The Governess


Can I get a show of hands? Who among you is a mother who feels richly blessed to be able to stay home full-time with your children? Who feels like it was the best decision you ever made? Who cannot imagine life any other way than being with those little miracles every single day of your life? Who is living her dream?

Great. Now put your stinkin’ hands down.

I’m jealous of you. I’m bowled over, smothered in a ditch, GREEN with envy. I want it to have been my dream to be a wife and mother. I want to go back and re-align all my childhood hopes to be centered around domesticity. I wish could read myself being abbreviated into a SAHM (stay-at-home-mom) and not barf a little. But, my deficiency in that arena started a long time ago.

While other little girls were changing tiny, plastic doll diapers and thinking to themselves, “Someday I am going to be the most important person in the entire world to some small humans, and it’s going to be GRAND” I was in my bathroom painstakingly growing cupric sulfate crystals in baby food jars under the sink. I was carefully slicing off pieces of insect wings, mounting them to microscope slides, and cataloging the particular part of which species in my lab journal. I was going to be a SCIENTIST.

Sure, I played with dolls some and assumed I’d get married and have kids. (And, can I get a “What, What” from my single ladies who know how hard this assumption can be – both from a personal and a social perspective?) I am glad I did get married and have kids, but it was not what I dreamed about. At the age of ten, there was almost nothing I was more sure of than becoming a scientist.

And I was one! Did you know that? I was an actual scientist.

Can I bore you for a minute with what I worked on in grad school? (Do yourself a favor and skip this paragraph. I am compelled to write it, but you should not be compelled to read it.) See, we were studying kidney epithelial cells – the kind that die easily when there is a large toxic insult and the kind that will eventually transform to cancer cells if they are given enough smaller, repeated toxic insults. I was looking at one type of protein in those cells – proteins called histones which help nuclear DNA coil up on itself to form the familiar X-shaped rods we know as chromosomal DNA. “My” histone was a variant of the histone H3, called H3.3, and it got modified in a unique way in those kidney cell nuclei when there was an acute toxic insult to the cell. I was working to identify the exact placement of that modification. The ultimate goal would be to attempt to prevent the modification and therefore modulate the consequences of that modification, one consequence being the death of the cell. That was a far-off goal, though, and we were just trying to identify the site of modification – a novel phosphorylation site. When I became pregnant with Jacob and had to cease using radioactive phosphorus in our experiments, we (my lab partners and I) were *this close* to finding this novel site that becomes phosphorylated in response to toxic insult and, interestingly, also during cell reproduction. The site (phosphorylation at Serine 31 on the histone variant H3.3) was finally identified by a group from Rockefeller University and published (You can read the full text here in the Journal of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science – PNAS – NOT a shabby journal) nearly two years after Jacob was born. I don’t think it’s sour grapes for me to point out that we could easily have identified this novel site before that time… had I not had a baby and decided to settle for a master’s degree. Though there was a group of us working on it, the project was mine, and without me the group’s interest in it waned. I’m proud of the work we did. I hope somehow that our work helped that other group. But, it was disappointing not to finish it.

I warned you to skip that paragraph. But, I wrote it to say: Science is what I had a passion for. Science is what I was really good at. Science is what I had envisioned for myself.

“Myself” is the key word here, though. I, myself, also wanted to have a family. And, after that it wasn’t just myself. At one time I believed I could have had a wonderful family AND a pretty cool career. But, I have grown to believe more strongly that my kids need me with them while they are little. The conviction that this is the right thing for me to do has grown into a belief that they need me with them for those first years of formal schooling. So, I homeschool. Suddenly I find myself one handmade scrapbook and a Mary Kay representative contract away from being the “full package” and floundering about who I am now. I used to be a scientist. Nowadays, I feel more like a scullery maid or a governess.

Please don’t think I’m ungrateful. I’m grateful! I’m grateful! I’m grateful that staying home is an option for me, and I’m grateful that I get to BE with my children. I really am. For all the joking about moms who are more contented with this life, I really, really respect you. My mom was like you, and I have benefited from it my whole life. She’s so like this that her greatest joy in life is now her grandchildren. (There she is on the birthday of my niece, Kate.)

And, I respect all the hard-working mamas and papas. I respect those of you who have to work to stay sane or to stay out of debt or are single moms or dads. So much respect.

But, allow me to mourn the loss of my other life. Allow me to reach out to another set of SAHMs (bluuaaaargh). To those of you who are doing this for your family but you’re gritting your teeth and you’re drowning a little in that identity. I want to encourage you. We’re in this together. You’re still mostly sane, and you’re doing what you said you would do. And, if that scale ever tips way over from “this is hard, but I’m still glad I’m doing it” to “I hate my life, and I need to go back to work right now” I will still respect you. I will still respect me.

In the meantime, let’s ride this thing out.


6 Comments, Comment or Ping

  1. Rock Hudson

    When are you going to grow *me* some cupric sulfate crystals?!?

    March 30th, 2012

  2. Look under the bathroom sink, Love. :-)

    March 30th, 2012

  3. Beth Daugherity

    Um, I will join you in the barf covered ditch of envy. I found myself in a conversation about it the other day and all I could think was yes, I am “lucky” to stay home with my kids, but I mourn being a chemist. I know, I know…”they are only young once.” Blah, blah, blah. Meanwhile I feel a bit like my mind is rotting. I am getting older too. I remember feeling smart once. Now at least we get to marvel at our kids doing something smart. I guess that counts for something.

    Oh, and by the way, YOU are awesome. Miss you friend. We hope to make it your way sometime soon. <3

    March 30th, 2012

  4. Thank you, Sweet Beth Monkey. We miss you guys a lot. I look at your FB pages a lot and wish ya’ll were closer. Please let us know when you come into town. I believe there is a Mediterranean buffet with our names on it…

    March 30th, 2012

  5. Elizabeth

    So much to say about this…I have felt this way many times. I even almost did something about it and thought I would go back to work. In the end, the logistics of going to work just weren’t worth it for me. Then school started again and things felt a lot more manageable. I always seem to feel like this in the summers. I think it’s really hard to be the teacher and parent 24/7.

    I think it’s natural to want to pursue your career as a scientist. What educated person wouldn’t feel like you do? It’s totally understandable. I also think what you’re doing now is totally worth all the effort you’re putting into it. This phase is a season and it will end eventually. You are like two years away from being able to have both boys in school while you go back to work. I’m not saying you should or have to take that road, but it is an option. You also have the option to put them in school/daycare now and go back to work. You have the option to keep doing what you’re doing.

    It helps me to see my life not as some prison term that I’m serving, but as a choice I’ve made that can either be changed if it’s not working, or that I can appreciate as the best choice for me at that particular time. There’s more more than one way to be a “good” (good enough) mom. Deciding that your work needs to have a place in your life is okay and may even give you more energy for your family in a way.

    I feel like writing this comment is really just a conversation I’m having with myself. I feel all this stuff so intensely too and it’s so hard when you’re in the abyss of motherhood. I happen to not be in it right at this particular moment, so it’s easier to act like I have all the answers.

    You’re doing great work as a mom. You have a sharp mind and it is not going to waste right now–it’s just being used in a different way. I have no doubt that you will be a scientist once again, and that that will make you very happy. This time with young children is just going to be a blip on the April radar screen. It is hard while you’re in it though. Go do something fun this weekend. Give yourself a break. I’m going to try to take all this unsolicited advice I’m throwing at you and apply it to myself because I think that’s who I’m really talking to. : )

    March 30th, 2012

  6. Elizabeth, thank you for those affirmations. Two really encouraging things jump out at me from what you wrote. First, that you’re not “in it at this particular moment” is so relieving. It reminds me that we flounder sometimes, but we feel really good sometimes. Second, you reminded me that I need a break right now. I do. I took a few days off last June, but that was last June! I think anyone who hasn’t take more than a day’s vacation from any job in almost a year might feel a little desperate. Gracious, I rarely even take a “sick day”. It’s time. Thank you for those sweet reminders. :-)

    April 1st, 2012