Betty Duffy

Friday, February 5, 2010

Stay Home Moms, The New Creative Class (rerun from March 09)

From a letter to a friend of mine:

I'm not saying that women all have to be stay-at-home BettyCrockers. In fact, I have yet to meet a woman who really relishes all the crap (literally) taking care of kids involves. My sister and I were just talking last night about how annoying it can be to have literary or scholarly ambitions at the same time we want to offer our kids the best foundation for life we can think of. She actually does home school her six kids, but just turned down a teaching position at Old Dominion University near where she lives, because her husband's in the navy and she can't schedule around his schedule. But hey, we get to stay home, write poetry and novels we'll never send out, and read them to each other over the phone. This is a luxury and I personally wouldn't trade it for the world (though I wouldn't mind actually getting published). Doesn't make me any more or less Catholic. In a different set of circumstances, I probably would get a job--indeed, I've had one before.”

I have a complicated relationship with feminism. I am vehemently pro-woman, but feminism’s pro-woman is not my pro-woman. I’m told by people who seem to know what they’re talking about, that there are a variety of “feminisms,” yet I’ve always been on the wrong side of the feminism du jour.

Can’t I say that I’m a feminist who is pro-life and anti-contraception, and who really wants more women to stay home during the day, so I have some Momrades with whom to play Bridge, drink Bloody Marys and eat mixed nuts? It seems disingenuous. So while I’m happy to vote and if I ever have another job, pay would be nice [though I am in a field (writing) where beggars can’t be choosers], I can pretty confidently say that I’m not a feminist. I’m over it, and I’ve been over it since, like, the nineties.

And yet, I have had countless conversations with women, who are educated—usually an unfinished graduate degree to their credit—who feel a knee-jerk reaction to apologize for staying home with their kids, while they simultaneously espouse feminism as the bearer of many great opportunities (of which they choose not to take advantage).

At this moment in history when motherhood is no longer the logical outcome of a sexual relationship, staying home with our kids is just another "lifestyle choice" on par, or even less than other more "dignified" careers. What I argue now, is that the advent of many modern conveniences has opened up the aesthetic liberation of stay-at-home motherhood, giving it a new dignity that I find preferable to any other career I might have pursued.

It’s taboo to mention that I happen to have some time on my hands. I’m supposed to be so harried and frazzled that I have no time for showering, and any spare time I must fill with excessive doting on my children. The truth is, I can be as harried as I want to be. If I want to run around with all five of my kids to soccer practices and PTO meetings, I can do it, and make my life, and the lives of everyone around me something akin to hell on earth. I can polish the toilet every day with a toothbrush, but no one’s life actually depends on my doing these things.

Therefore, if I manage my time correctly, I can read, write, cook, pray, clean, sleep, and still have a hefty chunk of time to spend on my kids. The stay-at-home mom struggles less with being overworked, than with a kind of boredom or intellectual acedia. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Without a room of one’s own, without a housekeeper, without a lot of money, without sacrificing the well-being of one’s kids, the stay-at-home mom can exercise the freedoms of the creative class, if we allow ourselves. My room of my own is my head, and I inhabit it with varying degrees of contentment all day every day. All I have to do is put my findings down on paper.

I for one am going to quit thinking of myself as a witless nobody confined to a life of vacuums and diapers. I prefer to think of myself as a British aristocrat without the quail eggs and castles. I spent some time with a group of wealthy British Socialists at Oxford, who brazenly proclaimed that their Oxford education was solely for the purpose of finding interesting things to say at dinner parties. So here, my blog is my dinner party. My unfinished graduate degree is a lifetime supply of quail eggs.

In summation: Motherhood already has an inherent dignity because it is the biological design of women to be mothers, but in a worldly sense, mothering our kids is a pretty good deal. What I want to know is why we are still apologizing for following the natural design of our hearts and bodies? Why are we still yearning to be the workhorses of the boardroom, the bedroom, and the kitchen? It feels counterintuitive.


JMB said...

Just today I read in our local paper about the local MOMS group. Title stated: "Club offers play dates, place for moms to commiserate".

I have so many problems with this. First and foremost, it is a priviledge to be able to stay home with your children. For that, we should be grateful. I'm not saying it's not a financial sacrifice, that it is. But it's not as if you are on the front lines of a war or down in Haiti treating the orphans. You are in your home with your children. There's no need to commiserate.

Secondly, having been an at-home mother for almost 15 years, I can tell you that it is so much easier than my previous job as an Investment Banker (VP) on Wall Street working on a busy trading floor in NYC. That was hard. It was hard getting screamed at on a daily basis from traders, it was hard getting my butt out of bed and facing the phones at 7:30 am. It was hard getting into verbal sparring matches with drunken London traders at 8 am, after their liquid lunches. It was hard going on vacation to CA, only to be woken up at 3 am because I forgot to approve a big deal before I left (we all make mistakes :). The point is, my paycheck made it worth it to take that abuse, but the minute I had a reason (husband, baby) to scram, you bet I did as fast as I could. I've never looked back and I have never ever regretted giving up that career. Feminists have it all wrong - there are hard jobs out there in the world, that's why you pay people to do them, but motherhood is not hard.

Be grateful for your freedom. Savor it.

berenike said...

Neither wealthy nor a socialist, and British only by adoption, but it is perfectly true that the only use I've found for my degree from God's Own University is making dinner conversation :)

Apart from Latin and wiring plugs, which I picked at secondary school, everything useful I got from my education I learned from Mrs Ferguson who taught the "big yins" class at my rural primary school :)

BettyDuffy said...

JMB, Do you have a blog? If so, I'd love to read it. It sounds like you have an interesting perspective. I agree one hundred percent, that staying home is a luxury. This is a gift, for which I am grateful. But I do think that motherhood, of any stripe, has its moments of feeling like a war-zone, and in those cases, it can be very helpful to commiserate with someone, if for no other reason, than to put it back into its proper perspective. I go back and forth from one day to the next: Is this exile, or is it Eden? And it's both. We are going to have trials and suffering, sometimes serious suffering, but it has been redeemed by Christ. And we have the Church (a community with whom to commiserate our exiled state, and to rejoice in our redemption), as yet another gift to help us through. I think motherhood is very hard some days. And some days it's joyful. But always, it's a gift.

Ellyn said...

Amen, sister!

bearing said...

I missed this the first time, and relished reading it. It's so true.

What of the testimony of the many women who leave work to mother, and DON'T enjoy it? (Not counting those for whom real financial hardship creates the stress that forces them back.) I think a lot, not all, but a lot, can be explained by two factors -

(1) some think of the at-home years as a temporary aberration, and can't afford to get too attached to this life

(2) many are isolated from others, lacking rich face-to-face relationships with other women doing what they do. Playdates and MOPS groups don't cut it: in short, they lack friendships.

It's hard to love a life that's lonely and temporary. And the two factors reinforce... why make deep friendships in a place you're planning to leave? why stick around in a place where you have no friends?

bearing said...

I forgot to add my third reason:

(3)I suspect that some of that testimony -- how awful motherhood is, how much better working is -- is simply not true. There's a lot of pressure to be good little feminists and to play along with the "mothering sux" line.

Once before kids I was out for an early morning bike ride. I paused on a pedestrian overpass, suspended over the interstate, leaned my bike against the rail and looked down on the cars speeding beneath me on one side, stuck in rush hour traffic on the other. I was so happy at that moment not to be in one of those cars, able to choose my path and go as fast or as slow as I wanted.

Home with kids reminds me of that.

BettyDuffy said...

Bearing, I think isolation, as you say is one of the biggest thorns in the side of stay-at-home motherhood. When we lived in the city, it happened to be in a neighborhood where there were a lot of other moms staying home. It was affordable, not the high end of town, hence manageable on one income. A lot of us had husbands who traveled, and so we came to depend on each other a lot. Cooked dinners together, let the kids play until they dropped, and took turns babysitting. A couple of other things were in play that made that community work: our kids were all pre-school age, so we weren't running around much, and our religious/ social differences were a non-issue.

When we moved it was to a more rural area, hence no one is in walking distance, and for some reason, there are very few stay-home moms that I know of. So...I started a blog.

Technology can be friend or foe, but it gets me through the day sometimes. Naturally, I'd prefer to spend it with realife people, but that's not the way our culture works anymore, and I can either work myself into a corner about it, saying there's just nothing I can do for friends, or I can talk to strangers on my blog :)

swaying mama said...

I'm a feminist, did the stay-at-home motherhood thing and loved it for 6 years. Went back to work full time for a year while hubby stayed home, went back home for 6 months while hubby took full time job, now am working part-time for money while keeping 2 girls homeschooled and my sanity. I can say I hope to never go back to full-time stay at home mom.

That is to explain where I am coming from. This post is interesting because I always agree to disagree with folks who I think embody the F-word but who themselves eschew the label.

I want staying home full time with young children to be an option for my girls. And I also want them to feel they have options and can do something else if life hands them a divorce/widowhood and/or the lack of patience with being a stay at home mom.

I used to think my way was the only right way. And then I came to the realization that it was the only right way FOR ME. Everyone is different and I hate prescriptions that are one-size-fits-all. That goes for uber-feminists who say all women should use their degrees and show the world our power in the paid workforce and for folks who insist that stay-at-home motherhood (with or without contraception) is for everyone.

We are each on our own path. When we can recognize this and accept others who make different choices than us, it avoids us sounding like we are trying to justify our own decisions, (i.e. I think she doth protest too much).

Love disagreeing respectfully with you, Duffy.

wifemotherexpletive said...

I do think that loneliness has a great deal to do with the complaints about staying at home with the kids. Its also a problem of feminism that tells us young mothers that we're not being 'productive' because we're not being paid... for me, its taken me a couple years to get over the shock of introducing children into my life but now, its all those rosy things the others have always described... most of the time. theres not too much rosy right now, as the mucus in the house is threatening to flood us out. (but it IS a blessing that I didn't have to re-arrange work- just make extra oatmeal...)

BettyDuffy said...

Rachael, You know I love your respectful disagreement, and I'm glad you took the time to comment. You've always struck me as having a very balanced approach to both sides of the issue, both in our discussions here and in realife.

Regarding the "She doth protest too much" side of things, I'm sure I do--because I do have doubts all the time, about all sorts of things. I suppose one of the reasons I write this blog is to reaffirm, again and again, why I have made the choices I have. But I'm comfortable with periods of doubt, because they do lead to deeper reflection, and ultimately deeper conviction.

I think stay at home moms currently receive some of the discrimination once reserved for working mothers. If we are in our thirties, chances are pretty good that we were raised by working mothers and taught to espouse some soft feminist ideals. By eschewing our mothers' ideals, we are often assumed to be rich and privileged, or desperate, or stupid, or wasteful of our education, or somehow less than our working counterparts--even while the brunt of this criticism comes from ourselves, having given up former expectations of what we thought we might achieve in our lives. But as you say, there are as many different variations of stay-at-home motherhood as the individuals who practice it. My point is, to try to the best of our abilities, we who have made this choice, to enjoy it, absolve ourselves of the doubt and guilt and negative self-talk. The desire to stay close to our children is ingrained in our hearts, and we need not doubt our innate desire to honor it.

PS, thanks for the link to ""--what an interesting project!

JMB said...

Thanks Betty, I do not have a blog. I just enjoy reading them! I know that there are hard seasons when home with children, especially when they are very young. I for one thought that I was such a great baby mom and was completely flabbergasted when I really didn't enjoy the toddler/preschooler years. In fact, I never cried when my kids went off to preschool or kindergarten. The first day of first grade for my youngest was a wonderful milestone for me. That said, I think we do each other no favors when we complain about our lives, especially if we blessed by being where we want to be.

ps. I love my teenager and tweeners. So much fun making fun of them.

effulgent7 said...

I found both the original post and the comments to be very enlightening. I am a former teacher, expecting a baby in a few months, and planning to switch from my current part-time jobs (I am a "victim of the economy" because I could not find a full time teaching job when my husband got stationed here) to being a stay at home mom.

I never thought I would even consider staying at home- in fact, there was a time when I didn't even want kids. But your perspective changes over time, and even though I am so excited to be having a child, I find myself a little apprehensive about staying at home. Will I get bored? Who will I talk to? Will I ever go back to work? How will I feel about myself? I used to define myself by my career, and since I have been married and pregnant that has been slowly changing, but...old habits die hard.

Sorry to ramble...all of these points have really been informative and are making me feel even better about my decision. As I tell my friends, I've heard plenty of women say they wish they had been able to stay at home with the kids, but not one of my friends wishes she had gone back to work instead. (though I respect those that do!).

Melanie B said...

When I was in high school I secretly wanted to be a stay at home mom; but knew that it was totally uncool to admit to such a wish-- in fact I myself thought perhaps there was something wrong with me for wanting to pick the pleasant and easy path over a career-- so I told everyone I wanted to be a teacher and when no man who seemed suitable husband material arrived on the scene I went on to get my MA, planning for it to be a way-station on the way to a PhD. But I couldn't stand what has happened to the modern English department where everyone cares about anything and everything except reading literature, so I dropped out and taught as a lowly part-time adjunct for several years.

I liked some aspects of teaching but really, I never liked working for my living. I have no regrets now that I'm staying home with my kids. Sure there are hectic days and spending all my time with a pre-schooler, toddler and infant can try my patience. Then again so did college freshmen and at least I can hug my babies and kiss them and they are when all is said and done my own flesh and blood. In short I love them.

I have leisure to read and think and write and the companionship of the internet. No, there are no local women with whom I can sit and sip coffee and chat about the kinds of things I'd like to chat about but I'm not much more lonely than I was as a single working woman.

Anna B said...

I don't know where you are living now, but I am there for drinks and card playing!

I like being a SAHM, but I want to be a SAHM in a movie, like what you described. The kids come home while "the girls" and I are having martinis and playing Euchre. Having spent the morning attending to the home duties, we would be free to enjoy each other's company.

TXMom2B said...

I love this post. I have wanted to write something about this, about actually having spare time to be creative, but felt bad about it. Now I think I will put my own related thoughts down, and I'll link to this blog post if you don't mind.

Anonymous said...

Betty, I think you'd love this website. They are highly educated and run the gamet of SAHMs and At Work Moms.

I read your post and the comments with interest. I have 3 little ones - 4.5, 2.5 and 2 months. I admit I never wanted to have kids but I love my husband and wanted to marry him and knew he wouldn't marry me if I didn't have kids. Foolish? Maybe. But what is done is done and now I have three blessings. It doesn't make me like staying at home - I don't. I don't think I'm good at it. I worry endlessly about their souls and their futures. I'm expected to homeschool, but don't feel I'm the homeschooling type of mom. And yet, we can't afford school (public school isn't an option). I feel torn in many directions and feel trapped by the kids. I have been praying for help so that I can change and be the mom I want to be. But change is slow and I'm stubborn. Where am I going with this? I'm not sure. I wouldn't want someone else raising my kids, that's for sure. But I see the childbearing years stretch before me and feel fear. And lonliness. And ineptitude. (Plus, who would hire me now? I have terrible spelling...)

BettyDuffy said...

Anonymous, I didn't notice any spelling errors.

I think the doubts you have about your own abilities are pretty widespread. There are a lot of prescriptions for how to mother in order to achieve the most well-adjusted and well-behaved kids, but when you get to the nitty gritty, we are dealing not just with delicate little souls, but with completely separate individuals who have free will and the ability to chuck everything we try to teach them. My advice is to do what you and your husband feel is the best thing for your family, and then trust God with the rest. There's no way to ensure that you're doing everything right. In fact, more often than not, I feel pretty confident that I've gotten it wrong, but they're going to be fine. You're kids will be fine. You will be fine. It gets easier and easier, which is why I have time to sit here and answer these comments. When my oldest was four, I really did feel harried. Now I say, "go to bed," and away they go. But trust that God can use your mistakes as well as your most well-executed plans. I'm a not a kid-person at all. But I love MY kids. So you just do it, and the days pass, and before you know it, they're big.

Also, you might look into financial aid at the parochial school if you don't feel called to homeschool. It usually won't apply until kindergarten, but we have benefitted greatly from an income-sensitive tuition scale.

Anna B, come on over! We can pour some drinks, and then my kid will probably bite yours and spoil all of our fun.

Sally Thomas said...

Yeah, I think what Betty says is exactly right. Life really IS hard when your oldest is four, and nobody in the house with you is really, like, a rational person. That is very, very hard and isolating. It also seems as though it's going to go on forever and ever and ever and ever . . .

I think Melanie has summed up my own trajectory. I always wanted to have children. Always. I am a kid-person. At the same time, I'm an introvert (so the child harassing the dog by pretending to be a T-Rex two feet away from me right this instant *is* driving me insane), and I'm a writer, so it's not like I got given the perfect set of variables for all the things I always wanted out of life. Nevertheless . . .

Uh, okay, the kid and the dog are really kind of distracting me, so I'm not sure I'm making any sense. What I think I wanted to say is this: if this particular increment of time were to go on eternally, in stasis, I think I would jump off a cliff. However, sixteen years of this game have given me some perspective which I didn't have when my oldest child was four. Here, in no particular order, are some things I learned:

1. The little-kid chaos does not last. Suddenly my oldest child is 16, and my baby is 6; it struck me just the other day that we not only don't use a stroller, but we don't even have one on our property. Everyone can get themselves into and out of the car (one of them is learning to drive), fix their own lunches, wash dishes, vacuum, and cook dinner. The older ones are enjoyable conversationalists, and the younger one are getting there. I'm really not exaggerating when I say that I enjoy my teenaged daughter's company as much as I enjoy that of any other woman friend, and that gives me the perseverance to soldier on daily with the younger ones, even though I'm much older and tireder these days than I was when she was this young.

2. By "making an investment in your young children," I don't necessarily mean that you have to homeschool, though we do, and I think it's had a lot to do with the good relationships my husband and I have with our teenaged and pre-teen children. It was hard being home with them in the early days -- probably harder for me than being home now is, because I was fresher out of the grad-school thing, far less convinced that having children was a legitimate thing for me to have done, far more concerned about the world's passing me by, and so on. I do think, though, that having arranged our life so as to privilege them *in* our life -- if that makes sense -- has paid its dividends. Or, well "privilege" doesn't seem like the right word, because it implies that we've made demi-gods of them, but we did make a point of setting up our life in such a way that it provided maximum relationship time. It wasn't all that easy then, and it's not always easy now. But it does get easier as they get older, and the value of that time spent also becomes that much more apparent.

(to be continued)

Sally Thomas said...

(continuing -- in long-winded fashion)

3. When I had nothing but little kids and no teenagers, I did devise ways to get time to myself. At different times I traded babysitting with other women, and at some junctures I had a regular babysitter who would come in for a few hours so that I could go out to a coffeehouse and write. Then my husband was a graduate student and home all the time, and during that time my older children went to school/preschool, which didn't give me the buckets of me-time that I had anticipated, but did give me some. Now we homeschool, but I have a teenager and a pre-teen, and I can leave the house by myself to take a walk, run errands, have lunch with my husband, etc. And I make myself take advantage of those things, because I know I'll be saner and happier if I take care of myself. (and I give myself time to write my blog and comment on blogs like this one for the same reason . . . ).

4. Being at home gives me more time and flexibility to do the non-mothering work I really want to do -- ie writing -- than any outside work ever did. Like Melanie, I really wasn't cut out to be a teacher, though I did that for a number of years; the whole time I was teaching, I was neglecting my paper-grading to write poems. That eventually told me something. I think that discovering that my real non-mothering calling is something best done at home on a flexible schedule probably has made me far happier as an at-home, homeschooling mother than I would otherwise have been. And homeschooling feeds some of those same creative cravings.

5. Homeschooling is how I met most of my current best friends, who are all women a lot like me. Mothers of preschoolers often don't have anything in common beyond the fact that they have preschoolers. Homeschooling mothers tend to have more in common philosophically. Not always, but the common ground is broader . . .

6. This is way too much about me. And I've got to go fetch the teenager from her classes now. Carry on . . .

Domestic Accident said...

Oh, my. I think you wrote this just for me. My youngest started parochial school 3 days a week, and I got my first job using my masters degree in years. Then on my second day, my oldest come down with mono, and we decided what was best for the family was for me to stay at home despite everyone being in school (in theory). Oh, but the guilt of having a little free time now.

BettyDuffy said...

Sally, what jives with me most from your comments is the idea that making an investment in the kids is what makes them enjoy being around home. I really do look forward to the time when my kids are as enjoyable to me as another adult companion. I know they probably won't all want to be my friend, but if there is one thing that really pulls me in the direction of homeschooling--it's that idea that the nuclear family is the peer group from which they derive all positive and negative influence. It's amazing to me how quickly they can internalize negative socialization at school (or at home, for that matter), and I know it can't all be positive between siblings, but I do have a more watchful eye than their teachers do, and it's nice for them to make their falls in the privacy of the home rather than in front of a bunch of third graders with the memory of an elephant. Who doesn't remember Johnny Q who barfed all over himself in the first grade?