Published in Motherhood Magazine, 2018
Since our children were born I’ve been engaged in the most collaborative, uncharted, and dynamic project of my life. Choosing to stay home with our twins means I’ve had the privilege to dedicate myself to the foundational work of our species—the rearing of our young to become good caretakers of each other and our planet.
So why does this momentous job sometimes feel isolating and under valued? Perhaps because making home and raising kids has no economic marker of success, or that children don’t yet have a pre-frontal cortex developed enough to make the connection between our sacrifice and their well being. There’s also feeling cut off professionally and artistically, and to top it off, there’s that nagging and endemic lack of time, so hard to describe to those sans kids…
I didn’t know I’d be a stay at home mother. I didn’t even know there was an acronym for us.
But when I was very pregnant and visiting childcare I could not imagine leaving our babies with others. So we didn’t. Of course I speak from the privileged perspective of an almost white, middle-class, college educated, heterosexual partnership where I did indeed have the choice to stay home. Not that going from two incomes and no kids, to one income (and occasional freelancing) and two kids, was a financial breeze—but for us it added up, in that bumpy road type of way.
I recently added a tower to a haphazard collection of old tattoos, a little flag is perched on top with the word Stille, which means quiet in Norwegian. When I remember, I add ten drops of Good Mood extract in my morning water—please oh please I pray, little triggers melt away.
Thing is I ended up a teeny bit sensitive with the whole stay-at-home-mother predicament. As an outspoken Brazilian immigrant married to a mild mannered Midwestern Norwegian we gotta meet in the middle. My conscientious progressive partner and I talk about it all, but it’s hard not to feel a faint whiff of the 50’s when you’re the woman who stays at home and the husband supports the family.
Too much baggage in that.
I’ve found myself dropping hints of the invisible intricate home management duties, you know, the behind the scenes calendar-coordination, emotional-health & intellectual-nurturing, staying connected to family, groceries, extra curricular plans and rides, meals & lunch boxes, cleaning, holidays, teacher notes, pajamas, mend pants, new shoe sizes, homework, library, doctors, laundry, vacations, manage the stuff everywhere, the endless non-toxic research, and then… repeat.
In the last month of my gravity-defying twin pregnancy I‘d visibly startle folks as I walked about. A woman at a bus stop once yelled “girl, you the mother ship”. That’s right. Still the mother ship. But now I got a mental load, which is the name for this busy mind chatter. As it is primarily the mother load in a heterosexual framework, stay at home mother or not, mothering and the roles we fall back on do not yet feel equitable. I can only hope we’re raising our boys and girls to challenge it all.
This energetic idealistic Mama flailing about far away from a support network of family and old friends, at times feeling like she’s fallen off the map, no longer part of some generational zeitgeist—even as I cling to feeling content, with an inner fortitude from a deeper sort of purpose—I can’t ignore that some of this perceived devaluation has to do with the culture around motherhood. It’s not all in my head.
The US ranks near the bottom when it comes to paid maternity leave, and not much is done to provide for part-time work and career paths that truly allow taking time out for motherhood. Mother labor is yet to be calculated in any official economic index, there’s no unemployment insurance to help with transitions after a divorce, no worker’s compensation if injuries occur, no Social Security benefits—even though such benefits are earned by housekeepers or nannies performing similar work. The list goes on as you know, with no universal healthcare or universal high-quality prekindergarten programs to name a few.
I don’t argue for stay-at-home mothers vs working mothers—each woman’s context is unique—but I’d like to point out that in either scenario we have no civic structure (or robust cultural support) for the job of overseeing the health and wellbeing of our families.
James Heckman, a Nobel winning economist at the University of Chicago, argues that the first few years of life play a critical role in shaping future emotional, cognitive, and intellectual skills. Children who get consistent, nurturing care are more likely to succeed in school, avoid trouble with the law, and have productive lives in the workforce “that pays dividends to America for generations to come”.
If monetized from the perspective of real priorities, as Heckman argues, motherhood would be seen as a truly fundamental and indispensable to the progress of our world. Right?
I understand that I’ve struggled to redefine my worth because mothers are not yet recognized as productive citizens creating an essential public good. How do you evaluate such life’s work?
Part of what has kept me sane is to have seized this phase and made it my own. More and more stay-at-home mothers reinvent themselves in a self-granted sabbatical where priorities can be reassessed and other interests pursued. Of my stay-at-home mother friends many have learned completely new skills, started home based businesses, shifted careers, while others renegotiate past careers so that they may continue to be present in their children’s lives.
In my own motherhood trajectory I’ve seized small chunks of “free time” to edit an old documentary, write again, find grants for new projects, volunteer, freelance, and be more civically engaged. But above all I was able to stumble about while learning to be the mother (and partner) I would like to be, setting the tone for a peaceful and compassionate home. It’s messy emotional work—yet I’m deeply grateful.
I’ve also found meaning in making home, with altars of treasures we’ve collected in walks, things their little hands picked up years ago, framing the drawings, hanging the photos and art from old friends. Pulling out vinyl, spreading the books, looking at their big eyes to just marvel at life. Finding the rhythm that works for us, a non-punitive non-screaming non-condescending respectful flow.
Failing, and trying again.
I look forward to when motherhood is seen as an essential contribution, no matter what shape it takes in our lives, and I am glad to have been available for my children’s early years. But as I now seek more consistent yet flexible work I find that the more creative engagements are few and far between.
There are many stay-at-home mothers ready to contribute financially in a predictable manner without feeling like we have to give something up, something as profound as parenting well. Once we look at the time spent at home with children as an enriching and critical aspect of the human experience, alternate job arrangements will be flooded with qualified and eager candidates. In the spirit of helping advance this most needed cultural shift I have proudly added critical skills gained as a mother to my own resume.
Mother time management is stellar. We have years of conflict resolution under our belts. We’ve been daily nurturers of social skills and effective schedules. Let us work from home when children are sick, or be able to volunteer in the classroom and pick up kids up from school. Offer consistent and generous time off in the summers, and create positions for mothers to work remotely—we tackle competing priorities with dogged efficiency.
We’re a responsible and committed demographic, and a new frontier for the creative economy.
So onward then, to model a home that is the responsibility of both parents, as we grapple with finding our place. To model the involvement it takes to shift structures so we are all served—all parents, all children.
To model dialogue, reflection, and a mother who stayed home on her terms. And finally, to model a mother who stands up for a culture that honors family (whatever family looks like to you), and for work that honors parents.
I haven’t yet figured out how to truly lessen the mental load, but I am trying. Today for example, as I finish this essay, I finally delegated the vacuuming. But then again, that’s just delegating, it’s still my mental load. What I am certain about is that motherhood is not a gap on my resume.
We add value. Invite us in.
(Carolina Pfister, 2018)