Stay at Home Mothering isn’t a Job or a Hobby

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?

Looking at the Donut AND the Hole

Black Sun

My car drove itself to Volunteer Park late this afternoon after dropping Gillian off at volleyball. I didn’t plan on going there. I swear it just started going that direction because I had my camera with me and hadn’t shot anything yet today. I slowed down as I passed the conservatory, thinking maybe I was supposed to go in and shoot tropical flowers. It was closed. Continue reading

Thoughts While Striking.

Hot Diggity Dog

The day I left for California was my friend’s birthday. She’s my best adventure pal, so I was sad to miss celebrating the occasion. Tonight was our second stab at getting together. I had this great idea to go walk around Greenlake and then take her out for sushi. Perfect for a vegetarian celebration on a mild winter evening with no rain… Continue reading

Reflections on Connections

Editing swimming shots for the college swim team website

It was that kind of day. I spent a chunk of it glued to this screen, along with running up and down the stairs to the laundry room to wash sheets, to the kitchen to make food for a kid and do dishes, and to the car to deliver kids to school and ski stuff to kids, all between tasks at my desk.

Photography today requires a lot of time in front of a computer. That’s probably the area in which I find the biggest challenges. There’s the part where I’m out there in the world, interacting and acting… the physical, more obviously creative part, and then there’s this other part, the sitting part. Some photographers love it, and are amazingly skilled in what they can do with photographic images. I can’t say I dislike it, its just more challenging for me to sit still, and I consider myself a baby in the technology part. For people my age, its a new skill, but some are more technologically savvy than others. All of my younger years were film years, and then there was the hiatus when the kids were little, and I only shot film even though digital was fast becoming the coolest new thing. I couldn’t stand it, so I think I only shot on special occasions or vacations. There were no digital slr’s, and it drove me crazy that the image you thought you were capturing was not the image that you got. So what do you photograph on a day when you are basically parked in front of a computer? Me, parked. I considered, for a moment, driving over to my friend’s house and photographing her. She was sharpening pencils and cleaning out the drawer they live in. She filled half the garbage can with felt tip pens that no longer worked. Instead we decided to make a break for it when neither of us would be missed and met for dinner – without my camera. I considered bringing it when I went to pick up four 13 year-olds at the ski bus drop off, but I couldn’t figure out how to shoot at the same time as carry two pairs of skis and a pair of boots. Another opportunity missed. So instead, its me, glued to the screen, editing swimming shots from last weekend. The coach was anxious to get them. I realized why when I looked at the Athletic portion of the school web site and realized that “Swimming and Diving” was the only sport without a photo gallery link.

I came across the following quote this morning on Phil Borges facebook page:

Women work 2/3 of the worlds working hours. Most labor that sustains life is done by women and universally accorded low status and no pay. ~ Phil Borges

I find it interesting that at this moment in time there is a great deal of attention being paid to the exploitation of women and girls in the developing world. It is amazing to see the progress being made all over the world in awareness about this subject. Personally, I think it is through this new awareness, that women and girls all over the world will come to see their own value and the value in the role of the stay-at-home mom of the developed world. Because, and this is my personal opinion, on a fundamental level, we are doing the same thing. We are tending the hearth and caring for the children. I think that women in the developed world are playing a key part in raising awareness about the plight of women and girls in the developing world because they feel the kinship between them. Because of the way that communications are in the world today, we see the faces and life circumstances of these women. In my comfortable home in Seattle, I know that the biggest difference between a woman who walks miles every day to have enough water for her children and me is circumstances. This awareness make me grateful, but in some way, it allows me to see more clearly that what I do is valuable and that even though no one is going to pay me a penny to do it, it is the most important work. It is the work of sustaining life and the more I am able to value who I am and what I do in the world, the better I am able to support and authentically champion the cause of the exploited and impoverished women and children in other parts of the world. In a nutshell, the more empowered I am as a woman and in the role I have chosen, the more power I have to help empower others.

Learning About Balance

Swim meet after the sun came out

Last night as I was taking my boots off, I noticed that the sole on one needed re-glueing.  Now, I’m a girl from the Northwest, and I am in southern California wearing sturdy boots that are at least 5 years old and have never shown any sign of damage from the rain. This was unbelievable. So, when I opened the curtains this morning and saw blue sky and snow covered mountains, I was stunned and grateful. The light was shockingly bright and my eyes teared up as I drove to my new favorite hang out to get a cup of chai.  I was wishing I had my sunglasses, but they were in my purse when it was stolen. I found, though, after I got to the pool for the swim meet, that if I was looking through my camera’s lens, it wasn’t too bright.  I got to play around with swimming photos today.  You know that butterfly shot when the swimmer’s head is out of the water and their arms are fully extended?  That’s a hard shot to get unless they’re swimming a long race.  I wanted to get that shot in an outdoor pool under sunny skies, but neither Charlotte nor the other kid I was photographing in the butterfly even took a breath until they were almost to the end of the pool where I was standing. By the time they’re in the third length of the pool or so, they start breathing more often. I got one butterfly shot of Charlotte’s friend that I like (see photographs), and resorted to taking a breast stroke shot of her in the IM.

Though the sun came out today, its still cold and I am still tired.  I am learning what it means to rest.  I remember this feeling when I was younger.  I used to do this every time we went on vacation.  As soon as I got there, I’d get sick. Maybe I’ll finally learn to slow down after this episode. I am not at all used to feeling physically off my game and I’m not fond of it.  I wish I had a better sense of moderation, but it always seems like there’s more to do than there hours in the day, and I don’t mean that in terms of chores and responsibilities.  I mean after the urgent chores and responsibilities, there are all the things I just want to do. I can fill a spare moment in any one of about 10 pleasurable ways without a second thought.  Its a trap, because I delude myself into thinking that if I am doing what I want to be doing, then my body will find a way to keep up… until it doesn’t. It does this every couple of years – just goes on strike. No matter how much pleading I do, I can’t convince it to get up the energy and enthusiasm to go do whatever it is that I would ordinarily want to do.

In my efforts to create a full and rich life, which contains not only my stay-at-home mom responsibilities and family pleasures, but my creative and adventurous joys, I’ve created something that actually requires an inordinate amount of energy to sustain.  The strain, at this moment in time, is probably the most acute because while I can see that the quantity of energy required by my family responsibilities might be waning, that’s only in relation to the past few years when it was at its peak. That’s my only measuring stick. So, while I am trying to learn to balance these two parts of my life, I’m going to have to learn a new way to do it. When I began this blog, I added it to an already full plate. Now I’m finding that it has its own draw and asks me for time and energy too. My days just got stretched a little longer and I didn’t notice the toll it was taking because I was excited. Lesson learned… I hope. So now my goal, which doesn’t seem a whole lot different than before, but feels different, is to create some balance. I think that means that I will simply give myself deadlines and say “that’s enough”, regardless of what remains to be done. It means I will have to stop kidding myself that doing is more important than being.

Jumping in with both feet

I had no idea that this blogging thing was going to be so much fun!  I was really tired today from staying up half the night last night getting this set up. This morning,  it didn’t look the way I wanted it to at all, so I had to spend more time today fixing it.  By 1:30 this afternoon I had yet to eat breakfast and was shaking as I staggered to the kitchen slightly dizzy from low blood sugar.  I was already beginning to think this might not be a good idea… Then I got comments! That was exciting, but I had to put my mind to the photo of the day… I realized when I started this that I was making a commitment to pick up my camera daily for a year, and not only look at my environment in the way I always see it, but in a new way.  I have always loved this element of photography, but on a “normal” day that usually means I go out to “walk the dogs” through the green belt in our part of the city with a camera slung over my shoulder.  Its an automatic mood changer. I find it impossible to go out with my camera and not see beauty all around me. I know that Seattle is a beautiful place,  but the actual physical prop of my Nikon D2x awkwardly hanging off of my body while I juggle the leashes seems to elevate my ability to see the buds on the trees, the shades of grey in the clouds and the reflections of branches in the ever-present puddles.  The challenge of bringing that mode of perception into my home and into the nitty gritty of my daily life seems bigger.

I discarded my first thought about the photo of the day immediately… While I was obsessing over getting my blog right this morning, Sherlock, our smallest dog, got a little irritated with me and decided to use the dining room for a bathroom. I briefly contemplated setting up my tripod and turning on the self-timer while I cleaned up the mess.  Following my own logic however, I realized that if photographed that, then I would be honoring that moment.  I refused.  As a matter of fact, Sherlock may have to wait longer than the rest of the family to appear in this blog.  I’m not sure he understands this punishment, but I do!

When I finally did go retrieve my camera from next to the computer where I left it last night, the battery was dead. In my daze, I had left the power on all night.  The daylight was already fading and I needed to charge the battery before I could shoot anything.  Bummer!  I think the Universe is conspiring to force me to get comfortable using strobes.  So I waited.  This was when the fun really started… Plenty of neglected housework and dishes were there to greet me once I opened my eyes to them.  After a load of laundry, some dishes, and hot cocoa for Gillian, the battery had enough life in it to shoot Robby attempting to drink a massive cup of chai that was too hot and too full to pick up.  Soon, I was standing on a stool with one foot on the counter shooting down into the Kitchen Aid mixer as it stirred up a batch of gluten-free bread. I probably would have gone to a distant natural food store to buy a loaf had I not thought that it might make an interesting shot.  It did not, however, measure up to my expectations.  Next, I ran off to the Leschi Market to buy sliced turkey for Gillian’s ski bus dinner with my camera in hand. I had a ball standing outside,  shooting people coming and going during rush hour.  Only one person thought it was even slightly odd for a someone to stand and shoot photos in the dark, at the doors of the store opening and closing.

Robby's after-school Chai Latte

5:30 pm at the grocery store

I think the idea of a 365 day photo project is actually only a photo a day… I’m supposed to pick the best one or something.  But I don’t have a rule book and I can’t decide.  I’m taking votes though, if any one wants to opine.

Finally, I suppose I should note, that even though the first post is dated today, it was really yesterday’s post because I had yet to adjust the internal time clock for Pacific Coast time on my blog.

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s exciting adventures!