Stay at Home Mom: The Least Respected Profession in the World
Did I Mention I Want You To Get A Job?
My daughter hurt her ankle last year. She didn't just sprain it, she split that puppy right in half; it was so bad she had to have reconstructive surgery. She'll set off metal detectors the rest of her life.
The incident - the chain on a porch swing coming out of the ceiling while her and her friends were sitting on it, all the weight of them and the swing coming down on her ankle - happened at about 5 o'clock at night. When I got there, she was sitting on the porch, crying a little bit. She has an unbelievably high tolerance for pain, so everyone else just thought it was a sprain. Driving home, she winced at every bump. I knew something was terribly wrong and took her to the ER.
I called my mom and asked her to come over and see us while we waited for the x-rays. I'm unemployed - the court tells me I am voluntarily unemployed - because I've been a stay-at-home mom for the last 14 years. My recently ex-husband had a mental breakdown fueled by drugs last fall, and, after realizing he had pretended to go to work for 2 months and we had no income or health insurance, I kicked him out. Then he got himself arrested for domestic violence. Several months of weekly court dates or public assistance appointments passed (and did I mention how he got us evicted?), and I am finally ready to work, but things like crushed ankles and flooded basements seem to constantly sabotage my efforts.
So we're sitting in the ER and my mom starts nagging me again about work. You'd think it's because I'm now a single mom and need to support my family, but this has been going on since the moment I gave birth to my daughter nearly 16 years ago, even though I was working at the time.
My Mom's Self-Worth Is Tied to Whether She Is Employed
When I was growing up, I didn't see my mom a whole lot. She was an elementary school music teacher and did jobs on the side (she often played violin in orchestras) to support us because my father, despite being an actual genius, found it difficult to tolerate any authority and cycled through disastrously unsuitable positions (like being the most anti-social door-to-door vacuum salesman of all time) for years until he finally found his calling in airplane mechanics.
My mother's dream had long been to live near the Rocky Mountains, so she got a teaching job and moved us to Denver in 1979; my father managed to get a position at a private aircraft company at Stapleton Airport but the only schedule available was the night shift, so we saw very little of him for a couple of years. And apparently, this nighttime work schedule was unacceptable to my mother, as we rarely got to spend time with him (which meant he wasn't helping her), so she divorced him not too long after we got to Denver.
My mother's value in herself is entirely based on her ability to find and hold work. She definitely worked hard; not only did she teach elementary or middle school orchestra, but was also a private Suzuki teacher in the evenings.
You would think that her work ethic is tied to her meaningful employment as a teacher, but even after retiring early she held jobs like:
- cashier at ALCO;
- front desk clerk at a resort;
- secretary at an engineering firm;
- housekeeper at a campground.
She despised most of those jobs. This woman has a Master's Degree in music education, and she was working at ALCO because being retired, or even volunteering, did not give her life value. Only the paycheck, regardless of how bad or meaningless the job, gave her life meaning.
The thing is, she doesn't need the money. She's a trust fund kid and she gets her retirement from the schools, so she's set for money. But she was brainwashed into thinking people only have value if they're working. Even if what you are doing is technically work, if you are not receiving a steady paycheck for this work, you are not doing your fair share.
He Who Does Not Work, Does Not Eat!
Being a practical person, I majored in the highly impractical and esoteric Russian Studies program in school. What made me do it? Who knows, but I loved it. In the early 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was far more practical than it is today. But I'm not complaining; it did present many wonderful opportunities. I ended up studying and then living in Moscow for about 6 years.
Of course in Russian Studies, you learn a lot about the politics and social policies of "communism" in the Soviet Union. I could go all egghead and explain why Soviet communism wasn't really communism, but rather socialism, and at times was mostly a dictatorship, but what's relevant here is the Soviet work ethic.
In the Soviet Union, it wasn't so much that everyone was employed because they had the right to work, but that you had to work. And you didn't have to work because you wanted to buy nicer stuff or you were just, by nature, really ambitious. No, it was because you were required to work by law.
And you didn't get to choose what you wanted to do. If you had a talent, they exploited it; if they could see, in grade school, that you weren't going to amount to anything, you were probably going to be stuck in a terrible job of their choosing.
This requirement to work was in the Soviet Constitution of 1936, Article 12:
"In the U.S.S.R. work is a duty and a matter of honor for every able-bodied citizen, in accordance with the principle: "He who does not work, neither shall he eat.""
You could see how this could create a lot of resentful, unfulfilled people that worked as little as possible in jobs they despised.
Not working may have been illegal, but the law wasn't strictly enforced until the early 1980s, when Yuri Andropov became General Secretary of the CPSU. When I was over there the first time, in 1993, my guide was explaining to me that there was a time when what we were doing - riding the metro in the middle of the day - would have meant the police stopping us and asking for papers proving that we were allowed to be out of work or school. In Andropov's time, if you could not present such a pass, you could be arrested.
In the U.S.S.R., work is a duty and a matter of honor for every able-bodied citizen, in accordance with the principle: "He who does not work, neither shall he eat."— Article 12, 1936 Constitution of the Soviet Union
Forget Everything You Know
Living in Russia those 6 years gave me a perspective on working I never imagined existed. I was raised by an old Iowa farming family that taught me if you work hard, you will be richly rewarded. But that meant working hard for the home and family, not for nameless and faceless corporate fat cats. Women and elderly did their work in the home. Women were encouraged to go to school, then encouraged to return home and better their communities with their education.
My mother is well-educated, and I was encouraged to go to college, too. After I flunked French, Russian seemed like a good choice for a language. (No, I don't know how I made the leap, either.) I felt compelled to go to Moscow the first time, in 1993. I didn't just want to go, I had to go. I got there not long after the total collapse of their economy. You could buy 1400 rubles for one dollar; I went on spending sprees with wild abandon, barely spending $100 on unlimited metro/trolleybus/tram tickets, train tickets to St. Petersburg, hotel stays, numerous souvenirs and the occasional trip to McDonald's, when I'd had enough of my house mother's fried intestines, chicken supchik or solyonaya kapusta.
When an economy collapses, you can work as hard as you want; that doesn't mean that the money will magically show up. People were working their tails off, but they weren't getting paid.
If you're not getting paid, why work? Mothers started staying home with their kids. People would wander around or sit in parks on nice weather days for hours.
But where abject poverty shows itself the most is in the sick. So many people with serious injuries, unable to pay for care, begging in the streets. I remember seeing a woman, her leg cut off (not surgically, almost like it was cut off with a hacksaw) begging on Arbat, the rotting parts of her body covered in zelyonka, a green-colored antiseptic used to sterilize wounds. Half of her head was bald from her hair falling out. There were many, many people just like her on the streets.
Can I Not Get Stuck Unpacking Clothes The Rest of My Life?
I didn't like high school. I wasn't bullied and it wasn't too hard, but basically, I was bored. I'm not going to effect some arrogant attitude and say that it was too easy and I was smarter than all my teachers or some other nonsense. I just wanted to be out on my own and working. That's what people do, they work. Unfortunately, I also didn't want to be a fry cook or housekeeper, and CEO of Amazing Job, Inc. was taken, so I ended up barely graduating from school and working for Kelly Temporary Services for a year before getting totally fed up with the miserable jobs I was doing and going back to college.
The worst job, by far, was unpacking clothing at a department store warehouse. Huge boxes of clothes - made in China! - would roll down a long conveyor belt. I'd cut them open, take all the plastic and tissue paper off each item, take the shirt or skirt or dress or jumpsuit or whatever off the hanger and re-hang it on the fancy department store hangers, cram all the plastic wrap and crappy hangers back into the box, then throw the box onto another conveyor belt that was about 6 feet above the rows and rows of women hanging clothing all day long. (As a side note, the amount of plastic and paper waste was downright shameful.)
My hands would ache at the end of every day. My wrists were sliced to bits, not from repeated suicide attempts brought on by this horrible job, but because of pins in the collars of button-up shirts. I started having nightmares that I wasn't hanging clothes fast enough, waking up in fear that I would be late to work again.
My quitting that job was triggered by having to unpack vases. This stuff came in at a different part of the warehouse. They brought the boxes - HUGE boxes - over separately instead of on the conveyor belt. It would have been fine except for the very hard and very sharp styrofoam packing. I still remember that after just a couple of hours of work, my hands were bloodied from the vengeful cubes, and my cuticles were starting to separate from my nails.
My next job was equally as mind-numbing and meaningless, but not nearly as difficult. I looked over records and highlighted inconsistencies on phone reports and sales reports for Sprint. When they unexpectedly laid us off, telling us that that day was our last day, I vowed to stop doing temp work and go back to school.
So I started college as a music major (I played string bass), then switched to Russian studies (after epically failing French), and worked as a stock girl at Liz Claiborne for 4 years (because the clothing discount was incredible). It was also a tough job, but I liked the people I worked with and they paid well.
Being a Single Mom May Be My Toughest Challenge Yet
The last three years I lived in Moscow, I worked in an American law firm. I loved it, but it was hard work and a 24-hour work day was not unheard of. We even worked on finishing a project for 36 hours; it had to be done by the deadline or the Russian partner would pull out of the deal.
I think I've established, then, that I've worked and I've worked hard.
I'm not trying to fuel the battle between working moms and stay-at-home moms. God knows that battle rages on every day in some corner of the internet. In general, I have worked physically harder at several jobs, but the sustained psychological and physical effort that goes into being a parent, for me, is far more trying than most jobs, save for work such as the military in combat, health care providers and police and firemen. (And yes I know there's some social worker in Ohio getting snitty with me right now; that list is far from comprehensive.)
I am just beginning my journey as a single mom, but I have to say that I'm not really sure how other single parents manage it. I think it would have been easier if I never stopped working, because I wouldn't have fallen out of that groove. I did work for almost a year after my first daughter was born, but it was at jobs that allowed me to bring my daughter along, in addition to being pregnant. I have no idea what it feels like to have to find a babysitter or risk being fired because I have to stay home with a sick kid.
Also, my ex-husband was in the military, so it's not that I didn't have to parent on my own. I made it through a deployment and subsequent duty station to which I refused to move our children (you can read more about my experience with the Dugway Proving Ground here). But having to be the breadwinner and the caretaker is new for me. My kids are older and able to take care of themselves. But surprisingly, the people who nag me the most about working are the people having the hardest time accepting that I'm not constantly available to them anymore.
I Do The Same Job As The Cook, Maid and Babysitter, I Just Don't Get Paid For It
I made a choice to stay home with my kids, and that meant making a lot of sacrifices. I didn't get a lot of fancy things. I had to buy all my clothes at the thrift store. I was isolated from friends and family. However, this was my choice and I accepted those things; some gladly, some begrudgingly.
But one thing that has always made me mad is federal tax Form 2441, Child and Dependent Care Expenses. Basically, if someone else is raising my child, I can deduct all the same stuff I would pay for when raising my own kid, but I can only claim the deduction - again, for the same stuff I'd use at home - if someone else is raising my kid. My favorite part is the "Household Services" section:
"These are services needed to care for the qualifying person as well as to run the home. They include, for example, the services of a cook, maid, babysitter, housekeeper, or cleaning person if the services were partly for the care of the qualifying person. Do not include services of a chauffeur or gardener. You can also include your share of the employment taxes paid on wages for qualifying child and dependent care services."
I gotta get myself a maid.
- IRS Form 2441 - Child and Dependent Care Deductions
I gotta remember next year that I can't deduct for the gardener!
But I guess, Who needs help? I'm the help! I tell my mom that I have to revise my resume; she tells me I have to drive her to her accountant, in Denver, on April 13, because she has to get her taxes done. I tell a friend I have to squeeze out a submission by midnight; they won't stop texting me about their Netflix account acting up. I tell the school I don't have time to bake cookies for 40 teachers and staff; they tell me there's not one other parent at the school who makes cream puffs as yummy as I do.
It's not my kids that are sabotaging my efforts to find a job, it's the adults in my life. They're not willing to give up the help I give them. They're not willing to give up my availability. When I tell them no, they show up unannounced. They call more.
This happens at the school all the time. People like me - people way more involved than me - keep that school running. Volunteers who grade papers. Volunteers who set up the chairs and decorations for concerts. Volunteers that go to skate parties. Volunteers that run the fundraisers. Were it not for these volunteers, some schools would shut down. These parents and grandparents, and all this work they do for free, is rewarded almost every year by taxpayers voting down yet another attempt to raise funding for schools.
Every time you vote down a tax hike for schools, you're guaranteeing the school will need more volunteers. You say you want more and better education, then you refuse to pay for it. Know why you vote down those referendums? Because you undervalue the tremendous amount of effort that goes into some of those volunteer positions at your local schools. Being President of the PTA can be the equivalent of a full-time job and they are doing, and putting up with everybody's crap, for free.
Just because we stay at home doesn't mean we're here to do your errands for free. Do you have any idea how much these services would cost? We stay-at-homers watch your dogs and your sick kids. We go turn your iron off. We make sure the air conditioner is on. We pick up your laundry, we bring the jacket you need for your presentation. We mail the fliers for your side business after putting all the stamps on the cards. A lot of us do a lot of errands for other people and while yes, you do thank us, you don't respect us. Having to pack up an infant and a toddler to bring you your cell phone? Okay, but just because I did it doesn't mean it wasn't a pain.
All we ask for is respect. That you treat your stay-at-home mom friends with the same reverence as you treat your nanny. We deserve the same tax breaks. We should benefit from being the maid to our children, not because we have the luxury of hiring one for them. We're not saying that what you're doing at work is easier than what we're doing at home. Just remember: Even if you're doing some dumb thing at work like changing the toilet paper roll, you're getting paid to do it. We could be doing the work of a cook, nanny, chauffeur, nurse, social worker, fashion designer and football coach within the span of an hour, and we have to do it for free.