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The Important Role of Stay-at-Home Moms

Raising children is work, with economic value like any other -- except that it's consistently more challenging than any office job I've ever had and surely more significant.
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Recently, 37-year-old, Andrea Staunch Green of Charlotte, North Carolina started a Facebook furor by posting a scanned letter to Washington Post advice columnist, Carolyn Hax. The letter writer wanted to know, what do stay-at-home moms do all day? Hmm. She claimed many friends in that role and they never seemed to have time to take care of themselves, or chat on the phone with her. Again: Hmm ... one wonders if this isn't due to some reason unique to this woman.

"I work nine hours a day too," she said, "I manage to get it all done."

Of course you do. That's because you don't have kids with you while you're trying to do it!

My brain probably would've exploded then and there, had I not read on to find that Dear Carolyn was more than up for the task. "You're funny," Carolyn tells the woman. "Or you're lying about having friends with kids."

After reading the letter, I found I couldn't get it out of my head as I skated and tap danced through my week at home with my own small kids. Carolyn was right, it does "take 45 minutes to do what it takes others 15," my hands are almost always too few, overstuffed bags ever more heavy.

Soon I posted the clip to my own Facebook profile page and later linked to it on my website, via Twitter. Then I sat back to watch as the comments and retweets came pouring in with social media's trademark exclamations and punctuations: "Awesome ..." "Bravo!!" "Good Answer!!!"

After a while, I began to wonder why we cared so much. Sure, Carolyn's answer was succinct, descriptive and true as gold. "It's constant vigilance, constant touch, constant use of your voice," she tells the woman. "Constant relegation of your needs to the second tier ... while concurrently teaching virtually everything." Sing it sister.

Still, all this over a well written letter? Was it just about a human being's age-old need to be understood -- a simple matter of validation? But, surely, this woman's lack of understanding was a fluke, I told myself. Who doesn't know how much work parenting small children is?

But really, there can be such a huge gap between being in something -- living it day in and day out -- and just remembering it, or, worse, hearing about it second hand.

Eventually, I got in touch with Andrea and introduced myself on Facebook. She told me she got well over 50 comments and tag requests on the clipping, which was still circulating since its publication in 2007. "The author of the article articulated the constant nature of child rearing better than I ever have," she told me, "and ... in all honesty, her description of our lives makes us as mothers feel important. Motherhood is rewarding, but glamorous it is not."

She also admitted a reluctance to complain, especially to her friends who work outside the home. I get that. I also know that if women aren't able to share the reality of our lives, then others can't make informed choices if they, too, get the opportunity to stay home with their babies.

This can lead to those of us who ask why no one told them it would not be all first steps and casual clothes. Perhaps these are the circles in which the letter writer has been running?

"I've always wondered," Andrea went on, "why babysitters and nannies are considered to have a job, but mother's aren't!"

Her sentiments were so familiar to me that I could have uttered them myself. It reminded me of meeting a friend of my husband's once in a burrito joint near our house. We'd already had a round or two of beers when I told him it was nice of his wife to take care of his kids while he went off to party in Tijuana one night and didn't come back until morning. "She doesn't work, though," he told me, confused. "It's all she does."

Yes, the feminist in me rings out (not to mention the realist). Raising children is work, with economic value like any other -- except that it's consistently more challenging than any office job I've ever had and surely more significant.

As the column made it's virtual rounds, others weighed in on the more personal insecurities at play. Mary-Catherine Hamlin, 35, of New York passed around my link on Twitter saying, "A must read. For everyone." When I asked, she told me the clipping "hits home because moms need to be reminded too. It isn't easy work we do."

True, in an age of 60 hour work weeks, many of us stay at home moms have past lives of full inboxes and mass efficiency. The shift to spending most of your waking hours on someone else's to do list is pretty shocking. Not many other job descriptions include regularly ignoring your bodily functions while tending to someone else's all day.

"I LOVE this article," one of Andrea's commenters writes. "Now I feel better about the fact that I was busy ALL day today (with my 10-month-old), but did not get much done!"

Yes, especially at some ages or, perhaps during full moons, entire days of mine are absorbed when one unforeseen need follows another. When spills, tears and clothing changes are book-ended by meal preparation and clean up, sometimes getting out of your pajamas is truly not an option, let alone tending to housework or other obligations.

So it was a fine day when I finally realized, among the piles of baby clothes and dishes I'd managed to accumulate, I raised an entire human being today, that's enough. This satisfies me immensely. But I'm not so sure about others whom I may be late for, or not calling back.

Finally, on a recent check up for my four-year-old, I asked our pediatrician about it all. Did she think the column's popularity was more about our own internal need for validation, or because society truly does not recognize what we do? Our doctor is a smartly dressed, part-time stay-at-home mom herself, who speaks very fast and thinks even faster. Crossing one stockinged leg over the other, she shed some perspective on the matter.

"Work at home, outside the home, so much depends on your exact situation: your children's ages and temperaments, your own time management skills and outside interests. I have moms with older kids who do not work and they are still always late for appointments. I'm starting to see it with my son's soccer team, too. When one parent isn't as eager with volunteering, people ask, "What does she do all day? She doesn't even work!"

And there it is. That judgmental jig we parents and, certainly we women, know all to well. Another thing people don't tell you before you have kids is that everyone who has them has needed to make so many judgments of their own in raising them, they can't stop themselves from making them about every parent within a 20 block radius. More if they have cable.

And still, there is that eternal, primal perhaps, need to feel that others know what you are going through and can even relate. So when you find someone who delivers a clear and true expression of your life, you cut it out, scan it in and pass it on -- the more exclamations and punctuations the better. Sending Carolyn Hax viral, it seems, is just our little way of saying, "Thanks for getting it."

And to that curious letter writer who just couldn't understand, let me be the first to say, "Thanks for asking. Now do have a seat, this could take a while."

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