Midlife Not-Crisis, Caffeinated

On the way to get my afternoon caffeine fix, I passed by a large bulletin board and noticed a flyer for a public lecture, sponsored by a local atheist, agnostics, and humanist group. The lecture will discuss how people who are not religious find meaning in life. The speaker is someone who was formerly a minister or a pastor (no idea what the difference is or when it applies).

First of all, coffee is the meaning of life. End of story.

After having paid $2 for a meaning-of-life infusion, I thought more about the flyer on my way back to the office.

I had the good fortune to grow up in a loving family, which was not religious. My husband’s family wasn’t either. My grandmother was nominally religious, which meant we celebrated Christmas and Easter at home, and they were fun occasions to get together with extended family and eat a lot. There was minimal, if any, religious aspect to these celebrations and we never went to church. All the core values I possess come from my family. What I see in the US, that so many people equate morals with religion, is completely mind-boggling to me.

Midlife is a very interesting period, which perhaps you wouldn’t think considering that it really is the age of plateauing. While in your youth you climb the hills of education, ambition, and romance , trying to achieve professionally and personally, the growth slows down for most people in early middle age. You see the panorama, with many obstacles now behind you; you see, fortunately or not, that there are likely no more big, exhilarating firsts in your future any more, not in the way in which the youth was replete with them.

But middle age brings a visceral grasp of what’s important in life. Here’s what it is for me.

  • My immediate family, and enjoying my kids as much as I can while they are still in our home.
  • Intellectual challenge, fulfilling the need to think and learn and brainstorm and discover.
  • The people who need my help, one way or another, for some amount of time (my undergraduate and graduate students).
  • Taking care of the body that is in good working shape right now, but alas won’t be forever.
  • Reconnecting with my roots: Rediscovering things that gave me great joy when I was young, like drawing. Dusting off a foreign language I used to speak. Pretending to write, like I do in this space. Finding ways to reconnect with a family that is very far away and very expensive to see regularly.

While this is not a hierarchy, the people I love are by far the most important. Now, that does NOT mean that I should quit my job to spend every waking hour with my kids while they are still little (although I occasionally wish I could somehow bottle the moments of their cuteness and preciousness forever, as SMBC nicely captures). But part of love is letting people live their lives unsmothered. The kids are their own people, with their own abilities, interests,  and friends; it is a privilege  to be able to be there and love them and be loved by them as they are growing up. You don’t have to sacrifice ambition and leave your job for the kids, that’s not what the kids need from you or what they ask of you. Kids need love and care, but they also need space. And they are perfectly capable of understanding that they are loved deeply and profoundly, but that the world does not revolve around them even if they are the center of the parents’ universe, and that other people have jobs and obligations that they have to fulfill… But I digress.

So how do people who are not religious find meaning?  A while ago I saw a documentary, and a woman in it said something that stayed with me. “Happiness comes from the experiences we share with the people we love.” Mano Singham, one of my favorite bloggers on Freethoughtblogs, says nicely in the linked post that precisely the fact that you have just one finite life is what makes all of it so special. To me, the meaning is about doing the best you can for the people around you and connecting with the wider world in ways that you feel are authentic; to me, it’s through doing science and other creative pursuits. And drinking as much coffee as humanly possible.




Xykademiqz Drowns in Swimming

A few weeks ago I posted on my disorienting foray into the Twilight Zone world of high-school athletics at Eldest’s new school.

It’s all very macho. The swim team recently went on a dads-and-boys daylong canoeing trip; some dads went, but DH didn’t go. (By the way, it’s not even clear that the kid will make the team as they haven’t had the tryouts yet, but everyone who showed interest was supposed to partake in these bonding experiences.) There was canoeing and apparently eating tons of burgers/hot dogs, with a side of hazing of the freshmen. Nothing  too nefarious: older boys stole the freshmen’s canoes, tipped them out into the water, later filled canoes with sand or water or mud or something, but I found my gut tighten as I was listening to my kid tell me about the day. Apparently, this is all common manly bonding Scheisse, and if movies are anything like the real stuff, fraternity hazing is infinitely worse. Being the gentle, kind-hearted mom that I am, I found myself wanting to punch someone’s lights out. I think I am way too high-strung, protective, and just socially anxious to survive my kids going to high school. And I really hope none of my kids attempt to join any fraternities.

But the boys’ high school swim season doesn’t start until the winter. In the meantime, Eldest has been swimming at a local club.

Freakin’ swimming has taken over my family’s life.

During the first week of September, they still wanted to swim outside, starting at 4:15 daily. So DH or I had to leave work early, pick up Eldest after school at 3:40ish then drive him to the pool, then organize the pickup of other two and go get him again two hours later. There are older boys who drive, but for younger boys apparently there will always be a parent available to chauffeur — because we’re in the 1950’s and women don’t work.

After the first two weeks things got better. They swim in a different pool every day, but at least it’s in the evening.

Here’s the kicker: at every home meet, parent volunteering is mandatory. That’s alright, take all the time you need to let the giant italicized oxymoron sink in.

I don’t want to volunteer. I work all the time and the weekends are the only time I get to spend with my kids, my husband, my vacuum cleaner, and my washer and dryer. That’s when I do grocery shopping and cooking for much of the week. Our weekends are the time to do chores and relax a little so we’d have the energy for the week.

I know there are people (unfortunately, mostly women) who don’t work or who work part time, and who are able and willing to volunteer at these events. I am not one of them and I detest the fact that so much depends on women’s unpaid work. And I hate it even more that I am expected to put in such unpaid work myself.

I am already paying good money so my kid would swim. I am paying extra for the equipment, team apparel and each meet. I will pay more if they need me to, but I DO. NOT. WANT. TO VOLUNTEER because what I do NOT have is time.

I played a team sport in middle and high school, I don’t think my mom ever came to see me play and dad came occasionally. That suited me just fine because it was MY activity, not theirs. I don’t understand this need for incessant involvement in everything kids do. Mandating parental involvement is just maddening. So I asked if I can buy my way out of volunteering; if not, I guess we won’t be signing the kid up for home meets, or may have to switch clubs.