Parenthood Juggle: This American Life

donutI am an almost thirty stay-home mother of 2 boys.  I live in a cookie cutter, modest subdivision on the outskirts of Houston.  I have a cute one story home that you will find every four or five lots surrounding me for a few miles or so.  I drive a mini-mini-van (a Mazda 5 that has the appeal of not really looking too much like a mini-van but functions like one).  Every morning I wake up to the sound of crying/fighting/whining kids and a husband’s goodbye.  I drag myself out of bed, already irritated by what I know is going to be another grinding day in the life.  A typical day consists of housecleaning, the never ending chores that get undone faster than I can do them, staring into my pantry trying to come up with some form of an edible meal that consists of evaporated milk, canned tomatoes, cornflakes, and black beans since the last thing I want to do is go grocery shopping AGAIN, and breaking up the relentless fighting and teasing and whining that seems to be my sons’ only way to pass the time.  By noon I’m spent and praying for a long and quiet naptime so that I can eat my peanut butter sandwich in peace and hopefully get to some of my non-mom work that usually involves editing pictures from a recent photo shoot, trying to update my creative lifestyle blog, or put together idea boards for interior decorating clients that periodically ask me for help.  Sometimes, after naps, I’ll attempt to run errands with my kids.  This is one of those things that every time I do it I swear to never do it again, but then necessity strikes and I don’t have a choice, so off we go to endure another crazy episode of “Stop it Right Now or I’ll (fill in the blank).”  Five o’clock rolls around not nearly soon enough and I start preparing my Black Bean Tomato Casserole Surprise.  Sometimes my husband is home by 6:30, sometimes he’s not.  The worst is when he says he will be home and then he’s held up and late.  It’s like time slows way way down on those nights.  My limit was reached hours ago and every minute that passes seems like an eternity until he finally walks in the door.  And then I can breathe.  Sort of.  Then we eat, my husband plays with the kids while I clean up or tend to something else or sometimes just hide out in my bathroom.  We tag team bedtime and switch off nightly so each of us is reading stories and singing songs to someone until about 8:30.  The last couple of hours of the night are my favorite hours of every day.  These are the hours I get to actually be with an adult, when arms are wrapped around me and I get to laugh at a funny sitcom or have an intelligent conversation with my husband.  Two hours of my entire day.  Two.  I revel in his stories of being at lunch at a restaurant with a coworker and the interesting conversations that they had while they were not eating peanut butter sandwiches or Black Bean Tomato Casserole Surprise.  I listen and respond animatedly when he tells me about what’s going on at work and his frustrations with I.T. or the nice conversation he had with one of his bosses who praised his work or an idea that he had.  He shows me a new song he heard on his commute that he thinks I’ll like and I envy the notion of riding in a car, alone, listening to music.  He gets to leave, he gets to interact, he gets to be one.  One person.  Not three.  I am always three.  This is my American life.  And I hate it.

I will now allow for all of you working-outside-the-home moms out there to take a minute to yell at me if you feel the need…take your time…I understand.  There.  Are you good?  I know that my problem is essentially a privileged problem.  How lucky am I that I can stay at home with my sweet little boys all day and not have to worry about going out into the messy world to try to provide for them?  I know that came off sounding sarcastic, but honestly, I don’t mean it sarcastically.  I know that I am lucky.  I am lucky to have a partner to come pick up the slack when I reach my limit and who works hard and is good at his job and provides us with a house and food and clothing and all the other essentials of life (and many nonessentials as well).  I am lucky to have had the opportunity to stay home and have the time to develop some talents that I otherwise would not have realized I had.  I am lucky to have been around to see my kids walk, talk, roll over, smile, laugh, and to be here when they have a booboo or are having a hard day.  I suppose I am very lucky.  But it’s hard for me to survive on just those “feel good moments” alone. peanut butter and jelly

Growing up Mormon, I developed the idea that there had to be two very distinct roles in a family for that family to survive:  the role of provider and the role of nurturer.  My own family was set up in accordance to these prescribed roles.  My mom never worked outside the home while I was growing up; my father traveled for work and provided for us financially.  A very “Leave it to Beaver”-esque arrangement that I believe they felt really worked well for them.  On occasion, my mom has lamented over the struggle that stay-at-home momhood is, but overall she really feels like that’s her role and that the sacrifice is warranted.  My dad also lamented sometimes about his incredibly stressful job and the physical effects that so much travel had on his body and mind.  But again, the role was his, and he wholeheartedly accepted it.  Years later, all of us kids are basically grown and it is now obvious to me the effects that those traditional Mormon-American roles have had on our family.  Hands down, all of my parents’ kids have a stronger, deeper, more involved relationship with our mother than our father.  We love our dad and appreciate all that he has sacrificed to “provide” for us, but the richness of a meaningful relationship is simply waning.  If one parent puts in more time and emotional investment than the other parent, it only seems logical to conclude that the children will (sorry…my kids are fighting…be back in a sec…)

Ugh.  Anyway, where was I?  Oh yeah.  So, if you have a relationship with two people and one of them spends more time and energy on you than the other, who do you suppose you’re going to be most emotionally attached to?  Where does this leave that hard working-outside-the-home parent later in life when their job and “providing” is no longer priority?  Poor dad.  Poor mom.  Poor kids!  Poor boys of mine who love their dad so much and wish that “every day was Saturday” so they could see him more often.  Here is a little story to illustrate this point:  When I was growing up my mom did 99% of the shopping for our family.  She bought our food, our clothes, our presents, our school supplies.  She watched us to figure out what we’d like for our birthdays and she’d sign the cards, being sure to include “from mom AND DAD”.  Of course I knew when I got something from my mom that it was my dad’s hard earned money (and it WAS hard earned) that paid for it, and I was grateful for that.  But it was my mother’s thoughtfulness and attention to my life and needs that stuck with me.  That’s why I so well remember the chocolate donut. 

One day my dad came home with a surprise for my older sister.  It wasn’t anything extravagant but I remember feeling jealous and left out.  He had bought her a day planner for no other reason than she needed one.  Anyway, I was bummed that he wouldn’t do something like that for me.  Not that I needed anything per se but it wasn’t every day that he would just give us things out of mere thoughtfulness.  I suppose he noticed my dismay because the next day or so he came home and handed me a chocolate donut.  I loved chocolate donuts and I didn’t think he knew that.  Maybe my mom told him or maybe he was more observant than I gave him credit for.  Either way, I was overjoyed about this donut and remember that it tasted like heaven.  Not because of the ingredients, but because my DAD bought it for me.  And I so desperately needed HIM.

My point is, our American lives force parents to choose between providing for their children financially and providing for them emotionally.  Our society does not acknowledge the importance of both parents being equally (or at least close to it) involved with their kids.  I dream of a place where I can be involved with my kids but also go out and be autonomous in the world.  Have a career, provide in BOTH ways for my family, and know that my husband is able to do the same. It’s not healthy or fair for either the parents or the children to have to be fixed in these positions where one parent is denied the opportunity to be involved with their kids and the other parent is denied the opportunity to be involved with anyone but their kids through circumstance.  The old notion that kids “need” moms more than dads has been basically invalidated.  New studies show that children in a family will attach more to whoever spends the most time and attention on them.  I’m glad to see that stay-home-fatherhood is on the rise, if only for the reason that at least we are breaking down gender stereotypes, but I feel that that is just swapping one parent out for the other instead of creating an environment where both parents can tag-team parenting duties equally.  My husband is a fantastic father, when he has time to be one.  I fear I am a less fantastic mother because I MUST ALWAYS be one.  If you are the stay-home parent, you are burnt out and isolated from non-stop 24 hour child care duties.  Not to mention the often complete lack of financial, physical, and emotional autonomy.  If you are the working parent, you are burnt out from the stress that being the sole financial provider carries, as well as feelings of guilt that you are not more involved in your children’s daily lives.  If you are both working parents, working full time to provide for family as well as pay for childcare, well, crap, I just can’t imagine the colossal burn-out associated with that gig.   This American life is sucking the life right out of every family in the country. 

There are a few other countries that have gotten this whole “family balance” thing figure out to some degree.  Take Sweden, for example, that has flexible parental leave for both parents with 80% pay.  Elina Pylkkänen and Nina Smith say, “The principal idea in the Swedish system is that parenthood is considered to be a shared responsibility between the mother and the father.”  Shared responsibility?!!  What a completely ridiculous idea!! (Okay, I’m just being snarky now.)  My children are 2 and 5 respectively.  I can only dream of having a husband who would be able to take months off at a time to develop deeper relationships with our kids and to participate fully in this “shared responsibility.”  Also, having this setup would allow me to work outside the home also so that I could be fulfilled in the other ways that I need as well as allow me to alleviate some financial pressure from my spouse.  Also, in Sweden, childcare is highly subsidized which allows for more parents to work and actually take home their pay instead of having to weigh out the dilemma of working-to-pay-for-childcare versus simply being a stay-home parent.  Sweden also offers more part-time employment options for women and because health care is universal there, they can pursue this option without the dilemma of work-full-time-for-the-benefits versus work-part-time-for-the-flexibility.

Should we all move to Sweden?  I hope that we won’t need to.  My hope is that America will begin to adopt these notions of equality, flexible roles, and support for the family unit.  Hopefully sooner rather than later, I will be able to work AND spend a healthy amount of time with my kids and my husband will be in a position to do the same.  America is evolving.  What once seemed appropriate and functional for families is no longer cutting it.  I’m not sure what needs to happen to get to that better place.  I’m sure it involves tons of introspection and redefining roles and priorities.  But it needs to happen.  I need it to happen.  I love America.  I’m grateful to have been born and raised here.  But this life, this American life, definitely leaves one wanting.     

-Submitted by Cate

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