Thursday, April 12, 2007

Crossing Over

Last year for Mother's Day a good friend of mine bought me the book Mommy Wars. It's a collection of essays by working moms and stay at home moms (who are also working moms, in my opinion-- just that they focus only on the job of motherhood, as compared with juggling motherhood with another, different obligation). The title sets the scene, doesn't it? That we moms are in a war. It starts with the premise that there is a divide between working moms and stay at home moms. Maybe there is. But I bet both sides feel judged by the other. And that's really too bad.

When I grew up, I lived with both my parents. My dad who worked outside our home as an airline pilot and an Air Force reservist. My mom who worked inside the home as a mom-- preparing meals, doing laundry, cleaning up, carpooling us, making sure we completed our homework, setting boundaries-- the usual things parents do. That was how my parents opted to divide the labor.

One Valentine's Day when I was around 11 or 12 years old, I asked my mom what was wrong with her. My friend had just received a pair of Guess! jeans from her parents. I got a box of drug store chocolates. My friend's mom worked at a "real" job. I actually think my exact words to my mom were: "Are you stupid or something?"

Yeah. It was terrible. I wasn't an easy middle-schooler. I like to think I was much better as a high schooler. I hope I was. Now that I'm a mom, I can actually imagine how much the question must have stung. Of course my mom isn't stupid. And really I just wanted to know why she didn't have a job outside the home, like everyone else's mom did.

My mom handled the question with incredible grace. This doesn't surprise me in retrospect. My mom is very gracious. She didn't slap me, didn't yell at me. Didn't even turn on her heels and walk away. She actually took my question seriously and explained that she, just like my friend's mom, had her college degree. That she had chosen to stay home with us. I'm not sure why it was that up until this point in time, I never even contemplated whether or not my mom had gone to college. I guess it just never came up. It wasn't until I was applying for college that I learned my dad had an M.BA. Which he earned while working full time for the Air Force while I was still in diapers.

Anyway, my mom explained that she and my dad made a decision together that one of them should be home with us kids. And she liked doing that job. I don't know how uncommon it was to be a stay-at-home-mom in the 80s. I had friends whose moms stayed home and friends whose moms didn't. It wasn't called being a stay-at-home-mom back then. Nowadays in the occupation category if you write SAHM, people actually know what it means. Back then, they were called housewives or homemakers. I like the second better than the first. She was more than a wife at home. But homemaker doesn't really do it justice either. She didn't just make our house a home, either.

I have since apologized for the clear disrespect I showed my mom, of course. Numerous times. It doesn't undue the pain I caused her, I imagine. She has never brought it up.

A few years ago, I asked my students to interview their parents. I wanted them to get a sense of the sacrifices many of their families had made so that they could provide a better life for their children than they'd had for themselves. It was part of a unit on immigration, and I hoped my students would see a connection between their parents' hopes and dreams for them and the hopes and dreams of many generations before. I never asked my students to do an assignment I didn't do myself, so I called my mom and interviewed her about her hopes and dreams for me. It was a conversation we'd never had before. And I was surprised by her answers.

When I asked her where she saw me in ten years, she told me she saw me working and raising a family. I was stunned.

"Working?" I asked. "You mean teaching or something?"

"Yeah," she replied. "I love you, Karen. But you are meant to be busy. You would be bored if you didn't work outside the home."

"But you stayed home with us. Don't you think it's best for the kids if I'm home with them?"

"I think you'd be a great at-home mom. I think you'd be great at whatever you decide to do." [Does my mom know the right thing to say, or what?!?] "But is that what you want? I just imagined you working at least part time and having kids, too."

Now I had always assumed that I would either stop teaching once we had kids or I would work part time, but hearing my mom say it was so . . . stunning. For some reason, I had assumed that because she chose to stay home with us, she thought it was the best and only right choice for a mother to make. Obviously, I was wrong. How liberating. Now there's a mom who is NOT at war with women who made different choices.

Does she believe that staying home made a difference in our lives? Probably. I know I believe it did. I'm sure my parents made financial sacrifices to make it work. Four kids don't come cheap. But I was never really left wanting. Somehow, from my perspective, it just seemed to work out.

When Casey was born, I took a few months off of work. I was bored. I asked them to give me some work to do at home. After I went back to work part time, I tried joining a playgroup. I didn't like it. They were all at-home moms. Most of them had multiple children. Older than Casey. I don't know if they made me feel unwelcome or if I just made myself feel that way. I won't join that particular group again. I was the only mom who had a job outside the home. I felt judged. I didn't have anything in common with these women on an individual level, except that we were moms. And for me, that wasn't enough.

I did make friends with a couple of moms of kids in Casey's Little Gym class. And we'd get the kids together every week or two to play after Little Gym. And that was nice. But when we sent Casey off to preschool instead of Little Gym, those tentative friendships waned. We just didn't have much in common other than that class.

When I was home on parent leave after we returned from China with Marcie, I thought I would be insanely bored again. I was surprised at how busy I was, toting Casey from speech therapy to preschool, playing with Marcie, making lunches, and taking care of the house. And studying. But something magical happened during that time. I started to learn who Casey's best friends at school were. I found out what his preschool teacher likes to do in her spare time. I had the time to volunteer in his class. I was involved on a whole new level. When I accompany Casey to birthday parties, all know all the kids by name.

Last week, when I visited Casey at school for his class Spring Parade and Egg Hunt, I was part of a small group of parents (there were dads and moms present). Many of them chit-chatted with me. Some asked about Marcie. Some asked about how I was doing with law school. Some talked about how the kids were doing in preschool. They were friendly. They looked surprised when I said I was stepping out so I could get back to work. I think they momentarily forgot I had a job outside the home.

I felt, for the first time, like I had finally crossed over. Like it didn't matter where each of us worked, or how many hours we spent working each day. Like we were all moms, and that was genuinely all we needed to have in common to understand each other. And more importantly I sensed respect for my choice to work outside the home. It is a respect I return for their choices to focus only on motherhood.

I get frustrated when I hear people say they don't work because they stay home with their kids. It is work. It is hard work. It's undoubtedly rewarding work. But it is work nonetheless. Really, we are all working moms. I admire women who stay home. I admire women who balance their work life with their family life. Mostly, I admire women who know that what's best for them and their families can't be decided by politicians or social pressure. That it's an individual choice each family must make. Mostly, I admire women who value the fact that we have choices and honor the choices other women make.


Lucia, Adam, Noah and Camille said...

What a great post...honest,balanced and well written! I don't understand why there needs to be this polarity between women. It makes me sad to feel like we never really left middle school behind us with our judgements, our cattiness, and the need to place everyone in a specific group or clique.You're right we are all "working women" and we should be able to support and respect each other! I got your link from the Taiwan board and I am glad I checked out your blog. Feel free to e-mail me if you have any questions about our adoption. It looks like our children are close in age. Our son is 4 and our daughter is 17 months old.

Jodie said...

I agree with you. We all make choices based on our own needs. Both of my parents worked outside of the home and I have such great memories of my childhood. My parents worked hard and my sister and I reaped the benefits. I always knew I would be a working mom too. I got my teaching degree and worked until our lives changed with my husband getting a new job and us moving to CO. I had my daughter and we decided I would stay home. I've been at that job now for over 10 years and now have 3 "direct reports"!! :) I would never judge a mother for her decision to work or stay home because I've seen the positives of both.

PS. I think we were a lot alike during the middle school years!!