It was exactly ten years ago. A Friday in late December 2004. At a mere 25, I worked my very last day in Corporate America. The tension of trying to maintain a perfect home, be a good wife, all while struggling (and failing) to be a successful chemical engineer finally broke me. I passed on all my project paperwork, removed all my personal items from the desk, and turned in my employee pass. I was no longer a career woman. I was now a rare and unusual thing: a stay at home wife, neither ready to begin a family nor desiring to rise up the corporate ladder.
That Christmas, a mentor/friend gifted all the volunteers at our church with hand made rice bags. They were soft flannel and denim pouches filled with rice, ready to be heated in the microwave. I loved mine and wanted to make them for all my family. My mentor/friend insisted they were easy to make. But I didn’t sew. She extended the invitation for me to come over to her home so she could teach me. I was sure she didn’t have time for that, being a stay at home mom. Yet she insisted; was quite persistent. She suggested Monday morning — that first real day of my unemployment. December 20, 2004.
I descended upon her door that cold morning and she welcomed me in, already busy with the tasks of stay at home motherhood of a five and eight year old. The dining room table still held the remnants of their breakfast, and she had to clear that away before we could begin our work there. The children were still in warm and cozy pajamas and she never asked them to dress for the day. I remember feeling a sense of bewilderment at the lack of preparation for my arrival.
As I stood and waited for things to get to the place where my friend could begin to show me what I’d come to learn, my meticulous, perfectionistic, judgmental self couldn’t help but notice the lack of perfection in this home. Those breakfast remnants on the table. Old crumbs on the floor. Last night’s dinner dishes in the kitchen sink. Piles of books and papers here and there. Dried toothpaste in the bathroom. Her home wasn’t “company ready” by any stretch of the imagination. Yet here I was, as invited. I’d never been in someone else’s home in a state like this. It wasn’t sterile. It was real and lived in.
I remember feeling a little bit embarrassed for my friend, that for whatever reason, she’d not managed to get things in ship shape before I came. I remember feeling that I couldn’t imagine having someone over to my home without having swept, vacuumed, mopped, dusted, and sterilized. And I remember feeling this strange disconcertment about her motherhood.
My limited exposure to motherhood at this time was with moms who were controlled, perfectionistic, diligent, dedicated to routine and structure. Everything was just so at all times. Finishing all tasks came first. Here in my friend’s home it was the antithesis. It was not perfect, not controlled, not structured, not any of those things. People came first. She had welcomed me in — welcomed me in to the unique comings and goings of their day as if I belonged there just as much as they did.
She fixed me a warm cup of tea. She quickly taught me how to use the sewing machine. Then she left me to try it on my own while she went about the business of being a mom to two young children at Christmastime. She wasn’t going to coddle me or do it all for me. She believed in me, that I could do it. And all the while, the children were about us. They were so happy and thriving, engaged in our conversations, having “tea” and cookies with me, being part of the atmosphere of home, rather than cast away to play by themselves in a playroom. It was chaotic and messy, but so full of love and warmth and joy.
What do I remember most about that day?
I remember not wanting to leave.
I came thinking I would learn how to operate a sewing machine. I left with a heart cracked open. I left with my entire understanding of what it meant to open one’s home to another soul ripped to shreds. I left with my concept of how the world worked, how we relate to each other, how we choose and don’t choose to be vulnerable, what motherhood meant, turned up on its head.
All those homes I’d visited over my life time that were the magazine picture of perfection… felt cold, and empty, and reserved. Yet this home I’d been invited into, that I’d initially believed wasn’t “ready” for my arrival, felt warm, soothing, and a haven I had to pry myself away from. I wanted nothing more than to stay and revel in its love. My enjoyment had absolutely nothing to do with how spic and span the house was.
It’s been a decade since that day that changed me forever.
I recently confessed all this to my mentor/friend, and she shared that she had intentionally let me in on a ‘bad day’, a real day. Of her two grandmothers, one was perfectly neat and the other was more relaxed. What she learned from her relaxed grandmother was to welcome others, even when things weren’t perfect. The best choice is to focus on people and their needs, instead of on shame.
It was embarrassing for her to allow me to see the mess, but she knew that the perfectionist, controlling me needed to be freed from that expectation. She knew that walking into a home that was focused on me and bringing me into their family would be a balm to my careful, meticulous soul. Five days before her only Christmas when her children were 5 and 8, she put my needs ahead of her own and sacrificed her pride. She gave me a taste of what home should feel like, while demonstrating that motherhood isn’t about denying your own interests in order to have a clean home and perfectly behaved children.
How grateful I am that I tasted a cup of hot tea at her dining room table that cold December day.