During an unusual lunch when both my girls, by the grace of the napping gods, happened to be asleep, my husband and I ended up talking about (actually, it was more me complaining about) the unfairness of life for women in spite of all our seeming advances over the past decades.
While many people looked at me and said I was “lucky to be able to stay at home,” I begrudged a situation in which after 4 graduate degrees and significant corporate experience, here I was spending my days negotiating (failingly) with a 3-year-old, making up songs about bath time and potty time, and cleaning up after a one-year-old.
I had chosen this path, yes, but I couldn’t help feeling that I was somehow selling myself short; as if by choosing “home” over “office” I was not putting all my capabilities to good use or was not setting the best possible example for my girls.
“How do you propose we make it easier for women to be both mothers and successful professionals?” my husband asked, unaware of the wrath of the stay-at-home gods that was about to descend on our conversation.
“If you men could get pregnant and breastfeed maybe then we can have some kind of gender equality,” I snapped back.
“Well, what about part-time or project-based work? What about companies exclusively for moms,” what about…
“YOU! PREGNANT, BREASTFEED!” I said before my husband could go on to elaborate on his ideas.
And that conversation pretty much stopped in its tracks and we went on to discuss less existentially critical topics.
You see, for almost three years now, I have been a stay-at-home mom. Through it all, I’ve tried to maintain what little sense of self I could hang on to. I write about parenting, and I recently signed a cookbook deal with an advance that most certainly justifies my time at home (my toddler won’t even go near my food, but apparently it’s good enough to be published). But, by and large, “Stay-at-Home Mom” has been the defining feature of my existence for the past three years…
…and it’s been tough.
Like most stay-at-home mothers, I deal with my decision on a daily basis. When I sit on the couch giggling and babbling along with my almost one-year-old daughter, I feel like the luckiest person in the world to not have to sit in an office working on something that I do not find meaningful.
Yet on the occasion I meet friends for dinner and hear about the mergers they are working on, or the teams they are leading, or the crazy client they are managing, I miss the days when I worked with intelligent people and had intellectually-stimulating conversation or dressed up in proper clothes instead of yoga pants.
Mostly, though, I miss the days when I felt appreciated, when I felt productive, when I generated income.
And in those moments, I have an internal argument in which I tell myself how stupid I am. Because what is more productive than raising innocent children – who by the way never asked to be born – into self-sufficient and happy adults?
Well… according to society, generating money is more important. And even when this is denied, it becomes obvious in the little comments, behaviors, and expectations that are thrown at stay at home moms. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard:
“Do you ever feel like you’re wasting your life or you’ve made the wrong choice?”
Or the number of times I’ve been expected to be available to attend an event or host someone, simply because I do not work in an traditional job.
Even worse, it’s obvious in those internal debates we have with ourselves, in those feelings that creep up to tell us that – in spite of almost singlehandedly managing a household, kids, cooking, and caring for the mental, physical, and emotional wellbeing of several other people – we’re somehow not doing enough.
I also can’t count how many times I’ve had to explain my career trajectory or educational background, rather than simply saying, “I’m a mom,” and feeling ok about it. More often than not, people’s responses leave me feeling the need to justify my decision or explain what I do with my time.
The truth is, I was lucky enough to be able to switch careers and do something I love while being a stay-at-home mom. I chronicled my experiences as a first-time (and then second-time) mother on Huffington Post. I was able to cook a lot when I stayed at home (something I have always loved and enjoyed) and then went on to – against all the odds – sign a cookbook publishing deal with one of the leading global publishers in the field.
So why, in spite of it all, did I still feel that I was coming up short?
Those of you reading this who know me personally will say “classic insecure over-achiever syndrome”
The fact remains, however, that it is much more complex.
Generally, we live in a society that values us almost exclusively based on the time we spend working in traditional jobs and the income we generate as a result. The stay-at-home parent – known as the “partner” at many social and professional functions – is often given the shaft and dismissed. I’ve been on both sides of the equation – dismisser and dismissed – to know this really is the case regardless of gender.
The lead parent, the partner, the caretaker - whatever you want to call the person who picks up the majority of familial responsibility - is generally not given the respect the working counterpart is given. Professional caregivers are also given the shaft by barely receiving minimum wage and those who choose to take time off to raise their families for a set amount of time are, directly or indirectly, punished for those choices when they try to go back to work.
So what gives?
Why, after all these seeming advances towards gender equality, we are in a situation where caregivers (mostly women) are often penalized for their caregiving choices? If you go back to work you feel guilty about not being a good enough parent and don’t hear the end of it from those who disagree with your choice and if you stay at home you feel guilty about being consumptive instead of productive and worry about the example you set for you kids. So you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t!
Well, finally, after three years of this, it hit me.
The problem is not gender equality.
It’s not that working conditions are unfair, or that there aren’t enough role models, or enough opportunities, or that the mother remains the one physically responsible for bearing and feeding the child (at least initially), or that women tend to be the ones more willing to compromise when pushed.
The problem is that these things are not respected.
We have made so many strides, so many advances for women, but in the process we lost sight of what the goal was. The goal was never to turn women into men, it was to give them the same opportunities as men so they could increase their overall well-being by doing the things they wanted to do rather than what society dictated they were allowed to do.
Well you know what women are no longer able to do?
Women (and men) are no longer able to be full-time mothers – or care takers – and be respected for it.
Care-taking is not only taking care of children, but also of our own parents or other family members: work that often requires more mental stamina, more emotional maturity, and presents more intellectual challenges than standard office work.
It’s draining, it’s emotionally exhausting, it’s thankless, but it can also be very rewarding. Yet somehow, all these things fall through the cracks, and choosing care-taking over working is seen by many as a slap in the face to women advancement and a choice reserved for the ultra-wealthy shallow housewife or the uneducated no options mama, when in fact, it is the very opposite.
Being able to choose the stay-at-home path (at least temporarily when your children need you the most) and being respected for it and seen as an equal to any working counterpart – male or female – and then not being penalized for it when and if one decides to go back into the workforce…THAT is the true sign of things advancing for women.
So as hard as it is to clearly define what I do when people ask me, I really hope the next time someone asks, I find the courage to say, “I’m a mom.”
To not elaborate…
To not justify…
…and to truly feel ok with that.
Because while I do not work or “lean in” in the typical sense, I think that I am setting an example for my daughters which says “work” is not what people tell you it is, it’s what you make of it.
I pray I am making it clear that working in the service of others or sacrificing income for time with family is a worthy pursuit.
It’s not easy (most certainly not glamorous) and there are days it’s more excruciating than the longest day I ever had in an office.
But, maybe if I didn’t have to justify my decisions, maybe if at the end of the day I felt my work was appreciated, respected, and looked up to from the outside, maybe if society normalized care-taking, maybe if taking a few years off to raise your kids during their most vulnerable state was the norm, maybe then I wouldn’t have to wait for my kids to be grown and flown and happy to realize that my hard work was worth it.
Maybe when we live in a society that treats family meals and children activities with the same respect it does client meetings and conference calls, a society that respects women’s right to choose – regardless of what income that choice generates – maybe then we’ll really have gender equality.