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The Domestic Grind: I feel like I got my Masters in stain removal

“Wow honey, you load that so well.”

So goes the punch line of the joke that has become lore among my educated-and-professional-turned-stay-at-home mom friends. Bent over the dishwasher, aligning dirty bowls with the precision of a dental hygienist, my friend’s husband remarked on her skill with a mixture of jest and awe. Laura pulled back from the task and smiled as her ego sunk into her shoes. This a woman who aced her way through her education with such determination and agility that at the age of 28 she won the post of elementary school principal in an elite district. “I once had an important job and a sharp brain,” she said to me after the fact. “Now, I win praise for my kitchen cleaning abilities.”

I am revisited by her words this morning as I crouch over my husband’s shirt with a bottle of stain remover. I shoot all the soiled marks my trained eye can find, and a weirdly pleasing sense of accomplishment follows. Is this depressing? I wonder silently as I tiptoe out of the laundry room past the closed door where my youngest slumbers. There was a time when I held a newly minted MA and chased a law degree. I defined personal triumph by the cleverness of my analysis and the precision with which I climbed the achievement mountain, rang the bell, and won my gold star.

These days, that gold star lies in wait. With the arrival of our first child, law school took a back seat. Plans of returning in six months morphed into plans of returning in a year. A new round of sonogram images were pinned to the refrigerator and almost simultaneously, plans of returning all but disappeared.

Six years into this grind, I am without regret but squarely in the camp of the identity-challenged. Although in some sense, that is nothing new. As an educated middle class gen X/er, my coming of age was not marked by any grand battles. Instead, I wrestled, nearly inexhaustibly, with the elusive question of self-definition. It is safe to say I bet the farm on getting this one right – tirelessly agonizing over nearly every choice that came my way.

Of course, as a young feminist struggling to create a more perfect self, no vision of my future ever included an apron or a minivan. I hear that sentiment echoed by legions of young mothers. Perhaps because our expectations for ourselves were – and are – so high, so limitless, so utterly unrealistic in their perfection, it is now tricky to reconcile the vision of what is with what might have been. Looking back, I see that younger me with her nose to the grindstone in a vacuum. The irony about my belief that I could make anything of myself is that I failed to consider what others might later need from me, and what I would be compelled to give them.

When Laura, now also the proud mother of three, first shared the dishwasher story with me, we were not even a year into our new roles. My reaction at the time was to wallow in our collective undoing. We stay-at-home moms, I thought, were so ill-regarded, so unappreciated, so underutilized.

I take a different tack these days. In spite of my progressive politics and voracious careerist tendencies, I am remarkably old fashioned when it comes to this particular job. The opportunity to slow down and narrow focus is a rare gift. In a cultural age that celebrates multi-tasking and breeds distraction, I am grateful for my small orbit.

At the same time, I can’t pretend there aren’t moments I’d like to wish away all the domestic trappings. It would be lovely if a fairy godmother could wave her wand and disappear all the soiled clothing, petrified cereal goo, backseat pretzel dust, and broken plastic thingamajigs from my atmosphere. It might also be nice if she looked after my kids while I slept, traveled, read, and learned a new language.

I also can’t pretend there aren’t times when I miss my thinking, working life. The as-of-yet unformulated notion of ‘what next’ for me is a definite preoccupation. As our youngest rounds the bend toward 18 months, I am faced with the reality that this chapter will one day draw to a close. The concept of working again is both terrifying and invigorating. I fear my brain has leaked all of its precious contents and retained only child-related information. My resume, which once foretold of a dynamic life journey, now appears utterly fossilized.

Sitting at a banquet table surrounded by academics at a medical school graduation the other night, I found myself without a morsel to contribute to the conversation surrounding me. I glanced at the sharply dressed intern seated next to me and chose to hold my tongue rather than launch into a tale involving the frustrations of changing nap routines or methods on improving a kindergartner’s reading proficiency. I opted to stay quiet for the remainder of the evening as my tablemates swapped stories of nightmare patients, the grind of residency, and obscure diagnoses.

As we drove home that night, I laughed with my husband about feeling like such a cliche – the nonparticipant mild-mannered spouse. On the heels of feeling so invisible and obsolete, it would have been easy to launch into a tailspin about my place in the world. Luckily, I am beyond the days of the foolish reaction.

I am proud of my choice to stay home, and proud of my desire to give this job (the most compelling, demanding one I’ve ever had) every bit of my attention and focus. One day, I might just be found pacing a courtroom, unraveling sophisticated arguments that lead me toward a small victory. I enjoy that image, but not enough to change course. Not yet anyway. For now, I take care of my family and in the rare quiet moment, expertly wash our dishes and clothing – the tools of this trade.

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