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Testing the Waters

© 1996, by Lisa M. Roberts

Something curious has emerged in my daughter's manner this past year. I can't quite put my finger on it, but it has something to do with the way she likes to wear her hair (short and perky), the way she sings to "Achy, Breaky Heart," the way she rolls her eyes when she doesn't like what she hears, and the way l catch her looking at me, softly and intently, as I tend to her younger brothers and the house. She's turning nine next month, and I have an uneasy feeling I know what's going on.

When I was nine years old, back in 1970, something curious was emerging in me too. It compelled me to sit at the top of the stairs outside my bedroom every Tuesday night, from 8:00 to 10:00 p.m. There I listened in the dark as the doorbell would ring over and over, a new voice shuffing in as a draft of cold air drifted up. Then seven women would settle into a circle of chairs, a circle of faces I would never see, but with voices distinct, strong and enduring. The eighth clear voice was my older sister's.

"So where are we tonight?" she would begin.

These meetings were known back then as "conscience-raising" groups. And as the women who participated learned about themselves, I instead learned about "the struggle" -- the burdensome, remarkable, resolute world of womanhood. I realize now that I was about my daughter's age when I would climb trees in the backyard by day...and eavesdrop on the women's movement by night.

Something else was going on then too. I was also beginning to identify with two other generations of women: my mother and my grandmother. I often sat contently at the kitchen table beside my grandmother -- who was Italian-born, jovial, independent and absolute. Together we played cards while my mother bustled about preparing dinner, or clearing the dishwasher, or unpacking groceries. As I sat with my grandmother searching my hand for Rummy, I again listened quietly -- this time to the lyrical sound these two women would make, their easy exchanges sometimes rising into an Italian pattering that went purposely above my head but would always ease back down to the practical purposes at hand. Time to set the table. Time to call the family in. Time to pick up the fork, twirl the spaghetti, and eat "the right way."

These moments were warm, comfortable, unassuming, unquestionable. Sometimes my sister joined our domestic activities and became part of us, her laughter strong and familiar. Other times she would disrupt the scene with a simple murmur, a comment with a sharp edge, words that sounded important. Her voice echoed the two Glorias: Stivic and Steinem. Pop culture and the media. The conflict was all around me. It reached inward, touching the women closest to me, and reflected outward, from teachers to television.

Some time during those formative years I think I misplaced parts of my original self in the wake of the movement going on around me. And that's what it felt like -- movement -- a swirling of accusations, love, demands, hope, desperation...gestures of peace and challenge... moving forward, looking a circular path of urgency and intention. The waves of my sister and mother and grandmother and Gloria and Gloria lapped over me again and again.

Recently I found myself still drifting in this wake, now with three young children in tow. After twentysomething years of trailing behind this movement I decided to propel myself forward. I traded in my part-time home business for a full-time career. This was it. I sat my children down and said, "Stay here -- I have something important to do," and dove right smack in the middle of it all.

I discovered that it was true what the Glorias taught me, what that circle of women touched upon long ago. Independence and power does take the form of a paycheck. It's in your hand, it's in the bank, it's proof -- of your brain and your time and your skill. It is freedom from domestic ropes that bind and restrain your mental energy.

Paychecks do more than fuel the economy; they fuel a person's sense of worth. I know this has all been said before. But never by me.

It's also true what my mother taught me, what my grandmother, married at sixteen, came to learn herself toward life's end. Independence is an individual notion. Power comes strongest from the heart.

For myself, the dependence on nannies to care for my children overpowered any independence I felt as a bread winner. That powerful feeling of pay could not balance out the powerless feeling of being absent from home, unaware of the day's moods and motions, unavailable to my children.

My quest for more control of my life backfired. I had never felt more vulnerable.

And I was trailing again...circling the movement of others. Was I working to set an example for my daughter or to settle a score for my sister? To lead the autonomous life my grandmother had longed for and my mother had rejected? I was reaching, reaching, reaching; stretching, stretching, stretching; giving my mind, body and soul a work out like never before. But who was gaining from my "pain"? Certainly not my children. Not the Glorias whose age had passed. Perhaps the movement, which had given me the choice to begin with. But was it asking now for my children's formative years? Was I willing to risk that much?

No. I pulled in the ropes. The ones I had untied from my domestic bind now became lifelines that reeled me back home.

Here I am now, in calm waters, picking up the debris left behind from the deluge of the nannies. As I prepare and serve breakfast, clear the table and sweep the floor, I move with the ease of Italian voices. But there are times, especially at day's end, when another voice from deep within spills out -- restless and urgent -- full of life and ambition and strength. "Get me out," it demands. "Release me."

I continue to search for harmony within and without, for peace and challenge to unite. But something has changed now, something heavy rests on my search. I turn around and there it is. My future, my past. My unequivocal present. It's time for my search to end, for the stakes are clear.

Someone else is listening now.

© 1996 Lisa M. Roberts, all rights reserved. The above essay was first published in The Mother Is Me: An Alternative Publication on the Motherhood Experience, Summer 1996 Issue. Lisa Roberts is author of How to Raise A Family & A Career Under One Roof: A Parent's Guide to Home Business, a title highly recommended by La Leche League, Home Office Computing and the Family Christian Bookclub. Order your own copy today!

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