Work, Worth, and Figuring Out What Really Matters

by Abby on April 18, 2012

For days now I’ve been stewing over the whole Hilary Rosen/Ann Romney issue, even as I’m elbow-deep in pukey bedsheets. As most of you probably know, liberal pundit Hilary Rosen started a media firestorm last week when she said that Ann Romney, the wife of Mitt Romney and former stay-at-home mom to 5 boys, can’t understand the economic concerns of women because she “hasn’t worked a day in her life.”

Amy WilsonI get that Rosen’s remarks may have been taken out of context, and that by “work” she probably meant paid employment rather than effort expended. That’s not the part that annoys me. I AM annoyed at the response to the issue, which author Amy Wilson sums up perfectly in her blog post, “Please stop saying that motherhood is the hardest job in the world.” This is the part that sticks with me:

Please, pundits, spare us SAHMs the patronizing pats on the head and the empty plaudits about how you think we have the hardest job in the world. Rosen will suffer the consequences but she told the truth: people who aren’t SAHMs think being a SAHM isn’t a job at all.

And here’s what REALLY bugs me about it: the fact that deep down, I AGREE.

I must not believe that being a SAHM is a “real job.” Why else would I make myself crazy continuing to pursue paid freelance work while using as little childcare as possible, when countless people have pointed out how much “easier” it would be to stop working until the kids are older?

Why else would I defend myself so stridently to people who assume I don’t work because I don’t go to an office and I spend a lot of time with my kids?

Why else would I identify myself as a work-at-home mom and (mentally) distance myself from the “real” stay-at-home moms who pick up the dry-cleaning and don’t expect their husbands to do half the housework?

It wasn’t that long ago that I got in a heated argument about never being a SAHM. Screw that, I’m going to WORK for a living, was my feeling.

As a confirmed self-help junkie, I recently did an exercise that involved writing down a list of words that I associate with success. The idea was to get at what really motivates you, whether that’s love, money, fame, health insurance, etc. Some words on my list: valuable, valued, worthwhile, significant contribution. Are you sensing a theme?

This tells me what, on some level, I guess I always knew: I choose how to spend my time based on whether I feel like a certain pursuit is “worth it.” When I had kids, I felt that staying at home with them was more valuable than sending them to daycare and working full time. Although to be honest, it didn’t really feel like a choice. Childcare is expensive, and I thought I could do both, just maybe scale back on the writing a bit. (Say it with me: HA!)

However, somewhere along the line I got the message that worth is also defined by a paycheck. Maybe not the SIZE of the paycheck, but the act of being paid something for your contributions. This is where being a SAHM, WAHM, or whatever you want to call the default parent, becomes problematic.

This week, both my kids have been sick for days. I’ve been puked on, pooped on, kicked by sweaty, feverish people sleeping next to me… and in the morning, my husband goes off to work for 8-10 hours while I stay home with the sick kids and my laptop gathers dust. He has to – he has the “real job.” Make no mistake: when he’s home he’s right there in the smelly trenches with me. But he brings home the big paycheck. He has the health insurance. He has an office.

When I rail at him about how many loads of laundry I did that day and how many unexpected baths I had to give, what I am really saying is: I work just as hard as you!

When I complain about how MY work always gets put on the back burner when the kids are sick or he’s out of town, what I am really saying is: my time is worth something, too!

When I retort, “I guess you don’t think what I do really matters,” what I am really saying (to myself) is: maybe what I do doesn’t really matter.

The irony is that I’m saying these things to my husband, who’s on the same side I am. He DOES think what I do matters, and he values my contributions to our family, both as a writer and a mom. So who am I really trying to convince here?

Gloria SteinemQUOTE O’ THE DAY: I watched a fascinating interview with feminist/activist Gloria Steinem, in which she said (paraphrasing): “Do not look for the thing you can do that will matter, look for how to make everything you do matter.” That statement was an aha moment for me.

FLICKS O’ THE DAY: If you’ve ever doubted a mother’s worth, watch “The Descendants” and “We Bought a Zoo.” I was bawling at the thought of my kids growing up without a mom. Plus, they’re both pretty good movies.

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{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

Lou Mello April 18, 2012 at 7:41 am

We all need to do what’s right for us and if other folks want to label it then that’s their problem, not ours. As we live our lives, we should hope to find that what we do for ourselves and our family is most important; and how it is done is no one’s concern except our own. When we care about ourselves and our family it opens us up to caring about others as well and that is when we can turn to helping others where possible.

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Abby April 18, 2012 at 10:31 am

I think that’s a great philosophy, and one that I definitely try to embrace. I know in my heart what’s really important, but sometimes getting my head to agree with that is a real challenge. Thanks for your thoughts.

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Angie Mizzell April 18, 2012 at 9:32 am

Abby, this post rang so true for me I almost cried…you showed what goes on behind the scenes in my house on a regular basis. I forwarded it to my husband. As you said, we are on the same team. The issues stem from how I feel about my own choices. I do think we need to own our choices and don’t need to defend them, but on days that I feel like my work or my time doesn’t matter… that’s hard. In fact, I’ve been mulling over a post for a week now about relevance. As I unravel the key theme(s) in my memoir, identity is a big one.

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Abby April 18, 2012 at 10:32 am

Thanks, Angie. That means a lot to me. This was a hard post to write, one of those vulnerable, personal, scary ones, so it feels hugely validating that another mom can relate.

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Kathleen Basi April 18, 2012 at 10:25 am

I am in the same boat as you. But honestly, I think part of what makes us feel defensive is that we don’t feel like we’re living up to the cultural standards for SAHMs. We don’t want to feel like posers. We’re home, but we’re not doing round-the-clock housecleaning and enrichment activities for our kids, we’re writing…when we can. At least, that’s how I feel about it.

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Abby April 18, 2012 at 10:36 am

Yes, you’re so right. I often have “what do I have to show for my time?” thoughts. It’s certainly not an immaculate house and perfect children! There is a cultural perception that SAHMs should have perfectly clean houses, I think. After all, what else do we have to do all day? It was actually a working mom who made me feel better about my house. She pointed out that hers is so neat because they’re gone all day at work and daycare; there’s no one there to mess it up!

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Jamie April 18, 2012 at 11:19 am

I am right there with you. Being a WAHM with very little childcare is complicated and I completely understand where you are coming from on so many levels.

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Abby April 18, 2012 at 7:53 pm

Complicated is right, which is why it’s so infuriating when the media or anyone presents it as just 2 choices: work, or stay home if you’re “lucky” enough to be able to.

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Courtney April 18, 2012 at 12:39 pm

This has been a fascinating issue to watch as I was deep in that personal turmoil for some time. When i had kids i went from a full time lawyer to a part time lawyer to a work from home lawyer and I clung to the working label. I felt like I needed it to justify my existence. Quitting the working world all together lead to some serious anxiety issues on my part. I hit a wall/a breaking point (long story) and finally learned to relax. I finally believed what everyone around me was saying – these things that I don’t get paid for are valuable. I believe that now, so I (amazingly) don’t care if the world gives me a patronizing pat on the head. I see value in what I’m doing and that has given me confidence and freedom. It just took a loooong time for me to get there and it wasn’t easy. I pray that we can teach our sons and daughters that a paycheck is nice (and of course necessary) but confidence in the choices we make is priceless.

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Abby April 18, 2012 at 7:55 pm

What an interesting story, Courtney. Especially because as a lawyer, you must know the monetary value of your time down to the minute! That’s so great you’re able to see value in what you’re doing now. I’m working on it, and I hope I get there someday, too.

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Laurie April 18, 2012 at 1:26 pm

Love this – I’m realizing more and more lately that the person who most needs to appreciate what I do is ME. I know how important being here for my kids is, but I don’t want my value attached only to being a mom, but I haven’t really questioned why I don’t let that be enough. It’s something to think about (and I do think Kathleen’s comment about the SAH “standard” and not meeting it is part of my issue).

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Abby April 18, 2012 at 7:56 pm

Yes! I want people to notice and appreciate what I do, but at the same time, I don’t give MYSELF credit.

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Kory April 18, 2012 at 2:29 pm

I totally feel you on this. I can see how we all try to validate ourselves in order to fit societal expectations or family, inlaws etc… I’ve definitely learned to relax and just enjoy my SAHM experience and not be so hard on myself. Am I physically able to work? YES! Can I afford daycare for what I would make at a job? NO! Do my inlaws look down at me for staying at home with my beautiful girl and think I should be “bringing in a paycheck” to CONTRIBUTE more? YES! Do I care what they think? NO! These years are precious to me. A job is just a job! But being a MOMMY is the BEST CAREER I have ever had. Time goes by so fast and these years are so precious to me. There will be plenty of time for a so-called “JOB” later on. I’m in no big rush and as long as my husband is supportive and is happy with our HAPPY, HEALTHY little girl. I will spend as much time with her as I possibly can! My friend recently started her Dali Ma Ma fb fan page and her quotes lead me to seek daily positivity. I may not be rich in wealth (because I have chosen) but I am filled and rich with beautiful memories. THAT is what I consider SUCCESS!

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Abby April 18, 2012 at 7:59 pm

What a great attitude, Kory! I like that definition of success. 🙂 It’s so crazy, because I have friends whose in-laws pressure them to stay home with their kids. More proof that you can’t win by trying to conform to the expectations of others.

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Janine Fitzpatrick April 18, 2012 at 6:46 pm

I have done all the options, SAHM, WAHM, full time work, part time work and every option has been darn hard. I clung to the WAHM title as a way to validate my existence. Although looking back there were times I was expending way more effort than the monetary return coming back. With the benefit of hindsight I wish I had just relaxed more and realised life is a series of chapters and this was just one stage of my experience and with time changes would come. I realise now that my judging and resenting others was to do with my own frustrations. I wish we could just focus on making viable solutions that benefit everyone, those with children (both mums and dads) and even those without children who could benefit from more flexible work arrangements as well.

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Abby April 18, 2012 at 8:01 pm

“I wish I had just relaxed more and realised life is a series of chapters and this was just one stage of my experience and with time changes would come”

Janine, that’s one point Gloria Steinem kept making in the interview. She’s in her 70s now and says she’d tell young women today to have 4 or 5 careers in their lifetime.

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Shani Gilchrist April 18, 2012 at 8:53 pm

Thanks for saying what so many of us are thinking. For a second there I thought I was reading a dispatch from my own house! The difference is that I went into motherhood expecting to be a stay-at-home mom and for two years everything seemed pretty as a picture on the surface. My husband worked and traveled, I stayed home with our sweet little boy and we were such buddies. It was great. But I was restless. I didn’t even mean to start “working” again. I started blogging, which took on a life of it’s own, resulting in going back to writing in the form of freelancing. Things are messy, but SO happy (when I’m not yelling the above quotations at my husband or having a meltdown over whether to increase the amount of childcare we have). It works for me and therefore we (all four of us, now) are all happy. What I have would not make everyone happy. Other people’s work or stay at home situations would make me miserable. It boils down to people getting to know how they can pass their kids an example of living life with a bit of confidence and self-knowledge. Thanks SO much for posting this!!

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Abby April 19, 2012 at 6:10 pm

Thanks for sharing your story, Shani. “Messy but happy” usually describes my life, too. 🙂

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Frume Sarah April 18, 2012 at 9:06 pm

I would have not understood this at all prior to leaving behind my (beloved) calling as a pulpit rabbi this past summer in order to be home with our children. When one of my sibs recently mentioned to my husband that I’ve seemed a bit angry of late, my husband explained how hard this transition has been ESPECIALLY since I am now working hard for people who do not seem to value my efforts.

And this was completely unprompted by me!

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Abby April 19, 2012 at 6:12 pm

That is a BIG change. It must have been a huge adjustment for you, so some anger/growing pains seems perfectly appropriate to me.

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jetts31 April 19, 2012 at 8:06 am

You are the first person I’ve read or heard say about the patronizing pat on the head. I never thought of it that way. I always looked at my wife and I as 2pcs to a machine. Without her and I both, the machine stops running. Work, staying at home, they’re both important pcs for our family.

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Abby April 19, 2012 at 6:16 pm

That is a great way of looking at it, Jimmy. But I almost never hear any pundits or politicians acknowledging that many working parents couldn’t do what they do without their spouse at home. If we were to hire someone to do what I do, the cost would be staggering. Come to think of it, my SIL lives in DC and tells me some families (politicians?) have regular nannies AND weekend nannies!

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Pamela April 19, 2012 at 6:26 pm

I nominated you for Very Inspiring Blogger. See my post “Inspiring” on http://www.roughwighting.net.

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Abby April 19, 2012 at 7:43 pm

Thank you! I’ll check it out.

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