Living Our Values as Parents (or By Choosing Not to Be Parents)

Years ago, long before I became a mother, I was riding in my boss’s car along with several other co-workers on our way to an off-site department lunch.

“So, Cheryl, do you have any children?” one of my co-workers asked my boss.

“No,” replied my boss. “Children were never on my to-do list.”

I’ve always found that reply amusing, but it’s only been recently that I really understood that what she was saying was that she was prioritizing her career as a scientist over a potential role as a mother. This doesn’t mean that she couldn’t see value in a mother’s role, it just wasn’t her value for her life.

This, to me, is the essence of voluntary simplicity: Looking honestly at our values and aligning our lives with them, even if this means our lives don’t look like the brochure. This is a simple thing to say but it can be difficult to implement because often saying “yes” to one thing means saying “no” or at least “not now” to a slew of others.

Periodically I ask my husband if he’s happy with the amount of time he spends with our kids.

His answer is always yes.

“I like spending time with them, but I also like the work that I do,” he explains.

As a scientist engaged in biological research, he’s only recently been in a “job” job. After his bachelor’s degree, he went to more than ten years of school and postdoctoral training. He didn’t get his first post-post-doc job until he was solidly in his 30’s. He’s devoted much of his life and his time to his career. It’s something he values and that he finds enriching. Through science, he believes he can make his mark on the world and do the most good he can for humanity.

He values his children and his role as a father. He is very engaged in our children’s lives, devoting essentially every hour he’s home in the evenings and on the weekends to being present with them. He arranges his schedule at work so he gets in to lab before the kids wake up in the morning and comes home in time for dinner between 5:00 and 5:30 so he can see them and play with them and read to them before they go to bed.

He wants to make a mark on the world through his role as a father as well as through his role as a scientist.

On the other hand, I don’t have a career calling, at least not that I’ve discovered. I enjoy writing, and I can see how I could make a mark on the world through my writing. But being a parent is the primary way that I believe I can make my mark on the world. Parenting feeds and, I think, enhances my writing, so the two are intertwined, but I prioritize my parenting over my writing. As a result, I spend the majority of my time with my children and write in the evenings and on weekends.

My husband and I have arranged our lives around these values. The way this looks in our lives is that my primary occupation is at home with our children and his primary occupation is at lab with his scientific career. We’ve done this even during the lean postdoc days in the high-cost San Francisco Bay Area where we lived simply but just barely voluntarily. Even then, we didn’t feel like we were sacrificing because we were living our values.

Our roles are synergistic in a way that reflects and supports the priority we place on our values. My husband’s salary as a scientist is, for now, the sole source of income for our family. My caring for our children and teaching them at home allows him to work at a career he loves and bring home the money that supports our family’s needs. When he’s home and spends time with our children, he supports my writing.

When we decide to live by our values, we have to admit that we’re prioritizing many important things, which can be a difficult process. Our family is arranged in one of the couple of ways that are deemed acceptable by our culture, which I think makes it a little easier. The way my husband and I articulate our values vis-à-vis children and career is pretty darned traditional and therefore (besides the homeschooling) accepted by our culture, but if our values were switched, I think we’d end up with a little more difficulty.

Even if it accurately reflected my family’s values, it would be less acceptable for me as a woman to say, “You know, I love my kids and value my role as a mother, but I see my career as the way I’ll make my mark on the world. I’m comfortable leaving the daytime child-rearing to others and having my time with the children after work and on weekends.”

The answer a woman must give to be a “good mother,” the only acceptable answer, is that she’s torn up inside about leaving her children, but that she has to work to bring in more money. Even women whose spouses have very high-paying jobs express this “I need to work for the money” when they choose to continue their careers after birthing their children.

Even though my husband and tons of other men state clearly their priorities for career over child-rearing and it’s seen as normal and even admirable, if a mother makes a statement like this, she’s callous or unmotherly. I don’t know why this is.

Whatever the reason, any deviation from the cultural norm is viewed with suspicion. If he valued being with our children over having a career (and acted upon that value), my husband would be looked at with raised eyebrows and given less societal support than stay-at-home moms get (and that’s precious little to start with).

And if both my husband and I had careers that were central to our lives and our fulfillment and we chose not to have children, woe betide us for being so selfish as to recognize and live by our values. It would be more culturally acceptable if we had children anyway and then outsourced their upbringing, complaining all the while that it sucks but we both need to work to support the financial needs of our family and sacrifice time with our children to do it.

I don’t get why this is. Don’t all children deserve to be raised by people who value child-rearing over essentially everything else in their lives and who don’t feel acutely in every moment that they’d rather be somewhere else, doing something else?

Here’s the thing: when we live in line with our values, we don’t feel it as a sacrifice. We might feel pressure from family, friends, and society at large to make different choices, we might look wistfully into an imagined alternate future, but we’ll ultimately know that we’ve made the right choice based on our values.

A sense of sacrifice is a sure sign we’re not living our values.

I spend my days with my kids, and I don’t feel that I’ve sacrificed my career because I’m living my values. My husband works full-time outside the home and doesn’t feel that he’s sacrificed time with his kids because he’s living his values. Even though we each complain on the bad days, the way we’ve arranged things works for our family because it’s in line with our values. A feeling of sacrifice would signify that we’re not living in line with our values.

We don’t feel like we’re sacrificing. We feel like we’re simply living.

Possession Identity

“Between what a man calls me and what he simply calls mine the line is difficult to draw. We feel and act about certain things that are ours very much as we feel and act about ourselves.”

 William James

This is today’s Moment of Happiness from Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project.

I remember times in my life when my sense of identity was very much tied up with objects.

My first car was a 1983 Volvo 240DL wagon. My parents had bought it new when I was 6 years old and I remembered how huge the backseat had seemed and how smooth the vinyl upholstery was under my legs. I learned to drive on that car (and I taught my husband how to drive stick on it) and it just kind of became mine during my sophomore year of college. That car was blue, and she was boxy. She handled like crap in the snow (rear-wheel drive), and I could fit an entire full-size mattress in the trunk if I put the back seat down. Two friends and I slept in the back when we went to Halloween at Ohio University one year because we were afraid we’d be puked on if we slept in the house where we were staying.  When I sold that car, I cried.

In college, there was a professor who was trying to quit smoking by only buying cigarettes one at a time for a quarter each from the smokers clustered outside the academic buildings before and after classes. One day, I was smoking with a couple of other people before Brit Lit when this professor came out of the building, surveying the scene.

“Ah!” he said when he saw me. “A Camel smoker!”

I traded him a smoke for a quarter and thought to myself, “A Camel smoker…yes, that’s what I am.”

I’ve not smoked in 15 years and it’s been nearly 10 years since I said farewell to that Volvo. I think I’ve loosened my attachment to things in the intervening years, but when I give up clothes or when I consider buying a different car (I’m still driving the car that replaced the Volvo, by the way), I still think, “Who am I if I don’t wear this item, if I don’t drive this car?”

In a slight shift from that, as a mother, I realize I’ve begun to base my identity on my relationship with my children. While one could argue that defining oneself by one’s relationships to living people is perhaps a little healthier than defining oneself by the brand of cigarettes one smokes (for more reasons than one), it still doesn’t take into account who I am on my own (or, for that matter, who my children are separate from me).

Who are we on our own, unattached to people or things? Is this why we cling so tenaciously to possessions and people and social media? Are we afraid of who we’ll meet when we’re all alone in the quiet? Is that what I’m afraid of?

Simple Living with Children: The Christmas Conundrum

We’re getting there, I think. The kids’ haul this Christmas was slightly less unreasonable than in years past, but they still got way more than two children really need. Way more.

As I organized the gifts by recipient yesterday, I eyeballed the size of the stacks critically.

“They’re still getting too much stuff,” I lamented to my husband.

“Come on. It’s Christmas! What they don’t play with after a few months, we’ll pass along to someone else.” While I appreciate his unflappable personality, I sometimes wish he’d get just a little uptight about the things I’m uptight about. It’s a real burden being uptight enough for the both of us.

I bought our son two gifts, a book and a wooden train set. I bought our daughter four smaller items (Bananagrams, a chess set, a pair of binoculars and a book about being a young naturalist). In their stockings we put two cookies, three pieces of candy, a set of “Three Little Pigs” finger puppets I real quick made up Christmas Eve, and a few stuffed toys and plastic animals that they already owned. I was skeptical about regifting to them things they played with every day, but my husband was right: they were thrilled.

“A new Elmo!” my son exclaimed when he from his stocking retrieved the small stuffed toy he plays with practically non-stop throughout the day.

Even with this pared down Christmas and the de-cluttering I did in the toy room before the holiday, it took some pretty creative maneuvering to find enough space to house the new stuff.

Before the new stuff arrived, I was really liking the new streamlined toy room. The only trouble I had was that my son reacted to the neater appearance of the space by creating chaos of his own. He would dump out the stuffed animals and the toy cars and the play food and his dinosaur floor puzzle all at the same time. When I suggested we get just one toy out at a time, he seemed to temporarily lose the ability to understand the English language. In addition, the toys seemed to be distributed throughout the house more comprehensively than before the de-clutter.

My kids seemed to be having more fun with their toys, though, and using them in more creative ways. The dress-up bin was getting much more use and the kids were using the recently-dumped bins as cars and rockets and (rather disturbingly) some kind of stuffed animal prison. My son could be seen toddling along, pushing Winnie-the-Pooh, Elmo, the stuffed cat he calls “Tokyo” (which used to be “Gatito” in my daughter’s toddlerhood), and  his plastic panda in the toy stroller saying, “Okay, guys! Let’s go back to the park! Park then museum!”

With these new toys, I don’t know how the dynamic will change. One thing I really appreciate, though, is that as much as my children enjoy getting presents, they aren’t fixated by that aspect of the holiday. Opening gifts comprised a relatively tiny portion of our day yesterday. We opened gifts and played for about an hour and a half, then we headed to church. My children were the only kids there. They made rather more noise than I would have liked in the echo-y meeting house, but they were received graciously by the other ten people in attendance. We all sang carols together, my daughter following along in the hymnal with me, my son improvising an animal-related song to the tune of “We Three Kings.” I closed my eyes for meditation and saw the shadow images of the pews and the minister fade gradually away, reminding me of the transient nature of our time here. Afterwards we enjoyed cookies and coffee and conversations about solar panels and vegetable gardens and the aching absence of adult children grown estranged.

After church, we took a raw coconut cream pie next door and spent Christmas dinner with our neighbor’s extended family. Once again, my children were the only non-adults present and, as at church, they were welcomed and praised and entertained by grandmas and grandpas and aunts and uncles by whom we were adopted for the afternoon.

Back home, we called Nana and Skyped with Grandma and Grandpa and remembered again why so many gifts roll in at holidays and birthdays. It’s not to irritate me or to teach my children that materialism is paramount to interpersonal interactions. It’s how our families show their love for our children from hundreds of miles away. I know that they would much rather be here with us, eating and laughing and praising and petting, listening to my daughter play the flute and my son sing the alphabet song in person rather than over the internet. And we would rather be with them. My lamenting having too many or too few or the wrong kind just serves to put the focus more firmly on the items themselves rather than on the meaning behind them.

The gifts aren’t the point; it’s the love with which they were given. Yes, I want to simplify Christmas and streamline the kids’ toys and clothes in general, but I need to keep sight of the big picture.

Why I’m Not De-Cluttering My Baby Carriers

With all of my de-cluttering and simplification, there is one drawer I’ve not even been able to bring myself to de-clutter.

It’s the drawer where I keep my baby carriers.

My son hasn't ridden in a sling for at least a year, but he knew exactly what it was for ("Mommy, put my animals in it!")

When I was pregnant with my daughter, I was so excited to acquire baby-related gear. We were living in a small apartment in the San Francisco Bay Area, so there was no discussion of whether to have a nursery or a crib or many of the other standard baby items, but there was still a remarkably large number of items that, as a new mom, I just had to have. I’ve since parted with nearly all of those things, several of them before my daughter was even out of her infancy as I realized just how superfluous most of those items were to the care of a being who was soothed by closeness to her mother and by nothing else.

There were three things I kept.

One was our cloth diapers. Those came in handy when our second was born. We still use the one-size dipes for overnight insurance and the prefolds for cleaning up spills and “accidents.”

The second thing I kept was outgrown baby clothes. Those proved largely unnecessary given my husband’s unwillingness to let our baby son wear dresses, despite my appeal to his normally frugal nature.

The last things I kept hold of were my many and various baby carriers. I even manufactured some excuses for acquiring even more baby carriers before and after my son’s birth.

I didn’t learn to use a ring sling until my daughter was eight weeks old when I finally visited La Leche League. Once those helpful mothers (who would become some of my dearest and most supportive friends) showed me to use that sling, I was hooked. Finally, I had a way to get my baby to SLEEP (and to leave that awful baby “bucket” seat in the car). From there, my love of babywearing just grew and grew.

When we were still in California, I went on weekly hikes (3-5 miles) with a family hiking group, with my daughter strapped to my back in a woven wrap carrier. I wore her on my back while cooking meals or lugging laundry to and from the coin-op machines. My husband wore her to the farmers market and street festivals and around the neighborhood when she had croup and needed the cool air to soothe her. In Utah, I wore her in a mei tai or the wrap on the bus and light rail where it was impractical to take a stroller. I wore her until my pregnant self could no longer comfortably wear a three-and-a-half-year-old.

From that first sling until the time my son turned two, I acquired lots of baby carriers. Over the past six years I have had:

-three ring slings

-an adjustable pouch carrier

-two woven wraps (a Moritz and a blue-and-white Indio for those Didymos fans out there)

-a stretchy wrap

-two gauze wraps

-a water wrap (for the pool and the shower)

-two soft-structured carriers

-two mei tais

-a front-pack carrier (before I knew the ease and comfort of pretty much every other carrier ever created)

The one carrier I never had but always wanted was a podaegi, which is a Korean-style blanket carrier you don’t need to hook over your shoulders. It was the one carrier I’d never seen in person and I was afraid that if I bought one, I wouldn’t figure out how to wear it.

I’ve gotten rid of some of my carriers, but most of the ones on the list above are still in my baby carrier drawer or the trunk of my car. I really only use one of the soft-structured carriers and one of the mei tais anymore, and those I only use if my son falls asleep on the way somewhere or if we’re going on a long and/or snowy hike. He’s not as enthusiastic about toddler-wearing as my daughter was.

Logically, I know it’s time to pass along the rest of these carriers. But I’m just not ready to let go of that period of my life. The co-sleeper, the swing, the “stationary entertainer,” even the cloth diapers…those were easy to give away. They were utilitarian for a period of time and then they weren’t. I just found someone who needed them and I packed them up and felt good that they were going to a good home. And the maternity clothes? I practically celebrated when I got rid of those. No one makes clothes that fit a 5′ 2″ woman who births 9-pound babies.

But the carriers that remain in my drawer represent a closeness with my children, their little bodies snuggled close to me, a tinyness they’ll never have again. The carriers represent that brief and beautiful time between when my children and I occupied the same body and when they became their own little beings. Just the smell of the carriers in that drawer takes me back to my babies’ warm weight against my chest or snuggled up between my shoulder blades. I’d been telling myself I was holding onto the carriers in case we adopted a baby, but more and more it looks like our family is complete the way it is. So passing them along will also mean that we are, for sure, done anticipating the arrival of any more babies. And that realization is bittersweet. The transition from “woman” to “mother” was such a momentous one, it’s hard to imagine that I’m done with that “baby” period of my life, even though I feel ready and excited for this next phase.

I know it’s time to let the baby carriers go. But I think I’ll let myself hold onto them a little while longer.

What items do you let yourself hold onto even though you no longer need them?

A Birthday

“Let us decide on the route that we wish to take to pass our life, and attempt to sow that route with flowers.”

 Madame du Chatelet, from Gretchen Rubin’s “Moment of Happiness” for 9 December 2011

Today I turn 35. That seems an auspicious number for a year I plan to focus on Voluntary Simplicity.

Last year's cake. No cake this year, but that's cool.

I’ve been living Voluntary Simplicity to one degree or another for the past 10+ years, but this birthday marks a re-commitment to the conscious application of the principles of Voluntary Simplicity.

The goal for this project:

I will cultivate mindfulness and awareness in my daily life and through that awareness identify areas where I place the highest value. I will explore my values and options for living more deeply in those areas, and then make incremental changes and future plans with the goal of consciously living my life around those values.

Although I can’t hang onto the things that I value, I can court them in my daily activities, attract them with careful selection and arrangement of the physical, emotional, and spiritual elements of my life, and pamper, preen, and nourish them with attention and awareness. I can give them space by clearing out the extraneous. I can live them fully while I’m here. And after? Who knows?

This month seems right for introspection, with the dark and the cold, with the Solstice and the religious holidays celebrating hope and the promise of rebirth even in the midst of darkness. And, of course, my birthday, which always invites even more navel-gazing from a person already inclined to peer at her bellybutton. It’s also a practical month for this type of search because my husband’s company shuts down between Christmas and New Year’s, so I’ll have assistance with the day-to-day maintenance of our home and care of our children, hopefully giving me more space for awareness.

So, I’m excited! This year promises to be great! (knock on wood, though, because I’m still superstitious about being too enthusiastic)

The Complex World of Simple Living

Ironically, many of the things that people do for the sake of simplicity actually make life more complicated, at least in the short run.

There are blogs that rather glibly assert that the way to live simply is to move to the country, work from home, go car-free, grow all of your own food, and cook on a woodstove (never mind the irony of blogging about cooking on a woodstove).

If you don’t already have experience and knowledge about rural living, gardening, or stoking a fire, it’s going to take a lot of time, education, and physical work to do any of these things. It may well require a job/career change and will almost certainly require a major lifestyle change. Even if these turn out to the be right choice for everyone (something I doubt would be the case), there’s nothing simple about changing everything about the way you live.

Not only that, but if you decide to live your life in one of these “simple” ways, you’re going to be spending much of your time on the rudiments of living. If you’re someone who places high value on having intimate knowledge of the basics of living, like participating in food procurement from the soil to the table to the compost heap and back to the soil, then focusing your life around these activities might bring you fulfillment. However, if you’re a scientist who’s devoted her life to researching and finding a cure for cancer, spending hours and hours in the laboratory and reading scientific research and talking with colleagues all over the world about the latest discoveries, growing your own food or washing your dishes by hand or knitting your own socks might impinge upon the time you would otherwise spend doing what you truly value. In addition, if you spend a lot of time doing laboratory experiments at major medical facilities, working from home and/or living in a rural area might not work for you.

The key to voluntary simplicity isn’t living with less; it’s making space in your life for what matters most. If you dislike driving and you resent the expense of filling the gas tank and having the oil changed, perhaps you value something other than car ownership. Perhaps a car-light or car-free lifestyle is for you and it would be worthwhile to put forth the effort to research options that will bring you closer to that lifestyle (moving closer to work, working from home, biking or taking public transit, saving up tons of money so you can retire early and stop commuting, etc). But if you love working on your car, if seeing how everything works together gives you the sense

Dodge Charger photographed in Laval, Quebec, C...
Image via Wikipedia

of well-being that others get from meditation or long-distance running, then going car-free would not follow your values. Instead, you might get rid of pay television because you’d rather spend your evenings and weekends under the hood or at the car show than sitting in front of the television with your friends speculating about which talented amateur will make it to the next round of competition on American Idol, and you’d rather spend the money you’d otherwise spend on premium channels to buy the parts necessary to rebuild the transmission on your 1969 Dodge Charger.*

This is why I’m leery of sites, books, and magazines that make living simply sound like nothing more than making your life look like the one in the pictures. There is too much work and mess and soul-searching and rearranging involved in making the changes necessary to live life more in line with your core values to follow some arbitrary plan some random person came up with for their own voluntary simplicity challenge. What works in my life will only work in yours if we have the exact same values weighted the exact same way.

I plan to share my insights and thought processes and research on the off-chance this information might help you in your own life. But nothing I write should be misconstrued as a prescription for simple living.

Or for anything for that matter.

I have no answers. You will find no numbered lists or fourteen simple steps to a simple life here. Just one woman typing while she ponders what it is she really values in life and how to go about organizing her life around those values.

*I have only the most basic knowledge about car restoration and about popular television shows, so these statements might be totally inaccurate. Please take them for their meaning rather than the specifics.