The Domestic Economy: A Feminist Mom Contemplates Leaving work at home for the Workforce

The Domestic Economy

More than eight years ago, I earned a Ph.D.  Now I spend the bulk of my time chatting up my second daughter while she sits on a “Dora the Explorer” potty minimizer in our powder room.  During the most humbling of these moments I am muttering under my breath about the shoddy (and possibly toxic) quality of the toilet paper that we consume at alarming rates as a family of four.  I compare the size of each roll to the number of rolls offered in a package and think about the best value option.  I make a mental note to research the tp sold in the alternative grocery stores.  I make an observation to myself that my proclivity towards “green” toilet paper is a product of my class and education.  But that seems to be the extent that my education gets used these days.

Facing an impasse about my future in academia more than three years ago, I willingly decided to stay at home and thus joined the ranks of those of us who labor uncompensated in the domestic sphere.  My romantic outlook and idealism, however, made me think that “staying at home” would be a mental luxury. It would be a time to be incubated from the rat race and time vortex of the marketplace.  In fact, that was my primary motivation—to slow down time for all of us in my household. The other playgroup moms seemed both envious and astonished.  We discussed the numbers over one play session: how much money in a single income would it take for them to be motivated to stay at home. The numbers varied; one person said 80K and others mentioned six figures.  Even I, an English major, could see that most of us were taking into account our full incomes as necessary to the financial security of our families. To stay at home would mean somebody would have to make up that money.  In my own case, that has not been so. It’s only been three years, and I intend to go “back to the workforce” when my daughters are both in school.  But what I’m having a hard time explaining to other people is that what I’ve learned at home doesn’t translate to the corporate system the way it is at present.   

It’s not that I’ve been spoiled at home and can’t go back to the rigor and accountability demanded by workers in corporate America.  It’s that I’ve been made to feel with my body and mind how little we actually know about what work can do for us at home and as a society.  I’ve been put through the wringer by managing two toddlers at the same time every day for multiple years. Put to the grindstone by adopting menial labor and tasks that frankly our generation of mommies hasn’t really been trained for, seemingly Herculean efforts in hoisting and carting, taking on science and industrial engineering in the realm of organization, quick fixes and hygienic cleaning, all of which lead to the inevitable conclusion that we’re just not learning the right stuff to make the First World run efficiently, not in our schools or universities.  In my three plus years at home, I’ve had to call on psychology, teaching, leadership, physical training, nutrition, and civics all in the name of doing the domestic thing well, making it worth all of our whiles, and what I want to know is not what do I have to offer the working world now, but what does the working world have to offer me?

I don’t know that I could get used to the inefficiency and waste in an office setting, its often stifling and impersonal level of motivation and expectation, the macro-level from which executives push for staid values of productivity by denying adequate paid maternity and paternity leave, turning a blind eye to the benefits of telecommuting, and putting a premium on face time above quality of performance. These habits seem to this stay-at-home mom nothing more than the histrionics of a system that doesn’t take the time to see the big picture, no matter how far in advance it plans its calendar. They seem like the antics of a high-maintenance toddler who not only won’t see reason, but who refuses to be diverted by the necessary distractions life can throw our way. The problem is that Work always looms larger and loftier than work in our culture.  We’ve ceased to take stock of the basic skills that ensure a solid infrastructure to any civilized economy: truly useable and versatile skills rather than services, problem solving, keeping the focus on bettering lives instead of lifestyles.  One only has to take note of the number of people who are going back to learn sewing or canning to realize that the pendulum may be swinging back.  One only has to follow the frantic and often clueless domestic habits of primary breadwinners returning back to their homes after “a hard day of work” to realize that they’re being taught to value their workspaces more than their homes.  How many of us in the domestic legions have rolled our eyes at a partner who can’t find his/her cell phone and wallet before leaving the house? Show of hands how many stay at home moms or dads have the same problem?

Sometimes I feel like David battling Goliath. I am in a down cycle, domestically speaking, in which I have to juggle an increasingly narrower window of nap time with professional pursuits, squeezed by the global recession out of the opportunity to hire the help I need to both steer my one remaining child at home into school and get my career going and manage a household by the standards I’ve grown accustomed to since I’ve been in charge. I’ve come to the point where I look back at my first year doing this, with a baby and a two-year-old, as the salad days.  I also sometimes feel a little like Diane Keaton battling the bigwigs of the food industry in Baby Boom.  I still feel optimistic enough to live in a country and cultural moment in which I could accidentally get lucky and fortunate enough to be able to do what I love and still not sacrifice the things I know are more important than what I do.

The truth of the matter is that I still have some time to be able to figure these things out, no matter how desperate some days might make me feel.  And time, after all, is what started this whole experiment.  I can put my achievements over the past few years down to these truths about time, truths that sometimes mirror but often defy the corporate model:  pack adequate food, water, and small toys to make the most of waiting; keep things within reach to make each process faster; do things at the same time most days and weeks so that your resources are properly employed and conserved.  And finally, drop everything and get right up in their faces enough to make them laugh.  Sit for a while in the sun every day, just long enough for a three-your-old child to observe that the leaves are “dancing.”

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