Mothers doing “real work” in the “real world”


I always had a strange recurring thought during the jobs I’ve held over the last fifteen years. There was always a sneaky, unspoken feeling that I never managed to put into words: that I was somehow left outside the “real work” of the “real world.”

In a time when I was teaching high schoolers, the thought was that while other people were doing real work and accomplishing real things—building buildings, making laws, navigating the post-educational life—a teacher only stands behind the doors of the schoolhouse and urges children out through them. She is always there, on the outside of the real world, sending young people into the real world but stuck in the land of preparation.

Then I found myself in a different line of work, selling insurance. And here the same feeling met me. Because here I was not out doing the kinds of things that people needed insurance for—making money, protecting their kids, earning a normal salary—I was rather an attempted barnacle. I was a leech, feeding off of ordinary people who were plumbers, farmers, engineers. My job was to get them to pay me for insuring their ordinary life—and thus to allow me to attach to the side of that life and feed on it for a short while. But I was never to have that ordinary life myself.

Then I got into journalism, my original field of study. There it felt like I was in the middle of bustling activity, but still… a feeder off of other work and other ordinary living. I found the people doing real things, and asked questions about them. I bottled up quotes and facts about these real things being done and made them into stories. Even in this work, the relentless pursuit of other people made me feel often like a parasite. I was not really a local small-town person—I was getting my living from the lives of local small-town people.

And now I find myself in a role that is really the first and oldest of the backseat trades: motherhood. A mother can allow herself to feel that while the rest of the people go about and do real work in the real world, she is only preparing other humans to go out into the real world. She herself is not to be allowed the promised land, but like Moses, she’ll lead her little brood right to the brink and the next generation can just pop over to where  the milk and honey are and start the important work of building a culture.

How easy—for someone who managed to feel outside when she was offering education, insurance, and stories to the world—how easy it would be to feel that to offering Home to the world is similarly incidental to “real work.” Discontent tags along everywhere once you’ve gotten good at it.

So it’s interesting, after all, that now I am in the quietest and most ordinary vocation I’ve ever been in, I feel less like a barnacle, and more like the mother ship, than ever before. Why does the living room with a pile of books, the kitchen with a pile of beans, and the bedroom with a pile of laundry feel like the center of a bustling work/play metropolis? Why is it that this feels like real work in the real world when selling insurance did not?

Maybe it’s because even when I was a student myself, or a teacher of students (or swimmers, or writers, or anyone else I taught), a salesmen of insurance (or perfume, or donuts, or event tickets, or any of the things I sold), or a producer of stories (or books, or magazines, or home value reports, or dinner reservations, or any of the other things I produced), Home was what I wanted to be in charge of. The longest-held vocational ambition of my life, the great aspiration I can remember stretching back to childhood, was always this kitchen, this bedroom, this living room.

I always wanted to be a wife and mother. I feel a little sheepish about this, but so it is.

Or is it this? Perhaps I don’t find the work of motherhood incidental (when I managed to find all manner of very important other jobs so) is that it is truly the least incidental work I’ve ever done. I feel that it’s somehow the front line of something—and maybe that’s because it is the front line of something.

Even on the days when I’m not enjoying the front line, when the front line is bringing me to tears, when I’m not holding the front line—even on those days, the job is best described by the phrase “the heat of battle.” It feels urgent and significant, if potentially devastating.

So while I may have days of tedium and annoyance that make me feel like I’m manning the back room of a deserted interstate motel, that old feeling of futility doesn’t tend to come back, not the way I remember it. Because if this isn’t “real work” in the “real world,” what is?

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