I’m primarily a stay at home mom. And sometimes people pay me to work as a doula and as a freelance video producer and editor. When I have a project or a client or both, I trade time I normally spend cleaning and cooking for the opportunity to dive into a creative project and relationship. I make money. And I feel like I’m doing something.
It’s a strange distinction, since when I’m not working for money, I’m still doing something. A lot of things, in fact. Managing our house, its cleanliness, food stores, our finances, and attending to the myriad of needs and whims of our 3 and a half year old, J. Also, for the last 7-ish months, I’ve been gestating another human.
When I write it all down like that, it sounds pretty impressive.
My lived experience: not so much.
Last week, I caught myself saying, “Work? Well, I delivered my last video project, and my last doula client give birth last week, so I’m done working until I pick things up after this baby is born.”
By “done working” I mean this:
I wake up every other morning when J does, at or before 7am (thank you A, for taking every other morning so I can sleep till after 8:30), we cuddle in bed, then make breakfast. I read J books, get him dressed (we’re down to one of 2 outfits these days that he wants to wear—both are pajamas), tote him along for whatever projects I need to get done that day (gardening—easy to accommodate his boisterous, physical self; grocery shopping—less so), go to a park or meet up with a friend of his at some point, dole out snacks, make and eat lunch. We pay for childcare 3 mornings a week, so on those mornings I get time to wash dishes, clean and cook uninterrupted. Or pay bills, or sleep or blog or get my hair cut or go to therapy. In the afternoons, I shepherd J through an hour of “quiet time” which often results in numerous trips upstairs to help him poop, make sure he’s not pilfering the Tums he discovered on my bedside table or coloring his walls with crayon. Sometimes I manage to sneak in a nap. Then it’s more errands, maybe playing trains or orange jellyfish or poisonous space triceratops. Then onwards to interrupted dishwashing and dinner preparation. A usually gets home at 6:15, we eat, then the bedtime ritual begins and A usually takes him up to his room to play songs sometime after 7.
“I’m done working.”
How is it that I fall for this: the chronic and devastating under-valuation of managing a home and raising children?!
Yet I do. At first glance, I only consider or talk about paid work as work. When I lay on the couch while J is at childcare or during “quiet time,” I often feel guilty for watching Project Runway.
It’s hard for me to admit this because I know how I would like to feel. I’d like to be highly aware of the kick ass work that I’m doing. I’d like to feel the weightiness of the contribution I’m making to the world every day. I’m nourishing people’s bodies, I’m helping 2 new people to emerge into the world. I’m tending the soil out of which my family grows.
My lived experience, though, is that many moments of every day, I feel somehow diminished by the work that I do at home.
Since becoming a mother, I feel like my value in the world has decreased.
So why the disconnect? Why do these judgments lurk in the dusty, dark corners of my mind, even while I “know” that the work I’m doing is extremely important?
I’m sure the repetition of things said and not said during my childhood has something to do with it. There was the recognition I got, even as a kindergartener for being “gifted and talented,” and I was regularly told that I could do or be anything under the sun—a scientist, a lawyer, a doctor, or president. I believed it. I wanted to be an archaeologist, a geologist, a dancer and an artist. But I can’t remember one time as a child that I imagined, or was encouraged to think about how motherhood or contributing to a family was a pursuit worth aiming towards. That is not to say that anyone ever looked at me and said “Being a mother is worthless work.” But somehow, here I am, washing dishes and loving my son and feeling less relevant somehow.
I’ve thought many times that I always have the choice to go out and get a full-time job. And I don’t want that. What I want is, to some degree, what I have—flexibility to spend time with my children and regular opportunities to make money in ways that I find engaging.
The other thing I want is to consistently feel that the mothering work I do is a valuable contribution. Dare I say just as valuable as the work that my partner does at his office everyday.
Here’s a novel idea–my sister mentioned recently that she knows a couple who organized their budget to pay the stay at home parent for the time she spends with their child. At first, I hated how reductive this sounded. This whole problem isn’t just about money.
But it’s definitely a factor.
What if our monthly budget spreadsheet actually listed the monetary value of the work I’m doing every month? We have a line item for childcare—but that’s just when we pay other people to do it.
What if we found some way to account for the fact that every hour I spend with J is an hour that A can spend making money at his office job?
What if we started talking about the parenting I’m doing everyday as my work or stopped referring to A’s time he spends doing city planning as his?
I don’t know the answer, but I’m off to do some more work.