Just in case there was any confusion, I have identified the hardest job in the world: stay-at-home mom. Or perhaps a more accurate title would be always-busy-never-getting-enough-sleep-need-coffee-now-stay-at-home mom. My sister-in-law, Amanda, who is indeed a stay-at-home mom, is ON 24/7, and wow, does she work hard. I’ve known this for a long time, but there was something about my time in Michigan last month that really underlined this point. I confess that sometimes I think the work of being a mother would feel more fulfilling than the work I do now as a scientist. To witness a child growing, ever so slowly, from tiny infant to confident adult, is nothing short of amazing. The work of nurturing is powerful stuff. It’s also very challenging work, requiring more patience, creativity, hope, and forgiveness than we think ourselves capable of giving. Parenting is, I think, the act of giving all you’ve got, and then some.
I am not a parent, but I take my duties as an auntie seriously. I’m not sure that motherhood is in the cards for me—I remain ambivalent about becoming a parent myself—so being an auntie seems like the next best thing. I try to embrace a give-it-all-you’ve-got attitude, knowing that, as Gretchen Rubin says, the days are long but the years are short. The years are especially short when you only see your family twice a year, so we try to squeeze every last drop out of the days we have together.
It was wonderful to be in Michigan in the summertime because it gave us the chance to enjoy all sorts of outdoor delights. Truth be told, we didn’t do anything too elaborate or exotic. One morning, my brother and sister-in-law hosted a family brunch, and my entire immediate family was able to attend. On another day, Amanda packed a picnic lunch and we took the kids to Maybury State Park for an afternoon of playing. It was a little chilly that day, with a feisty breeze, but the sun was warm and we spent several hours on playgrounds and tracing circles through a Zen rock maze.
Later in my visit, the summer heat descended, and we took the kids to a nearby splash park for a day of picnicking, running, climbing, laughing, and sunshine. I settled easily into my role as chaperone, standing on the sidelines while Lydia jumped and ran through the splash park with the uninhibited joy of a five-year-old.
At the splash park, we met up with one of Amanda’s friends and her two girls. Later in the day, when all the kids wanted to play on the playground, I volunteered to chaperone the bigger kids, ranging from three to almost six years old, while Amanda tagged after little Devin to make sure he didn’t get trampled. To keep an eye on three kids, I found myself doing head counts to make sure all the kids were visible and accounted for. I didn’t do too badly, only losing track of one kid when she ran back to our picnic blankets to be with her mom. It was surprisingly satisfying to be of use in this way, to be the shepherd keeping watch over her flock of children. I am not the most maternal of people, but being an auntie lets me try on that role. Sometimes it feels just right to me.
We had plenty of time at home, too, time which we filled with games and kids’ shows and lots of good food. Lydia and Devin were fascinated by my lab timer, which I had brought with me to get some work done. No work was accomplished by me, but I got a big kick out of Lydia timing everything.
(I just love their expressions in this photo! They look like scientists to me. And don’t their new haircuts look great?)
I tried to strike a balance between entertaining the kids, helping out with the cooking and cleaning, and taking a bit of time for myself. I have learned that even on vacations, I like some alone time, especially if my vacation is more than three or four days of “together time.” I took runs or walks by myself. Sometimes I snuck into one of the bedrooms to read or write on my computer. But mostly I tried to be helpful, whether that meant taking the kids for a walk, playing with Lydia, or “baby-sitting” the kids in the car while Amanda ran into the store to pick up a few groceries.
In the midst of all that activity, I found myself thinking about how the act of being a family is a little like being a machine. A dynamic, flexible, forgiving machine that works best when everyone tries to do their part to the best of their ability. The machine must allow for people to grow and change, of course, but more than ever, I felt that the best way for me to help my family was to fill in the gaps where I see them: to care for Lydia and make coffee in the mornings, to empty the dishwasher and sweep the floor when the opportunity is present, to grill peaches for dessert, to clear the patio table of food and dirty dishes after dinner. There is no clear line between being wanted and being needed. My family may survive without my physical presence for 50 weeks of the year, but I know they want and need me to be in Michigan during those two precious weeks when I can be there.
When we are needed, we walk a line between feeling satisfied that we are an essential part of the machine and feeling overwhelmed by the work of caring for others. Being an auntie, contrary to popular opinion, is not always easy. I get tired too, or disgruntled that other people’s needs come before my own, or miffed that my family doesn’t understand my unconventional personal life. I am an academic and an intellectual in a family that is more common sense-smart than intellectually sophisticated. But then again, it is from my family that I learned to be practical, to find my own balance between everyday needs and pursuing my dreams. I am a chameleon, able to move between different worlds without too much trouble, and my ability to blend into different settings and connect with different people may be one of my most powerful and charming traits.
I really love that every time I go back to Michigan, I feel a little wiser and a little more capable. And it’s with that sense of becoming a bigger person that I offer the following advice for parents and aunties. I found this on one of Amanda’s Pinterest boards and thought it was too good not to share here.
Image from Modern Parents Messy Kids. I hope they won’t be upset that I borrowed it!
I have one more thing to add: in the end, there is only love. Let us move through our days knowing that while love may not be all we need, in the end, it is what matters the most. Love, compassion, kindness, affection: these are the fuel that keep a family’s engine humming along.
* “In the end, there is only love.” With gratitude, I adapted this quote from the amazing Gretchen Rubin.