The following story, I Am Not Sad About My Kids Growing Up by Lyz Lenz, was originally published on Boomdash.
Last year, when my oldest child went to Kindergarten, I sat in the parking lot on the first day of school and I didn't cry. I thought about crying. A few other moms had cried in the classroom and in the hall as we left. I smiled, trying to register an emotional look on my face. But really, I just wanted to leave.
Sitting in the parking lot, I felt defective. Did I need to cry? Did I want to cry? Was something wrong with me? I searched my soul and found nothing but relief. So, I stopped thinking about it and got coffee, went home, and started working.
This year I didn't cry at the first day of school either, which marked the passage of my children into first grade and Pre-K. I don't cry at graduations. I don't cry on birthdays. Instead, I embrace the relief. Every passing year means things are a little easier. My kids can put on shoes and rinse dishes. I can leave them alone while I pee. Sure, I miss chubby baby wrists, but I love sleeping all night.
While women are allowed and have the right to feel their feelings and publicly display them in whatever manner they deem necessary, the overwrought nature of back-to-school sentimentality is more than just a moment of mourning for our babies-no-more — it's a cultural trope that reinforces repressive ideals of motherhood.
Motherhood used to be as much about commerce as it was about childrearing. In Colonial America, the livelihood of the family was integral to homelife. Children were born to be workers. Cornish journalist James Silk Buckingham wrote in his description of America, "Every member of the family must work hard, from daylight to dark, the women as well as the men, and the children as well as the grown people . . . In general they were very dirty in their persons, the mother being too weary to wash them."
But as technology recentered the economic hub of the family to the factories, motherhood changed from a job of physical labor and commerce, to one of emotional and spiritual development. The Victorian ideal of motherhood created a mother as the angel of the house, forming intense emotional bonds with her children. Writing in The History of the Wife, Marilyn Yalom notes that by the mid-twentieth century, "motherhood was seen as the raison d'etre and crowning glory of American women." Women's work then, became the work of the heart — lauded and celebrated, but rarely ever compensated or protected with legal rights. Even mothers who found occupations outside the home centered their lives on their home and their children. Even the empowered woman of the 1960s, was depicted in ads as still maintaining her valiant motherhood, in addition to her career. Writing in the New Yorker, Elizabeth Weiss describes one such pernicious archetype: "In a 1980 television commercial for Enjoli perfume, a woman transforms from career gal to mother to seductress, over the lyrics: "'Cause I'm a woman, I can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and never let you forget you're a man."
No other occupation, even fatherhood, became as twisted up in the emotional and spiritual attachments of human relationships. So many of my friends have quit their jobs because home is more fulfilling and children are their most important job. Which, that may be true for them. But in doing so, these women are celebrated and lauded as selfless. There are no Hallmark cards for women who gleefully profess to find their work to be emotionally fulfilling. There are no "showers" when you achieve your dream job. I'm not the first to point this out. And I won't be the last until it changes.
But this isn't about creating a dichotomy of women who are sad at the beginning of school v. the women who are happy. Life is not a binary. Both things are allowed to be true. And she who has never wistfully remembered a pudgy baby snuggle while fighting with a first grader over whether it's okay to call people "poopfaces," can cast the first stone. But our grief rituals over back to school are located in the forced sentimentality of motherhood, which keeps us chained to the myth that our identities are located within the output of our uterus and not who we are as people.
Before children, I loved the ritual of back-to-school. And with children, I love it still. Because it marks a new year with new skills and new freedoms for me. It also marks the overwhelming privilege of having two kids who are learning and growing . . . and will one day be able to make dinner for themselves.
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