A Feminist Disappointment and a Pretty Good Mom

A mother tells why she's happy staying at home

In Her Words

Happy at Home

To my mother’s dismay, I don’t want off the mommy-track

– Sarah Lemanczyk

It’s hard to find your spiritual center in the bound lotus position when you’ve got a 3-year-old scaling over your back. Of course, then I know where he is – and that’s somewhat relaxing. Although there are still the other two.

I’m not sure how this happened to me. I used to have a relatively cool job producing public radio. I went to restaurants. I had a dry cleaner.

Now I have three small children. My stories start with “so, I was doing the dishes” and usually end with me cleaning up urine. And, aside from late nights when I grip my husband as if I were drowning and whisper that I’m a failure and life is passing me by, I’m happy.

No one is more surprised than me. Except possibly my mother. I come from three generations of working mothers. And my working mother never considered that she was raising a strong, powerful feminist woman who would use her ample brains and brawn making up songs about eating all your peas and shopping at Target.

But here I am. A feminist disappointment and a pretty good mom. And bless her heart, my mom – she’s really unsure of the path I’ve taken. Or rather, she thinks I’ve thrown my life away. I know this not so much from what she says but from the newspaper clippings she mails me about men who left their stay-at-home wives after 20 years of marriage, statistics about how much earning and earning potential I lose for each year I refuse to go back to the office and about how impossible it is to get off the mommy-track.

Which assumes that I’m anxiously looking forward to getting off of it. But mostly I’m wondering how old my kids will have to be before they can make it through all nine innings of a day game. Because the secret truth is I love being home. For me, of the perfect moments I get – the moments of reading until they’re all asleep on the sofa, laughing hysterically while we make cookies and a mess, watching them splash around in swimming lessons – the pleasures far outweigh the drudgery of sweeping up, picking up, doing laundry and constantly mopping up the bathroom floor because Home Depot doesn’t stock commercial-sized urinals.

These are the things that fill my days. That – and the two mornings a week when I send the kids to the crooked day care down the street so I can kick out a public radio essay on a quarterly basis. It doesn’t really pay for itself, but I do love the work and it keeps my mom at bay. Even if half the time I’m merely dropping the kids off to wander around the Goodwill of my choice scoping out BabyGap stuff on Half-Price Thursday. That’s right – when you’re a stay-at-home mom, you shop the Goodwill sale. You’d like to think I draw the line at secondhand underwear, but I don’t.

You’d also like to think that I’m not jealous of my friends who can afford to dress their children in new underpants. But you’re wrong there too. Just because I’m lucky enough to be able to choose a nonsustainable lifestyle doesn’t mean I don’t look at my friends and watch them rack up Peabody awards, trips to Costa Rica and unbelievably cute shoes with a green eye from time to time. And when those sweaty, panicky nights happen too often, when I grip my husband at 2 a.m. and pour my sorrowful fears over his groggy back, I think bad thoughts. I think: At least I’m the one tending to skinned-knees. At least I’m the one singing Hush Little Baby out of key. At least I’m the one living my life through my kids.

Because it’s not about the kids. The kids are fine. The mommy wars? They’re about the mommies.

They’re about egos and self-esteems, about happiness and guilt. About choice. It’s possible my mother is right – that I have thrown something tangible away. That I’ve made the wrong choice – and that’s when I blame my kids for my choice. It’s for them, for their immeasurable benefit that I forgo the office. But that’s a lot of hoo-ha, to use the technical term. It’s about me. Because aside from the loathsomeness of the playground, a swing-set-laden hell of moms in white khakis and lipstick at 10 a.m. mixing it up about tiny-tot urban tennis – aside from that – I love the endless stretches of time alone with the kids. It refreshes me, inspires me to do and be as much as I’m capable of. Making rice and beans for lunch, listening to Talk of the Nation, explaining that making mama scream by suddenly spraying the garden hose at her full blast inside the house is not really funny … even though it’s obviously hilarious. These things bring me peace and actually joy. Wet joy, but joy.

While my mother might be right about regret later (like she was right that professional juggling was not the correct career path for me) the best I can do is be happy now. Because whatever choice I make, I could be miserable later. So, not being miserable in the here and now feels like something.

It’s impossible for me to see the world as my mother did. I did not grow up hearing that if I happened to be pretty and a bit lucky, I could grow up to be a wife. Not only was I not barred from shop class, but I was actually required to make key-shaped wooden key holders in order to graduate from high school. Skirts were not mandatory in college – I was free to wear tights and cutoff men’s trousers to my 19-year-old heart’s content.

Like any good successive generation, I care not for the beliefs, sacrifices and achievements of those that came before me. So, the hard-fought choices of my mother’s second-generation feminism seem to me to be just as constricting as having no choices. If I should work, if it’s my duty as a well-educated woman to join the ranks of the work-for-pay crowd, if having no Excel spreadsheets before me means I am suddenly boring, out of options and prone to watching Montel Williams and catching flies in my slack jaw, then how have we, as women, really gained any freedom of choice for our lives?

Yes, I do worry about giving up the intangibles – money, fulfilling jobs, achieving my potential. But for me, there is balance in the here and now. Life is long; I do believe we can, as my mother so very wanted, have it all. I just can’t have it all in the same moment. In the tomorrows that follow, these dear children who can’t get enough of me will merely be unable to get enough of my wallet and chauffeur abilities. I will be untethered and, with any luck, without regrets.

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0 thoughts on “A Feminist Disappointment and a Pretty Good Mom

  1. I couldn’t agree with her more, but I find it sad that we even have to write or read about this I work/I don’t conflict because it still means that moms are undervalued and that women still buy into the idea that working outside for some stupid company/boss means more than the happiness of your family and yourself.

  2. Sarah, I found your story to be very interesting because I’m in the opposite situation–I’m a working parent with a mother who was mostly a SAHM when I was growing up and she doesn’t understand me!We’re all trying to do the best we can–while you’re worried about not using your brain to the fullest, I’m worried about the fact my employer is pushing me into a seven-day work week to weather out the recession, and that I’ll never see my son anymore. You chose the right path, and as your kids get older you can always freelance or do other things…good luck!

  3. Why do you consider yourself a “feminist” disappointment? I believe that a true feminist simply believes in equal opportunity and equal choice. You’ve made the choice that works best for you and your family — but the key is that you didn’t HAVE to make that choice — you could still be working. That’s what feminism is all about, in this day and age. That’s what our mothers fought for. How can you say “I did not grow up hearing that if I happened to be pretty and a bit lucky, I could grow up to be a wife” but then also say “I care not for the beliefs, sacrifices and achievements of those that came before me.” The reason you have this ability to make a choice — to stay home, to work — is because of those who came before us. It’s wonderful that you are happy at home — but I bet you wouldn’t be so happy if it was your only available path, and not a decision.

  4. I respect your choice though I, as a mom-to-be, want to continue to work. Truthfully, as women we are all so lucky it actually can be a choice for us now. Our mothers’ and grandmothers’ generation didn’t have the choice to stay home or work. That choice was made for them which is why I think there were so many unhappy mothers in those days.

  5. I think you are a very brave woman who must be very secure in herself and know what she wants out of life. To be able to fully embrace motherhood and not be concerned with the material things is a huge leap. There are a lot of moms who stay home who can embrace it because they are comfortable financially. to embrace it when you buy underwear at goodwill is admirable. good for you!

  6. Interesting piece. Once upon a time women thought they were staying home because of the kids–now they are staying home because they realize they don’t want to miss the time they have with their kids. What is important is that women have choices that society respects.

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