Motherhood, insanity and everyday life.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

What Do I Do?

I’ve been a stay-at-home mom for 4 ½ years. Prior to that I was working about 30 hours per week, having scaled back from full-time work. It was a tough transition, not because the pay was a little less, (um, can you say paycheck to zero in no time at all?) but because I had to get my rhythm back. I had to structure my so-called “career” as a full-time homemaker. (If you’re a parent to anyone under the age of 10, that last sentence meant absolutely nothing. You have no need to figure out what you’ll do with your days because they go zooming past you at 5,000 miles per hour with little time to breathe.)

My situation was a little different. My kids were in high school and elementary school. They were starting to become at least a little bit self-sufficient. And yes, at many points, I was wondering why I was choosing this time of my life to step off the career carousel. But sometimes life changes at odd moments and you decide that you need to move in a different direction. This is what I did.

But back to the challenge of transitioning. When I first decided to “stay home,” I had lovely dreams of organized closets, gourmet meals and charming homespun hobbies. Outside of learning to knit...badly...absolutely none of that came true. In fact, I was barely able to finish laundry before everyone ran out of underwear. I can’t explain it, but I had no idea how to do this – manage a home. My children, who had grown up with a mom who went into the office every day, would come home after school and ask the dreaded question: “So, what did you do today, Mom?” I was speechless. What did I do today? It is still my most hated question. And it goes to the heart of being a full-time homemaker without young children. In fact, my OB/GYN asked me that question at my last appointment, after I proudly told him that the children that he delivered were nearly grown up. “So, Karen. What do you do all day?” I have to tell you, I was kind of peeved. He was questioning the credibility of my existence as a homemaker and I couldn’t respond, except to say: “Well, I’ve taken up tennis.” And since Venus and Serena have nothing to worry about, that didn’t seem to impress him at all.

It made me wonder why it is that we stay-at-home moms feel the intense need to validate our existence. We make life easier for our families in such small and covert ways that sometimes we forget what it is that we actually do. According to a recent study, American mothers would earn $134,121 for the work that they do at home. I think that sounds great, but unrealistic. What stay-at-home moms have always known is that our work is simply not quantifiable and much of the luxury of being home is simply being available, when Suzy is sick or when Billy’s has to stay late at school and needs a ride home or when Tommy’s class is going to the museum and needs a chaperone. The value is not so much in the doing as it is in the being. Still, we Americans look for results....impressive anecdotes and stories with which we regale our friends, neighbors and former co-workers when we meet for lunch. We are defined by our jobs and I have a job that defies description.

After 4+ years, I finally feel like I know what I’m doing, whatever that is. Some days I’m picking through nasty laundry, sometimes I’m roaming the aisles of the supermarket, some days I’m driving around for hours and still others I’m photocopying worksheets for teachers at my daughter’s school. Practically nobody would really pay for these services and yet for me, they’re what I do. They now feel as comfortable as my old shoes. The only problem is that, like everything else in life, they’ll change. The school will change, there will eventually be less laundry and shopping for two will take just minutes. And then, once again, I’ll have to figure out the answer to that question: What do I do?


At 11:29 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I always enjoy it when you peek inside my mind and write about say it so much better than I ever could.

At 12:19 PM , Blogger Shannon said...

I feel like that too, once my youngest goes to school, I would really like to be 'on call' for school stuff, and sick days and laundry. Im hoping that Hub will either get a really nice promotion or we will magically transport to 1950 where this wouldnt be an issue.

At 1:32 PM , Blogger Dak-Ind said...

greetings from michele!

this post is so much like how i feel sometimes. when my husband gets home from worki often find myself looking around the house telling him " i cleaned it today, i swear i did". with two boys, one a teen adn one a baby, my house seems to dirty up right behind me and i see dishes in the sink from lunch and indys biscuits rubbed into powder in the carpet adn i ask myself (after the 12th vacuum of the day" what do i do ? where does the day go? wat is he doing home alread? why did i quit my job??

At 10:27 PM , Blogger Katherine@Raising Five said...

You hit it on the head: our value is in the being, not always in the doing. Children (of all ages) spell love T-I-M-E. We do a disservice to our kids if all we do is fill our families' lives up with activities so that we can feel "valuable." What a privilege to offer our selves, not just our services. A novel thought.

At 11:42 PM , Blogger Marisa said...

I'm not a mom, but I "get it", what you do and how important it is. I just have to applaud you because I've been saying for years that the more "self-sufficient" adolescents need their stay-at-home moms just as much as the toddlers, if not more.

And because of what you do, we are guaranteed to have at least 3 more wonderfully productive members of society. Thanks.

At 7:32 AM , Blogger Sandy said...

I still work part time and I parent two little ones, but I do understand and indentify.

I'm not sure it's a at-home thing as much as it is a cultural thing. I think as a adults we're conditioned to frame our value in terms of our accomplishments -- and typically those end up being career related. When we put aside that part of our lives we sometimes struggle to find the way to quanitify our value.

I tend to like the reply, "Today I kept my kid's alive, my house in semi-order and the world a little better for both."

michele sent me over this morning.

At 9:17 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was asked yesterday at the eye doctore "Do you work?"

I said no but I should have said "YES, from dawn to bedtime!"

At 9:28 AM , Blogger Sue said...

Hey Karen, here via Michele's today. I have often wondered what I would do if I could be home alone all day everyday. I have never NOT had a job so it isn't something I would know. I would probably feel like you though -- lots of visions but reality harder than it seems.

At 10:56 AM , Anonymous Anne Glamore said...

You pretty much summed it up. Great post.

At 11:03 AM , Blogger Yo Tambien Te Mando Besos said...

Hi Karen,

Thank you for visiting my blog via Michele. I just wanted to say that I loved your blog! I have always felt so distant from my mother and the way she does things and lately I have really felt bad about it. I think we should be friends and we are not so I'm working on it.
Reading your blog makes me realize that bein a stay-at-home-mom is so much more than just doing the laundry and cooking. You have opened some doors in my mind, doors to communicate with her that I never thought of before. Thank you!

At 11:46 AM , Blogger Zephra said...

Nicely put.

At 12:18 PM , Blogger Carmi said...

I think society is so fixated on quantifying everything that we lose sight of the meaning of things.

For example, when people ask me what I do, I sense they're often trying to pigeonhole me. Where do I rank in the pecking order of life? Do I earn enough money? Drive a nice enough car? Live in a home in the right area?

Translated to work, the phrase "what did you do today" is often answered with deliverables: I finished X articles, did Y interviews and had a couple of other pieces published. Sadly, the only ones that matter are the ones that are monetized. If I billed, good. If not, not so good...maybe tomorrow will be better.

Yet the soft stuff, the fact that I played dolls with my daughter, called my parents to say hi, read a couple of articles because they seemed like fun reading...well, everyone discounts that.

My strategy: ignore what everyone else says and answer the little voices inside you that say you've successfully built a life of quality and substance for yourself and your family. Everything else matters not a whit.

At 12:56 PM , Blogger Robin said...

Thank you for writing this...When I went to working part part time, my kids were in or nearing their teens and independent, but I have found that this is the time that is TRULY most important to be home for. I am SO glad that I chose now, cuz who knows what kind of messes they'd get themselves into. I get the same questions from my kids and husband...what did YOU do all day? When I get irritated, I follow the route of an old joke...husband comes home and the house looks like a tornado hit it, and asks, My GOD! what happened? So the wife says, you know all the times you came home and asked, what do you do all day? Today I didn't do it!

At 2:23 PM , Blogger Juliabohemian said...

I guess you could sit down and write some short term and long term goals, figure out what your expectations are and set out a schedule to accomplish it. Go get involved in something that you always wanted to do but didn't because you were too busy with the kids. Do you have your degree? Go back to college. Get your masters, get your PhD. You get the point. I realized that I had "nothing to do" (not really nothing) as a stay at home Mom and decided to go back to school.

There are days that my husband asks me what I did and the honest answer is "nothing". But, the truth is, I made it through the day without killing my kids. Isn't that enough?

At 9:52 PM , Blogger margalit said...

I've been a SAH and now I'm a WAH part time mom. When I was a total SAH mom I often did what seemed to be nothing all day. My day would just go by in a flash and I couldn't think of anything tangible that I did because I didn't value the housework part of being at home. Then I hired a cleaning crew, and started doing volunteer work and helping out a bit at school, and all of a sudden I found some value in what I did. It was MY issue, not societies.

Now I'm working part time at home, professionally blogging. Yeah, someone has to do it. I feel like I spend enough time 'working' on my professional blogs that I can rightly say that I work, and I get paid to work, but now that I'm working, I'm feeling guilty that I'm having so much fun doing what I do.

You see, I can't win with myself. I'm my own worst enemy when it comes to validating my life.

Here via Michele

At 6:30 AM , Blogger Aginoth said...

Hi Karen, Michele sent me today.

Housekeeping is one of the hardest jobs, always something more to do.

At 8:04 AM , Blogger rashbre said...

I enjoy being strangely strange because I find it oddly normal. There is always fun in going forward.

Here today, via Michele.


At 11:42 AM , Blogger Prego said...

I see what you mean about exhaustion and drama. Good luck with the salary negotiations.


At 2:19 PM , Blogger Ciera said...

man---I have enough trouble taking care of myself!

Here from Michele's

At 4:53 PM , Blogger mar said...

I love your blog because you address everyday issues so cleverly. I haven't been out in the business world for almost 13 years now. I have a Master's degree in Economics and worked in banks all my life (it seems) Until my husband got transferred from Germany to Spain and our boy was 5. Working hours in Spain are long, you are not home before 8pm so it was a clear decision that I would stay home. After all, it was only for like 3-5 years. Right. We all love it here but I am completely away from the working world. I don't miss it anymore when I hear my husband's stories from his office. And then comes the question; what are you doing today? I could go on and on, I just want to tell you I love your blog ! Don't you ever stop blogging!

At 11:18 PM , Blogger OldOldLady Of The Hills said...

You put it soooo wonderfully Karen. I think so iften people don't get what mothers who stay home do...They Do Everythng! And it's funny, isn't it, just when you've got this SAHM thing down really good, as you said, it will change and then what? I have every confidence that you will rise to the new challange and "do" GREAT, when that time comes.
A Very Happy Mothers Day To You, My Dear Karen.

At 8:20 AM , Blogger Jean-Luc Picard said...

It took four and a half years, but here you are!

Michele sent me this way!

At 1:25 PM , Blogger Chas Ravndal said...

i guess i ran out on what to comment about this but I am dropping by to say Happy Mother's Day!

At 7:15 PM , Anonymous Grins said...

I changed my work around a bit to be able to work from home as much as possible. It means I can be there more for my high school student as well. I can see why some might question it, but I understand a bit why you might have made the choice.

At 12:30 AM , Blogger Marisa said...

I meant to stop by on Sunday to wish you a HAPPY MOTHER'S DAY! Hope you enjoyed it. I'm sure you did.

At 6:03 AM , Blogger Star said...

You will find your way as time goes on.By the way, that pile of laundry in the previous post looks very familiar. Don't you love how they try to shove it all into one load? A result of paying for use of washers at school. Michele sent me today.

At 1:42 PM , Blogger Jess Riley said...

It's an age-old question. What do we want to do with our lives? :) I wish we weren't defined by our jobs, but alas, we humans need familiar handles to give everything.

Hope you had a great Mother's Day!

At 6:23 AM , Blogger celebrating life and family said...

i am sahm of 4 and also have a daycare home so i know how it is not being able to get things done. Raising kids is the absoulte best job in the world!!

At 7:45 AM , Blogger panthergirl said...

There are days when I think I'd love to be home fulltime, because work just gets in the way of the things I want to do (like write). And other days when I think I'd lose my freakin' mind. But since I'm an only parent, I don't have the luxury (or dilemma) of making that choice.

Playing tennis would be part of my day, though!

At 6:35 AM , Blogger caramaena said...

A very thought provoking post.

Here via Michele's.

At 7:18 PM , Blogger Michele said...

Have I told you that are a wonderful writer? Yes, I think I have. Well, let me repeat it: YOU are a wonderful writer.

In fact THAT is one of the things you do. Yes, it is a blog, but it is still a place that you write. Simply answer, I am a writer, why do you ask?

I agree with Sandy that it is indeed a cultural thing. In fact, in some countries it is considered rude or unimportant to ask what someone "does." In fact, it is considered much more important to know what someone is reading, or what film they recently seen, or even what their opinion is of a current news story.

The value of someone should never be based on what they do during working hours. Some of the hardest working and most interesting women I know are "stay-at-home-moms."

And many of these women are writers, because, like you, they have a blog.


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