I didn't know how hard I was working as a SAHM until I got a job outside the home (aka: the problem of unpaid work and how it mostly impacts women)
Lest ye think this is going to be the bitter diatribe of an unhappy, angry woman, let me begin me begin by saying: I am actually quite happy these days. Look at this picture of me. That, right there? That is a pre-twin, pre-book, pre-Depression SMILE. YOU GUYS. I am smiling for real again. I haven't been this happy in years.
Part of this is my kids getting older (which means less physical, janitorial labor—they can do their own laundry, yay!) and part of this is that I’m no longer writing under deadline (which was crushing the life out of me) and part of this is trying new things (like going back to school) and part of this is taking better care of myself (three cheers for daily meds, an awesome chiropractor and regular massages) and the other part—the most unexpected part—is how much happier I have been since getting a full-time job outside the home.
YOU GUYS. I had NO IDEA how hard I was working as an at-home mom until I got this new job.
I had no idea how exhausted, how lonely, how invisible I felt as an at-home mom until I had another job to compare it to.
When I started this job a month ago I expected to feel completely overwhelmed. I kept waiting to feel desperate and exhausted. I kept wondering how I’d survive without my daily, 1:30pm nap.
But instead of not being able to handle it, my new full-time job felt/feels almost like a vacation. A vacation for which I am being paid. Plus, I get breaks. Plus, a 401k. Plus, constant validation (“great idea!” “you’re so smart!” “we love having you here!”). One day last week I worked for 12 hours (one regular shift at my day job and then a restaurant shift after that) and I still came home less exhausted than a typical half day as an at-home mom. WHAT.
Don’t get me wrong. Working full-time outside the home is challenging.
I’m still tired at the end of the day. But it’s not the same kind of tired I experienced nearly every day as an at-home mom.
I don’t feel emotionally drained, utterly depleted, completely emptied out of everything I have to give. It’s more like: yeah, I had a full day but hey kids! Let’s play catch before dinner!
: : :
I’ve been puzzling over why being an at-home mom was so much harder for me and then I remembered an eye-opening conversation I had with my two oldest kids last Thanksgiving.
They had come to me with a list of their teenage grievances. Things like: we don’t like it that you monitor our cell phones. We want to listen to explicit rap music at full volume in the house. We should be able to play Xbox for 12 hours straight.
I sat there and nodded and listened and said a lot of I see’s and uh-huh’s and ok’s. Reacting to teenagers, I’ve discovered, is exactly the same as throwing gasoline on a fire which is to say, DO NOT ATTEMPT THIS AT HOME. Better to let them unload their heavily burdened hearts and give them unconditional positive regard rather than freaking out and yelling: INGRATES! Don’t do that. Gasoline, fire, etc. I’ve learned this the hard way.
Anyway, they were carrying on like this and I was nodding along and then they branched off into other topics and said something that brought me up short. I was all: HOLD UP. WHAT?
“Say that part again about what dad does and what I do?” I asked, keeping my voice light, breezy, inquisitive.
“Well,” said the teenager Who Shall Not Be Named, “Dad works really hard providing for the family and Mom…well, what is it that you do?”
Trying to maintain my composure (and keep from laughing) I asked them to clarify further. It came down to this: their true and honest perception of our family situation was—and I quote—“dad busts his butt” providing for the family and mom…well, “we don’t really know what mom does.”
At this point I needed a break. Meaning, I took the dog for a walk. Meaning, I bawled my eyes out. Meaning, I walked for a long while until I’d walked out all my feelings.
And then: there it was. There was my answer.
Was it possible my kids simply DID NOT SEE what I’ve been doing for them these past seventeen years? Were they, quite literally, blind to it?
I mean, most of us don’t really appreciate our parents’ sacrifices for us until we become parents ourselves, right? But there’s something else, here, too.
This is what I mean: despite my best efforts to educate my kids about sexism and inequality, they have still picked up this idea that what dad does is “REAL” work and what mom does…isn’t.
Why is Dad’s work “REAL” and mine isn’t? Well, Dad brings home a paycheck. Mom is just…here. All the time. Like: WHAT DOES SHE EVEN DO??????
: : : :
This is what an at-home mom does: emotional labor.
For the past seventeen years I’ve been the primary caretaker. I’m accustomed to no-breaks, no-thanks, no raises, no promotions. I've had a bit of paid help now and then. But nothing significant or long term. That has been my normal.
My main job was providing high-quality, full attentive, deeply intuitive child-care. But that was just my 9-5, so to speak (although it was really like 6am-5pm). What makes at-home work so exhausting, though, is all the OTHER WORK on top on top of the regular, child-care work. After my “regular job” as an at-home mom, there was a whole OTHER job of:
Dealing with all the school stuff, homework, registration, grades, emails with teachers, assignments, school projects (miniature scale California missions!) pick up and drop off, carpools, arranging carpools, communicating about the carpools when I couldn’t do it, calling in absences, taking care of them when they are sick at home, following their grades online, making sure everyone has all the proper supplies.
But that’s not all. Oh, that is not all.
I’m also the one who:
Researched after-school sports, made countless trips to and from dance classes, dance workshops, dance intensives, dance supply stores, baseball practice, baseball games, lacrosse practice, water polo practice, water polo games, Mommy-n-me-classes, library reading times.
I’m the one who remembers all the birthdays, holidays and special occasions and shops and plans accordingly. I’m the one who gathers information regarding Christmas presents and plans the social calendar. I’m the one who gets them signed up for drivers’ ed and SAT tutoring and math tutoring. I’m the one who volunteers in their classroom and who picks them up if they are sick during school hours.
I’m the primary disciplinarian. The one who sets and enforces boundaries.
And yet, all of this—this whole at-home mom job plus the activities-coordinator/chauffeur/cook/tutor/therapist job that I do as a mom isn’t considered “REAL” work. WHY is this?
Well, for one thing, at-home work is mostly invisible. You can’t graph it on a quarterly-earnings chart. There are no PowerPoint presentations explaining the cost/benefit ratios of at-home motherhood.
But here’s the biggest reason why at-home work isn’t viewed as “REAL” work in America: because if we can’t attach a dollar amount to emotional labor then it doesn’t even exist in our capitalistic society.
: : : :
I read somewhere recently that men are defined by their work whereas women are defined by the work they do for others.
Even when I was writing two books and being paid for it, the expectation I placed on myself (and the expectation I felt from others in my social groups) was that I was a mother first and a writer second.
I was and am defined by my emotional labor more than my professional labor. The expectation is that I will be a mother, wife, daughter, sister, friend first and fit writing in on the side.
Even as a paid professional author, I never felt like a true WRITER-WRITER. I felt like a full-time mom who wrote as a “side-hustle.”
It is not this way for men. I’ve noticed that men who are my age and at the general same stage of life in the writing industry have no problem defining themselves as Writers. They define themselves as Writers even if they are also husbands and fathers. They are writers first and fathers second. And nobody raises an eyebrow. Nobody suggests they are neglecting their children in order to write their book. Nobody says: “I don’t know how you do it!” Nobody suggests they are putting their career before family.
So, why does it matter if men define themselves by their work whereas women are defined by the work they do for others?
Well, here’s why: because even if a woman is holding down a pay-the-bills job, much of the emotional labor of raising a family still falls in her lap. Hear me on this: I am more than happy to perform emotional labor because life sucks without it. I actually enjoy emotional labor. Nurturing is my jam.
What I’m pointing out is that because there's no way for our society to measure at-home work in dollars, it’s easy to pretend that at-home work isn’t comparable to the “REAL WORK” that men do.
The irony is that child-care is exorbitantly expensive. If I had actually been paid for all the child-care I’ve done for the better part of two decades I’d have a nice little retirement nest egg.
: : : :
When I look back at the past seventeen years, I ask myself if I would do it all over again and the answer (like much of life) is yes and no. Both/and. I’m glad I stayed home with them and I don’t regret one minute of it because I love them so infinitely much that I would do it all over again because THIS IS WHAT LOVE IS.
Sidebar: I know many, many women don’t have the luxury of being able to stay home and I fully acknowledge I was granted the privilege of even HAVING this choice. I have so many more words about this like: WHY DON’T WE HAVE more mother-friendly social policies? It’s shameful!
If I had to do it all over again, I would only stay home until my youngest kids were in kindergarten and then I would go get myself a full-time paying job because the reality for women is that things are still not fair for us. We still have to have a backup plan. Actually, we need more than one backup plan. Plan B isn’t enough. Most of us need plans C, D and effing E.
Look, I know life isn’t fair. I get that. But also: I believe part of my job here on earth is to make life MORE fair. That's why I’m writing about this stuff because, at least for me, awareness of the problem is the first step.
Up until about four weeks ago I didn’t even realize how hard I was working and how much of it wasn’t considered “real work” and how that’s a huge problem for women everywhere.
Now, I’m gonna go put on my jammies and pour myself some white wine and crochet some granny squares. Whoomp, there it is.
p.s. fear not, all is well between my teenagers and me. which is to say, apologies were given all around and lots of hugs and follow-up conversations. life goes on. and so does their curfew.