Sunday, July 20, 2008

Questioning my Intelligence

Or, How does an over-educated stay-at-home mom reconcile her pre-kid and mommy selves?

I used to be smart. Not smart in a brilliant, easy, Mensa sort of way, mind you, but in a self-motivated, hardworking, determined sort of way. I graduated with honors from an elite private school and then from Duke University. In graduate school, I maintained a 4.0 GPA, and my thesis won the Best Thesis Award. I read papers at conferences, taught over 600 first-year college students how to write essays and read Dante’s Inferno, and worked in corporate America as a writer/editor.

My intellectual interests ranged from astronomy to zoology; from culture and history to language, art, and literature. I read constantly and voraciously. I could connect disparate ideas, identify patterns and repetitions, and make meaning and sense of them. My mind moved easily from specific detail to general concept and back again. I wrote lucidly and eschewed jargon for clear communication. I was organized and productive, managing my time wisely and multitasking with ease.

And then I had a baby.

Mother Nature has a very sick sense of humor.

My brain and my breasts lost their perkiness at the same time. Sleep deprivation no doubt contributed to the mental softness, but so did my new little obsession. This baby boy magnetically attracted my every thought in the most bizarre ways and completely derailed my feelings of competence and confidence.

I decided, for example, that reading aloud to my newborn while breastfeeding would help stimulate his brain development. I squelched an impulse to read my little darling Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in Middle English or the varied prose of Joyce’s Ulysses, but my rationalizations were probably defensive. The best parts of my brain exited my body with the placenta, and I could no longer handle Great Literature. I turned instead to Michael Crichton’s Timeline, a fun bit of fluff, but I edited the swear words, as if my precocious newborn’s first word might be “shit” if I wasn’t careful.

Stacks of literature and writing manuals around the house were replaced by diapers and laundry. God, there was so much laundry. I struggled just to get a shower every day, much less read any of the parenting books or magazines I had collected during that first pregnancy. I felt that someone had dumped me in the middle of the ocean and left me alone, frantically treading water and barely keeping my nose above the waves of responsibility and tedium that threatened to push me under.

In the eight years since that first dirty diaper, I have found a few bits of driftwood on which to float as the current carried me … somewhere. I reread the complete works of Jane Austin with little difficulty, but a first reading of A.S. Byatt’s brilliant novel Possession took me eight months of rough sea to finish. I made it through a few hefty tomes on Anglo-Saxon history and even a book on medieval Latin paleography. But nothing could calm the heavy seas of the terrible threes, another baby, and 14 more months of having my essence sucked out through very tiny holes in my nipples.

My sons are now eight and five, and I’ve made it to the shore of early childhood mothering, waterlogged and exhausted. The view from where I stand now leaves me more than a bit bewildered.

Where am I?

Who am I?

Where did all this grey hair come from?

Why do I not have a single stylish outfit in my closet?

Can I possibly participate in an intelligent conversation on a subject other than toilet training, the mysteries of getting a child to eat vegetables, or how much is too much for extracurricular activities?

Is Susan Raihala still inside this person named Mommy?

Well, of course she is still here, and she’s also still a bit of a drama queen to ask a question like that. But she has changed, and I’m not quite sure who she has become.

Having an MA in English predisposes a person to appreciate pithy aphorisms, so my quest to find myself will begin with guidance from Lord Acton, who wrote this little gem:

"Learn as much by writing as by reading."

I’ve read plenty, so now it’s time to write my way out of this existential crisis, to bridge the gap between the competent, educated woman formerly known as Susan Raihala and this Mommy person who wipes bottoms that aren’t her own and says things like “Because I said so!” and “Hands out of pants!” daily.

Welcome to my blog.


  1. Hi, Susan,

    Welcome to the wonderful world of blogs!

    For many years I asked myself many of the same questions. Now our daughter is poised to enter college. Looking back, I can say with certainty that my world was actually BROADENED, in every sense of the word, once I became a stay-at-home mom. Who would have thought that possible? You'll never regret it - and from your Christmas letters and other news you send, I can tell that your world is wider, too. One can't always see it when one is in the thick of things, and it flies in the face of conventional wisdom for "modern women." A good read is "What Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us," by Danielle Crittenden. I won't let Arielle leave home without it!

  2. Hey, doesn't sound like you've lost one iota of your brain cells. Beautiful beginning to your blog. I'm thrilled you have one.

    (If you think you are dumb now, just wait until your kids are teenagers!!)

  3. Oh Baby Doll, I'm right with Joan B. You better feel you're intelligent, because when your sweet little boys become teenagers, you will began to wonder how you ever had the sense to get up, get dressed, and get through a day! Good luck with the blog, you're off to a great start!

  4. Susan your essays are outstanding. We are so impressed and proud of your writing skills. we are looking forward to the next one.

    rr and br

  5. I am enjoying reading your essays. I'm proud of you for writing them and I can't wait for the next ones. I don'y even remember having a speaker at my graduation. My children have REALLY sucked any intellegence I may have had. I'm glad I watched the Lord of the Rings movied so I knoe what you are talking about...and yes I remember that you could identify any passage from any book, ya freak. I love you.

  6. Hi Susan, I finally learned how to comment--I hope. Your blog is wonderful. Just finished upside of addiction and it all sounded so familiar. You can just sub. sewing and painting, oh yes and black dog hairs in the corner,and it is me. You have kept me laughing. The girls at work are really enjoying it too. Keep it going. dd

  7. only a couple of years late to discover this world of blogging including yours but wanted to say that I totally hear ya on this one Susan. This could be me you are writing about here. Love your honesty and sense of humour!

  8. You are HILARIOUS....what a breath of fresh air. ;)

  9. Wow, Susan, I never popped all the way back here in your blog. Thanks for pointing me in this direction! You have brought lots of nods and smiles from me with this essay. As a highly educated person with a flourishing career, having children was a big culture shock to me, and the slowing of my brain was extremely frustrating. I'm glad to say that my brain is clicking again, and I certainly know yours is too! My girls are just about to have their 9th and 4th birthdays, and I'm pleased to say that even though I say "Because I said so!" daily, I haven't yet had to say "Hands out of pants!" LOL!!


Thanks so much for taking time to comment!