When I left teaching, I had been at it since my early twenties and, frankly, I was burned out. My second son had arrived from Korea seven months before and quickly I found that I was abysmal at juggling parenting and teaching, and one of them had to go. I had grown fond of each boy—so shipping either back to southeast Asia was not an option. That was that, so I nixed the job.
I had been a teacher for nearly two decades, and I had loved every minute. Or most minutes. I wouldn’t miss the glamorous lifestyle or generous salary (about equal to a ducat and a bag of hair). But I would, sincerely and wholeheartedly, miss my students.
When I put in my notice, a surprise to my husband who never saw it coming and had certainly never agreed to it, he said something along the lines of “This might be really hard for you. This is who you’ve been for as long as I’ve known you.” My identity had been firmly grounded in my chosen career. Would I really be okay with trashing it and reinventing myself after so many years in the trenches? My answer was tacit but definitive: Yep.
Overall, the transition to a stay-at-home-mom was easier than I had expected and the nuisances and joys couldn’t have been more parallel. An annoying high schooler hiding my stapler for the 15th time became an annoying toddler hiding my car keys for the 1000th. The signature ink stain on most of my shirts (overworked Pilot pens tend to implode over time) morphed into bleach stains earned by swabbing urine off the toilet, the floor, the walls. And the triumph I’d felt when a fledgling writer finally felt comfortable enough to read their essay to the class? That feeling could only be surpassed by the pride I felt when my three-year-old showed me he had mastered three letters of the alphabet—by using a sharp stone to etch them into the door of my Honda.
I have to admit to one legitimately nagging frustration with being home all day. The chronic griminess. Before kids, I was never a clean freak, but we were pretty much the typical childless couple with a few rinsed dishes in the sink. After kids, my house looks like someone broke in, dumped two garbage cans on the stairs and then ground black jelly beans into every area rug they could find. Approximately a zillion participation ribbons and hoarded clothes tags (don’t ask me…?) are jammed in all my decorative bowls and too often a tumbleweed of mites and cat dander rolls by. Brown and more brown drips from the recycling bin, and if you need a piece of cheese, look in the produce drawer, next to the ulcerated cantaloupe and mummified hotdogs.
Pre-spawn, I read books on creative paint techniques and feng shui; post-spawn, I consulted condescending articles like “How to Keep A Tidy House With Little Kids—It’s Possible!” In time, I tried to lower my expectations and embrace the disarray as proof of what an active and down-to-earth family we were. I couldn’t even fool myself.
And, now, with one near-adult on the cusp of college and another leaving home in what will feel like a minute, I will finally have time to buy a pair of fancy, non-disposable Playtex gloves and try out that gadget you attach to a drill to scrub the grout. My fantasies of reaching under the couch cushions without finding half a Tootsie Pop or bloodied Band-Aid are about to be realized.
And it makes me sad.
When I sit down and think about it, a clean house equals an empty house; an empty house means I’m not a SAHM anymore. And if I’m not a SAHM, what am I—a homemaker? What does that even mean? I look to the future and imagine spending my days wearing khakis and plumping pillows and arranging dustless tchotchkes on the mantel. I’ll open the fridge and see condiments arranged neatly and artistically in the door, no mysterious goodge cementing them in. Rooms won’t smell like athlete’s foot anymore, but lavender and lilac and vanilla. I’ll finally be able to live in the sparkling abode I’ve always wanted—but now that this “utopia’” is nearly attainable, it sounds lonely and grey and horrible.
Back in the day, swapping my teaching license for the luxury of staying home was my choice, and I was essentially trading one purpose for another. I never lost who I was, I just shifted and expanded how I viewed myself without much ado. Now, as a soon-to-be-empty-nester, I am on the precipice of reinventing myself again, but this time I don’t want to; I have to.
My future is unclear. I think it’s unrealistic to think that some neighborhood parent will cede custody of their child so this middle-aged crone has something meaningful to look forward to each day. And the prospect of returning to teaching after a 918 week sabbatical is unlikely as well.
All I know is that I will push forward into the unknown, aimless at first, but heading towards a new me. Without a solitary doubt, though, I sure as hell won’t have a spotless house.