Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Surprising Thing about Stay at Home Motherhood

I'm going to go ahead and say something heretical. Something very antiquated and anti-feminist. Something that might make Betty Friedan turn angrily in her grave. You ready?  Here I go: Staying at home with my kids has been good for my marriage.

At times, I'm not sure it's been so great for me. Sure, I sincerely cherish the increased time with my babies and enjoy all those "firsts" I regretted missing when I was working.  At the same time, being a stay at home mom can be isolating and mind-numbing. And no one is there to value or appreciate any of your triumphant mom moments. (Isn't that why we have to blog about them?) Your children, far from cheering you on, spend a good part of the day pissing (figuratively and, bless them, literally) on your plans, which exist solely for them in the first place.  My sister summed up this dynamic perfectly when she told me that her son came up and bit her on the leg as she was making him lunch.

But, what you do have as a stay at home mom, is a lot less of a time crunch than when you're working.  My day might be dull or chaotic or frustrating. I can't pee with the door closed and I might eat lunch over the sink. But at some point in the day, I make dinner. And that, as they say, has made all of the difference.

When both of us were working, we'd rush home and have a mountain of tasks to complete in the hour or two before we collapsed into bed.  It was like running a race: play with the boy, make dinner, do the dishes, read some goodnight books, put the boy to bed, open the laptop to answer emails, play "not it" when cries emerge from the bedroom, pat the boy to bed again, eat therapeutic chocolate and fall into bed.  Wading through our post-work domestic tasks, both of us felt aggrieved that we were taking on more than our fair share.   I felt I did most of the cooking.  And most of the dishes.  But unhappily.

In fairness to my husband, his job was a lot more demanding, with nighttime and weekend work a necessity.  And he did some things, like keeping up with our finances and locking up at night, that I didn't.  But still, I resented that with both of us working, I was still the one doing the heavy lifting in the traditional female roles.

The problem is that modern women, myself included, have an expectation that we'll be entering a 50-50 domestic partnership.  And unless you are dividing up profits, "50-50" is a subjective experience totally dependent on each person's perspective.  Maybe one of us (ahem...) has a different tolerance for how clean the house should be, and my making it cleaner than that was like creating more work and then complaining about doing it. But both of us of course felt that we were pulling our fair and equal share. Our exhaustion proved it.

Still, I resented my husband.  He resented me resenting him. In order to quantify my martyrdom and prove my point, I would bitterly catalog all the extra work I did - how many more days I made dinner, how many more dishes I did. Colin would accuse me of "keeping score."  I was. I felt I was winning, but there was no prize.

But now that I'm at home, I'm happy to make dinner.  I have time and it's kind of my job now.  And, given the backdrop of our experience, Colin all the more appreciates my efforts.  Our nights are no longer a bitter, exhausted race. When he comes home there's simply less to do.  And since I've been with the kids during the day I'm more happy to let him play with them while I finish dinner.

But I can hear your protests all the way here in Kenya.  I'm not saying women should stay at home in order to have a happy marriage. I'm only saying that the division of labor has been more predictable and easier to negotiate for us, with one of us (and it could have been either of us) more solidly in the domestic domain.

Maybe other couples have this "second shift" of domestic labor figured out.  Maybe they order take out and hire a maid. Maybe one of them doesn't expect that much help in the first place and is less disappointed as a result. Maybe their talents and preferences for chores fall neatly into mutually exclusive camps.  It didn't work that way for us.

I'm not going to stay at home forever, and I look forward to going back to work.  But I don't look forward to having the the household responsibilities squeezed again and pointing accusing fingers at one another.  Maybe by then we'll have a better plan.  Maybe by then we can put some of the kids to work for us...

15 comments:

  1. Ah, geez. You said it well, and you have my agreement. Now can we talk about that putting the kids to work part, when can I do that? xox, one super-tired sahm

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    1. Not soon enough Liene! Now get some rest dear!

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  2. I pretty much stayed at home for 6 years and never regretted a day.

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    1. And I won't regret this time either! These moments are precious (if challenging) and are going by incredibly quickly.

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  3. I think you have some very valid points and I will say that it was bad for my marriage when I started working part time again after being a stay at home mom for four years. I had a four month old and got a night and weekend job because, quite frankly, we needed the money, but then came the resentment that I was rushing to make dinner, heading off to work at night, only to come home and find the dirty dishes in the sink, the tub still full of water, dirty clothes and towels everywhere ... so I can offer the reverse perspective ... going back to work was bad for my marriage!

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    1. Very interesting. That must have been an even more difficult transition to negotiate - when one partner assumes the other will keep doing what they always have even as they go back to work. I hadn't thought of it that way. Definitely a difficult change!

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  4. I really get this. I worked full time up until we moved across the country two years ago. My kids are now 15 and 8 (which is easier than when they are little). It *is* easier when one person stays home. I miss things about working but I especially love being there for the kids after school. I might have gone crazy doing this when they were younger but for now it's the right call for us. You go!!

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    1. Yeah, it definitely seems a lot harder with younger kids and not only because they're not in school. They just require such continual watchfulness and care and there's just a lot more screaming. Though I know older kids present different kinds of challenges - I'm guessing less physically exhausting but more psychologically exhausting? Thanks for your comment!

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  5. I think stay-at-home-moms are crazy... not b/c of anti-feminism or anything. I just know i would be a horrible stay at home mom. the very idea makes me itch. What I don't understand is: how do you get anything done with your kids around all day? my husband makes dinner every night (while i play with the kids), and then he has to take the kids to another level of the house while I clean up and do the dishes, b/c an open dishwasher with dirty knives in it is a 15-month-old's dream. My almost-4-yr-old and my 15-mo-old don't often nap at the same time, so getting out of the house to do lots of errands would be out of the question. And even if they were both awake... shopping with two kids (and sippy cups and snacks and a diaper bag) in tow is not exactly a pleasant of efficient experience. And of course you need to find ways of entertaining and exercising your children...play dates, trips to the playground, the library, etc. When I do wind up spending the whole day alone with my kids (e.g. a federal holiday when day care is closed my husband has to work), i find it thoroughly exhausting. i certainly don't get much house-work done.

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    1. I know! I admire SAHMs a lot and don't think I could do it in another context. Where we live I have a neighbor who stays home and we kind of look after our kids communally and keep each other company. I volunteer and take swahili classes. I also have some househelp to lighten the load during the day. But in the US, I think I would really struggle to be home alone all day - especially since most of my friends with kids, when I lived there, were working. I think the isolation would be hardest for, even if I found some playgroups and whatnot. Most of the day, you are still alone.

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  6. I think that actually your point illustrates one of the very real points about feminist politics: it should be a choice, not a necessity (either the working or the not working). A choice for BOTH partners (or either partner, I guess, would be better stated). That post-work scramble rush dodge-and-weave sucks for everyone; it's almost inevitable that resentment breeds in the stack of undone "to do" lists. Would this decision have happened in the States do you think? I can hear the calm in this post - and that can only be a good thing, for everyone.

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    1. I totally agree. Feminist politics, in its best form, advocates choice. What I feel sheepish about is that I'm kind of saying that both people working has had worse consequences for us, and maybe for most. This squeezed second shift leads to finger pointing and resentment. And I think in the end, child-rearing and maintaining a house takes a significant amount of work that is difficult to divide fairly. At least, we struggled with it.

      This was a problem in the states too. But, something I didn't mention, is that we do have househelp here, which can SOUND like it's undoing my whole argument. But without a dishwasher and a washing machine, it's often a wash (no pun intended) in terms of amount of work.

      Since it's been harder for me to find work here since maternity leave, the decision might indeed have been different were we living in the States.

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  7. I agree with deborah quinn. To me, feminism means - for women and men - that if economics allow, it should be a choice that everyone is free to make. I miss working in my career of teaching every day. Really Miss It! BUT, because my husband's job gives us health insurance and enough of a comfort zone that I don't *have* to bring in a full-time paycheck, I'm home with the kids.

    I could get a job teaching any time, but then I'd need to find a babysitter for the AM and occasional PM. I'd be a less-than-my-standard teacher because I used to spend a solid ten hours a weekend working and at least two hours a night grading/planning. And I know I would be a wreck. So I choose to cobble together freelance projects that allow me more autonomy. And being home with my kids and being a homemaker is my job as well.

    So, basically, I think you nailed it.

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    1. Totally agree re: choice, and if the economics allow is key. And in the US, it's a different calculation because daycare can eat up most of your paycheck. I know not a few people who simply couldn't afford TO work given the daycare options in their area (which could equal their take home pay). And others who couldn't afford not to (even if their salaries were only marginally above child care costs). It's all about costs and benefits and feeling free to make the best choice for your family without judgment. Thanks for your comment!

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  8. I am in the very unique place to offer my perspective. I have been in both an opposite and same sex marriage. While my ex-wife stayed at home with the kids, I did most of the cooking and cleaning, because she was exhausted. Now that I am married to Paul, he works from home and actually does all of the cooking and most of the cleaning and shopping. I think whatever works for you, works for you! God knows, we have no gender roles in our house, but we have taken on different chores based on what we are good at and what makes our marriage hum. Kudos to you for figuring out what that is.

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