In my head I had an image of stay-at-home moms, and it was pretty much the stereotypical one: unkempt hair, sweatpants-clad, a loose, white t-shirt with a spit-up stain at the braless bosom. They watched TV all day and did laundry during commercials. They rocked their babies in a bassinet in their living rooms, slept when their babies slept, always a pacifier or a bottle at the ready. The house was always kind of a wreck because these moms were too busy watching TV to do dishes or vacuum the carpet (which, in my narrative, was always shag). When they did venture out in the minivan, it was always to the store to buy bread.
Then, at 35, I left my career, the one I had shaped and then reshaped and took from it a sense of place in the world.
I became a stay-at-home mom, and my stereotypical image quickly dissolved. It was replaced with my own paradigm shift: showers on the sly, mom and baby classes, exhaustion, and frustration that I was no longer getting things done. TV time was replaced with story time, and suddenly the most valuable thing I owned was my breast pump. As baby got older and a second one came, finding a balance for pretty much everything became a challenge. Going out in public felt more like herding cats than being an actual person.
In short, it’s the hardest job I’ve had.
I complain to my mom friends, as one often does, about, well, motherhood. They complain back, and we share our misery (and joy, too, when the situation beckons). One particular day, during a weekend playdate, I complained to a friend that my toddler had been up multiple times during the previous night. My friend, who works full-time outside the home, responded, “Well, at least you didn’t have to go to work the next day.”
My friend wasn’t trying to be mean, but….ouch. On some level I get it. I do. I wasn’t expected to run a sales meeting. I wasn’t expected to hash it out with clients or patients or difficult colleagues. I had a ghost of a chance of sneaking in a nap. Forget the implication that staying at home isn’t really work. Forget the fact that my kids can be more difficult than the most difficult client. Forget the fact that my job isn’t one I can leave at the end of the day.
Sometimes “going to work” is exactly what I want to do. Sometimes I’d clamor to go to a job I’ve been trained to do, a job I’ve been doing for years. I’d love to be in a setting where support, social or otherwise, was right there if I needed it. Stay-at-home parenting is none of those things, especially in the beginning. It takes more intentionality to build a support system.
Here comes the PSA: Please don’t imply that stay-at-home parents don’t work. We get what you mean, yes, but we also know how it sounds and what it infers, intentional or not. We have chosen to invest our time and resources into our children. We are paid in bath time songs, noontime cuddles, and witnessing first steps and the discovery of a new food, all of which are the most valuable currency. Our status is elevated to Most Important Person in the World, which is the highest promotion one can receive (with all the responsibility, love, and tears to go with it). Damn, do we earn it too.
Our partners, as lovely as they are, need this reminder too. A few months after my playdate, my husband caught a nasty cold and was down for the count. After making a phone call, he lay in bed and convalesced. As I was saying goodnight to him and closing the bedroom door, hurrying to our daughter who had just tripped and fallen on the stairs, I turned and said, “Must be nice to be able to call in sick.”