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I hear it so often it might as well be my name. “Well! You have your hands full!”

It’s true, I do. Often literally. I hear it as I deliver my older two boys to school—“older” here is a relative term, as they are only six and four years old—making them form a hand-holding chain with their toddler brother to get through the parking lot, hustling them along with the baby strapped to my chest. I hear it at the library, at story time, when I’m down to just the younger two. I hear it at Mass or in the store or on the street: I have my hands full. I don’t mind hearing it. I know it’s meant to be empathetic. But it tends to make me self-conscious: Yes, I can barely manage my own children; is it that obvious?

The other day, at the drugstore, I was sure I was about to hear it again, from the woman behind me in line, watching as I loaded cartons of diapers onto the register counter while trying to keep track of my four-year-old. “I see you all the time at Mass,” she said. “Your boys are so well behaved.” This is not exactly true, but I know it means “I’m glad you keep showing up,” and so I am always glad to hear it. She has four kids of her own, she told me, and three grandkids, all grown. And then she said, “You’re so lucky to be a stay-at-home mom.”

I have to admit I don’t often think of it that way. It took me a while to even accept that “stay-at-home mom” is an accurate label for me. The first time someone said it I instinctively shook my head. No, no, I’m a writer and an editor who just happens to be running a home for boys at present. I am an editor at large, where “at large” means “mainly focused on thank-you notes and first-grade book reports.” “Stay-at-home mom” has always sounded to me like something you plan for, rather than something that overtakes you. Stay-at-home moms have their acts together. They’re not looking over their shoulder at the life that late they led. Me, I’m still a little dizzy from it all: I have four sons, I hear myself saying, and I think, That can’t possibly be right.

I try, every Advent, for a fresh start.

Sometimes I get away from my mothering duties for a few hours to see what my Commonweal colleagues are up to, and I get to meet readers who tell me they enjoy my work, and it’s very gratifying. And I say, “I wish I could do more!” and never “I’m so lucky to be a stay-at-home mom.”

It’s possible that woman I met in the store has some cultural agenda I wouldn’t agree to. She may believe mothers should never work or want to work. I won’t be a poster mom for that. But I am grateful that she didn’t just tell me what I expected to hear, because she was right. I am lucky to be able to choose to stay home with my kids when it feels like the obvious best choice, to be able to get by on one salary, to have health insurance and healthy children and all this time to spend with them while they are small. That’s not the attitude I bring to it most days, of course. Every one of them needs more attention than I can give, so mostly I feel overwhelmed and guilty and impatient. My two-year-old has taken to asking, “Mommy, are you happy at me?” when he can tell from my huffy manner that I’m thinking about something else I need to be doing. He doesn’t know why I can’t just enjoy this game of let’s-pretend-we’re-dump-trucks without frowning at the clock and calculating whether there’s time to nurse the baby before preschool pickup.

I try, every Advent, for a fresh start. In recent years my pledges to spend “more time” on this or that—more time praying, more time writing, more time playing with each of my sons—have been doomed to failure. I really am doing the best I can, and it’s time for me to face it. (Maybe real stay-at-home moms don’t always have their acts together?) So this year I am going to try to worry less about the things I can’t do or be or create. That stuff will still be there when my boys are out of diapers. And every time someone reminds me that my hands are full, I will try to remind myself that my hands are full of blessings for me to be happy at. 

Mollie Wilson O’​Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

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Published in the December 15, 2017 issue: View Contents
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