We wanted it. I reminded myself of that this morning. We wanted it. The dirty floor that only stays clean every morning for half an hour. The dusty shelves. The sweet little face coming to crawl into my lap, while smelling of an open sewer. Ok, I am really ready for this child to learn to use the potty. But the whole scene, the whole reality, even if we didnt know the stressors, and the surprises good and bad- we wanted it.
I dont think you can ever really know what you are getting into when you have children. Thats probably why so many of us see it as a clear line between being in the club and not. Its not purposefully exclusionary. People who have not had children simply cant and dont get it about kids. The time management, the responsibility, the stress, the guilt, the failures, the groundedness, the day to day subtleties. We didnt know the totality either before we had kids and we were well into our late thirties with four advanced degrees between us, and two bachelor degrees. We were not DINKS (double income no kids, if people still use that acronym), but rather WEMIS (well educated marginal incomes).
I was reading a series of essays and rebuttals this week regarding stay at home moms. One of the irritations I had was that I know two very smart, capable men who are stay at home parents. I also know two couples that use a blended approach- each works ¾ time, much of that at home, and they both handle childcare. None of us are rich, and everyone I know is a WEMI. I fully admit my life experience is anecdotal. I have trouble mapping on many of the points of view I was reading into my communal reality, these “expert” points of view which strive to express profundity and summarize a social phenomenon.
There is a popular critique that somehow stay at home moms have copped out. That we should be blamed for holding back other women, for reinforcing stereotypes. Little mention is made of the fact that on average, women still only make about seventy cents for every mans dollar when we work- regardless of position, or income level. One essay detailed the difference between stay at home parents today and those of fifty years ago, summarizing by saying a clean floor was her last priority, and she was ok with that. For many of us, having a parent provide early childhood care is a necessity and a luxury as well. We cant afford daycare, and the pre-school programs we so enthusiastically enroll our children into only meet a few days a week for a few hours at a time. We are also lucky that we are not having our feet held over a fire by government authorities to work or lose our children, and our lives- subsequently having to put our children into dubious situations while we work body and mind numbing jobs for minimum wages that wont cover diapers. Even extended families are a luxury now. Grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins- the stuff of legendary loyalty, strife, and support have gone the way of RVs and the global moving workforce. The very poor may have relatives near by, but those of us who are WEMIs may be caring for children as well as aging parents at the same time (we waited so long to have kids the distance in age between our children and our parents is the same for the very poor between four, even five generations).
I am not complaining, its just the facts. The choices we make to stay at home are not nearly as clear-cut as many of the writers I have read seem to think.
I also do not think stay at home parents can be categorized so easily into groups anymore. Just as some women who stay at home are more educated than those of fifty years ago, women do not feel the need (or guilt) to greet their suit wearing man at the door with a martini. The WEMIs I know all had jobs before they had kids, and male or female, chose to be a partner in the whole family process. Stereotypical roles simply do not work, and each family has to figure out what makes sense for them. Usually, that means a clean floor ends up being a low priority, included in the team-family barrage of Saturday cleaning.
The anxieties we suffer are more about preparing our children as best we can to get along in the world, get good educations, and be happy, balanced individuals who can fly from the nest and manage a checking account, bills, taxes, their bodies, social situations, read at the twelfth grade level, have solid moral character grounding, and problem-solve with strong core mental tool boxes that include three Rs as well as science, the arts, philosophy, and history. We worry about money, about our own health, and having stable, equitable communities at all levels. We also worry about mundane things, like getting enough sleep and if our pants make our butts look big (men too). We have the same problems our parents had, but we have significantly more social flexibility to meet those challenges as partners than at any time before. As Husband recently replied after a barb from his friend for liking the drink lemon drop during guys night, Do I look like a man who is insecure in his masculinity? His friend thought for a moment then said, No. No you dont. I dont think we need to worry about whether or not we fit into roles, represent our genders well, or are reproducing stereotypes that keep others down. When its important and explicit we do what we can to make the world a more balanced, fair place. Post-modern sociology has made it clear that the personal is political, and that the implicit, the subtextural, matters in the big scheme of things. Yet in our daily lives we do the best we can, and are revolutionary for simply doing things differently, trying to meet the challenges of parenting with as much creativity and honesty as we can.
We chose it. We wanted the knowledge of family. We wanted the day-to-day demands, the reality of having children in our lives 24/7. There are bigger sacrifices ahead, challenges, and surprises with this choice. We expect that. How we respond is something I cant forecast right now, but I do know the last thing we need is academic criticism, social constraint, or institutionalized religious guilt for things that dont matter. We all need support. We need to laugh, and have our sense of humor reinforced. We need others to know we are doing the best we can, and when we dont, we already know it. So back off analysts. No saints or sinners here, just parents trying to get along in life- put your energies into getting fair wages, parental leave, and nationalized early childhood education. Do something more productive than glamorizing or demonizing those who stay at home.
For a start, you can come on over and clean my floor.