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?

http://www.xojane.com/issues/being-a-stay-at-home-mom-is-not-a-job

http://www.salon.com/2015/03/16/stay_at_home_motherhood_isnt_a_hobby/?utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=socialflow

http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/03/17/yes-stay-at-home-mom-is-a-job-the-return-of-the-mommy-wars.html

http://www.washingtonexaminer.com/mom-op-ed-staying-at-home-is-not-job/video/gm-5388057

Language and Identity

The title of this post sounds like some kind of philosophical treatise, and indeed, having typed “language and identity” into a google search field just to see if anything came up, I discovered an extensive list of scholarly papers and books on the topic.

I scanned the list and clicked on one link – a book of sociolinguistic theory published by Cambridge University Press. That’s as far as I went in my search. I could either write this post or dive into sociolinguistic theory…

In my writing this morning, I suddenly became fascinated by the hold the term “stay at home mom” has had on me. I thought, what if I just stopped thinking of myself in those words? In truth, I only have one child left at home and she’s 17. I don’t spend a lot of time at home being a mom anymore. Its almost not true. Its actually kind of a cop-out. I spend as much or more time writing, working with photographs, making art, and engaging in all sorts of outdoor physical pursuits as I do in my responsibilities at home.

I could call myself any one of these things. I often do call myself a photographer. Sometimes people pay me to make photographs. When answering the question, “What do you do?” with the words “I’m a photographer”, the next question is usually, “Do you make a living doing that?”, and then I have to say “no”, and mumble my bit about wearing many hats and not really making a living doing any of them. That sucks… but I’ve already written a lot about the conflict between being and doing and how we have a long ways to go culturally before we value “being” over “doing”.

I want to return to this other idea that I’m tracking about language though because it seems relevant to the larger question. What if I simply refuse to allow the word “photographer”, or “writer” or “stay at home mom” to define me in any way. Sure, there is concrete evidence to the fact that I am a mother. There are three human beings on this planet who confirm that fact.

I never decided to be a “stay at home mom”, it just happened, so how did I come to let those words make such a prison for me. How does the word “doctor” or “banker” become a prison for the free human being trapped inside that identity?

I’m going to go out on a limb here and blame it on my beloved words, and on the possibility that we humans have come to let words define us and our experience in life rather than demanding that words actually serve our purposes.

There’s a campaign I’ve seen on social media lately to ban the word “bossy”, which, when I first saw it, I thought, “Yeah really!” because I was one of those little girls called “bossy”. But then I thought more about it in the context of this topic and I thought, no… the real problem simply lies in the power we give those damn words. (Its not lost on me that I’m sitting here writing this using words. Actually, I’m pounding words into submission with every [hard] tap of my fingers on the keyboard!)

The bits of backlash I’ve read to the “ban bossy” campaign definitely make this argument, that as a feminist agenda it generally fails because actually, a lot of empowered women (feminists?) don’t seem to mind being called bossy. In thinking about it, though it was a word used to shut me up when I was young, it doesn’t have that effect anymore and I take a secret pride when my daughters are called “bossy”. I think “good for you!”.

In my last post, I said that I had some theories about why its so hard for women of my demographic to value themselves and share their gifts with the world. I’ll add to my original thoughts that there are sociolinguistic challenges as well. I smile as I write those words because I didn’t actually know sociolinguistics was a field until today.

Though I write from the perspective of a 52 year old woman who has spent most of the last 24 years out of the workforce raising children, I know that each person, no matter how they identify themselves, faces challenges when they decide they want to break down the invisible structures that contain them within an identity they no longer want to live within. Interestingly enough, I can’t say what it feels like to stop identifying with the term “housewife” for example, because its one I refused to adopt, or “soccer mom”, because I didn’t take that one on either. Likewise, but for different reasons, I’ll never know what it feels like to try to shed the identity label “attorney” or “banker”, if one longs to be a poet.

There’s no getting around the fact that we humans seem to like to label things. It would be a problem if we stopped labeling doors, “restroom” in restaurants and had people wandering around opening doors to closets offices and storage rooms when they simply needed to use a toilet. But we don’t have a problem with a closet being remodeled to become a bathroom, so why do we have such a hard time when we want to change our own label, or wear a different one every other week?

“What do you do?”

This weekend, I’m clearly a writer. This is my second post on this blog in two days after almost three years.

I’ll also be a cook, a dog walker and a laundress. I have a half finished art project that I’ve walked by too many times to count. Now that winter is trying to turn into spring, my garden is begging for attention. I might get called in to wear my editor’s hat on Sunday night, or provide college counseling. I have photos that need editing for my farm blog and an empty refrigerator.

What do you do?

Paris, continued…

The other morning, while writing about turning 50, the image of a pretzel came to mind. No, I don’t feel like a pretzel, but the dot to dot path through my daily life seems to trace a similar shape. Only rarely do I allow myself the liberty of locking onto one of those dots and allowing it to lead me away from this prescribed circuit. Between professional and personal photography projects, writing, parenting, selling eye wear, outdoor adventuring, buying groceries for teen-age appetites, and failing at all attempts at domestic order, I feel pulled so many directions that if I become completely absorbed in any one, I will more than likely drop a thread that forms part of the weave and find myself dealing with the consequences later. At least that’s how it seems most of the time.

Having recently spent 3 weeks traveling, I know that the world doesn’t come to an end when I let go, but translating that into being home AND letting go is a bigger challenge. Being home and making space to pursue what calls me rather than simply falling back into the well-worn ruts of “what I’ve always done”. For the last 20 years, I’ve allowed my children’s “needs” to dictate the pace and parameters of my life. Now its time for that to change. The line a pretzel follows goes first in one direction, then another, overlapping and doubling back upon itself. In then end, a graceful shape is formed… a cohesive whole. If I stop and dwell a while at any of the points upon that line, the whole will not be impacted. The next point will still be there to guide me back toward the center, only to be drawn away and back again. The weave may change, but I don’t have to hold all of the threads anymore.

I write all of this in Seattle after rereading Parisian journal entries and editing more photographs from a month ago.  I smiled to myself noting the remaining mild discomfort of being on my own in Paris, footloose and completely free. I had forgotten that I felt that way on day 2. I wrote that I was having a hard time with the idea of no agenda and that I was feeling the need for some kind of “organizing principle” around which to orient. While my memory, and the photographs, clearly attest to the fact that I had no difficulty wandering here and there as ideas came to me, I was also up against some internal resistance to doing just exactly that. Continue reading

The Blog-versation

Some parents would never consider blogging about their kids

If you didn’t catch the beginning of our blog-versation, and you’re just “tuning in” now. Here’s what’s up:  Alle (link to her blog) and I are having a “healthy, respectful debate” about the virtue or vice of writing/blogging about one’s children. It started a month ago or so when I saw a post she wrote on this topic.

I have to admit that its kind of weird to see something written about me, my blogging and my parenting! And, I want to immediately express my gratitude to Alle for her kind comments about the latter. Continue reading