Having just moved from Los Angeles to Boulder, Colo. with my husband and 2-year-old, I’m still getting into the groove of finding a new daytime routine for the kid and me. One recent morning, we were feeling out our new town at a local coffee shop when a middle-aged woman pulled a chair up to our table.
“Is this a special morning out for you two?” she asked.
“No,” I said smiling, wondering if I was about to be scolded for something or invited to join her church and/or cult.
“No? This is a regular thing you do?” she continued.
I didn’t know how to answer her. Was she asking if this is my life -- having coffee and muffins at 10 a.m. on a Tuesday with a toddler and her stuffed fox?
“We just moved here,” I said, not really answering her question.
“I didn’t know if you worked,” she trailed off and then interrupted her own ellipsis with, “I mean, of course you work!” She nodded pointedly at my daughter.
“Oh, I was working, but--” I said.
She immediately jumped in, “Well, you should do a ‘mothers morning out’ or something. That’s what I did. I never regretted staying home with my kids. I mean, I worked part-time, but still. Anyway, you’re doing great! You’ll figure it out!”
And just like that, she was gone. And I was left feeling stranger for it.
I’ve been a full-time working mom. I’ve been a part-time working mom. And I’ve been -- and currently am -- a stay-at-home mom. And I’m still not even sure whether working or not is the right choice for me.
I had always thought that if I had children, I would be a working mom.
“For women who want to stay home with their kids, that’s fine. But I need to be out there working and using my brain,” I said years before I was ever even pregnant. Man, I was such a dick, huh?
I like to think I’ve learned my lessons in life about a few things and am no longer a dick in certain areas. So allow me, if you will, to share my experience.
Don’t feel like you need to be my cheerleader.
A dad and his baby girl were playing at a park in our new neighborhood one evening recently, and he asked my husband, Brian, and I what we do for work.
“I’m in finance, and Jen’s just staying home with our daughter right now,” Brian said. I would have answered for myself, but I was too busy guzzling the plastic cup of wine I brought with me to the playground.
“Just so you know, there’s a lot more to it than just staying home, you know?” the dad said emphatically to Brian before turning to smile and wink at me.
Two things: 1) I know my husband, and I know that he really didn’t mean anything by saying “just” or “right now.” And 2) Guy I Just Met, I don’t need you to take up for me to my own husband.
There’s really no need to build me up with talk of how I’m doing so much more than just staying at home with my daughter: You’re a chauffeur! You’re a teacher! You’re a personal chef! You’re molding a young mind, for chrissakes! If you were getting paid for every single job you do, you’d be making a million jillion dollars a year!
You don’t have to do that. We can just talk like normal people.
We can drop the whole “soap operas and bonbons” joke.
I can’t believe this is something people still say in 2013. I actually had to look up what bonbons even are.
Regardless, if it must be said: I’m not at home with my feet kicked up watching TV and eating crap all day. However, I am working really hard to keep my kid alive, happy and healthy and keep the house running with some semblance of order.
On some particularly trying days with my 2-year-old, I’ve been known -- during naptime -- to eat my feelings, which taste very much like rocky road ice cream, and catch up on a little Bravo. This is not my life on a daily basis. Just like those days when I worked in an office and would fall into a k-hole of funny cat GIFs while eating miniature Snickers bars also weren’t the norm.
Don’t say, “You’re so lucky you have the luxury of staying home!”
I didn’t set out to be a stay-at-home mom. My decision-making process went something like this: When my baby turned 1, I went back to work as an entertainment reporter in LA, making a decent salary for a writer. After a particularly long week, during which I’d hardly seen my fam, I did some back-of-the-envelope calculations. After subtracting taxes and the nanny’s salary, I was taking home a whopping $400 a year. And that didn’t even account for gas getting to and from work. I felt like a failure. I was essentially making negative income to leave my child every day and write about Kim Kardashian’s latest tweets.
This is where some moms, I realize, would say, “I left my job and never looked back!” But I look back all the damn time. And yes, it is a choice, and I love my daughter more than anything. But it’s not about luck. And wiping someone else’s poopy bottom, crawling around on a restaurant floor picking up Goldfish, and scraping melted crayons out of the car’s upholstery are not luxurious activities.
Don’t assume my family is loaded.
My husband and I are comfortable financially. Not like sleeping-on-a-bed-of-money comfortable, but like not-living-paycheck-to-paycheck comfortable. Being a money manager, Brian’s pretty frugal, and never having been rolling in dough myself, I’m pretty conservative with cash, clipping coupons and always waiting until things go on sale. I am not a Real Housewife of Wherever, and I don’t have a nanny. I do not choose to stay home with my kid because money’s no object here at the Harper house.
When I told my then-therapist that we let our nanny go when I left my job, she incredulously asked, “Why?!”
She trudged on, “Obviously, you need to hire her back right away. You can’t just not have a nanny.”
Yeah, cutting out those therapy sessions was another way to save some money.
Buy me a drink and talk to me about adult stuff.
Or, rather, I’m totally happy to buy you a drink to make you talk to me about adult stuff. We do not have to discuss the latest episode of Dora the Explorer or the trials of potty training. In fact, I’d prefer if we didn’t.
I’m happy to listen to you talk about your boss or your annoying cubicle mate or how that one girl burned popcorn in the office microwave again (OK, obviously that’s a really lame story, and this only offers further evidence as to how much I need to hear about what’s really happening amongst the grown-ups these days).
As I learned in a sociology class, having quality friendships/relationships/a sense of community are the essential elements that determine the likelihood that we won’t kill ourselves (bright and sunny thoughts here, eh? I’m molding America’s youth all right). And I want to be your friend. I want to hear about what’s going on in your life and what’s important to you, and I know that the place you spend 40-plus hours a week is a big part of that. So don’t feel weird talking to me about it.
The Mommy Wars are over.
I realize they may not be over for some people, but they never existed for me. And you can be part of that movement, too. Working moms, stay-at-home moms -- I think we’re all pretty hard on ourselves and are often questioning whether we’re doing the right thing.
I mean, am I ever going to reach a point where I feel like I’m definitely on the right path for me? Am I ever not going to feel guilty for letting myself down, letting my career down or letting my kid down? Will I ever feel like I’m enough and what I’m doing -- or not doing -- is enough? My less-than-optimistic guess is probably not.
But I don’t judge a mom for working or for not working or a woman for having kids or not. The way I look at it (or try to on my best days) is that we are all doing the best we can. What if we walked around during the day always assuming that, yes, that other person is doing the very best she/he can? What if we all gave each other the benefit of the doubt?
I’m just guessing that the world might be a less dickish place as a result.