A number of years ago, I was so tormented by the labels Stay-at-home-mom and Housewife, that I created this blog. I originally called it, “What Do You Do? The Question That Makes Stay at Home Moms Squirm?” Under its banner, I verbally banged my head against the wall a lot, lamenting the invisibility I felt as a woman who had chosen to stay home with my children.
I felt like my value as a human being was simply less than those who earned a paycheck, and I knew I wasn’t alone in this perception. When meeting people who asked, “So what do you do for work?” I usually mumbled some kind of gibberish about wearing many hats and changed the topic as quickly as possible.
It bothered me so much that I spent a lot of time thinking about what we value in our culture and how we perceive value. As with everything, the issue can be traced back to the money. “Follow the money…” In our culture, sorry to say, money still equals power, visibility and value. Women who stay home with their children don’t earn a paycheck. This means that the voices of women who give up the paid work they once did to devote their lives to raising their children lose their place in line – in the line of whose voices we listen to as a society.
Recently, I noted a new round of the mommy wars; about how to best label the work of a stay at home mother. While the mommy wars are a complex issue, I maintain that if women who choose to stay home with their children were compensated in dollars for their work, (which of course will never happen) the hierarchy of value in our culture would shift. Often, women who complain about the work they do raising their children because they feel invisible and they want someone to notice they are putting in an inordinate amount of effort. I’m pretty sure that this is what’s behind the mommy wars. Women get competitive about what they do because they care so much about getting it right. Our culture doesn’t give them the credit they deserve for raising the next generation of humans who will actually one day take over leadership roles in the community.
Today, women continually need to justify their choices about anything, be it choosing to become a mother or not, choosing to stay home or go back to work and hire a nanny or find day care, as well as justify that the work they do is worth hiring the nanny or paying for the day care. It’s a no-win situation that results in many women feeling defensive about their choices. Women who have made different choices constitute threats to their shakily constructed internal justifications. We’re always thinking, “Wow, she’s managing this so much better than I am!” or “If I’d picked that school would my kid be learning faster?” or “Did I do something wrong or was I negligent in some way because my kid is the preschool bully?” Those are just a few of the many lines of thinking I can easily remember from when my children were young.
I remember the day when I vowed never to complain about my lot as a stay at home mother again. It wasn’t because I wasn’t often overwhelmed, overtired, underappreciated and probably underfed. It was because I overheard two women essentially one upping each other with complaints in the school office where all three of my children were enrolled. They each had three or four soccer practice schedules that they had to track. One had to spend a lot of time sitting with a child who struggled to read and the other had a child who got picked on in class. The homework was excessive. A husband always came home late. It felt impossible to get anything done but grocery shopping, dishes, laundry, cooking and driving. Nothing was ever finished. They agreed that if felt like an endless cycle. As the conversation progressed, the women moved on to gossiping and complaining about other people and issues beyond the scope of their own families. I was so taken aback by this conversation that it forced me to start listening to myself.
I complained too. I complained to my husband when he came home from work. I complained to other moms. I complained to the checker at the grocery store. I wanted someone to hear me. I wanted someone to care that it took me until after noon to get dressed because one kid wet the bed and I needed to wash the sheets, another one was barfing, I had to make school lunches, the dog had escaped the back yard and barked at the mailman and I’d yet to eat a meal.
After overhearing the conversation in the office that day, I stopped complaining. I still felt the overwhelm and still felt invisible and that no one actually cared that I was overwhelmed, but I didn’t want to be a complainer and I didn’t want to spout negativity like I’d just witnessed. I wanted to learn to look at what I appreciated about what I had, not how hard my life was. My life with three young children felt hard. It was definitely harder than the job I had before my first child was born.
I hadn’t intended to stay at home with my children; I had intended to go back to work. But something strange happened. I fell in love. I fell head over heals in love with my daughter. I didn’t ask the question of whether or not the choice to be home with my children constituted a job/work or a hobby as the writers in xoJane, Salon, and the Daily Beast seem to be interested in discussing. Those are questions a head asks: Does exhibit A fit into category A or category B? It doesn’t really matter except as those two arenas are valued in our culture. We value work because work makes dollars. The question of whether or not to stay home with one’s children isn’t a head question; it’s a heart question. Some mothers know without a shadow of a doubt that their children will be happier and healthier if they spend a large chunk of the day with a loving child care person, be it a grandmother, nanny or other than with a mommy cranky about feeling isolated at home. Others are content and happy feeding and snuggling babies in pj’s for half the day, working through toddler tantrums, and helping sound out words in a picture book.
I think that women who stay at home with their children and call it a job do so because they need to feel better about calling what they do work (unpaid work) because it feels more valuable. After the birth of my first child, my heart responded to a different question than how to categorize the choice I was about to make. I wanted to be the one who was with my children when they learned to sit up or to read their first words and I wanted to be there for them when they fell off their bikes or got a bad grade on a spelling test.
I hated a lot about being a stay at home mom for a long time, but what I hated most was being invisible and having given up my financial independence, not getting up three or four times a night for years, staying up late waiting for teenagers, picking up dog poop out of the living room, showering every three days, or running to the grocery store after bedtime because there was no milk for breakfast.
Now that I only have one child left at home, and I’m transitioning to another era of life, I miss those days. Crazy as it may seem, I miss the intensity of digging in deeper to my well of personal resources than I ever thought possible in order to keep the peace in our house and my own peace of mind. It was hard work. It was not a job or a hobby. It was a vocation.
The word vocation derives from the latin verb vocare – to be called. Choosing to stay home and parent children is a calling. It’s unpaid work, but that is beside the point. As the article that started this current ruckus points out, its true, we all do unpaid work, but most of us don’t do exclusively unpaid work day and night. To do so requires a great deal of love. Few people would do the work of full time parenting just for the money. If they did do it just for the money they would do a poor job of parenting. The thing that allows one to truly parent is love. The work of vocations of all sorts is the work of love. The peace I finally came to regarding my own role as a stay at home mom was that it is actually more like art than many other occupation. Both artists and parents (including fathers) work for the love of what they are doing rather than for any guarantee.
I’m sure there are more articles out there by now, but the video and three articles below caught my attention. In none of these did anyone mention the word vocation or the work of vocations and I feel that that word is missing from this conversation. Whether a mother stays at home full time, works part time or even full time by choice or by necessity, she does what she thinks is best for her children and for herself, taking so many factors under consideration that to reduce the thing that stay at home moms do to boxes labeled job or hobby does moms everywhere a disservice.
Instead of finding ways to further exacerbate the mommy wars, isn’t it about time our culture found a way to include the expertise and experience of all the women who’ve devoted their lives to raising the next generation. These voices need to be heard in the larger cultural conversation at the highest levels regardless of how it worked best for them and for their families? Isn’t it about time that we listened to our mothers?