The nuclear family is not my friend

I have so many posts I would rather write than this one, but I am overcome with desire to pour my heart out instead; to process my hurt and confusion, my bitterness, my anger, and my sadness.

I don't think anyone knew what the nuclear family would really do to families, I mean, it sounds so great on paper! Self-sustaining! Independent! Privacy! But really, it just breaks us up, isolates us and makes maintaining connections of the daily-variety with peers nearly impossible.

It doesn't matter if you're in or out of the house, if you're the main caregiver of children you're doing it alone and mysteriously so. No one sees the machinations of a working mother or a stay at home mom. We don't know what her days and nights are made of. How she balances her needs with those of her family. We are separated from our larger communities on a basic level I'm not so convinced is totally natural and are left to recreate the wheel. Women are essentially robbed of other women and learning from their experiences first hand.

In our current nuclear set up women who leave the house to work are revered as super-women, often trying to do it all and often to their own detriment, and women staying home with children seem to be looked upon with both disdain and an odd kind of admiration for turning down the chance to earn cash. - Oh, how many times I've heard from working mothers, "I could never stay home with my children all day long! I wouldn't know what to do!" As if I somehow have a secret weapon they don't know about it. My only weapon is sheer grit and determination, honestly, and even that is waning in the harsh light of my unhappy reality. [Ed. note: the opening paragraphs were changed to better match my feelings of this particular post. My earlier version wasn't as well connected to my thought process.]

The nuclear family, something right-wing conservatives are trying so desperately to "protect," is eroding our families. This whole "someone leaves the house to make money and the other stays behind and tends to the children and the house" thing or the "both adults leave to make money, check the kids into daycare or school, come home and try to squeeze an entire day's worth of household duties into 3 and a half hours" thing SUCK. They plain S-U-C-K.

There are no helpful aunts and uncles and cousins galore to help tend to things every woman has to take care of. There is no moment where she can engage and talk and recharge while in motion. Everything must keep going. When I am with friends and family with Hollis I let go. I find myself completely disengaging for that 30 minutes or an hour and allow the other adult to relieve me of some of the burden of tending to a small, but extremely busy, tornado. I often wonder what kind of mother they think I am because I will all too happily sit in front of the TV or the computer while they tinker away with the boy.

I know for a fact that Anthony worries that I put Hollis somewhere below priority #1 because what he sees, and all he ever sees, is me taking a step back to relieve myself of the intense pressure and emotion I feel every second of the day when I'm with him. How often does your child EVER leave your mind completely when you're alone with her? Even when she's asleep I bet you go and make sure she's still breathing and snugly covered up. Your ears are trained to find "suspicious" silences, your eyes honed to notice the smallest pinch of the lips that tells you to make her spit something out, your lips finely tuned to the tracest change in body temperature, the pads of your fingertips sensitive to any new cut, bump, or rash.

[I must add here that it BREAKS MY FUCKING HEART to know that Anthony looks on my mothering with even the tiniest sliver of disappointment and skepticism. It's such a volatile topic for me that I feel fangs grow and my irises turning red when he broaches the topic of, "Is this what it's always like with Hollis when I'm not around??" There is literally nothing else he could possibly say to me to get me to shut down so emphatically and completely while simultaneously enraging me. Ever heard of don't poke the bear? Well, this is more like don't poke the starving, sleep-deprived, angry, cannibal bear.]

It is so wholly exhausting to be in charge of someone's life. I finally get it; how to explain it to others. Being alone, fully responsible for another person's life, personality, development, health, growth, and happiness - all while basically directionless and alone - has done me in.

This is what is so singularly hard about being a stay at home mother in a nuclear family. I can't believe it's taken me so long to finally get it. I've felt horribly guilty about finding it so hard because I had no schedule, no one to tell me what to do and when. I was my own boss and I was doing what I loved: raising my son. - And only one son! Not 3 or 4 or 5 kids. I've often wondered if I were busier I might not notice how shriveled up as an individual I've become, but I suppose eventually the shit hits the fan. So why not now?

I can't speak to working mothers' experiences, obviously, but I'm sure it's a shade of this for them as well. Like they can't imagine doing what I do, I can't imagine doing what they do, either: working so hard in an office then having to come home and cook, clean, love, maintain a marriage, a life, sanity, friendships. Jesus Christ. I'm overwhelmed thinking about it.

I hate to bring this up because I feel like such a fucking whiner. Some of you may be nodding your heads thinking, "Yes, she is whining. She's got it so much better than me!" and to you I say that everyone's experience is different and our hard wiring makes everything even more experiential and personal. I even look at myself and think I'm a big baby, but I can't change how this life is affecting me. I've tried.

I am so sick to death that I have to fight for live interaction with other adults. I struggle with it every day as I wander through the hours trying to keep Hollis engaged, happy, stimulated, and loved. Where are the villages of parents and friends I keep hearing about? They're like goddamned Big Foot to me at this point.

How did we let it come to this??

And I ask that question of myself and of society at large. Obviously, it's mostly rhetorical, but seriously. When did it become cool to bend over a barrel like this? And suffer and be lonely and have to sign up for adult interaction on internet websites in the form of a mommy group??

I am a swirling mass of frustration, confusion, and sadness. I wanted this life so badly and now that I have it I am drowning in it. I feel like a massive ingrate and a weakling. I am so awed by the women who have figured out how to make this work for them and humbled when they share their struggles with me. But the nuclear family is still not my friend. If it had a Twitter page I would unfollow it; a Facebook page I'd unfriend it.

Of course I don't say all this without having a plan. I always have a plan. I'm working towards happiness. I really am. Like my last post suggests we do, I am changing things and I do know how to change. I have goals to do some part-time work soon. I made a schedule of activities for me and Hollis next week which fills me with relief to have some structure. I will soon have my husband home again for a full week.

I really wish I could share everything with the Ether, but I can't, I'm afraid of some of it myself, but this is the most I can put out there while still protecting myself. I hope it's enough to pull back the curtains a bit and shine the light on the darker corners of our middle class Western family culture - and even more personally, me. Take me as I am or not at all, I say... thanks again for being here for me.


  1. Jessica, you're not alone in how you are feeling. I think we all struggle with the same thing. It's hard. It's the hardest job on the planet, being a mother, being solely responsible for another human being, in every aspect of their life, 24 hours a day, for well, at leat 18 years. And then some. Or forever. Because we'll always feel so protective of our children.
    And I know 100% that there is no job on earth harder than that of a mother who stays home during the day to look after her children. There is no break there, no time for yourself. On top of being 'present' with the child, playing with child, reading, taking the child out, etc. you have to think about meals and laundry and so on. It's TOUGH. I totally get it. AND I work fulltime in an office, everyday during the week. I see my children in the morning for a couple of hours, and then again at 5 p.m. and even being with them from 5 to 9 p.m. is tiring! And that makes me feel guilty, like, how can I complain when I've hardly been with them? And I am lucky because we do have family looking after them, I realize this. I count my blessings everyday. But regardless, my boys are a hand full, my 2 year old especially. I have a hard time with discipline, and it's really tough. I'm exhausted by the end of the night, barely enough time to speak to my husband, let alone do anything else. I look way more tired now then I did a few years ago. While I love my children with every cell in my body, and while they are my entire life, I'm tired. And I get it. And I loved reading this post, and I'm glad you wrote it all down. You are NOT alone. I promise. At the same time, I don't have any answers for you, any tips on making it easier. There are good days, and there are bad days, and I think, for the most part, that's how it's going to be for the first few years...I think it's great that you have goals. Try to stay positive... you are a great mom, and you have a wonderful son. And we are here for you, too. HUGS Jessica. xo

  2. I have days like this. Lord, do I have days like this. But you are doing the right thing--having some sort of structure as a SAHM is absolutely essential.
    And regardless of anyone's lot in life, we all have the right to whine once in awhile. For the record, though? This is not whining. This is truth-telling.

  3. Wow does this post ever resonate with me. I sure as heck don't have a village helping me out while I attempt to keep three busy boys from destroying my home, and I don't have the energy to worry about stimulating their brains and getting them exercise and everything else ALL THE TIME. I'm so tired somedays I want to just run away and sleep and sleep, but I feel guilty for being unhappy when I have so much that is good in my life.

    I used to wonder if it was just the baby years that would be so consuming of me, but nope, now I now it's just kids and it feels like it's all on us moms to just cope and get things done. And the moms I know in real life tend to not admit (or they actually are happier than me) how freaking hard this is.

    Anyway - thanks for sharing - it helps to know there are others like me out here in internet-land.

  4. A friend of mine, who has recently become a SAHM, wrote on this topic a wee bit ago: http://thedrspacemanchronicles.blogspot.com/2010/01/working-moms.html

    I presently play the part of office mom, and then come home and try to piece together some semblance of family time in the brief hours we have before bedtime.

    I think they're both immensely difficult jobs. Finding the ability to both be oneself and be wholly responsible for another human being is exhausting. As my son once astutely put it, I'm not a woman, I'm mama. Ah, the Madonna/Whore complex starts early.

    My goal is to find some middle ground, and to keep finding myself rather than losing my self in the hustle and bustle that is this life.

  5. jessica, this is exactly the post i would write if my heart had a keyboard. seriously, somehow you have a direct link to me and probably so many SAHMs out there. i struggle every.single.day. with my own moods (sanity? choice to stay home?), not to mention giving the best i can to my two sweet dependents. you are right about this life being "so wholly exhausting" and how so much of the time we are alone and directionless and yet still are expected to smile on and martha out as best we can.

    i applaud you for putting words to this issue that is more popular than most moms (and probably dads too) will admit.

    i haven't any words of advice. i can just share with you the things i say to myself to keep me from needing a visit to a room w/padded walls.

    daily affirmations (of sorts):
    -This is Temporary
    -My Children Are Happy Therefore I'm Doing a Great Job
    -Don't Yell to Relieve Stress, Just Breathe & Walk Away (may sound harsh but I'm a yeller if I don't remind myself otherwise- this shit is stressful!)
    -Leave the House Every Day, Doesn't Matter Where b/c the Kids aren't Picky
    -I Sacrifice Myself Now and will Rebuild Whenever Possible (even if that means i say up until 1am to watch mindless TV on Bravo or Lifetime.)
    -This is All Too Temporary

    don't get me wrong, i'd live in a village of aunts, uncles, grandparents, older cousins in a minute if that were possible. it's how families are meant to be but somehow we all fell prey to the changes that probably will be detrimental to the nuclear family as we understand it. i for one, am ready to entertain other ways of coping, living, and mothering.

  6. Damn... your comments are making me tear up. The love and support I find in you all make all of this worthwhile. Really. The struggle, the fight to regain myself, the effort to be a great mother. It's all here, on this page and in these comments. Thanks so much for being so thoughtful and giving of yourselves. I wish I could make you all a delicious dinner and toast you with wine again and again.

  7. I really, really believe that we are not meant to live alone in our houses by ourselves with our children. Not that I'm signing up to move in with my mother-in-law, but I can see how a more communal living environment would really solve so many problems.

    You are not the only one who feels this way. I have worked, I have stayed home and I have worked from home and they all have their own downsides. I don't think that any one way is easier or harder, they're all just different. The challenge is finding the best balance that we can, right now, for US. I hope you find that.

  8. It is hard. You have every right to be unhappy. I too feel alone and lonely...I go to work all day, so I get adult interaction, but I have no family or close friends nearby to help me and my little nuclear unit.

    I get tired of floating without any support...

  9. yes sometimes it feels like a snowball is hitting you and yes you feel alone with no interaction and thank God for blogging coz even if I met none of you and we dont speak live etc at least it some form of interaction. When the road gets rough I try to focus on myself more because an unhappy mother bodes unhealthy family! and yes when I am with other adults I leave the kid in their hands!

  10. Girl, I wish I had answers. I wish I had wisdom to share. Truth is, I feel the same kind of frustration. I too let go when Sascha or my parents are around, and I swear if another working mom tells me "I could never be a SAHM!" I might actually part with my beloved soy caramel macchiato just so I can put it on her head.

  11. Thank you for this. I have felt exactly this way lately - isolated, frustrated, sad, confused at my own disappointment with my lot. I wanted to be home with my daughter MORE THAN ANYTHING, and was sure it was my ticket to happiness. And now I'm suffering again, in an unexpected way.

    From the time mine was 12-19 months old, I worked full-time as a lawyer at a very stressful firm, where they did not believe in free time, ever. And I thought the combination of working my ass off there and working my ass off at home, trying to maintain my relationship with my child and husband, would drive me mad. I was miserable and desperate. So I quit, traded in the big salary and the big future, and now things are just as hard, but in a totally, totally different way. As others have noted, there is no "easier" for the Modern Mother. There is only hard. Damn hard.

    Being alone is the part that makes it impossible. When I get a few hours with a friend who also has a toddler, and we can sit back and let the kids tear the house apart, I feel normal and relaxed for a minute. Not stifled, stunted, and terrified. And while that probably makes me sound like a terrible mother, I know I'm a good mother. I don't let my daughter see my inner struggle. And, like you, I have a plan to balance myself out more, to interact with others more, to get out of this damn house.

    Thanks for speaking up and sharing. You are so not alone in this.

  12. i get it. i just did our taxes, and found we are no longer middle income...but everything else applies! i am happy when i hear that others do not have $ stress on top of all this.

    structure and a pt job will work wonders... if i didn't have the very small business making jewelry i would feel completely lost some days. i hope you find a job that feels right for you. hollis will benefit from your happiness in that area as well!

  13. I really identified with the bit you said about when switching off and letting others take responsibility when there's another adult around to relieve the burden. I do that as soon as my husband gets home most days. He wants me to come spend 'family time' all together and I'm like 'Are you kidding me?! I just want five minutes AWAY from the family!' It's hard for him to understand and I try to look at it from his perspective sometimes and buck up but at other times I just say screw it and tell him that I need some time alone. He's usually pretty understanding and is eager to see the kids anyway so it usually isn't a problem.

    The nuclear family is bullshit, I agree. Bring back hippie communes, I say!

  14. Oh Jessica I am so sorry.

    I know every SAHM goes through this. I also think that you would probably feel a whole lot different if your husband was more understanding and less judgemental.

    Does he have a clue as to how hard it is??

    I bet once you have the complete and utter support from your hubby, it will make you feel better.

    It sounds as though he is the problem. Work on him getting to understand you. That is key, or you will never feel good.

    I will never un-follow you. That is what friends are for.

  15. I wish it was that simple. I've got no doubt that I have work to do in the husband and father department (don't we all), but that only touches on a tiny part of the overall issue here.

    I have an understanding, albeit limited, of how much work it takes to stay at home and take care of our son. That little man is a tornado of joy, frustration, glee, havoc and entropy. On a couple of occasions, I've managed to convince Jessica to leave town alone, and I've taken a week or so off work to take care of Hollis. It's a ton of fun, but it's exhausting. I'm taking him to visit family in Boston in a couple of weeks, and I'm 100% aware of how much work it is to travel with him. It's gonna be a bit crazy.

    When I'm critical of Jessica's parenting, it's because neither of us has done a good job of setting expectations, and nobody's expectations are being met. Letting go is fine, as long as the other parent is ready to pick up the slack. When it seems to me that I see nothing but "letting go" all the time that I'm there, I get worried about the times that I'm not there. I fully admit to being protective of my little guy, and I want what's best for him.

    The larger issue here is something I can do nothing about. Our society has retreated so far into the home that we're now supposed to be able to bear the huge load of parenting all by ourselves. It doesn't matter if Jessica stays home, or if I was the one staying home. We get a ton of help from Jessica's family in town, but they're working too. Where's our village that it takes to raise a child? Who can help you not feel so alone, when you ARE alone all day?

    Nuclear families are so overrated. Give me a local extended family made of relatives, friends, and neighbors any day.

    I'll stay away from the generalization about men and homemaking (nice one, dear). Suffice it to say, it's a complicated issue from all sides.

  16. I saw this Tweeted by Arwyn and knew I had to read it, but I knew it would be a doozy and needed the head space to take it in. I was right, and I am so glad you've written this. I am always glad you speak the truth, the darkness in the midst of the light. I hate the happy-face veneer that's put on parenting and on family values and blah blah blah. Please keep speaking of the conflict and the complexity so that the rest of us don't feel so all alone.

    And I do hope you find your way into a tribe. I'm trying, but it's hard. Even just having my mother visit recently was good, and hard. Because the nuclear family has been drummed into me, you know? And I'm at home with privacy and autonomy, and you have to sacrifice those to be part of a collective. So I keep trying, both to change myself within and to change my circumstances without. And it's hard. Today has felt like a big fat waste of time because all (all!) I did was take care of my son. And then I feel sad that I feel that way.

    Anyway, thank you again, and I wish the best for your family. Move to Seattle and become part of my tribe?