When I got married the word wife followed me around for a while creeping me out around every corner. Not because I didn’t like being married but because of all the connotations and stereotypes associated with the word. These days, I love being Eliza’s mama, but I’m still struggling with the label stay-at-home mom.
I work from home 20 hours a week for a local nonprofit and I’m a freelance writer. But I keep my baby at home with me, which makes me by all means and purposes, a stay-at-home mom. I feel so lucky to be with my baby everyday. And I love watching her change and come into this little person she’s meant to be but I’ve quickly realized that by not going to a job everyday, people have started to look at me differently.
I would love to tell you that I just don’t care what people think and that is partly true. I don’t care what someone at the grocery store thinks of my cut-off pants or my sweater with dried squash on the shoulder. I don’t care what people think about my 80-year old house in the middle of a cow pasture or about the fact that in 1998 I made twice as much money as I did last year, but I’m smart, and I care when someone assumes that I am not because I’ve made the choice to work from home and care for my child.
In our culture, a stay-at-home mom is someone who spends her days shopping at Target (in a not-so-sexy jogging suit nonetheless) and watching Oprah. This stereotype, while grossly unfair, is one I’ve bought into even without knowing it. It’s more than a little embarrassing to admit but I realize I’ve been less than kind over the years in my judgment of stay-at-home moms. This little identity crisis I’ve been having of late has forced me to confront my biases and realize that a woman can be smart and sexy and stay at home with her kids.
When I was in my early twenties I never saw myself as a stay-at-home mom. I always thought I’d have a very important outside-the-home job changing the world and that, somehow, when I chose to have children, I’d fold them into my life. I never really thought about who might take care of these children while I was out standing up for the little guy or giving a voice to the poor and underprivileged among us but I thought those details would fall into place. It was one of those plans I had for my life where I could see the end result but couldn’t quite figure out how I would get there.
Then I got a job. And I realized quickly that I didn’t really like it when that job got in the way of living my life. There was no fire in the belly for me if I had to stay late when a big story broke. I had no sense of loyalty when my boss called me in on my day off. I was never one to take one for the team when management needed a scapegoat. I didn’t feel like I was changing anything except the way I thought about my perfect little plan. After a few months on the copy desk of a daily newspaper, I was far more interested in living than working. I saw what lay ahead on the corporate ladder and I decided early on that the climb was a big fat waste of my time.
So I got out. I went to graduate school to concentrate on the one thing that did light the fire my belly knowing that it would likely never have a very large paycheck attached to it. And I didn’t care.
I’d been told all of my life that I could do it all. I didn’t, they said, have to choose between work and family. I could have both. But at a very young age I saw my step-mother struggle with that balance and I think it was then that I started trying to figure out another way, not a better way necessarily, but a different way.
My step-mother was the second-wave feminist archetype. She carried the briefcase, the beeper, the cell phone. She had a demanding job in corporate communications, three kids and a significant paycheck. She wore the suit, made it to the board meeting and the kindergarten play. She went to the little league baseball game, picked up dinner, made sure everyone was clean with nice clothes and shoes that fit. She did the television interview and answered media calls into the night. She proved to the world that women could do it all (did anyone honestly doubt this?) and she told me over and over again that I didn’t have to. Because of her I was able to go to my boss when Eliza was born and ask to work from home. I can stay at home because she wasn’t able to and I couldn’t be more grateful.
So here I am. I work, I take care of Eliza (also work!) and I try not to go to Target too often in anything resembling a jogging suit. I don’t have TV but if the opportunity arises I can still only make it through about 15 minutes of any talk show including Oprah. I think I’ve been trying to avoid becoming something that doesn’t exist except in the collective consciousness of a few small-minded guardians of the patriarchy.
Staying home with my daughter doesn’t mean that I’ve abdicated smart or sexy. Just because I had a baby doesn’t mean I traded in my brain and just because I stay home with her doesn’t mean I only want to talk about diapers, pureed carrots and naptimes. I’d like talk about the little mess Alberto Gonzales seems to have gotten himself into, Sharon Olds’ poetry, the difference between art and illustration and where design fits into that. And I’d like to talk about these things with women whether they work outside the home or not.
In my early twenties I thought I would change the world by standing up for the poor and underprivileged. I work for an abortion clinic and hope that some days I do just that. But I also hope that I change the world a little each day right in my own house by helping Eliza become a secure, strong and happy little girl.
My step-mother says she’s never been more proud. I’ve never been so happy.
Jennifer Savage writes about being a new mom on her own blog here on NewWest.Net. Read more from “Savagemama” at www.newwest.net/savagemama.