Dear Progressive Stay-At-Home Moms, Or: How I Turned a Little Purple
Updated: Oct 29, 2019
I begin my second day at around 10:00pm with a warmed up cup of old coffee, at which time I make lunches, put away dishes, set out clothes...maybe fold a few from Mt. St. CleanLaundry, which erupted around the time I went back to work 6 weeks after giving birth to my second child. That's when I don't also have gifts to prep for teachers leaving or being celebrated, or extra things to pack in the backpack for hikes, or a house to get ready for an overnight guest later in the week, or a holiday to prepare for.
I was raised in a Democratic-leaning, rather “liberal” home, and I had a stay-at-home mom. The number of progressive stay-at-home moms in even just my own circle is at once familiar, heart-warming, inspiring...and is a bit unsettling.
I see these mothers raising their daughters to Be All That They Can Be including mothers like themselves, but I don’t know how their little future full-time professionally working mom is going to do it. Because I am a full-time working mom, which I have been now, for almost 8 years. You know how people who were able to make a different choice than to experience the life you're actually living will jauntily say, “I don't know how you do it!”? I don't know how we do it either, because frankly—it's not getting done. And secretly, we all know it.
But I’m familiar with you, mama—you're a Fierce, Modern, She-ra-For-Women Progressive Stay-At-Home Mom—posting on Facebook with a photo of you with your daughter, reading her latest new “little feminist” children’s book with her. You know that she can do anything she wants to do, and you are going to make sure that she knows it. I see you with her, volunteering for women's organizations on weekday afternoons (because you can). I see you marching with her on the weekends (because you had the week to keep up on the ten million things that are part of running a home). Go ahead, take her to the “Girls Who Code” classes at the library at 3pm on Tuesdays.
But, please also tell her that coders usually don't get excused from their jobs coding to take their kids to mid-day classes at the library.
Please, also tell her how if she has done her climb to the top right, or even just done a good day’s work, she will have next to nothing of herself left to give to her children at the end of the workday.
Tell her that, while she will grow up loving camping and may, very well, marry someone who loves it too—when her husband asks her to go camping once the children are old enough, she will say no because it is too much work to pack a weekend's-worth of living necessities into tubs the night she comes home from working the requisite 40+hours, if she can even think that far ahead and has shopped for supplies accordingly.
Tell her how if—as is equally, if not slightly more likely, than climbing all the way to the top, or as likely as owning her own, tenuously successful passion-fueled boutique or service (which requires start-up capital and time to put together a rock-solid business plan), or running the perfect non-profit—she will work somewhere in the middle tier of an industry like banking or insurance, or as some other speck in the insipid, vast nether-reaches that make up Corporate America to provide her with regular, 9-5 hours to fit within her children’s daycare schedule and her family with benefits, or to pay her enough to be the financial provider if she has to be—enough to support herself and her kids alone, should the need arise, i.e. more than just fun-money for dance lessons and to support her own Sephora habit (which is one of the ideals of the Modern Woman, isn't it? To be able to support yourself and your children completely?).
Tell her how she might wonder, at some point after having had her children and still working this job, how she will ever overcome the feeling of throwing the bulk of the time in her days in the garbage—relatively-speaking, when she thinks about how she could be spending it with her young (only once) children instead of spending it quite literally selling her soul and watching The Clock roll to 5, if only she’d applied a little forethought and felt like it was okay to expect and ask at least as much of her partner as she will ask of herself. If only she'd had the forethought to find someone who recognizes the work that you're doing right now as such, and values it accordingly.
Tell her that her babies will cry out for “mom” in the middle of the night, before being told that the world had changed around, and without asking, them; and that she will need to explain to them that they are now supposed to want Dad because Mom is the one who has to be at work, first thing.
Tell her how she might be out snow shoveling a path to the car before taking the kids to school and herself to work, while her husband has just woken up and is sitting inside, drinking coffee and taking an extra day off because he worked a slightly longer day the day before, many men in general not realizing that all of her days are endless as professional, wife, and mother like they once would have. In fact, the mere introduction of paid work for all has relegated unpaid, domestic work to being perceived as outright non-work. My weekends are seen as my time off, and that it’s my problem if I want to use the time to try to bring the house up to a second-world standard of living, or to care for and manage the small human beings that people tell us my husband and I are responsible for. If that’s the way I want to use my free-time, hey — that’s on me.
Tell your daughter that because his mom grinned and bore working full-time and being a mom and shoveling her kids’ path to the car, heady and proud to be in the thick of perceived Liberation—to her husband, it won’t seem to be a big deal that your daughter is trying to do it all. She’ll probably be questioning if this is the privilege you, and a generation before, really marched for and feeling like it’s not really within reason anymore, to think that she shouldn’t be the one outside shoveling snow, even when she has a zillion other things on her plate. Because why? Because, mama—she can do it all, including shovel her own dang snow. Go ahead and create generations of married, single mothers: women with the mindset to expect nothing of others because, sure—we can do it all ourselves. Men have always adjusted, and will continue to adjust, to expectations accordingly.
Tell her about how while school breaks and snow days herald imaginative, unstructured togetherness filled with swimsuited rainbow-sprinkler lazy days in the summer, and cozy, hot chocolate-fueled movie marathons after building snowmen in the winter, now—her children being out of school will probably stir up anxiety about who is going to take which days off of work, or about how the cost for someone else to care for them instead makes working those days almost pointless except for being able to keep said job to work another day, and about how—in her heart—if she is anything at all like you, and enjoys her children even half as much as you enjoy yours, she will secretly wish that she could take them all herself—in equal measure to, or more than—however-much she may be enjoying her career.
Tell her that, “The kids will be out for summer, soon! What are ya gonna do?!”, and, “Hope you have a great summer!”, which everyone still loves tossing at mothers with happy anticipation, will mean absolutely nothing to her. No, scratch that. It will mean the extra work on top of everything else asked of parents at the close of a school year, of having to reconfigure and convene a whole new care program routine, when she is just beginning to feel like she and her children have finally gotten into stride with the old one.
Every time you teach her something to help her succeed in the workplace, you had better hope there is a mama teaching your daughter’s partner how to clean something, or cook something, or any little nugget at all about how to manage a home, because what nobody is saying out loud anymore is that somebody still has to, and you, stay-at-home-mama? You do it well. Better than others, perhaps—and you know it. Do you spend time finding new recipes to make for your family (because everybody gets tired of having the same 4 meals over and over)? Hopefully your daughter’s husband will, too. Hopefully your daughter doesn’t plan on doing, or even want to do the same things that make up the majority of your days—the cleaning, the cooking, the laundry, the teaching. Or, that she doesn’t mind cramming them into the 24 total waking hours on the weekend she has for discretionary time—24 hours which she also wants to spend being present for her children. Tell her about how if she doesn’t do these things, and her partner doesn’t want to either (spoiler: a lot of men still don't, in spite how far women have come—which actually has nothing to do with men's penchant for doing all of the domestic thingsss), she’ll want to spend the money that she makes on hiring housekeepers and buying meal kits just to buy herself some sanity and time to enjoy her children, thus defeating the purpose of additional income for regular old bills, savings, and college. Besides—I have yet to know a woman, no matter how progressive she is, who prefers a man whose choice is to half-heartedly dance around doing domestic chores in his bathrobe instead of choosing to work professionally, no matter how much her conveniently-progressive hubby will tell her how other wives would swoon over his his domestic prowess in doing one or two things around the house kind of well, in lieu of working to take more of the financial responsibility.
I’ll bet you know where everything goes in your house. Your daughter won’t, because every time someone else has to put things away because she is working, the things will end up somewhere different, because no one will probably care as much as she does, about where they go and where they can be quickly found.
At some point, there has to be some honesty.
At some point, you have to tell her you didn't want to try and do it all and that lucky for you—there was someone there that was willing and able to value that, and to consider it important to the well-being of your family as a whole that you didn't try to do it all at once.
At some point, if she wants children (and maybe she won't)—she will want to have also had a choice as to how she can best serve her family and herself. Sometimes, that looks like working professionally. But sometimes (as you know), it doesn't. It is important that you consider your work as work. It is vital to both daughters and sons that the work you do to support them, and equally—in service to future generations, is valued. I think we should go for the universal healthcare, Love Is Love, and most of the rest of the progressive agenda—but that doesn't mean there isn't room to value family, home, the needs of children, and the needs of mothers, for criminy's sake.
I have two children, and I've never been able to feel like a mother. I have always been something else, first. I think I’m supposed to consider this a real 'Win’ for womankind. I shared my first baby's 3 weeks’-worth of vacation-pay-masquerading-as-maternity-leave with my mother-in-law who had come to stay in my home to help, so I was a hostess and a daughter-in-law before I was a new mom and wife, and then I was back at work to continue to be the primary provider. I shared my second baby's disability insurance-covered first 6 weeks with my in-laws and trying to write a commissioned full-length stage play before I was back to my “real job” earning the steady paycheck in our family. I don't know what it feels like, to be a wife and mother even though I know I am one. Breadwinning—a source of privilege, and pride, yes; but I don't think I will live to forgive myself for not having made sure that I at least had the choice to focus on being a mother first, for even the littlest while by choosing a partner who considered doing so to be important. I am still taking my maternity leave: in the two minutes I steal to sit in the rocking chair with my four year-old—smelling her flowery little girl hair, before night sets on dinner still needing to be made. Or in the glimpses I get of my 7 year-old son's gappy grin when it's just him and me walking to the car after he's spent the last hour of the day after school, tucked away in a spare cubicle so I can just make it to 5 o'clock. These are the only moments I've really had to be the mother others are, all day and every day. The only moments I have to be the mother I wanted to be; and it hurts.
I have found that it is impossible to be the primary financial provider and a mother, without something giving out. It gives out by way of either spending too much to outsource the cooking and cleaning and childcare, or in our children taking the hit in sub-par care and being up to their eyeballs in activities and screens because both parents are trying so hard to do everything; and we all know how well that’s working out. Single moms (you know — the ones who make up 63% of the famous 40% of “breadwinning moms”) have known this trade-off for basically ever. Or, it finally gives out in the pain of divorce being less than the pain of giving up the motherhood you’d longed for your whole life, to your own husband and watching him make a mockery of it.
For, you see—what's funny, and not in the “Ha Ha” way—is that I used to believe in feminism, and I am still democratic, progressive, and liberal-leaning. My belief in my own abilities was much greater...and much less realistic before I knew that working full time and having young children to raise well is like trying to put 15 pounds in a 3 pound box. It is putting three full days’-worth of responsibilities and tasks into the time of one. Stay-at-home moms lament nothing ever getting done, and it never does. Now imagine professionally working 40 hours in addition. For every one thing that’s fallen off of the mom’s-at-home plate, there are five things that fall off a working mom’s plate, and it’s a constant struggle to decide which is going to be the one thing that gets picked up.
Unfortunately for literally everyone, the children who grow into our adults are only seldom chosen as the thing that gets picked up—out of simple necessity—and we are reaping the rewards in mass shootings and entire generations who need their weighted anxiety blankets to sleep.
I know what it must have felt like, for the women of the 1950’s who felt trapped in their role at home, because I am trapped in mine outside of it due partly to wages that have plateaued since the late 1960s when—interestingly—2nd wave feminism flooded the employee pool, and partly because my husband had internalized women being the primary providers, which was unbeknownst to me until there were children to support, and which is at his great personal advantage in free time since he is an admittedly lousy homemaker (as are some women), my domestic callings and perceived obligation (because no one else will), to do what is also real work be damned. I can’t say I really blame him; women have had free reign to take advantage of men in similar ways for centuries. It is why there was Bedazzling and it is why today there is the Cricut. Men have never cared about plastic gem embellishments or die-cut scrollwork for scrapbooking. As someone who’d like to sit and Cricut while my husband works a job he may very well not absolutely love, and as is the arrangement in still a whopping number of households and at which no one blinks an eye because the wives get up from their Cricut to have dinner on the table and the house picked up, too—I think it’s nearly as self-serving as the snowboarding my husband reserves much of his time for; but you’d be wrong if you think he bookends it with baking and dusting and looking up enriching early childhood activities for the next playdate, and nor would I really want him to—if I’m being an honest heterosexual who wanted the house & kids, myself, to start with.
He’s a wonderful dad, as is the refrain in many households where the partnership stops and the confusion and wanting more of a complementary relationship begins. He just knows he can not be the domestic one and not be the money-and-benefits one. Why? Because I want to take care of my home and family, I’m good at it (when I have the time to be), and because I’m supposed to want to also be the money-and-benefits one—being a smart, capable, and proud woman, and because I have to, when there is no other choice save for divorce; relationship status having been rendered a moot point. To say anything else would be a betrayal to my sex, and he knows it. Marital interdependence, archaic and offensive—its complementary workload balance and calculable time-tested success, no matter.
Maybe all of this makes me wrong, and I know I am not everyone, but I think there are more of me than there are those that have to admit it.
I’ve become a red-tinged traditionalist by my inverted marriage. A marriage which I don’t think would have been excused—its imbalance seen as precious and empowering, today; and I don’t think that I would have been made to feel awful about wanting to be present for my home and family—before 1960s feminism.
I hate that I can’t be in full support of feminism, being—you know, a woman and all. I know that it has won many necessary freedoms, but the loopholes it’s opened in the process have stolen my peace of mind, my time, and my choice—which I think was its opposite intent; and I am not alone in feeling this way
I'm tired of being told I am supposed to destroy my family if I seek to better support them extraneous to a paycheck. Though you, my progressive stay-at-home friend, want to make me feel like I am alone and horrible even as you read this from your phone, perched at the park without fear of a co-worker walking by to dump their busy-work on you, and with your house tidied, and dinner prepped and in the crock-pot to be ready to eat way before it's anyone's bedtime leaving you the energy to read your daughter as many feminist bedtime stories as she wants: fulfilling a role that often makes accidental sense, and is as unconsciously slipped into as easily as a pair of yoga pants when time begins to shrink and childcare costs begin to grow. But for the rest of us, it would be an utter luxury to not have to fight for what up until now has been known as a natural choice and an honored proclivity, to all of our benefit—which we have collectively lost our grasp of it, as being.
Here's the rub: Democracy and supporting our kids, families, and homes are not mutually exclusive. And you secretly know it, which is why you are at home. But our country is doing a terrible job at it, so it comes down to the choices we make as people and as parents. Here's where I really color outside of the lines: I think if you valued your work and contributions as a stay-at-home mom and encouraged others to, as well (instead of this, “women can do it all” baloney)—we'd do a better job funding quality early childhood programs, and offering living wages so both parents don't have to run themselves ragged beginning from Day 1 of parenthood, and maybe we'd even find ourselves with some paid leave. Because what you do is important, too.
I, personally, think what you are doing as a Stay-at-Home Mother is one of the highest expressions of feminine power, to choose doing one very, very important job so you can do it well. I hope your children are empowered to identify and make the choice to be the best version of themselves they can each be, rather than to be all they can be, all at once; whichever direction that may take, and that we learn to value the work of growing children and the role of Home, again. The time to show your children the big picture— in one frame—is now. It is so easy to squander it when you are busy at work, Mama.
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Carisa Peterson is a mother of two, a worker bee, and a published writer and produced playwright who writes in the wee hours from her home in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. Her creative work can be seen on McSweeney’s, The Wisdom Daily, Her View From Home, The Refresh, Real Mom Daily, Elephant Journal, and in the successful 4 week-run of Curves Ahead at Breckenridge, Colorado’s Backstage Theatre (2015). In fact, she’d probably have enough time to get everything done if she was up cleaning house at midnight instead of writing; and her personal essays about work-life balance and family dynamics tend to make just about everyone —whether they be at home or in the professional workplace — mad. She enjoys doodling topiary trees in her spare time. Follow Carisa @LynnoType, see her on Facebook, or visit www.carisapeterson.com.