Lately I’ve been noticing a term that really should have been put to rest years ago: the “stay-at-home mom.” Even the most enlightened magazines and newspapers are still using this dismal moniker to refer to a woman who has chosen to raise her children, at least for a while, without working at a paid job.
For obvious reasons, not all mothers can choose this role. Things like diapers and baby food, toys and quickly-outgrown clothing cost money, and new parents may be in shock when they learn the sticker price of their bouncing girls and boys. Baby showers can leave them feeling flush with the initial outlay, but in my experience, those needs grow faster than a newborn moving from teensy onesies to color-coordinated outfits from Gap Kids, not to mention the cost of sporting equipment as soon as they move on from T-ball.
I thought I would work after I had kids. As a baby boomer, and a feminist, too, I had intended to put my master’s degree to good use. But my first pregnancy came as a Happy Surprise, just a month after I had settled into my new Colorado home. I figured no one would take me seriously if I went job hunting in maternity clothes. Back then, search committees were not as enlightened as they are today, whether from innate intelligence or the force of federal law. Bosses would pass over young married women “because you’re just going to get pregnant and quit,” and get away with it.
I loved my baby girl, and hated leaving her with a sitter even for a night out with my husband, feeling equally pulled by my desire to watch over my amazing child and my need to go someplace swell and play grownup. Besides, whenever we did go out on a date, all we talked about was her. We were exhausted, and smitten, and anxious about every step we took as new parents. In the end, I balanced my stronger-than-expected maternal urge with my husband’s just-high-enough salary, and chose not to work for seven years.
Even when I answered to the name “stay-at-home mom,” I didn’t spend all that much time at home. Sure, I cooked dinner every night, kept the dust bunny population relatively in check, and delighted in being there to witness the first steps of my daughter and then my son. I read to them on the sofa and pushed them on the swing set in the yard, and when they napped, I read my own books on that sofa.
Was I chained to my house, my home? Hardly. Oh, the places we went.
First there were the necessary destinations: grocery store, department store, drug store, mall. I remember well the time my son would not stop yelling happily from the grocery cart, “Ho Hos and Ding Dongs! Ho Hos and Ding Dongs!” I never bought that junk, but I was sure the other mothers thought so, and my shame ran deep.
Going to stores with children is a throw of the dice. When they behave, it’s fun. Otherwise, there is no greater cause for embarrassment. Once I left a cart full of groceries and drove home when one of them threw a tantrum. I learned that empty threats (saying “If you don’t stop, we’re going home!” while continuing to shop) don’t work. When they learned that mom meant business, the tantrums magically went away.
Then there were outings that were more fun: the pool, the museum, the park with the digger machines. (Ask them. Thirty years later, they remember.) Sometimes we met their dad in town for lunch at Pizza Hut. Other times, we went to the homes of my friends, all of whom had kids of their own. The kids played together while the moms got to bask in the luxury of daytime conversation with other adults.
I don’t judge mothers who choose not to work for money as lazy or noncontributing or any of the other epithets I’ve seen thrown at so-called stay-at-home moms. I know they’re not eating bonbons and doing their nails while their kids play in the street. Even when they are at home, they are much more likely to be cutting up sandwiches, reciting the alphabet, teaching the tying of shoes, bandaging boo-boos, and (not “or”) reading aloud stacks of books from the library. Oh, right. Add that to the list of outings: the public library.
I mean, really. Why do you think these moms have minivans full of baby and toddler seats? They must be going somewhere besides home.
When I started working, it was two nights a week plus Saturdays, so my husband could cover my absences. When my scary marriage ripped apart at the seams and I had to become a full-time breadwinner, I got my life back, but I did lose a babysitter. Daycare isn’t cheap, and not every child is ready to carry a key. They say it takes a village to raise a child, and it sure would have been nice to have family nearby to help me with that, but my parents were in Davenport, not exactly close enough for daily child care.
I used to think of my kids and me as the Three Musketeers – one for all and all for one. Luckily, I worked for a college, and terrific babysitters were easy to come by. With a few other helpful people (including a priceless neighbor who babysat for free) on our team, we made it through. I’m glad I was able to be at home, or away on a far-flung outing, with my children when they were little. These days? They’ve got my number and my email address. And none of us stays at home for long.