30 July 2013

Significance, Part 3

Continued from Part 1 and Part 2.

One day, in Dakar, my family decided to prepare fried fish for dinner. The women all sat down together around a basin of whole fish about the size of small trout. My “grandmother” showed me how to slice behind the gills, pull out the guts, then cut down the belly to prepare the fish for cleaning. The first fish I tried by myself, I got the order wrong and cut into the guts. My teenaged “little sister” laughed and took the fish from me, and my “mother” gently suggested that I do something else. 

Graduating, with Denise Uyehara—both of us pre-kiddos.
(Photo by Kevin Miller)
I thought, “Four years of higher education, and my Senegalese family thinks I’m an idiot.” 

Apart from when I was a small child, I have never quite felt so much like an “Insignificant creature” as when I became a mother and my work ground to a halt. School had not prepared me for Senegalese society; nor had it trained me in parenting. Becoming a mother requires no education, no certification, no proof of intellectual prowess. What could be less extraordinary than mothering, something that anybody can do if she has a working uterus? 

Knowing all the emotional contours of why I am at home with my children does not release me from feminist-mother guilt for making this “choice.” Women instigated the Second Wave of feminism specifically to be able to participate in paid work and achieve financial independence. Moreover, we live in a culture centered around our jobs, where “What do you do?” comes in around number 3 in the “getting to know you” list of questions. 

(Photo by Anoosh Jorjorian)
When I ask my daughter, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” and she answers, “A mama,” I feel a sinking in my chest. “You can be a mama and be something else, too, like a teacher or a doctor,” I reply. “No,” she says. “I just want to be a mama.” 

What kind of ambition is that for a child? 

Of course, I’m taking what my 5-year-old says much too seriously. She is at the age when what she wants to be when she grows up is... me. She decided to grow out her bangs because I did. She wears my dresses. She uses an electric toothbrush because I do. (Strangely, this penchant for imitation does not extend to eating kim chee.) 

And yet, I think of my mother the English professor, and I wonder, “What kind of feminist model am I for my daughter?” Because, of course, this isn’t the Victorian era. I have a Master’s degree. I left my Northern California town and traveled to five continents. In my peer group, I am an outlier for staying at home and not working. 

Let’s set aside, for the moment, my history and emotional reasons for this “choice.” 

Of course, everyone knows—or should know by now—that these “choices” are abetted and constrained by several factors, class and gender foremost amongst them. Before I got pregnant, I was working freelance, which allowed me to weather my nausea-plagued pregnancy and, after my daughter’s birth, care for a small baby. When I gave birth to our son two years later, my husband got A Job—the one he was preparing for through nearly 10 years of graduate school, which not incidentally provides us with a steady paycheck and health care—that makes it difficult for him to take time off work to care for a sick child, take the kids to their swim lessons and dance classes, or volunteer for classroom time at our co-op preschool. I know that any salaried job I could get would likely pay less than what he is earning. But I am also privileged in that a family business helps me to uphold my financial side, which makes staying home and writing a viable option for me. 

I never imagined this for myself. I assumed I would work, like my mother. And because my mother had a job that gave her a sense of purpose, that also contributed to the greater good, I expected this for myself as well. 

My working life has been a search for meaning beyond a paycheck, whether through health education, or writing, or book publishing, or teaching. I tried to find the equilibrium between personal fulfillment and service to my progressive ideals. When pregnancy and motherhood brought my working life to a halt, I still hadn’t found it

(Photo by Kevin Miller)
As for so many parents, that changed when I gave birth to my daughter. I nursed her, looked into her eyes, nestled her on my chest, and thought, now this is a project I could devote my life to. 

Parenthood offers a completely different kind of significance. I don’t think I can ever leave a mark on a life the way I can with my children. I am not a “genius,” whatever that is. I don’t have the depth of agape in my soul to save humanity by spending long hours away from the people closest to my heart. 

In the funny contradiction that is life, I feel completely insignificant as a mother, yet the devotion of my small children offers significance unparalleled by any of my previous jobs. I want to inspire them most of all. And as I pursue writing now, I do it in part because I want an intellectual life of my own: I want to model for them a mother who is fulfilled, who is more than “just” a mother with frustrated dreams. 

To be continued in Part 4.

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