By Liz Sjaastad
In the morning rush my sixteen-year-old daughter stands with the refrigerator door open pouring herself an iced-coffee. “At lunch yesterday, Mara asked me what you do all day. Her mom is a doctor and, you know, busy.”
My heart freefalls into my gut. Not this again.
I spoke with my kids about my decision to stop my consulting practice when my husband started traveling 75% time. I had enrolled in a yearlong memoir writing project and wanted to prioritize my time with them. But that was four years ago, and my husband no longer travels for work.
She shuts the refrigerator door and faces me. “I told her I didn’t know really. What do stay-at-home moms do? I said you take care of the dogs… and write.” She chuckles a bit, unaware, it seems, of how her comments are landing.
My fourteen-year-old son pipes in. “She also takes care of Oscar. He has demands!” Oscar is our cat and yes, he is demanding.
My daughter’s comment has hit me like a grenade. I worry that she, not just her friend, is questioning my choice. My daughter and her friends are feminists and enlightened teenagers, but do they get that having choices, not just careers, is fundamental to feminism?
How is it that we’re still asking what stay-at-home moms do all day? Just the question gets my blood boiling. Does anyone ever say, “Oh! Your mom is a lawyer? What does she do all day?” Women and men who stay at home are still made to feel subordinate, as if this job of caring for family and running a household is a simple, no-brainer activity.
“Should I make you a list of my daily activities for you to take back for today’s lunchtime discussion?” My heart beats are rapid now.
I exit the kitchen before I say something I’ll regret. The List is a farcical task, but I do it anyway and it makes me feel worse. Yet, according to 2019 data from Salary.com, if at-home parents were paid for our services, our median annual salary would be over $175,000.
Shopping, laundry, dishes, picking up their shit, vacuuming dog hair woven into the fabric of our sofa, working out, dinners, cars in for service, medical appointments, teenage crises counseling, scheduling trips to visit colleges, responding to the school’s requests, planning holidays and summers, administering my mother’s affairs, and where does it end? It doesn’t. And yes, I also write and attend writing groups and seminars.
The list of a parent’s to-dos is endless. Yet, damn-it, moms with outside jobs do most of these things too. Maybe they don’t do the writing part. But I don’t get paid for that.
How can I expect others, including my daughter, to consider writing a valid vocation if even I dismiss it for its lack of financial rewards?
I step back into the kitchen and my daughter, perhaps having noticed steam shooting out of my ears, passes me and says, “Jaylynn was with us at lunch and she said her mom always says how smart you are.”
“That was nice of Jaylynn to say.” I feel better hearing that comment, and my breathing slows. Then I imagine the other edge of the compliment, and it cuts through me. Why, if she’s so smart, isn’t she doing something else with her time?
Many of us make decisions based on how life went for us as kids and what our own parents role modeled. I put my whole being into not recreating anything close to what I endured as a child. My mom stopped teaching and was a stay-at-home parent, but her ability to either teach or parent was thwarted by schizophrenia at a time when mental illness was so stigmatized no one spoke of it.
How do I remind my daughter in the morning rush that I wanted to prioritize my short time as a full-time parent? That my unpaid Mom job was ending much faster than I anticipated? In another four years, all three kids will be out of the house, yet in the meantime I will be around for every tear, outburst, smile, and extracurricular activity. More importantly, for me, I’ll have the mental capacity to show up for them with my best possible self. These are The List items that are so difficult to quantify and can’t be hired out.
I tried it the other way. I tried to do it all, running my own service business and being the at-home parent. I became an impatient parent and a distant partner. I snapped at the kids, and only afterwards did I realize they simply needed a hug and validation. I drank an extra glass of wine to calm nerves that ended up fraying instead. My mind was on my clients when it could have been on my kids.
The result of my decision to be at home is that my kids get what I didn’t: two predictable, responsive, loving parents. And I’m fulfilled. The way it worked for me was I had to eventually choose, clients or kids. I was fortunate to even have had the choice.
While I didn’t fear becoming my mom when I stopped earning an income, I did fear losing my identity as an income-earner and as a role-model . This morning my daughter punched that fear button.
My teenagers rush out the door and both say, “Love you!” without me saying it first. I vow to explain my days and my choices again when we have more time. And I decide I’ll do it more than once. Their brains and understanding of the world are just developing, and it’s my job to enlighten them while they live at home.
I let out a deep breath and smile to myself. My kids have ready access to a mentally healthy mom, and I am proud to own that identity. Yet as long as society continues to dismiss the at-home parent job, my blood will continue to boil at times to remind me that I need to value my choices even when others don’t.
Liz Sjaastad writes to unravel the moments when her heart free falls into her gut. She is also working on her final, final draft of her memoir about daughterhood, dysfunction and denial, for which she will be seeking agent representation. lizsjaastad.com
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