A few weeks ago, I read the "Just a Mom" post at the Clover Lane blog. She talks about whether she calls herself a Stay At Home Mom versus "just a Mom" versus talking about working "outside the home." It's about the whole idea of what is the "right" term, and what do each of these phrases convey about being a mother.
It raised the question for me, once again: What do I consider myself?
Then, while I was already mulling this over, Keith and I watched a recent episode of the new show "Parenthood" (which we are really enjoying), and it came up again. It's a story about four grown siblings with their own families. One of the siblings is a woman who is constantly working overtime as a lawyer, while her husband is the Stay at Home Dad to their elementary school-aged daughter. Every week, I go back and forth as to whether I like the workaholic lawyer or not. Is she a workaholic or is she just doing what she needs to, to support her family?
In this particular episode, everyone is at an auction to benefit the school. She is bidding on a prize against another mother and, as the bidding escalates, one of her siblings questions who the other woman is. Lawyer Mom whispers back, "I know! It's not even like she works!" ... forgetting that she was holding a microphone for the bidding process. It was a well-directed, excruciating moment. And I couldn't decide who I empathized with.
I realized that my gut reaction was actually on the side of Lawyer Mom. But that realization gave me a moment's pause. Hadn't I always said that I wanted to be a SAHM? If we could have afforded it, I wouldn't be working at all?
Of course, that isn't how it went. Luckily, I had a very understanding boss and had the opportunity to work from home for awhile and then only work part-time in the office. Once she left, I got lucky a second time and was hired as a part-time English professor at a community college. In some ways, I feel lucky that I never had to make that black and white choice of "working mom" or "stay at home mom," because I'm a bit of both.
And now that I've spent time living in the gray area, having whole days home with Eleanor, and also having 8-hour workdays, I don't think that I could give up either one. It's very important to me that I'm Eleanor's main caregiver. We're together every morning, for at least a few hours, and I usually tuck her into bed 6 nights a week. I know what foods she likes, what is her current favorite book or activity, and what she's asking for when she wants to go to the "yado" (window). We go to music class, and the store, and sometimes we don't go anywhere at all. I cherish our time together, and watching her grow up in front of my eyes.
But. I will be the first person to acknowledge that I think being a SAHM is really hard work. Not having 5 minutes to myself all day, should Eleanor decide to go without her nap. Making food, cleaning up the kitchen, entertaining Eleanor, changing diapers, doing laundry, picking up toys ... over and over and over again. Nothing is ever done because it's undone as soon as I turn my back. Trying to get anything done and keeping Eleanor occupied at the same time is usually impossible and an exercise in frustration. Wondering, at the end of the day, what I've actually accomplished?
On the other hand, it's always so much easier to see the light at the end of the tunnel with paid employment. For starters, you get a paycheck! And with teaching, it's even more pronounced. A semester starts with a fresh syllabus of readings and writing assignments and lesson plans. At the end of the semester, readings have been discussed, writing has been graded, lessons have been taught. Students either pass or fail, and it's time for a fresh, new syllabus. I appreciate being seen as a professional with expertise and the ability to impart useful knowledge. My students may not always be convinced that it's useful or necessary, but I try to convince them of that, too.
The path used to be so clear. Working outside the home, for many women, just wasn't an option. But then feminism questioned the wisdom of such a forced lifepath, and other options opened up. For awhile, it seems that every woman was expected to work outside the home and bring home a paycheck, just like the men.
I feel like we've arrived at a place where either, or both, option seems equally valid and yet incomplete. I don't know yet what the right answer is. The only conclusion I've been able to draw is that the right answer is different for every mother. In real life, I've met very few women who are either all Lawyer Mom or SAHM. Most of us are trying to find the right balance of mothering and professional work to make us feel like good mothers, valued workers, and balanced women. It's a balance that can change on a daily basis, often seeming just out of reach.
I am very grateful to have the opportunity to even ask the question: Who am I? What do I want? At times, I just wish the answer were a little easier to define.