Full disclosure: I recognize that you have probably heard some version of everything I will tell you about being a stay-at-home mom and, honestly, that's a good thing. After decades of being relegated largely to the private sphere, SAHMs are (thanks to the internet) finding new outlets to tell their stories, share their struggles, and connect with other SAHMs, working moms, and non-moms alike. Oh what a glorious age this is! I love living in the future.
Still, even though we're more connected than ever, talking about being a SAHM can be difficult to navigate. Sadly, how a woman chooses to be a mother is often a loaded subject and open to scrutiny and judgement. (Thanks, Patriarchy.) You want to discuss it honestly, but not too honestly because you don't want people to think you're judging mothers who don't stay at home, nor do you want them to think you're not "grateful enough" for the opportunity to stay home. You want to show pride in what you do, but not so much that you appear smug. You want to share your experiences and connect with other people, but not to the point that it leaves you vulnerable and open to be attacked by others. It can be a balancing act. A wildly obnoxious, exhausting balancing act.
But not today. Today I just want to lay out some of the things you've likely heard to some degree, but maybe not all in one place and perhaps not in this particular way. The kind-of-sort-of secret life of the stay-at-home-mom really, and truly, doesn't need to and shouldn't remain a kind-of-sort-of secret.
Some Days We Feel Duped
Even though more and more women are opening up about the actual realities of being a SAHM, we have more than half a century of social conditioning (through media and other outlets) telling us what being a SAHM is like. That picture has largely been warm, fulfilling, happy, natural, and, if stressful, stressful in a delightfully chaotic-but-not-actually-chaotic way. Artfully chaotic, shall we say, like an updo that's meant to look disheveled but takes over an hour to do, or a pair of jeans you buy with the distressed, frayed tears already strategically placed. The disordered aspects of the life of a television SAHM are perfectly ordered into a well-established trope. Her kids are noisy, but always quiet down enough for her lines to be heard. Her house is depicted as "messy" because there are a few toys on the floor or a pile of wackily stacked dishes in the sink. Even her bad days are charming and quirky and adorable.
So, when we dive into it ourselves, we figure, "Okay, it's going to be hard, but LOL, that's #momlife." Then we do it and even if we were expecting some difficulty, chances are most of us haven't encountered the particular variety of difficulties SAHMs face. Television moms have an episode where their child is misbehaving in school, or are potty training, or are up all night screaming. The problems of SAHMs in mainstream culture are open and shut. It makes sense, really, as no one (I'm guessing) wants to watch a show all about a mom sleep training her child. Much better, for entertainment purposes, to highlight this challenge in one, joke-filled episode, reach an uplifting conclusion, and then move on.
Obviously most women realize that life is never going to be like what we see on television, but I feel like many a SAHM will look back to what they thought they knew about the gig and feel tricked.
Some Days We Don't Get Stuff Done Because We Really Didn't Feel Like It
Most of the time, if I didn't get to some chore or task, it's because I was too busy doing other things (like doing laundry, or running errands, or keeping my children from running into traffic, or whatever) to get to it. Or I did do it but my adorable and beloved moppets undid it. For example, yesterday I vacuumed and then steam-cleaned my carpet, only to have my daughter drop a bowl of Cheerios on it. #JeSuisSisyphus
But sometimes? Well, sometimes I absolutely had time to clean or vacuum or unload the dishwasher and I chose not to. Because I had time and I was so excited to have 45 minutes to rub together that I decided to spend them reading or tooling around on Twitter. It took me a long time to be OK with doing that and even longer to be OK with admitting it, but my own mom helped me realize why it was, in fact, OK. We were on the phone one day and I mentioned that both kids, miraculously, were napping at the same time. She suggested I sit back and enjoy the time. "I can't," I replied. "There's laundry, there's the dishwasher, there are a whole bunch of things I could do that'll just sit here if I don't."
"Taking care of yourself is more important than taking care of the dishes," she replied, and I thought, yeah! That's true! And while I certainly would take time to myself when I could have been doing something else, I always felt guilty about it. Not anymore, my friends. Not anymore.
We Can Be Simultaneously Overwhelmed And Bored Out Of Our Minds
I feel like anyone who has worked data entry or retail will understand this feeling. Like, you have a ton to do (addresses to enter, shirts to fold, whatever) but even though you're constantly working, it's the same few tasks over and over and over and that constant work can feel boring. Like, you suddenly find yourself experiencing this unique blend of bodily exhaustion and mental ennui. However, whereas retail and data entry is performed on shifts, a SAHM does this sort of thing 24/7 for years on end in many cases.
Sometimes We're Really Proud Of Ourselves
There are days when we crush it, you guys. Like, for real: the kids are happy, the house is clean, errands are complete, dinner is ballin', laundry is folded, children are in bed on time, and you even have time to sit with a cup of tea at some point, look at everything you've done and proudly proclaim, "My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings. Look on my works ye Mighty, and despair!" (Actually, don't it will freak out your kids and then your awesome day takes a turn. Kids just don't appreciate Shelley, I guess.) Sometimes, if we're really lucky, we get a streak going and we're on a SAHM high. It's an awesome, awesome feeling. Even though all of these tasks on their own are not particularly difficult to get done, getting them done all at once, on time and with children around, is pretty miraculous.
Sometimes We Feel Incredibly Insecure And Defeated
Then, of course, there are days when the exact opposite occur: the children are possessed and in their satanic fury have trashed the house. Every cranny of our home is strewn with laundry and you cannot remember what's clean or what's dirty. Dinner has burned, and we missed a deadline on an important errand we needed to accomplish. On these days, we sob into a red solo cup of box wine, look at everything we haven't done and wail, "You swallowed everything, like distance! Like the sea, like time! In you everything sank!" (I don't recommend this either: children also aren't fond of Neruda.) And then, added to that, is the idea that we are crying over laundry, something that really shouldn't have the power to completely gut us, but here we are. This realization that little, seemingly trivial things have become so huge in our lives can be tough and add to that defeated feeling.
When People Assume We Have Nothing Intellectual To Offer, It Hurts
I promise I'm not being dramatic, but when people talk down to me like I'm an idiot because they assume a SAHM is "only" a SAHM because she's not smart enough to do anything else, it feels like I've been punched in the stomach. Intelligence comes in many different forms and walks many different paths. Guys, did you learn nothing from Good Will Hunting? Everyone overlooked surly Matt Damon because he was a street tough dude from Southie and a janitor, but he was a goddamn genius! A GENIUS! Everyone, don't be that douchebag in the bar scene. Instead, be Minnie Driver, who doesn't judge a book by its cover.
We Get Emotionally Invested In Children's Entertainment
Yeah. I'm not proud of the fact that I actually cried when Curious George left Netflix a few months ago, but I'm not going to pretend to be ashamed, either. It wasn't because my life was going to be made more difficult because my kids wouldn't get to watch the antics of the beloved cartoon monkey, either. No, I was crying because Curious George is a great kids show and I hated seeing it go. (And also it's the first show my son ever got into and seeing it go made me realize that he was growing up and whatever, I'm not crying again, it's just all my toughness leaking out through my eyes.) Also? There are episodes of My Little Pony my kids have never watched because they keep wanting to see the same ones over and over again and I'm like, "But don't you want to see how Twilight Sparkle became a princess?! Let's watch this one!" I'm unembarrassed to admit this because literally every other SAHM I have talked to about this has strong feelings about children's shows. Look, when that's pretty much all you can watch during the day, well, you work with it.
Being Out With Working Friends Talking About Work Can Make Us Feel Uncomfortable
It's not to say that we're uninterested or don't want to hear about our friends' careers. To the contrary, I want to hear what's going on in my friends' work lives and I want to do everything I can to encourage them to grow and succeed as professionals. Sometimes, though, whenever everyone at a dinner table is talking about work challenges, or office politics, or big important deals that they're working out with other companies I'm, like, awkwardly staring into my glass of Pinot Noir. I basically can't relate unless I go back to when I worked in an office and faced similar problems, but the most recent of those experiences are over two years old, so doing so just feels like a desperate attempt to fit in.
There can also be (if not always) a stigma attached to being a SAHM, hinged on the idea that you couldn't hack it as a working mom. There's also, occasionally, an inferiority complex at play. Like, "Oh, wow, you just brokered a multimillion-dollar deal with some huge, popular company? That's awesome. Yesterday I managed to get a chocolate stain out of my kid's favorite shirt so, you know, I'm a damn hero, too." Of course an inferiority complex isn't justified since we're human beings, not accomplishment machines designed to perform and/or make money for a company, but it can still be uncomfortable to feel like you don't have the same concrete accomplishments to show for your life choices that someone else does.
Most Of The Time, Most Of Us Really Seem To Enjoy Being A SAHM*
I don't have hard data on the subject, but anecdotally speaking most of the SAHMs I know wouldn't change what they're doing. There seems to be a backlash, largely online, against the popular, perky depictions of being a mother that we've seen over the last 60+ years, and I'm grateful. Moms are sharing their struggles. They're letting us know that it isn't always sunny and the negative emotions we have aren't resolved in the span of a 30 minute episode, or even a "very special" two part episode. They're talking about the messiness of motherhood. But sometimes, in that atmosphere, admitting that this gig is really, really nice (remember the awesome streaks) makes one look smug. But I'll tell you, unapologetically, that being a SAHM can be awesome.
I recognize that, after starting this list speaking about episodic, neatly wrapped up, optimistic summations of the difficulties of SAH motherhood, it feels almost hypocritical to sum up the same list with a sunny outlook on how all the difficulty is worth it, but hear me out. Television can only be so real and remain interesting, which is why any "mom problem" is usually dealt with swiftly, incompletely, inauthentically, and hilariously. Still, somewhere in that rush, those depictions can occasionally hit open some nugget of truth. The possibility, at least, of a SAHM willingly going through a whole lot of crap to reach an ultimate contentment or happiness on her chosen path is one of them. It's more complicated than they lead us to believe, but they're not necessarily lying, either.