My life’s work

Near the end of last year, an old friend told me that she had come to consider the raising of her daughter her life’s work. I thought of that two Saturdays ago, as questions of raising children and “life’s work” swirled all around me.


That day was my children’s 18th birthday. It was the day I accompanied my daughter to a university that prides itself on helping its students discover their vocation, the thing they were put on earth to do to make it a better place. It was the day I went way outside my comfort zone to audition for the Portland show of Listen to Your Mother, sharing a version of a post I published here last fall.

It felt like a big day to me.

This is a space where I explore creativity, and I can think of no more creative work I’ve engaged in than raising my children. I’ve only fairly recently realized that I’ve answered the “What do you want to be when you grow up?” question, and that what I’ve most been is a mother–not a teacher, not a writer. I recently encountered a highly accomplished educator who has achieved more in a short career than I ever will (as an educator), and when I learned that she has young children, I was fairly astonished. I realized that I took myself out of the running for such things as soon as my children were born. I stopped considering anything that would take me out of the house in the evenings or that would require me to work in the summers. It wasn’t that I felt I needed to in order to be a good mother. It was that I didn’t want to miss out on mothering, and I was fortunate that I was able to make the choices I did.


So, to spend the 18th birthday of my babies with one of them at a university she may be living at a mere 6 months from now, and to travel from there to an audition to share my voice with a larger audience than I’ve ever shared it with before all felt poetically fitting.

I am in the midst of a most uncomfortable time. Part of me is so profoundly sad that my time of daily, active mothering is coming to an end. Nothing has brought me greater joy or fulfillment. Part of me is profoundly weary from daily, active mothering (which I’ve been doing for 21 years, not 18), and I’m looking forward to some relief from the grind of food and laundry and driving and all the myriad tedious things that mothers do. Part of me knows that my children are ready to launch (or, at least, for the first stage of launching) and that they need me to let them go. Part of me wants to cling tightly. Part of me is mourning the loss of the role that’s filled my life for more than 20 years. Part of me is excited about what else I can do in the space that’s opening.

That is why I am so glad that on the same day my children became their own, legally independent people, I did something so affirming of the other kinds of creative work in my life. And, it seems so fitting that this new creative endeavor is so closely connected to the one that has most defined me:  mothering.


I’m so happy (and thrilled and terrified) to share that I get to be in the Portland show of Listen to Your Mother, a venue in which mother-writers share their words on stage. Like everything right now, this is a mixed experience. I’m excited and scared. I’m filled with both anticipation and dread. I know it’s a good thing that will lead to good growth, but it feels super-uncomfortable. I’ve done poetry readings in the past (although it’s probably been a good 7 years or so since I’ve done that), but those were small audiences in intimate venues. This will be a large audience, on a stage, with lights shining in my face and no one facing the audience but me.

I know I’m going to need to take my cue (and some courage) from my daughter. Just about a year ago, I watched her take the stage to run for a statewide position in a student organization. She was alone on a stage, with lights shining in her face, facing an audience of several thousand of her peers.

She was amazing. Poised, articulate, funny, and powerful. She nailed that speech (and went on to win a national office just a few months after that, after making another one). And you know what? If I can raise a daughter who can do that, I’m pretty sure I can hold my own on a stage, too.


I think, perhaps, we do our children a real disservice when we ask them what they want to be when they grow up. Such a question implies that there will be a stage at which we arrive, when we become the thing we are meant to be, when our vocation is realized. Maybe it is like that for some people, but for me I think it was never meant to be that way. I think that what I’m going to be when I grow up is a question I am still answering, and that, even though I can’t always see it clearly, all the things I do are part of a unified pattern. I think the universe threw me a little birth day gift on Saturday, let me glimpse for a few moments the interweaving of all the threads. I still can’t clearly see the pattern of the fabric, but I’m going to keep weaving anyway, joining strands of experience into the whole cloth of my life.


It’s been a wild ride. And it’s not over yet.

17 thoughts on “My life’s work

  1. Hillary Hyde says:

    I can’t wait to see and hear you on stage, with all the other mamas! I will be cheering you on –
    How fitting that you feel you can get up on stage and do this since G did it. It used to be that when they were smaller and younger our children used us as that reference, and now it has flipped. Therein lies the difference. Now we provide bravery for each other on the adult stage.

    I am feeling the mixed up blob of confusion already (at 16) with my “little” heading towards the door. I am excited and terrified for the both of us .

    • Rita says:

      It is going to be much easier to get on that stage knowing you’ll be in the audience cheering me on. 🙂

      I’ve spent the weekend with my daughter and my mother and some cousins, and yeah–it is interesting the ways in which we trade around roles that at one time felt so fixed. It’s both unnerving and thrilling when our kids begin teaching us, isn’t it? But that’s not fixed, either. I’m in my 50s, but I still want and need my mama at times. She’s still got things to teach me.

      No wonder we can feel like mixed up blobs of confusion.

  2. Marian says:

    This is such a beautiful post, Rita. Congratulations on your successful audition — I’m so happy for you, and I’m looking forward to watching it online when it becomes available 🙂 . I love that you feel capable of doing this because you’ve raised a capable daughter. I have often marvelled at the fact that I’ve somehow managed to raise a confident and capable daughter (when I absolutely was neither at her age). I would say it’s all due to my husband, but my sister-in-law has just had some very stern “words” for me about that kind of negative self-talk, so I won’t say it 😉 .

    I too, consider raising my children to be my life’s work (and I’m very grateful that I haven’t had to miss portions of it), although I do admit I’m rather terrified to consider what will come when my youngest turns 18 in just over 7 years. (Which is entirely to do with the question “what do you want to be when you grow up?”, a question that should be banned, IMHO).
    Marian recently posted…The Day the i-Pad Wandered Off To Die …My Profile

    • Rita says:

      Thank you, Marian. You’re always so supportive, and I so appreciate that.

      Cane has been sharing with me recently that there’s new research showing that we don’t have nearly the impact on our kids that we think we do. They arrive pretty much who they are, and it may be peers who have the most impact on their development. After teaching for many years and getting to see many, many teens and their families, that feels plausible to me. Some kids live through terrible circumstances and emerge positive and capable. Others seem to have all the advantages you’d want all kids to have, but they struggle mightily. I look at my two, raised as much alike as two kids can be, and they are very different people–different personality traits, different values, different world views. And you know, they were different before birth. They responded differently to stimuli. I absolutely knew which one was which when they were still on the inside because they were already distinct little beings.

      So, I don’t know about either assigning blame or giving credit when it comes to our children. I feel good about the support I’ve given my daughter. I know she wouldn’t have been able to do all the things she’s done without it, and those experiences have shaped her skills and provided opportunities. But she’s really the same girl she’s always been. I remember her at 3, deciding she wanted to learn how to dribble a basketball. I watched her sit and work at it for half an hour (which is a long time for a 3-year-old to stick with something!) She didn’t get discouraged by her initial failures. She was driven by something internal–I have no idea why she decided that the was thing to do. And she taught herself. She was born this way. I don’t think our life’s work is to create our kids–but maybe it’s to create environments that allow the people they already are to flourish?

      • Marian says:

        The whole “nature vs. nurture” argument is one I’ve given a lot of thought to, and I think it’s a highly nuanced question. It seems to me that the research Cane has been reading may just be a bit contradictory: if it’s showing that kids are simply who they innately are, that points to “nature”, but if the study is also simultaneously saying that peers play a more important role than parents, then that would point to “nurture”. There seems to be a lot of emerging evidence in the field of epigenetics that genes can be modulated (switched on or off) by environmental triggers (food or pollutants, for example) as well as hormonal triggers (stress hormones, for example). This leads me to think that it’s all an extremely complex business, further complicated when you start to layer in concepts like luck and chance and invisible knapsacks (does a child have a mother, for example, who is willing and able to give her child the experiences that you (and I) have striven to give our daughters), which then makes the whole question of why does one child “succeed” when others do not, very complex indeed.

        I feel like I should clarify: I’m not actually giving or taking credit for creating our daughter; I believe she is who she is because of a wide range of factors. And when I say, not altogether seriously, that I lean towards giving my husband credit, I don’t necessarily mean that he is somehow the better parent (although perhaps he actually is) but rather that it seems to be in his “genes” to be calm, confident, and self-assured (as evidenced by the fact that his father and two brothers and niece and nephew are ALL that way) and therefore our daughter just got “lucky” in getting my husband’s personality genes vs my personality genes (not that there actually IS a personality gene, but hopefully you get the gist of what I’m saying).
        Marian recently posted…The Day the i-Pad Wandered Off To Die …My Profile

        • Rita says:

          Oh, for sure. I know it’s a nuanced, complicated question. And I know there is emerging research about how trauma actually changes our DNA. So, if we experience trauma as children, that changes us and those changes are passed on to our children through our DNA. And I for sure don’t want to downplay the importance of the good fortune we happen to be born into. While western culture loves the bootstrap theory (and some individuals do manage to make their way to a different rung of the social ladder than the one onto which they were born), it is very rare for individuals to achieve a higher socio-economic status than that of their parents–and that’s due to all kinds of privilege that is difficult to see when you’ve got it. Still, I think it would be helpful for modern parents to realize that our ability to mold our children may be less than we think. Sometimes I think we do more than we really need to, and perhaps more than is really good for our kids.

          And, I think your daughter is most likely lucky because she’s got both of you. Diversity is good for the species, right? 🙂

  3. Josh Klauder says:

    I agree with Marian, that question should be banned! I’m not especially good at engaging with young people, but even I know that question is lame-sauce, and wrong in so many ways. It’s the kind of canned conversation form that rarely leads anyplace worthwhile. At the very least, how about asking what do you want to DO when you grow up. Better yet, skip the whole thing and ask “What interests you? (NOW, not ‘when you grow up’ whatever that means.) And maybe all kids should have permission to ask their interrogators “What do YOU want to be, now that you are grown up – and are you being it?” That might lead somewhere!

    But please, let’s teach our kids the difference between being and doing. I think words matter.

    • Rita says:

      I would never argue with the idea that words matter! 🙂 Your comment has me thinking of a thing I saw going around the internet a while back. Apparently when someone asked John Lennon the what do you want to be question when he was a child, his response was “happy.” I don’t know if that’s a true story, but it’s a story about paying attention to the meaning of words. I think the question is a useful one if by it we really meant “be” and not “do.” I wish I’d thought more about what I wanted to be when I was younger. I was too focused on trying to figure out what I should do. And I so agree with you: I”d love to drop the “when you grow up” part of the question altogether. I think we have to decide every day what we want to be and do. I wish I’d understood that much sooner, too.

      For what it’s worth, I think anyone who knows a question is lame-sauce and cares about affirming who kids are right now pretty much has all they need to be able to engage with young people. The more I’ve taught adults, the more I’ve realized that learners don’t differ all that much by age. Of course, I’ll still never teach kindergarten–a room full of 5-year-olds would have me shaking in my boots!

  4. Skye Leslie says:

    Loved this write. It reminded me of a very old New Yorker cartoon. A woman/mother with her two children, is standing in an art museum before a painting which just blows her away. She’s also standing next to an older gentleman. After looking at the painting she says, “Oh, I wish I could create a work of art like this.” The old gentleman, gazing down at her two children says, “Well, I think you already have. Twice.” And, so have you. Please let me know when you do the “mother’s” reading, I really want to be there.

    • Rita says:

      Thank you so much, Skye. Our kids are our works of art, aren’t they? Not in the way most people think of that, but we did make them, didn’t we?

      The show is on Thursday, May 4th at the Alberta Rose Theater. Link to tickets here. Would love to see you there!

  5. Laura says:

    Yes. We really do need that glass of wine (or two). My 21 year old recently chose to go out with friends for his birthday celebration and OF COURSE HE DID, he’s 21 enjoying a new adult privilege. But yeah. I did sit home and think more than just a bit wistfully about the little boy that followed me so earnestly around the house 18 years ago. I didn’t used to think much of my 12 years as a stay-at-home mom in terms of my accomplishments as a person, but in recent years I’ve done more standing up for myself. A career advisor who was a young woman was trying to help me with my resume package and going through all sort of gymnastics trying to disguise my 12 year absence from the work force, until I finally said “I was parenting my children, not serving time in prison. Why are we trying to hide this?” I sometimes wonder if this wasn’t the greatest disservice of the feminist movement to women (not to dismiss their great contributions, as well), that we’ve got to somehow ignore or dismiss motherhood in the context of what is considered important work. I know mothers who are legislators, scientists, police officers, teachers, doctors, and veterinarians, and I know what they do is vital and necessary and worthwhile. But I also know what keeps them up at night, filling their heart from edge to edge. It isn’t their careers, that’s for sure.
    Laura recently posted…Getting to a Fresh Start in the Dining RoomMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      I don’t think feminists or the feminist movement is to blame for the ways in which mothering is devalued. I think that’s just evidence that the work hasn’t gone far enough yet. And wouldn’t it be great for all of us–men and women alike–if the work of raising our young was valued (in all ways, including economically) and not seen as “feminine” work?

      I know just what you mean about those birthday feelings. Mine spent most of the afternoon of their birthday away from me, out together with friends. Of course I loved that they did that, but I was glad that Cane was home that afternoon or I would have felt a bit bereft. It used to be that good parenting was defined by being there for them. More and more, I think it’s defined by not (and not making them feel guilty for leaving us).

      When you coming back to the northwest for a visit? If you do, I’d better be on your itinerary! 🙂

      • Sarah says:

        “I don’t think feminists or the feminist movement is to blame for the ways in which mothering is devalued. I think that’s just evidence that the work hasn’t gone far enough yet. And wouldn’t it be great for all of us–men and women alike–if the work of raising our young was valued (in all ways, including economically) and not seen as “feminine” work?”

        YES YES YES
        Sarah recently posted…My home this season: February 2016My Profile

  6. Sarah says:

    Congrats, Rita, I’m so thrilled for you that you will be part of this performance! I wish I could see it in person but I hope you will report back in this space and tell us how it went.

    Congrats, too, on beginning the process of launching your babies out into the world. Bittersweet of course, but the proper order of things.

    Reading your post and the discussion of “what do you want to be when you grow up” reminded me of this post I recently read from the New York Times, about the downside of encouraging kids to find their “passion”:

    I wonder if maybe that’s just as harmful for adults as it is for kids. Passion is important in life of course but maybe we do ourselves a disservice when we expect that passion to be singular.

    And, though this may sound contradictory after what I’ve written above, I wanted to say that I can’t wait to see what your second life’s work turns out to be. I know it’s going to be good whatever it may be.

    Finally, I don’t think I’ve mentioned yet that I love your new haircut! 😉
    Sarah recently posted…My home this season: February 2016My Profile

    • Rita says:

      I know you and I have visited this ground before. I couldn’t agree more with your ideas about passion. As the parent of a senior who’s been filling out endless applications, I’ve been pulling my hair out about the pressure she’s felt to have a passion. Or, at least, something she’s pursued to some ridiculous degree so that she can stand out in some way. There’s been lots of conversations about trying to define her and what makes her special. Why do tell kids they have to be special in some way? I know it serves all of us better if we give kids time and space to explore. She has felt it to be very true that colleges are not looking for well-rounded students; they are looking for a well-rounded student body. I think it’s a shame.

      And thanks for affirmation on the haircut. I’m having a bit of a midlife hair-do crisis. 🙂

  7. alexandra says:

    Congratulations. THe experience of being part of Listen To Your Mother is one that is momentous, as you’ve said, and one that you will never forget. The community of these women, the communion of their stories, the friendships that come from sharing truth and our own raw moments. The emotion of parenthood: all of it, the laughter tears sorrow joy pain growth letting go hanging on. IT’s beyond anything I can tell you in this comment box.

    But I can’t think of a person more receptive or more ready to absorb the LTYM experience, than you, Rita. I am thrilled for you.
    alexandra recently posted…In Case You Missed ItMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      Thank you so much for your kind words. We have our first rehearsal on Saturday, and I’m so looking forward to it. Really not looking forward to the performance–because every time I think about it I feel a little sick to my stomach–but I’m looking forward to everything leading up to it!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.