This post is part of a series called “Motherhood Mantras.” To read more about the series, and the full list of writers, click here.
Several years ago, while I was in seminary and headed toward divorce, the entire world seemed to be coming down on top of my head. Everything was in flux: one child was diagnosed with autism, the other was trying to check out of this world permanently. My spouse had moved out, and we were negotiating custody. I had started a new church internship, and I was juggling a full load of coursework. One day I received the news that I would need to transport one of the children to a special school an hour away from home, which meant that I would not be able to finish the semester in seminary. Conceding that I needed help, I went to the director of academic affairs.
I asked for permission to miss the last several weeks of classes while keeping up with the readings and assignments. I asked for extensions on the papers. The seminary worked with me to make this possible, and I got the papers turned in by the modified deadlines. And then I crashed for a week before the spring semester started.
In the middle of all this, the director of academic affairs asked me, “How do you get out of bed everyday?” I stared at him in amazement, and asked through gritted teeth,
What’s the other option??
What’s the other option? And I meant it. I stared at him a while with sharp, angry thoughts running through my head. Who else was going to get the children out of bed in the morning? Who else was going to feed them? Who else was going to make sure they got to every blasted appointment and took prescribed meds? Who else was going to make sure they took a bath? Brush their teeth? Had clean clothes? With my family all the way out in California, and other seminary students busy with their own dramas, who else was there? What was the other option?
But not only that, I was halfway through my seminary program–we’d moved so far and were invested in this space. Our housing and health insurance depended on my continued enrollment in the program. Where was I supposed to go on a leave of absence? Who would pay for the therapy visits, the doctor’s evaluations? How could my children change schools after we’d just got them into special services? Where on earth would we live? What was the other option?
I gritted my teeth and looked at the director. After a minute I spat out, “Everyday I wake up and I put both feet on the floor. And then I push with my legs and arms until I am in an upright position. Then I make coffee.”
I pushed through that year and all of the next with the mantra, “What’s the other option?” People asked me about self-care, and I said, “I would love to tell you that self-care means pedicures and a bottle of wine, but right now self-care means finishing this program and finding work–what’s the other option?” And it’s just true–sometimes that’s the option.
But when I finished the program and found work, after I was ordained and had an apartment and my PhD applications were done, as the children began to heal and the custody schedule evened out…after all that, I started to ask myself, “What’s the other option?” out of habit. The question began to change, from a mantra to a real question.
What’s the other option?
…no really, what other options are there? And the answers began to change. Or perhaps I might say that there were more answers than just, “Put your feet on the floor and push upright.” I started to think about other options from a longer term perspective, to lessen my dependence on any one source of support. As I did that, and as I kept asking the question, other options presented themselves.
Last September, after a year of my PhD program, I found myself back in a tight situation with school, family, and work. As the world pressed in again, I found myself clinging to “What’s the other option?” as a mantra again instead of a question. When my advisor called in August to see if I was planning to start classes in September, I said, “Oh yes, I’ll be there Monday.” And in my head I said, “What’s the other option?” There was a pause on the phone–long enough for me to consider the absurdity of what I was saying. In that moment I saw from outside myself.
At that moment, in the center of that pause, I remembered that I was pulled over at the side of the road, talking to my advisor on my cell phone. I was sitting at the edge of a stranger’s front lawn because I knew I needed to take that call. I was on my way to my old apartment (which I had spent the previous day’s 10 hours cleaning) where I was meeting my landlords. I knew they were not happy over the state of the carpet. I was carrying in my van all of the rain soaked garbage from my new apartment, because we were expecting a hurricane that weekend, and I didn’t want the trash crashing into my van. Back at the new apartment, the children were waiting with an impatient friend. For half a year those children had been out of control as I commuted to school and to work all over New Jersey. They were as impatient as my friend, since there were no groceries in the new fridge.
My papers from the spring were 4 months overdue, and writer’s block had taken up permanent residence. Halfway through my summer French class I discovered that our custody arrangement had fallen apart, and I had to figure out childcare (with no money for it) in order to finish the class.
Not only that, but my work with Tiny Church was coming to an end. I was about to be without financial support, and my housing near the PhD program had fallen through. But sure, I’d be in class on Monday.
So I sat there, covered in garbage, in between everything, on some stranger’s lawn, with all of life pressing me into the ground, and I thought, “What’s the other option?” My advisor picked up that pause and said, “Come see me and let’s talk about options.” She was an excellent advisor.
By the time I met with her, I had already made my decision and withdrawn from school. My resignation was final with the church. I moved into the apartment and curled in around the children. For the first time I realized what another option might be–I might just not get out of bed except for crucial moments for a while. I might just catch up on eight seasons of Grey’s Anatomy. And eat. I might just cry for a long time and grieve the loss of dreams.
Then as the pressure eased and old dreams faded, and the children mellowed and life settled, I asked myself, “What’s the other option?” And I started to plant my feet again, and push with my arms and legs until upright, and make the damn coffee. I’d get the children to school and think about going back to bed. I’d say, “What’s the other option?” And slowly other options came to mind.
What’s the other option?
Maybe there isn’t one, maybe there is. Sometimes there just ain’t. Sometimes the other option costs too much. But it gets me through to ask it.
For an update on what has become the other options, see my blog post: “The Apartment Still Leaks.”
Katie Mulligan is a parent of two children and three cats, living and working as a pastor in New Jersey. She is newly an athlete, running a breezy 13 minute mile. She blogs about intimate violence, lgbtq concerns, and life in general at Inside Outed.