situation (because we’re always in a hurry, doing two or three things at once) where everyone else is dressed for success.

An unintended consequence of the feminist revolution is that women my age are stuck trying to pull it ALL off – in between the roles of our mothers who had kids and kept house, and the roles of the younger, single, childless, career women who are focused on their own work. We’re squished in the middle, trying to do it all, without any role models of our own.

One difference I have noticed with raising a son and a daughter is that I never wanted my son to see me as a one dimensional female, so I never worried that I was modeling Super Woman for him. I have always thought that a son viewing his mother as a multi-dimensional, hard working, hard loving, competent female is a damned good thing. But now I find myself questioning myself with my daughter. What kind of signals am I sending her about her future as a woman? Will she have to juggle bowling balls, if she chooses to do it all like her mom, or will her generation have this figured out by the time she finishes college?

I decided to talk to both of my kids at the same time about the great strides that women have made in this country (my son has heard it all many times before, but this time I wanted to tell the story with his younger sister in the room), and how important it is that women have the same choices as men, and how it was just a short time ago in human history that women did not have any choices, and so on. As I continued on with my lesson on feminist history for my kids, I flashed on one of my favorite memories.

I was at the Hong Kong Art Museum. It was during the SARS epidemic and there wasn’t anybody in the streets or in public places. Hong Kong is one of the most crammed places on earth, but on that day, because of SARS, I was all alone, and I had the Hong Kong Art Museum all to myself! I entered an exhibit of one man’s life during the Cultural Revolution. I was really taken with it – a huge, empty room, with small artifacts placed throughout of one man’s life; a small bed, a tin cup and plate, a uniform – all of it grey or tan – NO COLOR. He was anonymous and that was the point of the exhibit. This man could have been any man (or woman) in China at that time. That alone was fascinating to me, but when I heard Madonna sing over the stereo system, I was moved to tears. As I viewed this exhibit of this anonymous person’s life, and contemplated the consequences of the Cultural Revolution which ultimately led to my daughter one day being born and adopted by us, I was overjoyed with the thought of all of the many open possibilities for her, who was alive and waiting for me, but whom I had yet to meet. She may have been born female at a time in Chinese history when being born female meant a life of servitude, but fate intervened and she would be adopted by me and my husband, and she would be an American girl, which meant she could grow up to be anybody she wanted, even somebody like Madonna, the ultimate symbol of a woman succeeding in a man's world, if she wanted that. I was excited for her. And excited for me, because I’d get to support her and watch her grow and choose.

I turned back to scrubbing the toilet and gave up feeling guilty about what my American girl was inheriting. I’ll leave it up to her to decide how she wants to juggle having it all.