Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The Stay-at-Home Elephant in the Room, Part I

I've known I would have to write this post since I decided to start the blog. I've dreaded it for the same reason I dread the question, "So, what do you do?" (which is a ubiquitous and loaded question in Washington, DC).

I am a stay-at-home mom. I realize the possible irony of this—a woman who gave up her job to stay home with her child while her husband works now writes a blog criticizing gender stereotypes. If you choose to be June Clever, you can't speak with authority on gender equality, right?

I have spent a lot of mental energy trying to convince myself that I should be comfortable with staying home, that caring for my child is a job. Sometimes, I succeed. Sometimes I feel like a kid ditching school--guilty, aimless, like I should be doing something else, be somewhere else.

It's like I can feel a world full of my younger selves watching me and judging me. I have distinct memories of saying, maybe ten years ago, that I couldn't understand how anyone could stay home. Isn't she bored? Doesn't she want something of her own?

And then I had a child in a city with long commutes and no family nearby, and I realized I might've been too quick to judge. After my maternity leave, I returned to work part time and then, after a few months, full time. A full day of work meant I left the house by 7:10 am (my husband took Jack to day care), got to work at 8:00 am, took a 30-minute lunch and two pumping breaks (during which I would often work), left work at 4:30 pm, picked Jack up at 5:30 pm, came home, fed him, bathed him, and put him to bed by 6:30 or 6:45 pm (and also woke up two times a night to nurse). My husband usually didn't get home until after Jack was asleep.

I quickly realized this was not what I signed up for. I liked my job less and less every day, and my meager paycheck almost disappeared once we started paying for five days a week of day care (almost $1,800 a month!). I never imagined that I would see my child so little, and that I would be trading my time with him for such unfulfilling days at work. Surely, it would be better for me to stay home. I could use my master of elementary education skills to make each day like a school for one. Jack and I could go have lunch with Dad anytime, so we both would get to spend more time with the child we loved.

It all made sense then, and it still makes sense now. But then there are stories like this one from the New York Times:

[In the United States] daughters of working mothers earned 23 percent more than daughters of stay-at-home mothers, after controlling for demographic factors, and sons spent seven and a half more hours a week on child care and 25 more minutes on housework.

If you read on in the story, the researchers define a working mother as anyone who worked outside the home before her children turned 14. I will definitely be back at work in few years. But this story bothers me because it reminds that I always thought I would be a working mom because I wanted my children to see me work. I never wanted them to think that the office was Dad's territory and the home was mine.

Have I just traded one form of guilt for another? Will I always worry that Jack won't help out enough with his kids or that my daughter won't earn as much money because I stayed home? More simply, will my life choices teach them the opposite of what I want them to learn?

I don't regret the time I've spent with Jack, or the time I will spend with Lady Baby (you can thank my husband for that hilarious nickname), but believing that my choice was the best one for our situation doesn't erase my guilt. It just opens up my mind to a thousand what ifs.

Which is why this is only Part I.

Coming up: Will I teach my daughter to be a bad feminist? Can I teach my son to be a man? Find out next time on Oh, the Iron Man.

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