It Runs in the Family: On Being Raised by Radicals and Growing into Rebellious Motherhood (2015)


She came fast and furious. She was petite and dark. She screamed and caterwauled. She had a full head of brown hair. The pushing phase of labor was so fast—just a matter of minutes. What took me a long time (at least it felt a lot longer than the minute it most certainly was) was recognizing her as my baby—the one I had carried, nourished and made room for inside my body for nine-plus months.

But there was no mix up at the hospital. She came out of my body at the foot of our bed and when I first held her, she was slick with blood, vernix, and all sorts of goop from my insides—still tied to me by the long white cord of vein and artery. There was no denying her.

It took us days to discover her name (we had boy names all picked out), but eventually, Madeline Vida Berrigan Sheehan-Gaumer made herself known to us. Her eyes, which might change color with time, are dark blue and she seems perpetually lost in thought—contemplating the big questions of the universe. Her brow crinkles, her lips purse, and I imagine that if I could decode her language, I would understand everything all at once.

When you are a stay-at-home mom, the world gets very small—as small as Madeline Vida’s eight pounds, one ounce. Nursing and diapers and bits of baby puke. When that is mastered, you get to add in the rest of the laundry, the bills, the dishes, the groceries, and the tidying up. I almost added meals to that list, but truthfully (and thankfully), my husband does most of the cooking. I embraced this very small world with gusto when Seamus—now almost two years old—was born. Before having him, I was the kind of person who always said “yes” to almost everything: plan this action, sit on this committee, give this talk, attend this conference, run this race, write this article, meet these people, take on this new commitment, be in these two places at once. After having him, I relished, reveled in, and rollicked with having created a demanding, wholly cuddly, and delightful reason to say “no” to just about everything outside of my front door. I learned to love my small, domestic, mommy world. I learned that it was precious and finite. I learned that many mommies covet and crave and cannot have what my husband and I have chosen. I learned that saying “no” to a lot of the big things meant that I could say “yes” to my son, my family, and my community. And that is no small thing.

But then, right when I was just about ready to say “yes” again—to activism, organizing, a paying job, even maybe a regular exercise routine—I found myself pregnant again. And life inevitably, and perhaps wonderfully, slowed down and shrank again. Taking care of a toddler and having morning sickness tend to narrow one’s field of vision.

While pregnant, I barely kept up with email, barely wrote my column, barely got my household chores done, barely kept up with the bad news of the day, was barely an activist of any sort. I tried to “keep my head in the game” so to speak. But, over and over, given the choice between those things and being with my family— building my marriage, growing our fetus, watching our little boy develop a language all his own, celebrating our seven-year-old’s daily triumphs—I chose family. I stayed close to home, have been an active part of my Unitarian Universalist congregation, walked my little city with a greeting for most people, baked and cooked for families with new babies, helped to raise money for needy people, and tried to be a good neighbor and local citizen. I have tried to be generous. I have built a network of friendships and relationships, have kept up with correspondence of the old-fashioned variety. I’ve visited people and stayed connected with my far-flung immediate family in Baltimore, Kalamazoo, Philadelphia, and the Bronx. It is not the stuff of legend, but it is the stuff of life.

And now, Madeline Vida is here and even those little efforts are nearly impossible, at least for a while. I worry sometimes—and have been straight-up told by some people—that my choice is selfish, that it is all about me.

But having lived for years as an out-there, doing-it, 24/7 activist individual, and now being hunkered down as a stay-at-home mom with three kids—I have to say, “No, this is not a selfish choice.” It is a humbling, human, hard choice. My own ego is much less large-and-in-charge in the rearing of children and the managing of a household than it ever was organizing an action or giving a speech before hundreds and getting to absorb the accolades and attention afterward. When you are a headline speaker, no one smears banana in your hair. When you organize an action and get quoted in the newspaper, none of the activists willfully ignore your important discourse on listening and respectfulness. I opted out of the limelight by choosing to be a stay-at-home mom—someone who doesn’t get a standing ovation for still being standing at the end of a long day. In fact, if you are doing a really good job, almost no one notices. They notice when you forget their strawberry toothpaste—or underpants—on an overnight trip. They notice when the toast is burnt and the broccoli is al dente. They notice when you are surly and sarcastic and short-tempered.

When you’re doing a great job, life is smooth and happy and the snacks are free-flowing. That is what the kids expect, so they don’t line up to thank you afterwards. There is only one person (God bless you, Patrick Sheehan-Gaumer) who regularly tells me I’m doing a good job. Right now, that one person’s gratitude and admiration is more than enough. Right now, the fact that my kids take my efforts for granted is A-okay. They appreciate me implicitly and will learn to express it explicitly as they mature—and the seven-year-old does a pretty great job already, with a little nudge from her dad.

So, if it’s not for the praise and if it’s not for the ego trip, why am I doing this? Why am I a stay-at-home mom? Because it doesn’t make economic sense for us to have kids and pay someone else half—or two-thirds—of our money to rear them while we work. Because it doesn’t make political or social sense to miss out on—and have very little hand in shaping—the most dynamic developmental stage in my children’s lives. Because I love it, the kids love it, and my husband loves it. Because it is the right thing for us right now.

Being a stay-at-home mom can be lonely, repetitious, and boring. But in truth and upon reflection, it is not forever. I am not alone and we—the kids, me, and our world—are always growing. In talking with other stay-at-home moms, I get the sense that our culture celebrates, hyper-validates, and commodifies our contributions, while simultaneously making them invisible, value-neutral, and second-strata. There are lots of magazines, advertisements, and inducements for us to be thin, fit, happy, and 110 percent there for the baby, but not a lot of encouragement to create and sustain a culture and community that truly supports women as mothers. We have to make that up as we go along and thank goodness we are doing it. I am ready to embrace this new phase of life and this new identity—as the mom of two kids in diapers, stepmom of a dynamic second-grader, wife of a social worker, and one whose world is small but demanding. I am ready to embrace this new phase of life, knowing that the larger world and its universe of needs and ills will still be there when me and my little ones are ready to tackle—head-on and with our full attention—the work of building a more just and peaceful society. In the meantime, that work is being carried forward by countless able hands and hearts. It is not—and never was—ours alone. And I believe that the love I lavish on those closest to me is large enough to heal some small but suppurating wound in the world.

imagesFROM LEFT TO RIGHT: Patrick holding Madeline Vida; Rosena Jane; Frida holding Seamus Philip. Photograph by Arther Lerner.