Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Redefining Mommy: Re-write Your Personal Narrative

Here we go again.

If there is anything that defines my journey of motherhood so far, it's an ongoing desire to redefine myself as I grow and as my children grow. Right now - as I type, even! - I'm in the process of doing it again. Sometimes it's joyful. Sometimes it's painful. Sometimes it's both, but I find that it's always a bit stressful and always totally worth it.

In the time since I became a mother, I've quit an engineering career to become a stay-at-home mom with babies. I've become a leader of activists with toddlers on my hips. I've been a volunteer board member of a non-profit organization and then stepped down (stepped up?) to re-enter the world of employment at the same non-profit, which offered a modestly low salary and immodestly high satisfaction. And now I've quit that job for the pursuit of new adventures in parenting and writing. Why? Because as sure as kids outgrow their shoes, I've been changing, too, and it's time to add a new chapter to my story.

Twice now, I have left jobs that were providing money for my family and giving me a sense of self-worth. I'm confident in the long-term direction I'm heading, but I still have nagging, negative thoughts focused on reduced income and loss a professional reputation with a title. I admit that it bothers me not to have a business card - that little rectangle of paper that affirms who I am every time I meet someone new.

I believe most professional moms think those thoughts when they decide to quit "to raise children." I'm guessing every professional dad who does so must feel it even more because of the stereotypes we heap upon men. Both genders have it rough in different ways. Men, because of what is expected of them as traditional breadwinners. Women, because the struggle to get where we are professionally makes some of us feel like we're backsliding if we leave the workforce. We ask the same self-doubting questions of ourselves regardless of our trades: 

"What am I if I'm not a ______ (insert engineer/doctor/teacher/whatever)? That's who I am. Will I be just a servant in a house, whose needs always come last? Am I throwing away my education?" 

And for us women who were raised by educated and empowered women on a healthy 1970's diet of "Free to Be You and Me" songs :
 "Didn't my mother raise me to be more than at 'Stay-at-Home' mom?"
Well, what's in a title, really? There are titles that you have to earn from institutions (Dr., Rev., etc) and then there are some awesome titles that you can earn for yourself whether you are employed or not. Here's where I'm going to brag about my husband a bit because in this year's Mother's Day card, he knew exactly what I needed to hear as I struggle to define myself yet again: "You are the best kind of role model for all the roles you play - mother, wife, citizen, and protector of children around the world." Personally, I like those titles a lot more than "Project Engineer" or "Development Associate"- both of those have graced my business cards before. The good news is that whatever you have chosen to do, the die is never permanently cast. If you don't like your titles, go and find new ones! 

Selfishly, the reason I'm writing this post is to give myself advice to help me through yet another chapter change. Perhaps it will help someone else as well. If I have any advice for women leaving a job and taking on the title of "Stay-at-Home Mom," it's these tidbits: 

  1. Find your "Thing": In addition to motherhood, choose also to do something empowering for yourself that you're passionate about. For me, that is anti-poverty advocacy. For you, it might be art, running, organizing a community garden, or something else entirely. 
  2. Consider adding to your skills to be something new: You don't have to start totally from scratch. For instance, a former career in medicine and a new-mommy status can combine for powerful advocacy on child survival.
  3. Enjoy the Clean Slate: Instead of thinking about how limiting your new situation will be, think about the new possibilities it could open up and what new roles you might find for yourself. It's a chance to wipe the slate clean and re-organize your life with room for the most important things. ("Clean Slate" also happens to be the name a nice inexpensive wine I discovered when simultaneously mourning a move away from Chicago and celebrating a move to St. Louis. Enjoy that, too.)
When a mother makes a change in employment status, there's often a fundamental shift in self-definition that comes with it. And the funny thing about parenting is that just when you adapt to get in a groove with everything under control, you'll look up two years later and your little charges will be completely different (hopefully improved) creatures with new features and skills that might enhance your activities...or not. Each change has brought me an opportunity to re-write my own personal narrative. It's always up to me to make it a good story. 

P.S. My husband's solution to my lack-of-business-card problem? As a gift to me for my new endeavors, he found me a website with cool designs and is treating me to new business cards. I wonder what I will write on them...?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That is great work you do! There needs to be more people like that in this world!
I am currently working with The Borgen Project. It is an influential ally for the world's poor. We build support in Congress for initiatives that improve living conditions for people hit hardest by poverty and hunger. Visit the site for more info. The Borgen Project