Problem without a name still a problem for mom

Posted: Friday, September 14, 2007

I tried being a stay-at-home mom once. My husband was offered a one-year teaching position at a small college in Southern California, which seemed like the perfect opportunity for me to take those maternity leaves I had bypassed when my children were born.

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At the time, I liked to say that being a "working mother" wasn't so much a choice as a necessity - that is, if we wanted to eat. And it's true that we were a one-income family (mine) while my husband finished school. But the truer truth is that I loved my job. I loved feeling competent and valued. I had always defined myself by my work, and I had no desire to give that up when I became a mother.

Still, the thought of having a year's reprieve from juggling both the world of work and the world of parenting sounded like heaven. No more packing up the day's essentials into the multi-pocketed baby bag and schlepping our 1-year-old son to the university's childcare center or rushing our daughter to kindergarten before I began my commute to Sacramento. By the time my "work day" started at 8 a.m., I was ready for a nap.

My friends and colleagues, who no doubt had difficulty imagining me as the domestic type, asked, "But, do you really think you'll be okay not working?"

I thought I had answers that satisfied them and, more importantly, me: "I want to slow down the pace a bit," or "I want time to enjoy my kids while they are young." The truth was, I had no idea what I was doing.

The first few weeks were like vacation. I poured my energy into my children and domestic tasks. We made lemonade with the Meyers lemons that grew in abundance in the backyard of our tiny rented bungalow. I was thrilled by small pleasures, like grocery shopping midday.

The vacation illusion ended with a heat wave in late August, magnified by high-alert smog levels. It was too hot and smoggy to be outside, even in the shade, and our bungalow had no air-conditioning. My husband was working long days and I was suddenly aware of how alone I was in the house with two children all day, with nowhere in particular to go and no one to call.

The three of us were sweltering over lunch one day when my daughter complained, "Tuna fish again? Mommy, I'm getting to hate tuna fish."

I started to tell her that she was just lucky to get any lunch at all when I realized we had been eating tuna fish sandwiches for days on end, since it had been on sale at the grocery store. I couldn't remember not eating tuna fish for lunch.

"I hate tuna fish, too. Let's not eat anymore of this nasty stuff." She gave me a startled look and I started to laugh. My laughter became uncontrollable and then turned to tears and both children sat at the table with funny looks on their faces staring at me. I was scaring them and I was a little scared myself.

"Are you okay, Mommy?" my daughter asked, sensing something was clearly amiss.

"Mommy's just fine." I got up and went into the bathroom. I splashed cold water on my face and looked at myself in the mirror. "Get a grip," I told myself firmly.

All I could think of was Betty Friedan's housewives of the 1950s and the problem without a name.

I felt precariously close to losing control. It seems almost embarrassing in retrospect. Why didn't I seek out story hour at the public library or a swimming pool or some kind of organized playgroup? I have always considered myself a resourceful person. But in those moments all I knew was that I had to get out of the house and to get relief from the heat.

It was desperately hot. And I had a desperate response. Piling the kids into our one car, I pointed it toward our destination.

"Where are we going, Mommy?" my daughter asked. "It's hot outside."

"Ah, there it is!" I pulled into the parking lot, as close as I could get to the door without being disabled though I wondered if hysteria might count.

"This is Wal-Mart, Mommy. You always say you hate Wal-Mart."

"Today I like it. They have something we need." It wasn't a lie.

Grabbing a cart, I lifted both of them into it and headed inside.

"Ahhhh," I purred out loud, "Do you feel that?" Just as I knew it would be, the air-conditioning was cranked full blast. It was near frigid and I was giddy with relief. Overeager seniors hovered at the doorway.

"Can we help you find something today?"

"No, thank you, I know just what we are looking for."

Luckily, the heat wave broke before I did. Our daughter started school, providing a structure for my days and some contact with other families. I slowly began to adjust to the quiet pace of my days. And, yes, I also got a part-time job.

• Carol Prentice is caught in the middle of life, work and family in Juneau.

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