Where I’m at (Work)*

June 11, 2011 at 3:54 am (Parenthood) (, , , )

I have vowed against hesitated writing much about mamas who work** versus full-time mothering.  Not necessarily so much to avoid controversy, though there is that, but because so much has already been said.  I once picked up a book of essays on Motherhood and was bored to tears by how many of them focused on why they choose to work, or not.  A justification of their choice.  As if this was the most important parenting choice.  It absolutely isn’t.

Family is first shaped by the parents’ attitude toward parenting, the way they teach and guide their children, and what they choose to do together.

However, I’m now going to do exactly what I thought was boring, and discuss our decision to have two parents work, because it’s what I’ve been pondering and wondering and mulling for months, and well, it’s my blog.

Parents come up with endless varieties of childcare solutions while they work.  We have tried three- Mark at home while Heather worked, vice versa, and both parents working.***


Dad staying at home is certainly the least common of these.  What I loved about it: As a mama, I’m always going to be deeply involved in my children whether I work or not.  Generally fathers may or may not be.  Mark built a solid foundation in his relationships with his children by taking care of them so many hours when I wasn’t there to help/direct/judge/interfere.  He did “guy things” I’d never have done- standing in front of a recycling facility so long they came out and gave them free T-shirts, endless playground visits, experiments with dry ice, building projects.  Mark and I have Plenty of Issues with our different parenting styles, but he sure loves his children and can conjure up enthusiasm in fun learning projects like none other.

For me the biggest downside of working while he was at home was the lack of control over those hours.  Choose your paid childcare well, and you can say “please make sure he gets two naps” or “please don’t feed him junk food” or “it’s been working to get Auden not to hit Parker by responding to it with X”.  You can tell your stay-at-home-dad husband that, and he may listen… or he may not.  Second downside in our Mark-at-home arrangement- a pretty much continually trashed house.

For Mark the downside was lack of interaction with adults.  He’s not the type to go seek out other dads at home, and there aren’t many.

During the periods Mark was at home, I felt really stuck.  I can earn more, and we together wanted the boys’ care in the immediate family. We were first time parents.  We didn’t think anybody could care for them the way we would.  To him the daytime care fell.  He went to work when the boys got older, but then we had Greta, and childcare costs for three meant it again made sense for him to stay home.  But oh how I longed for it to be me.  How I ached for them some days.


When my company laid off the whole facility, I was overjoyed.  I wasn’t sure what I’d do longterm, but a severance payment meant I could stay home comfortably for at least a year.  I could earn a little cash taking care of a son of friends.  I was very optimistic about what I would accomplish, the difference I would make in my children’s lives. Let’s be perfect and blog about it too.

Reality set in slowly.  I remember the rest of that summer as fun.  School started, and we just felt rushed all the time.  Somehow there wasn’t enough time while they were gone for half-day kindergarten to actually accomplish anything.  And then I got pregnant.  I could’ve napped every day.  I started to.  I let Greta watch more TV than I ever would’ve let Mark let her without totally bitching at him.  I just felt behind behind behind, all the time.  So behind and so bad at the housework/paying bills/all the other American life maintenance crap that I felt I couldn’t just stop and play with the kids.  All the concentrating on kids I wanted to do just didn’t happen like I wanted it to.

Some days were fine, some days were great.  A very few came close to the idyllic days like I imagined.  Days that were like the days when we’re on vacation, and all we do is play together and cook meals and clean them up.  Somehow I thought staying at home would be like when we go stay in a little three room cabin.  It just… wasn’t.  Of course not.  We have activities (though I try to curtail them) and school and a big house and yard to maintain.   As I worked on dishes, or picked up, or put Willa to bed, I constantly wondered why I was so slow at all this, how I never had time to just relax with the kids.  Or relax period.  I even did a study to find out.  Over the years I’ve decided, yes, I’m probably slightly slower at some housework.  Yes, I probably like to sleep more than moms with perfect houses.  Yes, I have more children than the average.  But I’m not the only one who can’t keep it all up.  Many families live in squalor like us and just handle it better.  They get over it.

I know that’s the advice everybody gives new moms.  “Leave the laundry.  Hold your baby.”  That’s all well and good, and believe me I held those babies A LOT.  But eventually you run out of clean underwear and spend extra time running around finding pairs for six different people out of the dryer and random piles of unfolded laundry.  You can leave the dishes and read the kids an extra long bedtime story, and then go to bed because you want to be rested and not snappy at them the next day.  But then in the morning you have a disgusting mess on the dining room table that you need for breakfast.  And the kids are whining “I’m hungry” and you have to leave in 10 minutes, and “Damn it why didn’t I do this last night?”

Every single day, I’d tell myself a variation on “I’m going to catch up today and do x and y and z and then really spend some time playing with Greta because she’s been having a rough time”.  And then I’d actually only do x and maaaybe y and end up scolding Greta because she’d peed her pants for the 5th time even though I don’t even believe in scolding a child for peeing their pants but Goodness Gracious Child, you were a foot from the toilet.  The daily let down wore me down.  I was Burnt Out.

Bottom line- I just never ever ever felt good at being a stay-at-home mom.  And in life, it’s important to have something one is good at.

Two working parents:

I don’t mean I think I’m a bad mama.  I’m choosing to accept that it’s part of who I am to need time away from my children most days.  And to have the structure of leaving the house.  I’m not good at instilling that structure into my days myself.

I was dreading going back to work.  Even though I wasn’t so happy at home.  I worried about Willa and especially Greta.  I knew it needed to be done financially.  Mark pushed, but gently, for me to look for work.

But here’s what I’ve discovered after six weeks back at work.  Everybody’s happier.  Not just our checkbook.

For the males in the house, not too much has changed.  Still school and work.  They don’t see me after school, but they don’t seem to care.  Except for that Dad generally doesn’t let them watch one TV show after school like I did.  So, fine.

For Greta, I’ve seen a blossoming.  She’s more confident and speaks more clearly even to strangers.  She comes home and tells me all about the butterfly life cycle, and how she and “my best friend Romy” played.  She’s (finally!) not peeing her pants every day.  Only once has she seemed anything less than enthusiastic about going.  I think she and I had gotten stuck in a rut at home together every day.  And it makes a big difference that we found a preschool we really like.

For Willa, it’s harder to tell.  She seems to enjoy it just fine at her daycare.  But she did have a nursing strike.  Does she love it all day every day?  Probably not.  But I’m confident she’s getting attention and loving care.  Before there were honestly days I was so stressed she didn’t get the attention she needed from me.

And me, I’m happier.  Yes, it’s crazy tiring to get up at 5:30am to get four children and me ready and out to four different places by 9am and finally return home by 6:30pm.  I don’t like being New at work and the learning curve of procedures and figuring out who does what and all.  But I don’t feel like a failure at the end of every day.  Sometimes I feel smart again.  Sometimes it’s even fun.  Three times at work in the last weeks I’ve embarassed myself by laughing so hard I had streams of tears running down my face.  I can’t say that’s a burden.

Here’s the thing, and I wish I could’ve done this when I wasn’t working but I really just couldn’t seem to, never matter how hard I tried:

When I’m working, I don’t feel the same constant guilt about what needs to be done for our family, at home or errands or whathaveyou.  Even when I’m not actually working.  When I come home, I don’t automatically switch to the get-stuff-done-mode that I couldn’t switch out of as a non-working mom (or its alternative, not-getting-stuff-done-mode-but-feeling-extremely-guilty-so-can’t-feel-good mode).  I switch from Worker to just plain Mama.

I’m not going to really try to sell you the whole it’s not the quantity of time, it’s the quality line.  I do wholeheartedly believe children need LOTS of time with their parents.  They need one-on-one time and doing parallel projects at the kitchen table time and family dinner discussion time and just plain I’m here at the house if you need me time.  But do they need me 24/7?  No.  My time before and after work is pretty much concentrated solely on them.  It wasn’t before.  (Um, when do we do housework you ask?  Well, we do just barely enough.  Don’t surprise us with a visit.  Or actually, DO.  Just don’t judge us!)

I don’t regret ANY of the choices we’ve made about the times I and Mark have been at home, or now while we’re not.  They’ve rounded out our relationships as parents and children.  And now I know, as I didn’t at my last job, that for the most part working is good for me and our family.


*Not now of course.  I wouldn’t blog at work.  I have Fridays off.  Skippity yay!!

**Disclaimer:  By work, I mean employed work.  I’m not implying if you don’t have employment you don’t work.  I used to find it so tiring that people I talked to while “staying home” (except that one doesn’t actually end up staying at home) was quick to qualify “so you don’t work?” with “I mean, I know you work… of course taking care of four kids is work… I mean work outside the home… I mean you don’t work for pay…” fumble fumble with words.  I’d try to cut them off usually.  “I get it.  You’re not trying to belittle me here.  We all know kids are work.  Moving on…”

See the problem?  So for ease of use and to cut all this out, here:

  • work = earning an income, even if you happen to complete this work at home
  • at home = unemployed though I’m well aware you may not spend any more time at home than an employed person, and I certainly know IT’S WORK.

Enough jibberish?

***As brief a history as possible, just for the record:

  • Twin boys 0 to 4 months- Heather at home on maternity leave with lots of sisterly support
  • Boys 4 months to 2 1/2 years- Mark at home
  • Boys 2 1/2 to 3 1/4 years- In-home childcare
  • Boys 3 1/4 to 3 1/2 years, Greta 0 to 4 months- Heather at home on maternity leave
  • Boys 3 1/2 to 5 years, Greta 4 months to 22 months- Mark at home
  • Boys 5 to 7 years (when not at elementary school), Greta 22 months to 3 3/4 years, Willa 0 to 10 months- Heather at home
  • Boys 7 years- School (no actual change from last above), Greta 3 3/4 years- Full-time preschool, Willa 10 months- In-home childcare

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