Hundreds of demonstrators took to the streets of Costa Mesa, California on April 28, to voice their opposition to Trump’s racist rhetoric against immigrants. According to Carlo Strenger’s theory in Fear of Insignificance, when people protest they express their “worldview that provides [them] with an understanding of the world” and gives their lives meaning.
We feel our lives matter when we “fight” for our beliefs.
This is not to say we must take to the streets, but being restrained or unable to act on our worldview can leave us feeling less significant. Take it from me. As a stay-at-home parent, I have struggled to release myself from the nagging clutch of insignificance.
After I resigned as a teacher in California to support my husband’s burgeoning film career in Brooklyn, New York, I began questioning my value to society. Isolated and alone, what I worked seven days a week to achieve as a parent remained invisible to the outside world. All the buying and cooking of organic foods, the lap reading and floor time, the nursing and toe-tickling earned me zero accolades compared to my teaching skills. Although I was satisfied with my parenting strategy (for the most part), I felt utterly worthless as a citizen.
According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of significance is “the quality of having notable worth or influence.” Caring for a cute little secretion machine does not lend itself to feeling influential. On the other hand, I definitely felt my life mattered as a high school teacher who turned every history lesson into a cause for social justice.
My classroom was a safe space where I respected my students’ social, ethnic, gender, sexual, and religious identities. I wrote my own curriculum that challenged them intellectually. I impressed upon them the necessity of acting as agents of social change. I even gave students laminated copies of the Bill of Rights to empower them in the face of routine police harassment. Like those protesters demonstrating their worldview on a picket line, I felt significant as a teacher-turned-social-organizer.
Four years after leaving my post, I still felt empty. It suddenly became clear that feeling insignificant had defined my entire stay-at-home parenting experience.
Aside from fleeting moments of joy and warm, affectionate embraces, raising my daughter was largely draining. Physical and emotional exhaustion sapped my body while the boredom of parenting depleted me mentally. Playing “dollhouse” with a two-year-old weighed on my often-sleepy head like a lead blanket. My brain became sluggish, no longer my own.
It was a far cry from the rush I felt directing Socratic Seminars to debate the legitimacy of bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Instead of mediating passionate debates five days a week, I sluggishly cooked, fed, bathed, played, and laundered, Sunday through Saturday. When I’d hold my daughter in my arms at bedtime, I would undulate between feeling nothing and feeling nothing but anguish.
It didn’t help that my good deeds as an active parent garnered much less recognition than my life as a teacher. The way people say in an underwhelmed tone, “Oh, you stay at home,” betrays their disdain. It stung when my brother said I shouldn’t have “thrown my life away to raise kids.” I no longer instructed students on how to analyze the relationship between privilege (Trump) and oppression (anti-immigration laws), and that made me feel even less significant in the eyes of others.
Sometimes it’s easier for me to relate to demonstrators like Rojelio Banuelos carrying his “Liberation not Deportation” sign during the April 28 protest. I too felt the thrill of being alive when I came up against pro-lifers during the March for Women’s Lives event in 2004. Our power in numbers, the exhilaration of screaming our beliefs at the top of our lungs brought about a strong sense of significance.
As a stay-at-home mom (SAHM), however, I felt only vaguely useful outside the house. Yet, in Strenger’s book, he suggests that marrying at twenty-six and having children shortly after was my attempt at deriving significance by creating “emotional attachments.”
If marriage and motherhood are supposed to make me feel significant, why did I feel as though I mattered to no one other than my firstborn? I definitely felt “notable worth” as a teacher of color who spoke out against racist ideologies that build walls rather than break them down, but I felt empty as a SAHM.
Maybe Strenger has never tried being a stay-at-home parent. It’s clear to me that becoming a SAHM actually diminished my sense of significance.
Not surprisingly, stay-at-home mothering is, in and of itself, a cause of decreased confidence. In her book The Second Shift, Arlie Hochschild explains that “for most women who cut back [their careers], one major emotional task [is] to buoy flagging self-esteem.” The American Psychological Association echoes the same finding: “Mothers employed part time reported better overall health and fewer symptoms of depression than stay-at-home moms.”
Though I agree with Strenger’s argument that living out our worldviews and having a “deep-seated desire to be loved” forms the basis of our self-esteem, he fails to consider the infinite nuances of parenthood that can actually reduce one’s sense of significance, even if only temporarily.
I still don’t feel “influential” while cleaning toilets and preparing three meals a day for now two girls, but I no longer feel insignificant. I have found ways to raise my children and practice my worldview. I use my privilege as a SAHM to pass my values on to the next generation, and as a writer, I channel my passion for social justice into my writing. Doing what I love regardless of what form it takes now has imbued my life with renewed meaning.
I may not go back to teaching, but I will join Rojelio and other people of color in defending ourselves against the venom tongue of a rogue presidential candidate. In our search for significance, we will fight for our causes; he with his sign, and I with my keyboard.