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40 weeks | My complicated existence as a stay at home mommy | no. 0033
You know those moments you play over and over again in your head because you wish you could get a do over? Something was a bit awkward, and if you could just go back and tweak what you said, the world could resume it’s rightful flow.
Yeah? But that never happens. Still though, I am frowning inside about something I said to another mom at a playgroup gathering. She asked me if I was a “stay at home mom.” Now, let’s just pause right there.
The term “stay at home mom,” also known as SAHM, has always been somewhat uncomfortable for me. Specifically the “stay at home” part. It’s like a shoe that would appear to be a perfect fit, but instead is just too tight. And when you try to wear them, your feet hurt. So basically, something about my mothering feels constricted inside the term “stay at home,” and the brief small-talk conversation I had with that other mother illuminated this for me.
I mean, on the one hand I get how I totally read as a stay at home mother. I don’t have to get up and out of the house by a certain time everyday. I don’t have to report anywhere other than where my child needs to nurse. And I don’t have to arrange and deliver the munchkin to a daycare or a nanny so that I can go and work.
But on the other hand, when I do answer “yes” to that mom’s question, it feels very disingenuous for a reason I can’t readily put my finger on. So much so, I immediately follow up with: “I’m writing a book about becoming a mother. And I’m a dancer and a movement facilitator.” What the what? Literally, in one breath all that falls out of my mouth, to which she simply replies, “Oh.”
Immediately I am asking myself why I feel the need to be more than just a mother. Especially since this mom self-identifies as a stay at home mom too. There is obviously no judgy tone or side-eye going on. The conflict is something initiated within me.
Thankfully, while I am fumbling through my words on the verge of a familiar identity crisis, the munchkin is crawling into some corner he needs rescuing from. The weird moment passes as quickly as it comes. Children can be so handy sometimes! I pull him back to safety and recover the conversation by turning the attention back to her. I ask her what types of things do her and her daughter do. And just as I suspect, they do a lot of things outside the house. Playgroups, swim lessons, libraries, museums, parks, and on and on. She says they get out everyday. I think this is quite amazing as the munchkin and I haven’t yet graduated to daily outings.
The whole thing is like a sour aftertaste in my mouth. But there with all the other moms and babies, I can’t really open up what is bothering me about how I responded. I decide to tuck it away and go back to having fun. We stay busy laughing about the things our children are doing, swapping recipes for teething remedies, discussing upcoming milestones, and oooing and ahhhing over new skills our babies have mastered. Eventually we all pack up and leave.
The munchkin graciously sleeps on our trip home. On the second bus ride I am pleased to see it’s not crowded with the usual rush hour fuss of commuters and school kids. I get a nice seat by the window and start my internal investigation into why I felt I needed to be more than a stay at home mom.
The first thing that pops up is my feelings about my own mother, who managed to ensure we spent hours upon hours at the library, museums, and doing science fair projects even though she worked (and still works) full time as an engineer. I grew up in a family where both my parents worked outside the home. This was also the norm with all of my friends where married parents, single parents, or custodial grandparents all had careers away from their children. My mother’s mother stayed at home with her children, but when the youngest was in junior high she started working in schools. My father’s mother worked outside the home when he and his siblings were growing up. Most of my parenting aunts and uncles worked outside the home too. Pretty much all of the influential adults in my family and community worked while we, the children, went to school.
I never thought this arrangement was bad or undesirable; it just was. As a girlchild, my concept of “stay at home” mothering was white women in khaki pants, minivans cruising through suburbia, and a large tray of freshly baked, chocolate chip cookies waiting on the island in a sunny kitchen for sweaty children who have just come in from soccer practice. We did not have such an island and we got our cookies from the corner store.
I didn’t think we were at a disadvantage, but I also didn’t question why so few black families in our circle had a parent who stayed home. I think I just chalked my black mother being away from me for about 10 hours each day as cultural. Just another thing black people did differently than white people. Like how our hair was kinky and theirs was not, like how we ate sweet potato pie and they ate pumpkin, like how our music was rhythmic and theirs was…different.
I don’t know when this changed for me. Even in my earliest memories of wanting to be a mother, I didn’t have such strong preferences for raising my children a certain way. Daycare was not a very dirty word, homeschooling sounded like an alien approach to education, and it seemed obvious that some gross emptiness would consume my days if I didn’t have a career with which to anchor my mothering. Isn’t that how it’s done?
I imagine some of my evolution in the vision for my parenting process has been deeply informed by my life as an artist. Sustaining creative work often means operating outside of fixed structures, one of them being the 9 to 5, Monday through Friday work schedule. Since that format was already not a part of my days, I embraced this opportunity to look at everything with new eyes. I started to appreciate the alternative shapes a childhood could take on simply by me not being a mother attached to a job with a set schedule. Schooling became something abundantly flexible, breastfeeding indefinitely became extremely possible, traveling and living for periods of time in other countries seemed absolutely realistic.
This sacred freedom is still at the center of my choice to be “at home” with my munchkin. I wrestle, though, with the notion that my mothering is not doing enough from the home space. That if in fact, I was a “working outside home mom,” or WOHM as it is popularly known, with a job requiring me to leave the caregiving in another person’s hands, then I would, perhaps, finally be doing enough. However, all the mommies I know who stay home with their babies agree that our work hours are also long. Actually, they never end. There is no sick leave, there is no mandatory lunch break, there is no overtime. There are ample demands and very few thank yous. In past weeks I have talked about the great financial cost of our choices to have one parent at home and one who works outside the home. But when I caught myself trying to legitimize my status as a stay at home parent, I realized I needed to have a conversation with myself about the emotional journey of this process.
I feel like I am doing the right thing for my child and our family. I enjoy being with the munchkin everyday, even with all the frustrations, stresses, routinely missed showers, and sometimes loneliness. This is our work. I think it’s important to stress how I feel, and that I ultimately feel good, even though the optimal balance is a long, long, long road we continue to walk.
So why did I feel I needed to say more? It’s a combination of things, of course. In writing this I realize my instinctive aversion to being identified as a “stay at home mom,” is partly rooted in the otherness through which I associated it with as a child. Mainly that is was something that white and privileged people did. Learning how to articulate the functions of how my own privilege expresses itself through my mothering continues to challenge and inspire me.
I have to also admit that part of the hesitancy to embrace “SAHM” wholeheartedly comes from having defended my choice to “still” be at home multiple times. Being perceived as a mother at home with my child, “doing nothing,” has led some people to believe that I obviously have time to watch other people’s children– you know the other, real-working-parents people. Well, what are you doing? This irks me so much. It’s not that I have every moment of every day already assigned, but it’s the attitude that fuels such assumptions that annoys me. It’s like, because I’m not on a validated work schedule, I’m evidently underworked caring for my own child. When I counter, that in fact I am quite busy mothering and masterminding ways for my writing, dance, and creative projects to peacefully coexist, I have gotten that look of disbelief. The one that can be roughly translated as, “But how could you be so selfish?”
This is where I feel the conversation has reached a terrifying void. There is something forbidden that we, mothering from wherever we are, collectively don’t talk about when it comes to naming the particular strands of pain (some) mothers feel when they have to be away from their children to work. I have spoken to, read thoughts by, and listened to mothers who struggle with the ramifications of being apart from their babies too soon after birth, or for too many hours in the day, or for a job that is unfulfilling yet paying the bills. I see these feelings dismissed with a forced chuckle. An obligatory lol that chases after a status message the mother wrote at her desk, something usually about resigning herself to just get over the heartache of missing her baby.
Many of us are terrified of leaving our children. We don’t want to know that pain. And so we make sacrifices, and stay at home with our children, even when it is economically perilous. Then there are many other mothers who are doing their best to feed, house, and clothe their families. We also need to survive. And so they make sacrifices, and go to work, often times away from their children when they don’t want to be. Aren’t we missing something here, as a community? Extreme circumstances all around, but yet, we don’t talk about why and how we’re mothering in these ways. How loud is all our silence, I wonder. How heavy are the words we won’t say?
I mean it can’t be that we mothers opting to be with our children at home, and at the park, and at our businesses, and everywhere else should only share our issues amongst ourselves for fear of appearing like we don’t appreciate the freedom that other mothers don’t have. And it also can’t be that those mothers who do feel any ounce of dissatisfaction with the fact that, no matter how they configure it, they have to spend significant amounts of time separated from their children in order to make money, should have to mask themselves because we as a society don’t make space for a mother’s peculiar griefs.
I don’t know how we do this, but we have to start shifting the language, the conversation, everything. Too many mothers are suffering offline where no one is looking.
When I think about what else is also hard for me about “SAHM,” it’s also because the “stay at home” part doesn’t communicate that I am an artist. Mothering and generating income with my art were never inherently oppositional to me. In taking things slowly, I loosely planned to be reentering work spaces outside the home, with the munchkin by my side most of the time, when he turns one. I am gently starting to make room for more writing and my work as a movement facilitator. In a few weeks I am actually hosting my first official community dance event since becoming a new mommy. I think I am doing what many mothering artist women naturally come to do, finding innovative ways to integrate our children into how we create and work with communities.
It occurs to me that there is no acronym for us, though. In these conversations about mothering work options, SAHM, WOHM, and even WAHM, for “working at home mom,” are the commonly used terms. Well, wordplay being my thing, I came up with one I feel best reflects the nuances of my experience: “Working Everywhere, Mother and Child/ren.” As a mother and artist I am engaged in multiple forms of work at all times. And I design my work so that my child can be with me as I am doing it. There, I figured it out. I am a WE-MAC.
The more I think about this journey, the more troubled I am with the polarization of mothers’ choices. I think it’s hurting the dialogue around the world, but especially in this country, to use language that positions mothers who are at home with their children as being non-workers. I think it’s also limiting our understandings of the layered and complex realities of many families when the dominant discourse assumes that mothers working outside the home can only do so if their children are away from them.
The truth, I have discovered, is richly textured. A living, breathing testament to all the ways humanity has found to mother itself. Surely then, our mothering is worthy of more than the stale and chronic tug of binary ideologies. Let’s put down this fight that isn’t even ours, mothers. Let’s speak, and gather, and dream a new way of being into our homes. Grow our families, Change our world. Be ourselves.
The munchkin, my first born, was born on a Wednesday. Wednesday’s Bloom: Textual Portraits of a New Mommy is an ongoing multi-media documentary project about my process as a mother. Today’s story is a part of Volume 1, 73 consecutive weeks of posts, spanning about the first year and a half of the munchkin’s life. Each episode explores my weekly discoveries, challenges, questions, and hopes as a mother. I also facilitate the New Mommy Writers’ Workshop for all mothers and women active in their mothering work who are excited about cultivating their own writing practices.