Posted Monday, April 4th, 2005
The Demon Should
My sister is a “stay-at-home” mom. She is, without a doubt, the best mother I’ve ever seen. Last weekend as I dried my hair in her guest bathroom, I could hear my sister reading a book about farm animals with my nephew, Ben, who is eighteen months old. She kept saying “bok, bok, bok” and he was giggling and she was giggling. She kept saying it and he kept giggling. As I listened I decided that this was the actual, absolute sound of happiness — my sister making chicken noises with her giggling son.
The chicken giggling incident may sound like a weak case for declaring Elizabeth mother of the year. You might need to actually hear the giggling to hear what I heard, which is the fun and love that Ben and Elizabeth have for each other. Of course she takes excellent care of him. And his mental development is plenty stimulated as Elizabeth is a former elementary school teacher with a master’s degree, but it is the way she will plop down on the floor with him and read books for hours and laugh and play that is pure magic.
When I tell Elizabeth that she is the best mother in the world, she shrugs off my compliment and mumbles something about probably letting him watch too much TV or feeding him macaroni and cheese from a box. Recently, she read an article in Newsweek about a new book on mothers called “Perfect Madness.” The book addresses the generation of mothers who are on a permanent quest to be the perfect mom. The book describes a number of women who left exciting, rewarding jobs to stay at home with their children and debates the merits of leaving their careers. Elizabeth told me that the article made her feel that by quitting her job and staying at home with her son, she is a traitor to the feminist movement. I mentioned this article to a friend of mine, who is also an outstanding mother, and she told me at length about how guilty she feels for continuing to work and putting her son in day care. From an outsider, single-childless perspective, both women, my sister and my friend, are amazing mothers. Their children are all stimulated, well behaved and obviously loved. And I have no doubt that they have both made the right choices for themselves and their families. When I told my friend this, she said, “Well we all get caught up in the ‘should’s’ and so many people tell me I should stay at home instead of working.” And this got me thinking about the ‘should’s’.
I am a sucker for the ‘should’s’. I have two of them: I ‘should’ be married and I ‘should’ have a finite career plan. I am absolutely single and though I have a good job, I have no finite, long-term goals for my career. Right now I am waiting for decision letters from five graduate schools although I’m not certain I actually want to go to grad school. And every time I end a relationship with a guy, there is a tiny part of me that wonders if this means that I’m destined to die alone – a childless spinster.
I try very hard to let go of my ‘shoulds’. Logic and reason tell me that I have so many things going right that there is no reason to feel stressed to make any changes. And my faith, which is a big part of my life, tells me that I am at my best when I let go of these should’s. But it is, of course, easier said than done. It is hard to live my faith 100% of the time and honestly I’m a silly, romantic type so I’ve never been big on logic and reason.
In thinking over my own should issues I decided to ask my friends what their ‘should’ issues are, or even if they have any at all. I emailed several of my friends, some married, some mothers, some single, and asked about the idea of the should as well as whether or not they had any. Several promptly replied with their lists. A number of the emails began with “Oh, I’ve got plenty of these…” and so I compiled a list of the shoulds that my friends worry over. Here’s a sample of what I received:
· Should be married and have a family
· Should stay home with my child and be a stay at home mom-otherwise I am a terrible mom
· Shouldn't give up my career for children, woman have worked too hard to secure a place in the workforce
· Should take my navel piercing out now that I'm pregnant
· Should drive a smaller car, yet have three rows of seat to fit all the kid/dogs/groceries
· Should teach my son baby sign language
· Should have known the nice-ities, somehow expected to have thought of the coffee or umbrellas
· Should accept that women in business are termed to have to 'act like men' and dress like women.
· Should be coming back to work after having a baby, if am really dedicated
· Should own a home instead of “wasting my money on rent”
· Should not be so cynical
· Should make homemade food for book club instead of just getting from Trader Joes
· Should be thin and fit
· Should be able to do it all
This is quite a list. And the full list includes a lot of repetition of similar themes. It’s worth noting that the group of women who made this list is an amazing bunch. I am blessed to have a group of friends who are incredibly successful (including PhD’s and executive titles and incredible resumes), well rounded, beautiful and balanced. And I believe that each recognizes the absurdity of the ‘should’ concept. But at the same time, they can rattle off a list of their ‘should’s’ in a moment. This makes me wonder if the ‘should’s’ are drivers toward our best, ideal self. Maybe they aren’t so bad at all – if you consider that the group of women I am working with are undeniably successful in many ways, isn’t it possible that part of that success is driven by an instinct for perfection? Or, on the other hand, do the ‘shoulds’ hold us back by frustrating our lives and driving us towards unachievable goals like being able to ‘do it all’?
I do not know the answer. What I know is that my girlfriends who made this list are part of the reason I am a better person, they inspire me, take care of me and keep me going. And what I want for them is to erase any worry or stress over their shoulds. Because, at least to me, they are each the ideal woman.
Comments [post a comment]
Posted by Katrina Denza on Monday, April 4th, 2005 at 8:47 PM
What a wonderful, eloquent, lovely essay. A tribute to the women in your life as well as a testament to your own intelligence and spirit.
Posted by Sheyma Buali on Tuesday, April 5th, 2005 at 11:39 AM
It is certainly a very supportive essay, because "shoulds" are so introspection based. But, it is also like a fun excercise. Ill bet most who read this started to think of their own "shoulds". Depending on how serious they are, they may be able to turn it into a "could". On the other hand, we also have the "grass is always greener on the other side" demon,(I should live in a house, not an apartment) as well as healthy aspirations (i should train myself to write better) and self-examinations (I should not be so moody).
Posted by Amy Brittain on Tuesday, April 5th, 2005 at 12:34 PM
Thanks for this article, which captures the twisted logic so many of us have in trying to do all the "right" things, even when many of them so clearly conflict.
It also notes the important underlying issue of supporting others' different (and "right") decisions versus condemning different as wrong. Many of us are struggling to figure out what is best for us and our families and our careers, and we're eager for the support of other strong women who are trying to figure it out as well.
Posted by Anna McDougall on Monday, April 11th, 2005 at 9:16 PM
As a stay-at-home mom I found this essay a comforting reminder that I am not alone in my battle with the "shoulds".