I recently received a mass email from the women’s college I attended in the late 1980s. The alumnae magazine is apparently preparing a feature on stay-at-home moms and was asking for stories from women who have taken on full-time motherhood.
This amused me. When I was a student at this college, it would have shocked and horrified me to imagine staying home with children. (Well, having children would have been shock enough at the time; I couldn’t stand the beasts, and even nicknamed our head-of-house’s mischievous two-year-old "Dinner.") The image I constructed for myself at the time was that IF I ever married and IF I ever had children, the rugrats would be consigned to daycare in their early years, school in their later years, and then they’d be on their own. The day-to-day grind of pregnancy, nursing, diapers, meal preparation, transportation, manners indoctrination… None of that gained entry to my thoughts at the time.
Fast forward to my early 30s. Finally married, having had years of travel, jobs, graduate school, and a tiny taste of a teaching career, I was ready to start a family. The year I was pregnant with our eldest, I was teaching in a school where at least five other faculty members were expecting babies. What were those women going to do? I asked around. All were going to be putting their children into day care to continue their teaching careers. This made sense, since teachers are usually paid according to years of teaching experience, and leaving teaching to rear children can put one’s career in the deep freeze, especially if one changes jobs or schools when re-entering the teaching world.
I had always thought I would put my baby in day care with no qualms. And yet. Looking back at my mother who had stayed home with us, I had to pause. I had loved having her home. I was a socially insecure child, and having a mother rather than outside caregivers comforted me. When I was sick, she took care of me. When I was sad, she helped me to feel better. When she made pies, I always got a piece of dough to play with. I was able to be home with all of my things, in my own house and yard, and loved the quiet routines of the household around me. I might have adjusted fine to having someone else care for me, but when my parents made their financial reckoning, it made more sense for her to stay home than to continue her nursing career.
And so it did for my family. My salary as a teacher would probably have been just sufficient to cover the cost of farming my child out to someone else during the day. And like my parents, my husband and I were lucky enough to be able to live on his salary without having to cinch our belts too much.
So the money made sense. But how would I feel? Denied a place in the workforce, attached at the hip (or the breast, as the case may be) to an infant, bereft of intelligent conversation… And yet. A fellow teacher from my shul and I were talking one Shabbat morning at kiddush during my final months. She asked what my plans were for taking care of the baby. I told her I was uncertain, but that I thought it might make sense for me to stay home. She nodded and leaned toward my ear. "Why," she asked confidentially, as high-powered career women with nannies milled around us, "would you spend your days teaching other people’s children when you could be home teaching your own?"
The final decision was reached when I asked one of my co-workers, a math teacher with three children and another due in a month, what the experience of having children in day care was like. She smiled ruefully and said that it was less than ideal. The family’s routine was to wake up early in the morning and get everyone out of the house. The kids spent their days in school and then day care, the parents went to work, and at the end of the day, they would all reconvene at home for dinner, bath time, and bed. There was true regret in this woman’s eyes when she told me that all her children’s best hours of the day were spent with other people. They were sleepy when they got up in the morning, and tired, hungry, and irritable when they got home at night. But her husband had to work full time and she desperately wanted to continue teaching, so they settled on this plan for their family.
I felt a chill. I had no idea what kind of parent I would make, or how difficult or joyous having children would be. I knew nothing about what I was getting myself into. And yet. What was the point of having my own children if I was going to have to give them to someone else all day long? What if my child were to have a temperament similar to mine, and feel sad and depressed at being away from her mother all day? How would I feel about starting every workday with the sound of crying at drop-off ringing in my ears?
And so feminism met reality. I gave my life a hard, cold, scrutinizing look. What exactly was my career? Imparting the intricacies of English literature and the mind-numbing details of American history to a small set of teenage girls. I enjoyed it, yes, but did they? Was what I was doing really so important in the long run? Was it any different—in a spiritual sense—from the other jobs I’d held (McDonald’s, cleaning toilets at a National Guard base, child care at a residential treatment center)? In the end, I concluded that it was a job I loved, but that could wait. There is an expression that says that women can have it all nowadays, but not all at once. For the first time, I appreciated the relevance of that phrase.
So I made my choices and thus far have survived the experience. Ironically, the hardest part is not taking care of the kids; it’s telling other adults what I do for a living. The worst was when a man from shul asked what I did all day. "Do you go to Mommy-and-me classes?" He clearly thought that "mother" was another word for "woman of leisure." But I’ve solved the problem now once and for all. I recently updated my alumna profile for the prep school I attended. Despite the fact that it was a girls’ school and there are at least a handful of graduates who are at-home moms, the program does not allow the alum to save her data and exit until she’s filled in her employment information. What employment information? I hissed at the computer. And then I got a gleam in my eye and put my fingers to the keyboard. Employer? "The Crunch family." Address? "My house."
Job title? "I work for food."