Teach Our Daughters Well: A Stay-at-Home Mom Discusses Careers

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Muriel Spark At Work

We were driving to a friend's house when my daughter suggested that we move to the beach, much in the same tone she uses to suggest that we have pizza for dinner or watch the Muppet Show before bed. Low-impact decisions. I explained about house sales and finding a new school and new doctors and new friends in this new location, and finally, she agreed that maybe it wasn't very realistic. Especially because her father's job was back here in the city, three hours away.

A few moments later, she came to a new idea: Daddy could get a different job. He could work in a restaurant (when I pointed out that he doesn't even cook at home, she assured me that "we could teach him" as if she is a mini Cat Cora). There are a lot of restaurants at the beach, I agreed, if the man first took a few cooking classes. "What would I do?" I questioned.

"You'd just be a mum!" she laughed, as if the idea of me working was as bizarre as eating sand. Her dad could easily become a chef with a few instructional lessons, but her graduate-school-educated mother was best at cooking, cleaning and building Lego towers.

Um ... by the way, I do work. As in, I have a job. Right now.

Although, I'm aware that I downplay my work both to the twins and to my peers. I label myself a SAHM. On one hand, it's more honest. I work mainly between 7 p.m. and 11 p.m., after the twins are asleep. I have more in common schedule-wise with SAHMs and am available to volunteer at my kids' school or shuttle them around to activities. At the end of the day, almost every SAHM I know does some work, whether it's running a small baby gift business on Etsy or doing some freelance Web design for a couple of dollars a month.

But I think I'm also squeamish about having the twins perceive that I'm not there for them 100 percent. I loved knowing that my mother could be at school to pick me up if I felt sick. I liked that she would volunteer to chaperone field trips or work on the PTA. It's guilt that pulls two ways -- I feel like I'm not contributing enough to my family, because I'm not meeting my earning potential and I'd feel guilty if I went off and worked full-time (hell, I feel guilty for the two afternoons a week they go to Grandma and Grandpa's house so I can churn out a few articles, and they are with their grandparents, having fun. By the way, thank you, Grandma and Grandpa!). I fear I may have done too good a job not only tucking my job time-wise into the darkened nooks of their lives, but also tucking the very existence of my job into those same unconscious nooks.

I have no desire to work full-time. Our original plan was that I would continue to work, and my husband would stay home with the kids, but once we started fertility treatments, that idea changed. One night, as I held a needle over my stomach about to give myself an injection, I looked up at him and said, "By the way, you realize that this means that I'm going to be the stay-at-home?" I was not going to go through needle-sticks and have him get the daytime shnuzzles. He generously acquiesced without argument, and the rest is history -- the treatments worked, we had the twins and I got to stay at home.

In all other facets of life, I have to behave within a workplace frame. No matter how much I love a job, there are expectations that I also despise. I loved lesson planning and teaching, but hated grading and meetings with parents. I loved dishwashing the coffee cups and hated filling out the paperwork. Parenting has been the first thing I've done where I am 100 percent my own boss. Yes, I need to do certain things for a short period of time -- for instance, as much as I don't love wiping asses, it's a finite task, unlike grading, which was there year after year after year. The kids and I get to set the day, explore what we want to explore, read what we want to read. If I could get paid to be a parent, it's the one job I could do where I wouldn't also have half my mind focused on the point when I could retire.

A long time ago when my sister's first child was little, she told me that she was concerned that her daughter associated her with household tasks and her father with outside-the-home tasks, even though they both worked. More often than not, it was my sister who was cooking and cleaning and generally keeping house in addition to full-time employment. Her daughter mimicked her, following after her with a mini-Swiffer or a pot from her kitchen set. We talked about the dangerous message we send to our daughters when they don't see us in a multitude of positions.

How can we teach our daughters that having a career is important if they don't perceive that we have a career?

My mother didn't return to work until all of her children were in school full-time, which occurred when I was in sixth grade. She taught three mornings a week and was home around before 1 p.m., long before it was time for any of us to come home from school. She was damned good at what she did, and people came to her for advice all the time. Even without seeing her work during my formative years, it was somehow instilled in me that it was not only a good idea to go to college, but that graduate school could come next and a career should probably follow. The message didn't just come from teachers who constantly asked us in five-part essay form to write about what we wanted to be when we grew up, but from my parents as well.

And that's what I did -- college, graduate school, teaching career ranging from middle school to the college level. I made finding a societal space of my own a priority just as much as I worked hard to find a partner and build a family. Somehow I absorbed the entire message, but I wasn't entirely sure how to pass it along to my daughter. I didn't want it to be a case of "do as I say, not as I do," and seriously, I have a job! I've just wiped invisible cream all over it.

"Am I just a mummy now?" I finally asked. "Or do I have a job?"

"You have a job," she said, somewhat sullenly.

Good; I left something poking out of the shadows.

"What do I do?" I questioned.

"You're a writer. People pay you to write things and talk about things."

Which pretty much sums it up. I write articles, I write books, I go out and talk about the topics of said articles and read from said books.

So it has sunk in that a job exists, and now I replace my old fears with new ones: What message am I sending by hiding my job? Will my daughter embrace the idea of finding her own career, and how can I celebrate work while not missing out on time with them?

Another pause ensued, and we were almost to her friend's house when she chirped, "But luckily, you can do your job from the beach. You can write anywhere. So it looks like we're moving!"

Break out the flip flops and sunscreen; the only thing holding us back now are those cooking lessons for my husband.

Do you have a career outside the home, and if so, how are you conveying that it's okay to choose to stay home? Do you work in the home or not have a job, and if so, how are you conveying that it is an equally valid choice to choose a full-time career? How do we teach the other possibility from what our daughters see us do?

Required Reading:

Working Moms Against Guilt: a blog that states, "We're moms. We work all day, bring home the bacon, and fry it up in a pan. Oh, and while we're at it, we're raising young children, along with our spouses/partners. As any working mom knows, we often battle the big "G." Guilt creeps up on us when we least expect it. Join us in our ongoing struggle to resist the guilt and embrace the journey."

Mammakaze: a blog about "killing ourselves by trying to do it all." Her FAQ section states, "All of us, without exception, felt guilty about our parenting. No matter how hard we tried/worked, we felt that it wasn’t good enough and we were somehow screwing up our kids. I can’t tell you how many times I heard the words 'I’m such a bad mom' coming out a friend’s mouth."

Uppercase Woman writes about work and parenting, musing on the fact that we need to "stop apologizing to our children for working." She eloquently states, "I want to write. I want to be able to sit with an open laptop doing my work in front of my daughter while she plays and know, in my heart, that she knows that I not only value HER, but I also value ME, my writing, my career, and my dreams and hopes for the future. After all, if I am supposed to be setting a good example for my daughter, well, constantly apologizing for working isn't a good idea, is it?"

Melissa writes Stirrup Queens and Lost and Found. Her book is Navigating the Land of If.

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