It's 8 p.m. on a Thursday night. I've been up since 5:30 a.m., when my littlest woke for his morning feed. His older brother woke an hour later for his cereal, at which point my 3-year-old woke to serenade me with yet another rendition of "Frere Jacques." From that point, I fed three kids breakfast, got them dressed, assembled and packed a school lunch, did the dishes, brushed four sets of teeth, loaded four bodies into the van, and dropped my son off at school (which is easier said than done with two siblings along for the ride). Then, an hour and a half later, I returned (again with siblings in tow) to host a "healthy eating" lesson for the class. After that, I loaded three kids back in the van to go home, where I then fed them lunch, did the dishes again, and did homework with my oldest son in between putting my youngest son down for a nap and reading a book to my daughter. I prepared and served dinner, washed dishes again, tidied and vacuumed the apartment, bathed kids, brushed teeth, got jammies on, sang bedtime songs, recited prayers, and put all three kids to bed by 7 p.m.
I do this alone -- every weekday and occasionally on weekends (except on the days hubby lends a hand in dropping kids off at school). I often find myself utterly exhausted when all is said and done. I'm no stranger to hearing, "I just don't know how you do it," and to be honest, some days I don't know myself.
Don't get me wrong. I love my kids. I love my husband, and in spite of what my intro may suggest, I love our life and am proud of what we've built as a family. I'm not looking for any pats on the back or praise (only the most outrageous Mother's Day gift, that's all... I kid, I kid!) The only problem is this one little question nagging in the back of my mind. At the end of the day, after I've done so much, Why am I left feeling like I did so little?
Why do I constantly feel that what I've done isn't enough? After 15-hour days, I somehow feel guilty sitting down to rest. Whenever people approach me to offer help, I often wonder if they're thinking, How can she be tired? She's not working. Why is it I often feel I have to justify every minute of my day, explain that I really am doing "so much"?
Sometimes when people call or stop by the house, I almost feel guilty if anyone sees the kids and me relaxing or watching a TV show. Oh, we were just watching a quick show before homework. Dinner's on the stove. I've gotta run. Many times it's true, but why do I feel the need to explain? I am not accountable to anyone. Not even my husband, who has been harping on me to take it easy, take a nap once in a while. Why do I constantly feel I need to do more?
It took some close friends calling me out on it before I realized what I was doing. I was minimizing the complexity of staying at home. I was terrified of sending a message that I was either unfit, unstable, or unhappy in my everyday life, because frankly I am a great mother -- an emotional one, yes, but happy, too! I just didn't feel I was accomplishing anything day to day. After a solid time of reflection (a period of months to be exact), I turned my eye to our culture and how much of a role it may have played in this. Let's start with general conversation.
"So what do you do?" the doctor asks me as we go through the checklist of intake questions.
"I'm a stay-at-home mom," I answer.
"So you're not working?" She says.
Correction. I'm working my ass off.
"No," I answer.
In our culture, once you get past introducing people by name, it's not uncommon to immediately ask someone what they do. "Do" is in reference to someone's job. I can't speak for everyone, but my main logic behind why we do this is because we like to form a quick and memorable image of someone, and it helps to know their job to do that. That means we are judging someone by what they do. For the number of times I've had to field the question, "So what exactly do you DO all day?", I guess I became guilty of making it seem like the answer was "not much." I started to become a stay-at-home mom critic!
This mentality completely undermines women attempting to return to work after staying at home for extended periods of time. Moms in local parenting listserves often pose the question: How do I spruce up my resume to help hide the fact that I've been out of work for X number of years? Of course the parenting community always chimes in with great support, encouragement, and zeal, telling their colleague to consider listing the many important qualities being a stay-at-home mom requires -- i.e. patience, multitasking, conflict resolution, ability to think on your feet, etc. In addition, they say, it might be wise to get an unpaid internship or volunteer somewhere. In essence, Get an unpaid job to cover up the eyesore of a gap your other unpaid job is leaving on your resume.
I've felt the societal tide so strongly that I was even quick to "turn on my own" by trumpeting my accomplishment when I finally got a job after four years of staying at home. I was so excited to finally have a title to offer up when confronted with the anxiety-inducing question of, "What do you do?" I was quick to advertise I'd joined the ranks of the working, simply because it felt good to say I was doing something. No more wonder, no more confusion over what exactly it is I must be doing all day. Now I'm working.
But is that the answer? Is that the direction we're going? Stay-at-home moms all know how beautiful, exhausting, frustrating, amazing, silly, and outrageous being at home can be, but how is this getting lost in the greater societal picture? I know I'm not the only one who has tremendous respect for stay-at-home moms, knowing personally what the role requires. But I also know I felt insecure and ashamed at times, and that's not right. I know that as more time passed, I started to panic over whether I would be able to find work again when I was ready. I also know there are many people out there who still don't believe staying at home demands much other than a physical presence.
So how do we change that? I venture to say: by talking more about it. Conversation can only help build a bridge of understanding between different groups and help set a course for change (we see you, prospective employers). But that's not where we should start. We need to start by looking at the (wo)man in the mirror (thanks, Michael)! We need to start by changing the way we value the work that we do, and then change the way we talk about it as a community (between moms, at playgroups, via listserves). Maybe we should think about how we make a difference more, point out beautiful moments in the day, and actively help others see the same. Connecting with others in our communities and sharing this message online can keep us moving in the right direction. I'm headed to the mirror to start the movement right now. I hope you'll join with me by doing the same. Thanks for reading.
The original version of this article, and more parenting anecdotes, can be found on The Disheveled Parent.