Thursday, September 20, 2007

The great divide

Dutch from Sweet Juniper (in my list of links, over to the right, click on it) put up an awesome and thought-provoking post the other day about his family's, um, discouraging attitude toward his staying home. It drew, last I checked, 67 comments. Obviously this is an issue that's not going away among parents, even as I see more and more willing to make the arrangements that work best for their families, instead of stuff themselves into some traditional mold that does not fit. Even my friend Brett, the Republican, stays home with his sons now (and who told me, when we were discussing it as he and his wife were making that decision, "I don't know, it just seems so...liberal.")

If we could handle it, Paul would sooooo be the stay-at-home parent. He is more patient and lots more fun than I am. However, I have a job (freelance writer) that can and most frequently is done from home. My profession is not especially well-paid, and I probably could not match Paul's salary and benefits with full-time work of my own. Our plan is, when both kids are in school and/or we feel comfortable with a more extensive daycare situation, I'll shoulder the burden of a full-time job and he will begin launching his therapy practice. For a lot of reasons including licensing and health insurance, that's not feasible right now.

I find myself very muddled about the stay-at-home/work-outside-the-home debate. On the one hand, despite the pathetic pay available to me if I were to go back to work full time, our finances would be a hell of a lot smoother if I worked (Attention readers--from here on out to avaoid driving myself crazy, I am goingt o use the term "work" to mean a paid job outside the home, and "stay home" to mean not work for pay. Not trying to lob grenades in the mommy wars, just trying to avoid driving myself nuts).

On the other hand, the idea of dropping Maggie off at a daycare 40 hours or more a week? Yikes. Especially having had to do so when she was just three months old? Nope, not happening, I will eat a LOT of ramen to avoid that. Not so much because I think it's bad for her --although I do, and if this country had halfway decent maternity leave policies parents would not be forced into these awful decisions just to keep their jobs -- but because it would be bad for ME. We tried for a long time for this child, and longed with everything we had to be parents. Now that we are, I want to be the one who soothes her to sleep at naptime, who listens to the running commentary on all things letter-and number related. I know that the vast majority of childcare workers are gentle, loving and kind and generally regard their work as more than just "a job." Maggie's teachers are all enormously patient and fun and very, very important people in her life. Ihave no qualms leaving her with them, and I don't think daycare is bad inherently. But it's bad for me.

I'm as surprised as anyone that I feel like this. When Paul and I were discussing marriage, and how we each thought an ideal marriage and family life would look, I adamantly said "I am NOT staying home. I want to work, I need to work." And I meant it. My own mother was a stay-at-home mom for much of my childhood and was one of those people who did it because it was done, not because she actually enjoyed it. I was sure I would be that kind of mom too, that needed to work in order to be a better mother in all aspects of the job.

Surprisingly I am not. I think that has a lot to do with becoming a mother at 34, when I'd already had a chance to spread my wings and do things professionally I was proud of, versus having my first child at 24 with exactly one year's work in a low-prestige job like my own mother did. I've often said of motherhood at this age that I feel like I'm not missing out on anything--I had my fun and my All About Me years, now I am finally ready to make my life about someone else for awhile.

I've often said I have a foot in both camps. I work, and what I do is meaningful and important to me and I really really want to do a good job and succeed and someday go back and do this full time again (or do something else, maybe, since my favorite thing is writing for newspapers and they aren't doing so well in these parts). I'm so lucky to have a job I love, and even more lucky it can be done from home.

That being said, not everybody wants to be home all the time, and that's OK. It's completely possible to be a great, involved, loving, fun parent and have a job besides. I have friends who do it, and I have a whole new level of respect for those friends who work outside the home now that I have experienced the juggle to a smaller degree myself. And of course, lots of people can't afford not to work. I'm one--even the measly income I bring in from freelancing means we can buy groceries and Maggie can have shoes.

Here's what DO have a problem with--people who bemoan how they "have" to work, how they wish they could be home, but it's just! so! expensive! to live where they do and they need both incomes. But -- they are driving BMWs, they shop at Nordstrom for themselves and God forbid anything, even pajamas, touch their darling's body that isn't from Gymboree or the Gap or the astronomically priced baby boutique in the tony suburb where their 3,500 square-foot house is located. These people don't need to work, or want to for their own sense of identity and competency. They work for materialism, for status, to show off what they have. That's the only working parent I don't have respect for --that claims a desire to be home but refuses to make the simple and in their case SMALL lifestyle changes it would take to do so. If keeping up with the Joneses is a value for you, at least have the balls to own it and admit that's why you work. Don't bemoan your need to work while flicking your eyes critically over another child's Target outfit and gulping your second Starbucks of the day.

I know people like this and it pisses me off. It just makes working parents who are doing it for damn good reasons that have nothing to do with making payments on the Beamer look bad and parents who stay home and have cut back their lifestyles to do so feel like off-the-grid back-to-the-land whackos. And in some ways it's a double slam to have that attitude --moaning that you wish you stay home bcause isn't that how all "good" parents feel? and yet slamming those who choose to do because God forbid you have to live like THEM.

One of the things I tell myself about parenting a lot is that there are relatively few ways to irretrievably fuck it up, and lots of ways to do it well. Most parents, even the materialistic ones, are just trying to do their best for their children. I would love to come to a place where we can all acknowledge all work, whether that be lawyering or teaching or managing a restaurant or raising your children, has value. Where that work tradionally done by women is valued economically and socially as much as that done by men. And where everybody feels validated though their choice, not marginalized as a boring housewife or vilifed as "letting someone else raise your kids."

Kumbaya, anyone?


apt said...

Oh, LORD, Kumbya!
Nice post. The Sinkis have been looking at budgets and figuring out cuts we could make to reproduce again, and have one of us at home. When he said, "you know, a lot of the vegetables you buy are expensive..." we had to stop.

pnutsmama said...

preach it, sister!

i often think how much better pnuts daddy would be with her at this phase of her life- he too is more fun and patient with her than i will ever be. someday i hope we can both work part-to-full-time and find a happy medium doing the at home stuff as well.

i so hear you on people who live outside their means and complain about having to work. i believe the term i have for them is "shut the f up." either stop spending money on shit and stay home, or just admit that you prefer to have someone else raise your little accessories-i-mean-kids. that's not to say i don't mind folks who are just happier not staying home- just be honest about it! there are plenty of days i miss working, too. just don't blame it on your finances. or i will sit your ass down and give you a stern lecture on preferential option for the poor, and Catholic Social Teaching as a whole. don't get me started.

i'm only a few years younger than you, and also feel that i did the whole "mary tyler moore" bullshit in my 20's. now i'm happy to know that world exists without me, for all those new 20 somethings to get chewed through the machine. when my kid(s) are old enough, i'll mommy track my ass into a classroom and find my path there. they say one of the worst thing for Xers is the lack of any job security, but i find the fluidity of choices refreshing, and try to ignore the horror of zero financial security.

m said...

I feel like I could have written this post. And nothing drives me more crazy than people who are crazy-materialistic who bemoan the 'fact' that they can't afford to stay home, even though they really want to.

We live quite frugally and I'm trying to get my freelance career rolling a bit stronger before our second one emerges (February), but I'm also very happy doing what we're doing and where we're at.

Kevin has said he'd love to be a SAHD and maybe, a bit later, he will be. We've decided to lived fluidly, adapt as need be. It's been working well for us so far.