Every morning my husband grabs his briefcase and kisses me, our 2-year-old, and our newborn goodbye. My son rushes to the window as his car pulls out of the driveway. It is a classic and much parodied American scene — you know it from The Wonder Years, The Brady Bunch, Father Knows Best, in which the stay-at-home-mom exists to wave off her husband to his work each day. I always thought I’d be a career woman, but this scene is playing out every morning in my home on the other side of the globe in Australia, where my husband has been posted and I am a stay-at-home mom.
Being a stay-at-home mom was never my destination; it was supposed to be a rest stop on my professional highway. I was working as an American diplomat in Central America, a high-stress job in one of the region's most crime-ridden cities, when I decided to take leave last year to focus on my children. I joke that I left my high pressure job with the State Department for an unpaid internship in my own home. My new workplace is a chaotic, grimy, little island of butterfly kisses and Band-Aids and peanut butter toast. At any given moment inexplicable, even dangerous things are happening: books fly from shelves, cereal is ground into tiles, baby has discovered daddy’s cough drops in his night stand. Why is baby in the bedroom?
It brings to mind the thermodynamic principle of entropy — a physicist’s word for a tendency towards disorder. After months of fighting it, I embrace the law of entropy and its daily triumph in my home. I even lovingly dubbed the inside of these four walls the Entropics, where I vow not to go full Kurtz on anyone, as Heart of Darkness as I might feel certain days. Those days begin way before five and are punctuated by tantrums and time outs with a pause at 10 a.m. for lunch. The days usually head slowly downhill from there and inevitably end in a place that promises order, clean sheets, and meatballs. This place is exactly 15 minutes from my home — enough drive-time to get the kids to sleep, take a long drag on my six-hour-old coffee, and text my husband, “in the IKEA parking lot,” which says it all in our language. I never step foot in the place. I turn right back around.
I vowed I would not feel diminished by my new day job. I did not mind cleaning toilets or butts or my entire outfit being used as a very large mobile tissue throughout the day. My fitness tracker revealed staggering statistics that should have made me proud. I could log five miles in my 1,800-square-foot home in a typical “work” day, changing diapers, cleaning sippy cups, and running up and down and up and down the stairs for stuffed animals who were “lonely,” fingernail clippers, and preferred but ill-fitting bathing suits “just because.”
I had procreated, twice even, and had allowed myself to shrivel up and shed my own vanity like a cicada after mating season.
But the chaos of it all did make me feel diminished. It was a marked departure from the reality I had imagined where we did Pinterest crafts together, and I homeschooled, and baked. Instead, I am discussing the frequency of baby’s bowel movements with my son and constantly singing improvised, weird little coping songs to the tune of “London Bridge is Falling Down” to get my son to put his jacket on and use the toilet. In my bleakest moments I remind myself that I left a job I was already good at, a thought that warmed and then burned me, a job I had worked so hard to earn.
“What’s your name?” my son asked one day while I pushed him and his sister in the double stroller at our local mall. He clenched his fist like a microphone and held it up to my mouth. Interviewing people was his new thing and this was a rare excursion outside of the Entropics.
“I’m Mommy,” I said, let down by my own answer. My son beamed, totally unaware, like most 2-year-olds, that I might be anyone beyond his caregiver. I caught a glimpse of myself in the storefront glass, hovering over my stroller with the vacant face of desperation of so many stay-at-home moms. I had procreated, twice even, and had allowed myself to shrivel up and shed my own vanity like a cicada after mating season. I was a shell of the woman I had been, walking around in workout clothes that never saw a gym let alone an endorphin high. A caricature again; I was less Leave it to Beaver and more “Honey Boo Boo.” I said things like, “I need my body back,” to friends. I schemed about a girls’ night out like it was naughty consuming alcohol in anything other than a bathrobe with Game of Thrones on.
Before I had children, I assumed that I would become “mommy” as naturally and rapidly as I became pregnant, treating my son’s gestation like my own motherly metamorphosis in chrysalis. I might have survived on egg sandwiches in college, but surely I would emerge, baby in arms as a woman who could whip up a pot pie from scratch. It was perplexing to find myself decidedly insecure in my role as a mother. I blamed the stress of work. After all, I had not had the time to settle into my new life with my children. My discomfort, which ranged from cooking to disciplining, was most evident in my battle to harness the energy and intensity of my active son.
Although my husband and I moved countless times before, this was my son’s first big move as a child in the Foreign Service. All the newness brought major anxiety and a negative shift in his behavior. Our struggles reached epic proportions, what the book Raising Your Spirited Child describes as “the red zone.” I tried to teach him to name his emotions, offering him the words “disappointed” and “frustrated” instead of yelling, hitting, or kicking. Soon he was using these words all the time to describe every remotely uncomfortable feeling.
What I really wanted to tell my friends, stationed all around the world in jobs covering human rights and press freedom, was that nothing could have prepared me for this outpost in my own home.
One afternoon after continuously pulling the cable attached to our satellite dish on our roof, he ended up in time out. When I finally settled him into the corner and convinced him to take a few deep breaths, he bowed his head, “Mommy,” he said, putting his Thomas the Tank Engine shoes out in front him. “I sorry. I just disappointed. I don’t know why I did that,” with remorse. “Mommy,” he added. “I miss you.”
My friends howled when I told this story, “Ooooooh, that boy is taking you for a ride!” they laughed. “It’s called manipulation,” one quipped.
I laughed too. Humor was how I coped with more painful personal issues. What I really wanted to tell my friends, stationed all around the world in jobs covering human rights and press freedom, was that nothing could have prepared me for this outpost in my own home. I wanted to tell them about how my son woke up one day and asked me if butterflies stung. Was it some giant metaphor for my decision to stay home? I wanted to ask. Was I the butterfly? My time at home had foisted me into a dark journey of discovery beyond my working, public self, the person I knew best. I did not like what I saw.
All my strengths I relied on in moments of professional self-doubt were useless at home in the Entropics. My children did not care where I went to school, what I studied, or how many languages I spoke. They would not be “managed.” We were each other’s only human resource and the complaint department was at capacity. I learned that I also had my own “red zone,” an undiscovered temper that manifested like a freak cyclone after just enough sleeplessness, prolonged noise, and lack of personal space. I self-medicated by blaring Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” on rare occasions I was alone in my car. I reread Raising Your Spirited Child. I researched methods like “Shock and Awe” parenting. Late at night I ate my emotions in the form of Tim Tams, Australia’s favorite cookie. I meditated.
One Sunday morning, I took my son swimming at our local pool and allowed him to bring a toy, stipulating that he would share it with other children. It was a set up, of course, I planned the whole thing. He did not share even after several warnings and I announced we were going home minutes after arriving, but he would not leave the water. I physically evicted him from the pool and carried him sopping, writhing, and screaming under one arm through the parking lot. People stared.
He yelled for 15 long minutes after being strapped into his car seat and threw his towel down, shivering and whining all the way home. In the driveway, I got out of the car and closed the door. Silence. Well, almost. I sat on our stoop and put my head in my hands. Suddenly, I heard a high-pitch scream. Startled, I took a deep breath and stood up to go to the car, but it was not my son screaming. Across the street, our neighbor’s 4-year-old stood atop his parents' mailbox screaming to the neighborhood about some indecipherable injustice. He was naked.
I watched for a moment, taking twisted satisfaction in witnessing this primal scene play out for someone else. I crossed the street. “Do Mommy and Daddy know you’re out here? Better go inside!” He gave a bewildered look, jumped down and ran inside, screen door slamming behind him. I returned to our driveway, my son finally silent in his seat, studying a toy he found next to him.
“I’m ready to go back to the pool now,” he sniffled as I put my keys away.
“We’re not going,” I declared and locked the front door.
Looking back, I began as a clueless but good-intentioned dictator when I first took time off to be with my children. I scolded my son for not answering my questions yet pretended I could not hear him when he told me five times that he did not, in fact, want the ham sandwich I had already prepared for his lunch. “It is not my job to tell you things over and over again,” I had said countless times those early months.
In fact, it was my job, it may not have been the one I applied for but it was the one I got. Disciplining my children the same way countless times was exactly my job description, as was getting my face and clothing routinely thrown up on. Truthfully, the hardest part of this tour in my own home is not the toy-strewn disorganized house or the cereal ground into the floor, but that I am not the mother I thought I would be.
As much as my children are my entire world, so am I theirs, a fact I barely considered my first few months on the job.
Although I have assumed the identity of a woman who eats all her vegetables, believes in heaven and God, and never swears, I still can’t whip up a pot pie (let’s be honest, my kids probably would not eat it anyway). The more Pinteresty our days look, the less fun everyone has in the process. And homeschooling, ha! If I were evaluated for my work in this hardship post, I might not even be promoted. Yet, I have also surprised myself. No one can better perform the score to Disney’s Moana or portray every single Peter Pan character in the time it takes to get breakfast ready. My meatballs are amazing, according to my son, who helps me roll them. He says the food we make together is the most delicious, even when it isn’t. I constantly have four or five wilted dandelions in my jacket pockets that he picks for me on our morning walk.
“Smell this,” he says, handing it to me: “It’s full of honey.”
As much as my children are my entire world, so am I theirs, a fact I barely considered my first few months on the job. Just as I could be a freak cyclone on a cloudless day, I could also be the sun with occasional showers, and I needed to try to be if I cared about my island and its little people. After all, there is much more at stake than promotion in this tour, it is the health and happiness of my family, which has a lot a lot more to do with me now. I wield more power and influence in my yoga pants than I ever had professionally in my tailored suits, a thought at once happy and sad.
Still, the Entropics are not my destination and they are definitely not the quaint rest stop I longed for as an overwhelmed working parent. But I have pitched my tent in the thick of this chaos, this place between what I imagined and what happens every day. Here, there are no sick days, 401Ks, or private trips to the bathroom. The butterflies still sting now and then. There is also joy. The dandelions are full of honey, and miracles are happening because of or in spite of me. My daughter, whose leg I broke slipping with her in my arms during one of those trips up and down the stairs, eventually took her first steps towards me. She turned all 18 pounds of her tiny frame, let go of the couch, moved her feet to walk, and fell into my arms. She could not walk, but believed she could.
“May we all be so brave,” I said, embracing her with tears in my eyes. It would be seven more months until she took her first real steps toward, of all things, a trashcan full of used tissues.