Once, when I was a junior in college, sitting in a noisy London bar on a Saturday night, I successfully convinced one of my dear friends that he did not, in fact, want to be a stay-at-home dad.*
He had just finished telling me how "fun" he thought it would be, how "relaxing" to be a stay-at-home parent—how he could get lots of reading and writing done, and enjoy a leisurely life filled with the finer things.
I had a slightly more realistic picture than he did of parenthood, so after I was done laughing, I set him straight.
"Do you realize that as a stay-at-home parent you could go days or even weeks where the only adult interaction you get is your spouse coming home at the end of the day?" I asked.
That hadn't occurred to him.
"Do you realize that babies need almost constant care and attention, and toddlers make messes out of everything? What about the cooking and cleaning? Do you realize how much work it is to be home with kids all day?"
He didn't, actually, and after hearing the really appealing verbal portrait I painted, he decided he did not aspire to the stay-at-home "life of leisure" after all.
*I want to be clear that of course I support stay-at-home dads, and in fact I have a dear friend who is one—and he would be the first to tell you it's not easy. What I didn't support was my friend's misguided idea that being an at-home parent would be easy.
But what he couldn't understand was why I did want to be a stay-at-home parent—and actually, I was beginning to wonder that myself. Here we were, studying in one of the greatest cities in the world, spending our weekends in Athens and Prague and Dublin. Nothing sounded less appealing than a life of being at home with a baby all day, often with only your spouse for adult interaction. His reaction was that the life I described was not for him; my reaction was that I would prioritize picking a really interesting and fascinating spouse.
What neither of us accounted for, because we didn't know about it at the time, is how becoming a parent changes you. Recently I read this beautiful reflection on Lindsey's blog:
"Looking back at my earlier years of motherhood and remembering the attempts at holding onto my old free self, but knowing that my vocation now was to be in the home carefully tending to the next generation. Parts of that self still wanted to "See the World." Now though, 12 1/2 years into mothering, even though the delights of the world are still interesting, I want to be home more than anywhere else without much of a second thought of anything else. I still find world news and events exciting, but not at the expense of time spent with our family. Even when I am away from home, my heart is pulled towards home. When John so willingly offers me a chance to step away, I really just want to be home with him enjoying our children together. We have invested years into our children and ironically those children become your intrigue, individual biographies to be read and re-read, human beings to get to know over and over. Funny how that works."Her words struck me because she describes something I've begun to experience ever since my son was born—something that is so difficult to describe, or to understand if you haven't experienced it, and yet that has changed me completely.
Before my son was born, I always wanted to be out and on the go. When I was single, I actually had to make a rule for myself that I would stay home at least one night a week (to clean, do laundry, etc.) because otherwise I would never be free of outside commitments. Every evening was filled with lectures, parties, dinners, happy hours, coffee dates. The world was so full of exciting people to meet and things to do that I was never home for long if I could help it.
The world is still full of exciting things, but now I see my home as my little kingdom (or queendom, I guess I should call it). Somehow I care more about making things right in here, having all my family healthy and happy, than about all the things going on in the outside world. The focus of my energies has changed in a way I never imagined or expected.
I also never realized what good company babies can be. They are hilarious, affectionate, snuggly, and cute, laughing at all your slapstick jokes and clapping for your songs. Frankie and I have a lot of fun together all day. The worst thing I can say about him is that he always wants to be close to me—but my gosh, think what a compliment that is. Not a bad thing at all. I could fill a book with all the endearing things this boy does every day. Lately he has this funny habit of trying to pick up my freckles with his little pincer grip, and a few days ago he was pinching a bruise on my arm so I said, "Frankie, don't pinch. Give Mama kisses," so he obligingly leaned forward and gave my arm a slobbery kiss. I'm still melting over that one.
I also never accounted for the whole world of other fun things to do that opened up when I quit my full-time job. Every other week or so, I get together with my friends for baby play dates, trips to museums and parks, coffee dates at each others' houses and afternoon crafting sessions. We half-joke, half-plan about how eventually we will all homeschool our kids together.
For a while after Frankie was born, I said that motherhood had made me an introvert because I found myself suddenly happiest at home, but I've realized that's not accurate. I still love being around people and I draw energy from social interactions. What has changed is that motherhood has brought the source of my contentment inward, to my own home and its beloved inhabitants, rather than outward to the world—where things are thrilling and interesting, but where I have so little control over people's happiness. Here I can make us all happy so easily. A clean kitchen, a tasty family dinner, snuggles and a cozy movie on the couch, baking cookies on a snowy Sunday afternoon—these are the things that make me happiest now.
Sometimes I wonder if the world would be a better place if we all invested in making our own homes peaceful and happy instead of running around looking for happiness in other places. A lot of you seem to do that so well, and I think many of you learned this lesson at other times in your lives and through other ways. For me, it took becoming a mother to learn how to be happy staying in my own home, making it better and focusing my energy there.
Far from what I envisioned in college, I actually like the days I spend alone with the baby, only seeing my husband for adult interaction. Instead of being boring, it's the happiest life I've ever lived. I did not expect that, and that is how motherhood has changed me.