Sunday, October 30, 2011

Millie's Mother's Red Dress: Balancing Self-Fullfilment and Self-Sacrifice

Today we have a special guest post from my friend Shauni, who is a mother to two adorable children and wife to a husband who is currently in medical school. Shauni shares her struggle as a stay-at-home mom to find a balance between self-sacrifice and self-fulfillment. I've really enjoyed learning from Shauni's experience, as well as her other comments on our blog, and I hope you will as well. 


Carol Lynn Pearson is a Mormon playwright, poet, feminist, and philosopher, and I absolutely love her.  I first became acquainted with her through this interview on the Mormon Stories podcast, and have since read many of her poems, as well as her autobiography.  I can definitely see why she describes her own poetry as "useful."  It speaks to the heart and changes lives (mine included)! I love all of her poems, but especially the ones about women.  "The Steward," "Position," and "Beginnings" are some of my favorites.  Here is one I find particularly useful. 

It hung there in the closet
While she was dying, Mother’s red dress,
Like a gash in the row
Of dark, old clothes
She had worn away her life in.
They had called me home
And I knew when I saw her
She wasn’t going to last.
When I saw the dress, I said
“Why, Mother – - how beautiful!
I’ve never seen it on you.”
“I’ve never worn it,” she slowly said.
“Sit down, Millie – - I’d like to undo
A lesson or two before I go, if I can.”
I sat by her bed
And she sighed a bigger breath
Then I thought she could hold.
“Now that I’ll soon be gone,
I see some things.
Oh, I taught you good – - but I taught you wrong.”
“What do you mean Mother?”
“Well – - I always thought
That a good woman never takes her turn,
That she’s just for doing for somebody else.
Do here, do there, always keep
Everybody else’s wants tended and make sure
Yours are at the bottom of the heap.”
“Maybe someday you’ll get to them.
But of course you never do.
My life was like that – - doing for your dad,
Doing for the boys, for your sisters, for you.”
“You did – - everything a mother could.”
“Oh, Millie, Millie, it was not good – -
For you – - for him. Don’t you see?
I did you the worst of wrongs.
I asked for nothing – - for me!”
“Your father in the other room,
All stirred up and staring at the walls – -
When the doctor told him, he took
It bad – - came to my bed and all but shook
The life right out of me. ‘You can’t die,
Do you hear? What’ll become of me?’
‘ What’ll become of me?’
It’ll be hard, all right when I go.
He can’t even find the frying pan, you know.”
“And you children – -
I was a free ride for everybody, everywhere.
I was the first one up and the last one down
Seven days out of the week.
I always took the toast that got burned,
And the very smallest piece of pie.”
“I look at how some of your brothers
Treat their wives now
And it makes me sick, ’cause it was me
That taught it to them. And they learned,
They learned that a woman doesn’t
Even exist except to give.
Why, every single penny that I could save
Went for your clothes, or your books,
Even when it wasn’t necessary.
Can’t even remember once when I took
Myself downtown to buy something beautiful – -
For me.”
“Except last year when I got that red dress.
I found I had twenty dollars
That wasn’t especially spoke for.
I was on my way to pay extra on the washer.
But somehow – - I came home with this big box.
Your father really gave it to me then.
‘Where you going to wear a thing like that to – -
Some opera or something?’
And he was right, I guess.
I’ve never, except in the store,
Put on that dress.”
“Oh Millie – - I always thought if you take
Nothing for yourself in this world
You’d have it all in the next – - somehow
I don’t believe that anymore.
I think the Lord wants us to have something – -
Here – - and now.”
“And I’m telling you , Millie, if some miracle
Could get me off this bed, you could look
For a different mother, ’cause I would be one.
Oh, I passed up my turn so long
I would hardly know how to take it.
But I’d learn, Millie.
I would learn!”
It hung there in the closet
While she was dying, Mother’s red dress,
Like a gash in the row
Of dark, old clothes
She had worn away her life in.
Her last words to me were these:
“Do me the honor, Millie,
Of not following in my footsteps.
Promise me that.”

After reading this poem, my first dreadful thought was, I’m becoming Millie’s mother!  Then I asked myself, Well, what are some of my own ‘red dresses’?  What have I given up in order to be a ‘good’ wife and mother? What goals and dreams do I have sitting in my closet?  While many working moms struggle to find the proper balance between work and life, I found myself, as a stay-at-home mom, facing a similar dilemma.  That is, when it comes to marriage and motherhood, what is the proper balance between self-sacrifice and self-fulfillment?

Rewind several years.  Growing up in a small Mormon town, my three utmost goals were to:
1) graduate from college,
2) marry in the temple, and
3) have children.  

While I was aware that career options existed for women, most of the working LDS women I knew made it clear that they only worked outside the home because they needed the income.  As such, I planned wholeheartedly to follow the examples of the women I respected most, as well as the prevailing counsel of Church leaders, by becoming a stay-at-home mom.

So far, my life has gone according to plan.  In fact, I accomplished all three of my adolescent life goals in the same year!  That might sound impressive at first, but when I came to the realization that, without warning, I was finished with every goal I had set for myself, I was horrified.  Graduate from college? Check.  Get married? Check.  Become a mother? Check.  What was left?  Endure to the end?  I was only 23!  Have more babies? I thought, “Surely the purpose of the rest of my existence cannot be solely to take care of my husband and children, as important as that may be!”

Even though I had always held stay-at-home moms in high regard (and still do) and had looked forward to becoming one myself, I soon found myself feeling lonely and stagnant.   This came as a huge shock to me, because I knew so many stay-at-home moms who seemed to be both busy and happy.  I loved taking care of my son, and I loved watching all of his little milestones, but at the same time, I was bored.  Because I didn’t know any other stay-at-home moms in my ward or neighborhood, I felt isolated.  I longed for camaraderie, or at least interaction with other adults.

I considered returning to work, but having worked in some pretty rotten daycare centers and after-school programs, I couldn’t bring myself to entrust my precious little baby into the hands of strangers, and we had recently moved to a new city far away from family.  My husband was an undergraduate student at the time, and was also working weekend nights as a nursing assistant to gain clinical experience in preparation for medical school.  I tried to fill my spare time, of which I had plenty, with righteous activities like couponing and genealogy, but still felt a huge absence of fulfillment.  I was afraid to pursue anything “selfish,” like continue my education or even exercise (I know this all sounds extreme, even to me, but I’m sadly not exaggerating)!   
At the time, I thought “feminist” was a bad word.  In fact, when I first came across this very blog, I felt quite defensive for those who, like me, had chosen the traditional path.  I wasn’t entirely happy, but at the same time, I longed for affirmation that I had made the correct choice in staying home.

One day, I read a blog post on, entitled, “I Am Not, It Turns Out [A Feminist]”.  She cited this post, which argued that anyone who believes in, supports, looks fondly on, hopes for, and/or work towards equality of the sexes, was a feminist .  Cjane (Courtney) then proceeded to explain that she was not a feminist because equality had never done anything for her, and she didn’t want to be equal to the men in her life anyway.  That post made my stomach churn.  I spent the next 2-3 hours researching feminism, and came to the conclusion that yes indeed, I do believe in equality, and for the first time in my life, began calling myself a feminist.  

I’m still a stay-at-home mom.  I plan to be one for several years to come.  Now, though, it’s less of an obligation and more of a choice.  Granted, with a medical student husband, I still take care of most of the childrearing and household tasks.  However, I allow my husband and children, as they are able, to do some of the menial tasks for themselves, so that I don’t always feel like the housemaid.  All the while, I’m trying hard not to swing from the “I’ll do everything for you” side of the pendulum to the “I am entitled to…” side.  It’s a careful balancing act! 

Here are some of the red dresses I “wear” to take care of myself and to add meaning to my life (Hopefully I don’t sound too much like the Girl in a Whirl!):

·         Social interaction: I meet up with a playgroup once a week to socially interact with other moms (my kids love it too);
·         Career development: I have started a toddler music class and a preschool co-op to maintain my teaching skills (once again, these obviously help my kids too), and I take classes online to maintain my teaching certification.  I am currently exploring graduate programs;
·         Physical fitness: I joined a local gym that has quality childcare at a steeply discounted rate for student families;
·         Intellectual stimulation: I listen to thought-provoking podcasts while I clean, drive, and work out, such as lectures and talks from Khan Academy, Open Culture, and TED;
·         Emotional health: I read books that have nothing to do with marriage or motherhood;
·         Marriage enrichment: ·My husband and I found a babysitter we trust so that we can go on dates without the kids;
·         Individual talents: For a while, I was playing the viola in a community orchestra, but I have had to hang that red dress back in the closet for a while, because it was getting to be too much of a strain on my family.

In conclusion, I am so glad I learned the lesson of “Millie’s Mother’s Red Dress in the spring of motherhood, rather than the winter, as so many Latter-day Saint women do.   Obviously, there is a season for everything, and we can’t wear every dress at the same time.  It’s easy to swing from one side of the pendulum to the other, so like everything else, it requires thoughtful balance! 

Incidentally, I recently inherited a closet full of clothing, jewelry, and accessories, including a bright red dress with a matching red hat, complete with a red feather.  I’m still working up the courage to wear it!

What are some of your own “red dresses?” Have you worn them, or do you let them sit in your closet?  What do you think is the appropriate balance between self-sacrifice and self-fulfillment?


Lacey said...

Thank you for sharing this amazing poem and your own learning experience. I think that so many LDS women think the more they sacrifice for their family, the better. It's true that sacrifice for family is important, but I think the poem accurately points out that when taken too far this can actually be harmful for the family, because it teaches husbands and sons that it's okay to take women for granted and always put their needs last, and it teaches daughters that it's normal for women to be looked over and not appreciated. I think the greatest gift a woman can give her family is finding that balance between sacrificing for them, yes, but also with retaining her identity and worth as a woman.

kels said...

This was such a great post! Thanks for writing it Shauni. I'm not a mother yet, but I've spent a lot of time thinking about how I can prepare myself to achieve the balance you describe here. Growing up, motherhood was incredibly scary to me on a lot of levels because I saw so many women who "lost" themselves in motherhood-- and unfortunately, it wasn't always in the way the Savior describes. It was such that they felt they lost their identity, that they didn't know what their interests were... we hear about/see so many women that don't know what to do once their children leave the nest. I believe this is such an important message for all of us to learn and internalize: motherhood and having a personal identity with interests, talents, abilities and a role in society are not mutually exclusive! Certainly there are seasons in our lives, but we don't have to sacrifice everything on the alter of motherhood-- like this poem points out, we're not doing ourselves or our families any favors when we do that.

KaiPhoenix said...

I found this blog while looking up the poem for my mother and sister (who is also a mother). I agree with what you have said here about being able to be a stay at home mom and a good wife without having to sacrifice yourself along the way. It is something that I have learned from watching my mother as I grew up and watching my sisters and brother who have married.

Thank you for posting your feelings about this and your actions in response as well as the poem itself.

Your mental and spiritual health are just as important as everyone else's. YOU are important.


SMcG said...

I also love Carol Lynn Pearson's "The Steward"

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