Okay, so we all know that I when I had Saoirse, I went on a maternity leave that sort of stretched indefinitely into full-on stay-at-homehood. David and I had always said that if we could do it, it was important to us to have one of us stay home once we had children–it didn’t matter which one of us did it, but since I was the one with the milk-producing boobs and he was the one with the bigger paycheck (did I mention that I was a teacher?), I drew the short straw (or is it long straw? Whichever one is the awesome pick). So a few months after our sweet oldest daughter was born, I packed up my binders upon binders of lesson ideas, walked away from my classroom with its incredible views of the Appalachian mountains and solemnly traded my high heels for cute but oh-so-practical Clarks (okay, actually they were Converse back then. But I’m getting old).
It was a strange, strange transition for me. I spent that first year at home feeling like I’d left a big ol’ chunk of my identity back at the high school. I’d gone to grad school solely to switch careers to teaching, and we were still paying off the debt for an education I got for a job I didn’t have anymore. Here I was reading The Cat in the Hat to my 11-month-old, acting out the parts in silly little cartoon voices, when the year before my 10th-grade “kids” were psychoanalyzing the same story as an intro to a literature unit (no, my child’s first words weren’t id and ego. That’s just weird.). I felt like I’d stepped into the traditional role I’d always sort of sneered at. I giggled at the surreal quality my life had taken on as I sang “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” on Fridays at the library with Saoirse, or walked her up and down the length of a swimming pool, chasing the same darned yellow duck every week, at the same time when the year before I’d have been sitting in committee meetings. I was the only stay-at-home mom I knew who used her maiden name. I wore Flogging Molly t-shirts to my daughter’s music program. I drove a red stick-shift with a car seat in the back. Who was I?
But then that year ended. I weaned Saoirse and accepted a job teaching part-time at a local college. It was a great gig, and I walked away from it–well, drove away really quickly, in that same 5-speed, crying a little–okay, a lot–while Dave and I hatched a plan so I wouldn’t have to take the job. By that time I’d realized that I was massively lucky–blessed, if you will–to actually be able to be at home with my kiddo. I started to understand that what I had was what a lot of other people wanted. Teaching would always be there for me (well, I hope, anyway). My education was still worth the stupid bills that fell into our mailbox each month. And I got to wake up with my daughter, calmly sit at the breakfast table with her in her pajamas each day, put her down for a nap in her own crib. I got to choose–actually choose–how we were going to spend our day. By that time we were participating in mommy-and-me activities that I actually liked. I’d made some really good friends who were like me–former teachers, artists, physical therapists, nonprofit workers–women who were lucky enough to take a break from their careers to be with their kiddos. Saoirse had a good group of play buddies, and I had the enormous good fortune to be able to spend all day doing the endless laundry, to complain about the nonstop stream of dirty dishes, fret about grocery shopping and vacuuming and all the stuff that piles up around the house when you don’t get to regularly leave it for a good chunk of the day.
Which leads me to last Friday. I was at a party for a friend with whom I used to teach. It was held at another teacher’s house, attended by–you guessed it!–a bunch of female teachers. It was so, so neat to see my old colleagues–friendly acquaintances, happy hour buddies, lunch partners–but it was really odd to be on the fringes of the workplace gossip, and curriculum talk, and worries about budget changes. My world has gotten so small. It’s a happy little world, but as I left that party, I felt a twinge of something that felt uncomfortably like envy. I miss that other world: that one where I felt like I was a part of some bigger, grand purpose. I miss using big ideas with names like scaffolding and Bloom’s taxonomy. I miss wearing high heels (I had some really good shoes.). I didn’t want to leave my old work friends, because I knew that just for a few moments, in that house, my world had gotten a little bigger again. But I had to leave. I had a baby that needed nursed, and a toddler waiting for dinner, a husband who’d been travelling all day. So I walked out to my car, chocking back that awful bitter feeling that kind of caught me off guard. I got into the driver’s seat, shut the door and placed my purse next to the diaper bag sitting on the passenger seat. As I drove off, I glanced into the rear view mirror of my new SUV and saw the two empty car seats where my daughters usually sit, giggling at each other, singing along to their silly songs. And I realized that as much as they were waiting for me to come home, I’d missed them. And that it would be all too soon before they grew out of those car seats, my car, our house. So I took a deep breath, stepped a little harder on the gas pedal. And I drove home.