Image Credit: “Family Group Reading,” Mary Cassatt, 1901.
A few years back, I was having one of those deep and meaningful life discussions with my husband. He asked me, “How has our marriage been for you? Is it what you thought it would be?”
I responded truthfully, “It’s been wonderful but…I thought there would be more Dickens by the fire.”
Quite truthfully, I thought there would be more Dickens in general. More Faust and Hemingway and Tolstoy, that I would live a gracious, well-plotted, literary life. For certain there would be scads of kids, but they were part of the vision. Each evening my brilliant, beautiful, well-mannered children would gather under my arm for bedtime stories. We would discuss grand idea about the universe and my intellectual thirst would be quenched.
And when we weren’t picnicking in the strawberries fields in white dresses and straw bonnets, I would certainly, most certainly be sitting at my scroll-top desk absorbed in Big Thoughts and beautiful sentences.
Clearly I was born in the wrong century.
And clearly the “Little Women” view of my future was a bit starry-eyed.
That being said, here is what has come true: I read to my children religiously. We listen to classical books on tape. My boys can recite, from memory, half-a-dozen poems, including the lengthy “If” by Rudyard Kipling. We are working our way through Shakespeare. If it sounds too good to be true, know this: poetry happens while jumping on the trampoline or spilling milk at the breakfast table. We shout “O Captain, My Captain!” because it’s better than fist fights in the back of the van. The out-loud reading happens under the cloak of dusk, but it is often on a floor strewn with Legos while children hang upside down from their bunk beds. All I can hope as a mother is that all that good stuff is somehow seeping into the cracks of brain matter between Minecraft and Star Wars.
I am, as Kipling says, trying to “meet with triumph and disaster, and treat those two imposters just the same.”
What hasn’t happened, the part I can’t seem to get a handle on, is how to create the thoughtful, intellectual life for myself as a mother. I have tried for more than a decade to keep a toe-hold on scholarship, but find it an almost insurmountable task.
I don’t scrapbook. I don’t make jewelry or “Pin.” I don’t sew pillows or decorate my house in banners and cute colors. I have remarkable friends who do those things. Their homes are like works of art. I am astounded by their talents, but those aren’t my talents. My talent is to read tedious literature by deceased writers and find it absolutely fascinating. Where is my board to pin that?
Where is the venue for the intellectual mother? I imagine the settings in certain urban and collegiate areas are quite different, but here in middle America, moms at the park aren’t discussing global events or literature. They’re discussing their kids and clothing sales and the PTA.
For a while I stuck with book clubs, hoping that it might satisfy my intellectual thirst, until I conceded the fact that most books clubs, though well-intentioned, are simply thinly veiled excuses to gather with other women and gossip. The books were nice. They were even interesting! But any sort of thoughtful discussion got in the way of the real purpose for meeting.
Years ago, when my husband was in grad school and I had a house filled with infants and toddlers, I wrote a piece titled “I Miss My Brain.” Back then the internet was still coming to life, and blogs were in their infancy.
I like to think there is, now more than ever, hope for the intellectual mother. I appreciate venues like this one and the Mormon Women Project, where women gather to exchange ideas. Online education, Pathways, and free services like Coursera and Udacity give women more opportunities to keep alive the part of the brain that seems to stagnate for years.
The biggest challenge is time, finding and dedicating the time to meaningful study. Here’s what works for me, especially as my children get older: I am ever an early riser, and the days when I begin my morning with reading or study of any kind, well, that is a good day. I use naptime for writing or study, as well as a chunk of hours after dinner. I pull from classic literature to enhance my education. I remain an optimist about the 20 books on my bedside table. I listen to podcasts while I do yard work or fold laundry. I seek out wonderful friends who don’t mind jogging five miles while also thinking big thoughts. I learn alongside my children in their music study and academics, and find that to be more meaningful than I ever imagined.
It may not be Dickens by the fire, but it works for me.
I would love to know from you: What have you done to stay engaged in your profession or in intellectual pursuits? How do you balance family life with the life of the mind?