Mothers who leave the paid workforce voluntarily to care for their children are often looked upon with some mixture of envy and contempt. While the default comment most working mothers hear is “I don’t know how you do it,” for moms who stay at home, it’s “That must be nice.”
Now, I’m fairly new to the ‘homemaking’ position, but I already want to punch almost everyone who says it must be nice. The only exception is when I hear it from a working mother who is struggling balance her families needs with the demands of her career. From her perspective, I agree, it is nice. I won’t deny that it’s a privilege to spend my days with my daughter, watching her experience each thrilling facet of her brand new life. I don’t have to deal with the guilt of seeing her reach for me as I head out the door. And I don’t have to wonder how she’s doing while I try to focus on an unrelated task. In those regards, being a stay at home mother is more than nice–it’s fantastic!
What irks me though, is the people who say “that must be nice” as if they assume it’s easy. I can tell they picture me laying out by the pool all day, eating bonbons and working on my tan. And heaven forbid I should ever run late, or forget to pack something important in the diaper bag. Because if these people had as much time on their hands as they think I have, their lives would be in perfect order. Their homes would be spotless, their children would always be content, and their meals would all be made from scratch with organic ingredients. That would be nice indeed, but it isn’t my reality.
The reality of my situation is that time passes faster than I ever thought it would. My ladybug is still waking up four times a night, so my days seem to run together. We spend about six hours a day nursing, and she’ll only take a nap in my arms, so dishes and laundry often pile up before I can get to them. Every third diaper is a level 5 blow-out, and requires a full change of clothes (sometimes even a bath) as well as an attempt to Shout out the stains in her cute little bloomers. At the end of a particularly rough day, I might glance in the mirror and see a bright yellow stain on my own shirt (one of two shirts that I can even wear these days), and I know that’s not mustard. The only question at that point is whether it happened before or after our playdate at the library. My baby is mobile now, so I can’t risk taking my eyes off of her long enough to look in the mirror for a routine feces check before leaving the house.
A day in my life may still seem easier than a day in the life of a working mother, and for good reason. Once you look past the messiness and the overall lack of glamour, my days are fairly easy. There is no task on my to-do list that is particularly challenging in itself, and therin lies the difficulty. Rather than closing a high dollar account and earning accolades from my employer, I offer a teether to a crying child, who throws it on the floor for the eighteenth time. Rather than clocking out and bringing home a paycheck–a tangible contrubution to support my family, I make a fool of myself, singing and dancing to try and get a smile. My work isn’t difficult, but it is endless, thankless, and often monotonous. After months without hearing any positive reinforcement, I find myself wondering whether my efforts matter at all. And realizing I have no reinforcements coming, no break in sight for months at a time, is like looking down while walking a tightrope.
I wouldn’t dare to say working moms have it any easier, but they do have a few small perks I would give most anything for. They have at least a few minutes alone in their cars as they drive to and from the office. Completely alone. They also pee alone at will throughout the day. And despite those glorious moments of solitude (moments which, like the life of a stay-at-home-mom, are probably not quite as glorious as they seem from a distance), working moms are anything but lonely. While I imagine they don’t have much free time to spend with friends, they do have adult interaction at work to help them stay sane and relevant outside the playground. And their lunches are probably more appetizing than, say, the burnt half of a grilled cheese sandwich and two green skittles.
The most difficult aspect of motherhood, for anyone, is probably the inevitable guilt that comes with the choices we make for our children. We all do the best we can, but since the options set before us are never black and white, we always struggle with some measure of self-doubt. And rather than an objective annual review from an employer whose motives are clear, we are faced with weekly check-out lane critiques from elderly women who consider themselves to be experts in our field. I somehow doubt there is any other vocation subject to such skeptical review.
My time at home has made me acutely aware of this cold and shameful truth: any two people, even the sweetest, happiest, most beautiful baby on the face of the earth and the mother who loves her dearly, will start to get on each others nerves when they’ve been together for several weeks at a stretch. With no breaks built into the daily schedule, and no understanding from those who thoughtlessly envy her ‘life of luxury’, the homemaker has to resort to asking (even begging) for some help with her children upon occasion. The working mother needs this help as well, but she isn’t as stigmatized when she asks for it. After all, she contributes to the family’s financial wellbeing, so it only makes sense that her husband should contribute to the smooth running of the household. And since other relatives understand she has a lot on her plate, they are more likely to volunteer their babysitting services. But for the stay-at-home mother, there is a certain expectation that she can press on indefinitely, withstanding blows to her self-esteem and the continual erosion of her sanity, never asking for a break from someone who actually works for a living. When she does ask, it is very humbling, almost like an admission that she can’t keep up, that she isn’t doing her job well and is thus failing at her very life’s ambition. It is that popular assumption that she isn’t deserving of any praise nor any time to herself, that erroneous guilt when her home isn’t in perfect order, that makes being a stay-at-home-mom a difficult job.
These conditions also highlight the ideal homemaker’s virtues–her ability to persevere in the absence of any praise and fanfare, the discipline required to tend to those tasks no one seems to notice, aware of their understated but vital role in her family’s daily lives, and the quiet confidence to know she is valuable in spite of society’s ignorant remarks to the contrary. These are the characteristics that enable her to raise secure, compassionate and enlightened young people.