Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Happy Homemaker, Part 1

A couple of weeks ago, my friend Adleen lent me a book called Happy Housewives by Darla Shine. It's billed as a how-to manual for stay-at-home moms. The cover says, "I was a whining, desperate housewife - but I finally snapped out of it... you can, too!" The author outlines her plan "in ten easy steps", each of which provides the basis for a chapter:

1. Please stop whining!
2. Be proud! Being an at-home mom is the most important job.
3. Stop looking like a housewife.
4. Make your marriage a priority.
5. Bond with your home.
6. Get back in the kitchen.
7. Keep your girlfriends.
8. Make time for yourself.
9. Don't take it all so seriously.
10. Don't wish for someone else's problems.

Now, I'm no Stepford Wife; I embrace my inner slacker. I pretty much have this at-home thing down to a (crazy and chaotic) science. But my friend found the book entertaining and helpful, so read it with an open mind. And although I agree with much of what Darla says, this Slacker Mom took umbrage at some of her suggestions. For example: Never leave your house without lipstick, even to go to the schoolbus stop - get up early and put your face on. Really? I've taken my kids to school in my jammies. And walked them in. Or this one: Never wear sneakers with your jeans because it's too "frumpy dumpy housewife - wear cute wedge sandals instead!" Seriously? YOU try supervising recess on a sandy playground in 3-inch heels. And my favorite: Buy new furniture with every new house, because it's good to change your look and your style. Sure, if you're married to a senior executive at Fox News. No problem. Me, I'm on my third house and I've had the same bookcases since college. Geez.

Additionally, here's a warning: Darla Shine is vehemently anti-working mom, an attitude that I cannot forgive - she's quite, um, opinionated about moms who choose to work, and a bit condescending towards women who have to work. To paraphrase, she writes that "unless you would starve or end up on the streets, what job do you have that is more important than raising your kids?" Uh, forgive me, Darla, but I am thankful for the working moms I know - my kids' teachers, their pediatrician, our school nurses, my best friend. I found it hard to read that part of her book, because Slacker Mom is all about supporting women and mothers, and never about judging and being catty - and besides, I've always felt that some women are actually BETTER moms when they work. But if you can get past her "quit your job and raise your own babies" rhetoric, she has some interesting things to say about being a mom and a wife. And if you are a stay-at-home mom, she makes some good points about being proud of the work you do - that we should embrace this stay-at-home mom gig and do a good job at it, since we really only get one chance.

But the part that most resonated with me was what Darla's mom said to her when she complained about being stuck at home with her kids - even though she had a maid and a nanny and all the material advantages that a wealthy husband can provide. She wrote about calling her mom, who was on vacation, and asking when she was coming home: "My mother told me off good. She said that I had a lot of nerve. What the hell did I have to complain about? I had a beautiful house, two healthy kids, and a husband who loved me, and I should shut up and count my blessings... She said that my friends and I were a bunch of spoiled brats, and we all should know how lucky we are."

I read that page and thought, "GO DARLA'S MOM!"

If we think we have it hard, we should talk to our mothers and grandmothers. My mother had three kids in three years, another one six years later, and a husband who made a good living but didn't lift a finger around the house. Men of my dad's generation didn't change diapers, vacuum, drive carpool, or cook. They made the money, and their wives did everything else. My grandmother had four kids in six years, and never had two in diapers at the same time - because she had to wash those diapers by hand and then hang them on the clothesline. She didn't have a dishwasher, a microwave, a crock pot, or a cleaning lady. She and my grandfather had ONE car - and he drove it work each day. She did everything that I do - by hand - and with no help. And, I'd argue, women of my grandmother's generation were, as a whole, happier and less stressed. No one took Prozac, no one ordered takeout, and no one complained. They'd lived through the Great Depression; they had no sense of entitlement. They knew something that Darla and her friends forgot: namely, that they'd CHOSEN to be moms, they'd CHOSEN to be housewives, and they were LUCKY that they could afford to feed and shelter and clothe their children. They knew something that we've forgotten: being a mom may be hard at times, but it's the best job we'll ever have.

So many of us complain about our lives - if only I had a cleaning lady, a new cell phone, more money, a pedicure. So many of us think we "need" certain things to be happy - a bigger house or newer car or nicer clothes. But how many of us take a good, hard look around us and think, "Wow. I have healthy kids and a loving husband. I live in a safe neighborhood; my kids go to a good school. I don't have to work to pay the bills. I have a car. I turn on the faucet and clean water comes out; I can put healthy food on the table." How many of us are grateful for the opportunity to be home with our kids, even for a few months or a few years, even if it means making financial sacrifices?

In the end, we CHOSE to become mothers. We CHOSE to quit our jobs. We CHOSE to be the one in charge of, well, everything. We made a conscious decision to be the at-home parent - and that means that WE are the ones who take care of the home, the kids, the chores and errands. That's not to say our spouses shouldn't pitch in; they should, and we need to train our kids to help, too. But is it really fair to expect the working spouse to do half? Or even a fourth? I have a stay-at-home mom friend whose husband works nine hours a day, with an hour commute each way. When he walks in the door, he'd like to see his kids, have a nice meal, and then relax. She, however, feels that when he gets home, he's on kid duty and she gets a break. Now, while I understand the need for time away, and we've ALL had those days where we need to hand over our kids for our sanity and their safety, it shouldn't be every day. Why not take her "me time" while her kids are napping? Or arrange a "kid-swapping" with another mom? That, or pop in a video and park them on the couch for a few minutes. (Don't judge; you've done it, too. It won't knock off more than a few IQ points.) She could let some housework go so she can enjoy that time with her husband before their kids go to bed. In my world, "me time" comes after the kids' bedtime - and I'm OK with that.

My sister recently called me "a 1950s housewife." She was mad at me when she said it, so I think she meant it as an insult. But when I thought about it, I decided to take it as a compliment. I mean, I don't work; I am a stay-at-home mom. It IS my job to get my kids up, fed, dressed and ready for the day. It IS my job to run the errands, do the chores, make dinner and oversee homework. I DO think my husband should come home to a decent meal after a long day at work. It IS my job to run the household as smoothly as I can. Sure, there are days it looks like a bomb exploded in my family room. There are days where I order a pizza and call it dinner, without feeling guilty. There are days where the dishes have taken over the kitchen and I'd be completely mortified if a neighbor stopped by. There are days where no one has clean jeans and the library books are missing and I forgot to pack snacks and there's no milk so breakfast is a piece of toast eaten in the car. And then someone drips butter on her shirt and cries. It happens. Life happens. But I'm not going to whine and cry and say that I have it so hard. You want hard? Talk to a working mom, a single mom, a military wife. My life is not hard. My life is a freakin' walk in the park.

Slacker Mom Says... why not just decide to be a "happy housewife" rather than a "desperate housewife"? We signed on for this gig; we can embrace it and enjoy it. It won't last forever. Before we know it, our kids will be gone and we'll have nothing but time on our hands. Then I'll have plenty of "me time" and money for pedicures and a cleaning lady.

But I'll still wear sneakers with my jeans and leave my house - occasionally - without lipstick on.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Toss Out the Labels

As I was leaving the elementary school parking lot this morning, I saw a giant SUV with those stick figure family drawings on the back. You know the ones - adults, kids, pets, and little stickers that you use to indicate what each family member likes to do. Now, cute as they are, I've never wanted to put them on MY car. But I've never had an opinion about anyone else having them on HER car, either.

Until this morning.

What changed? Well, this particular car showed two boys, each with a football in his hand, as well as a third boy holding a baseball bat. Now, that in itself is not a problem, but I wondered: what would my girls put on their little stick figures? How would they pick just ONE sticker to state who they are? I mean, they dance, play sports, love animals and museums and books. Sure, my youngest is completely obsessed with horses, but that's not the ONLY thing she's into. And my oldest has recently been bit by the acting bug, but she also adores reading and dancing and basketball and talking on the phone. My kids are not single-mindedly pursuing one activity at this point in their young lives, but are fairly well-rounded with a wide variety of interests.

So that got me thinking: if we put one interest sticker on our kids' little stick figures, are we labeling them, pigeon-holing them? And do we do this with their personality traits, too?

Last night, my book club met to discuss Jodi Picoult's Nineteen Minutes. This should be required reading for any parent as soon as the stick turns blue; there are so many important themes in this book that it's impossible to fully discuss them all here. But in one scene that I found thought-provoking, a Kindergarten teacher asks parents to choose one word to describe their children. Innocent enough, right? One mother says, "Sensitive." Another mother thinks, "Mine." While reading that scene, I wavered between "sensitive" and "brilliant" for one daughter, "funny" and "generous" for the other. But then I started thinking about my choices. Is my firstborn ONLY brilliant? She's also witty and empathetic. Is my younger child any less intelligent than her sister? Isn't she creative and smart and brave, too? Does the fact that my little one would give up her last drop of water to anyone who needed it make my older daughter selfish, or is it just that she's got a better sense of self-preservation, and that makes her slightly less generous by comparison? And why in the world am I comparing them? How could I possibly choose only one word to describe these complex, amazing people?

Couple that with the stick figures I saw today, and I've got a dilemma: How do I appreciate and understand the whole person that each of my children are? When we label our kids "smart", "shy", "sensitive", "brave", or "athletic," are we putting them in a box and making them into who we think they are, rather than letting them be who they really are? Why can't they be more than one thing at different times of their lives, at different times of the day? And even if we only use labels with positive connotations, aren't we simply telling our children who WE think they are? What about letting them become who they are meant to be?

Now, I'm a firm believer that kids are basically born with their personality pretty much intact. Take my kids, for example. My older daughter came out screaming, and hasn't stopped talking since. She talked early, and she talked often (much like her mother). She exhausts me with her play-by-play of everything everyone said all day long. My younger child was completely silent at birth; her huge eyes looked around and took it all in, and to this day, she's more likely to sit back and observe before jumping in. She doesn't like to talk to strangers; she's not shy, just slow to warm up to new situations (much like her father).

But I also feel that, as parents, it's our job to encourage our kids to develop or strengthen certain traits, while helping them gain some measure of control over others. My older child tends to worry about things that she can't control, and it's my job to help her deal with that. She can't freak out at every little imagined slight of middle school existence, or she'll fall apart. My little one is far too persistent at times, and she needs to learn when it's in her own best interest to just let it go and move on.

Which brings me back to the stick figures on the SUV: In the end, does it really matter if this family labels two kids football players and one kid a baseball player? I mean, maybe those boys eat, sleep, breathe their sport. I'm probably way overanalyzing things, as usual. But as a mom, I want to embrace my children's personalities and encourage them to try many, many new things. I don't want them to specialize in one sport, in one activity, at this age. I want them to find out who THEY are, what THEY like, rather than get too focused on what and who I think they are. That's not to say we can't compliment our children; we can, and we should. But I think we have to be careful about what we say and how we say it. No matter how smart my daughter is, she's going to make mistakes and she's going to fail at something, sometime. I need to remind her that she IS smart, but that doesn't mean she is ONLY smart. And I need to avoid saying things like, "she's the smart one" or "she's the funny one", because what does that say to - and about - my other daughter? I have to guard against saying, "This one is my dancer; that one is my artist." Why can't they BOTH be BOTH?

Slacker Mom Says... beware the labels. Kids will live up - or down - to our expectations. As parents, we can't pressure them into being one thing or another, but we should encourage them to be who they are. Constantly putting labels on kids - even so-called "good" labels like "smart" or "kind" - might tell our kids that we value them for only these qualities. Nobody is any one thing all the time - and isn't that OK? I used to wish, desperately at times, that my younger daughter wasn't so stubborn. But I soon realized that her stubborness will serve her well as a preteen. No one's going to get that kid to do anything she doesn't want to do - no boy will talk her into something she's not ready for, no amount of peer pressure will work on her. She's definitely her own person, and has been since birth. Kids have a lot of pressure on them from many sides - parents, teachers, peers, society. It's a different world than the one I grew up in. I want my girls to know that I love them for who they are, not who I think they are or who I want them to be. My children are amazing people, and I could never in a million years have predicted how they've turned out so far. I can't wait to meet the adults they become.

That is, if we all survive the teen years.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Motherhood: The Most Powerful Job in the World

The other day at school pick up time, I overheard a couple of moms talking in the hallway. One woman asked her friend, "Do you want to see a movie Thursday night?" and the other one replied, "I don't know. I'll have to ask my husband if it's OK with him. He doesn't like me to go out during the week, and I don't know if he'll babysit the kids." (At this point, though my blood pressure was definitely on its way up, it was all I could do to keep from smacking this woman. Must. Not. Explode. It makes PTA meetings awkward.)

Immediately, I had a flashback to a Moms' Night Out group I started when my kids were toddlers. Several of us got together once a month for drinks, dinner, maybe a movie, if we weren't too drunk - although someone was always pregnant or nursing, so it was easy to find a designated driver. (That's the benefit of hanging out with younger moms, by the way. I'm finished with those non-drinking, baby-making years while they are just starting out.) A mom in our group had had an unfortunate haircut and coloring incident, so I asked if she'd found someone to fix it. She said, "My husband won't let me talk about it anymore. He's tired of hearing about it." OK, first of all, WTF? And secondly, HE'S NOT EVEN HERE. But even as I was formulating a response, another mom called and said, "My husband won't let me come tonight because he doesn't want to babysit the kids." While most of us immediately began (loudly and drunkenly) mocking him, one woman asked, "What's the big deal? My husband won't let me go every month, either. It's too hard to do dinner, baths and bedtime by himself."

Where do I start? Are you kidding me? I don't know about you, but I have never in my life asked my husband's permission to do anything. He's my husband, my partner, not my father. I guarantee you, the words "my husband won't let me" have never come out of my mouth - and they never will. On my wedding day, I promised to love, honor, and cherish him, all the days of my life, but that "obey" part? Took that right out of my vows. And "babysit" the kids? What, is he 16? Does he need a little extra spending money? Aren't they his kids, too? He's never once asked ME to "babysit" the kids while he goes to the gym or Home Depot or even to the office on a weekend. I'm not sure he could afford me, anyway. (And for the record, I'm not talking about using common courtesy and talking to one's spouse about one's plans. I always tell my husband in advance when something comes up that will affect our family's routine. I just don't ASK him if he'll LET me. C'mon.)

So, as usual, I started thinking: Why do some women feel the need to ask permission to do something for themselves, or ask their husbands to "babysit" the kids? He's not your father; he's your partner. What is it about being a mother, about being home with the kids, that makes some women feel that they have to be subservient? Is it having a job, making money, that gives one power and authority?

I say no. If anything, being a mom is powerful stuff. I make thousands of decisions every day that impact all areas of our lives. From budgeting to education to health to the daily running of our lives, I'm in charge of everything - except bringing home a paycheck. I'm raising the future; I'm educating another generation; I'm creating people who will go out into the world and make it a better place. I am all things to all people, all the time. I'm the mom. What could be more powerful than that?

To his credit, my husband points out all the time that I am the heart of our family, that I make our house a home (otherwise, our "home" would be a recliner, a TV, and a lot of takeout), that our family is what it is because of me. The traditions we have, the friends we make, the memories we cherish - don't they usually start with us, ladies? Not to minimize my husband's contributions, which go far beyond financial support and killing spiders, but mommies provide something essential to the family - the nurturing quality that makes little girls pick up and cuddle a baby doll while little boys are bashing their cars into the wall.

So, back to my original question: Why do some women feel the need to obtain "permission" from their husbands? I guess it's because they don't feel valued, or valuable, at home. Maybe their husbands don't tell them often enough how much they appreciate all that they do. Maybe they feel that money equals power, that the breadwinner gets to make all the decisions for the family, that their contributions to the family have less value because there's no monetary amount assigned to them. But I disagree. There is no price that we can put on being the person raising our kids. Forget all the crap about society not valuing the contributions of stay-at-home moms. We have to value our work ourselves! What we do is important, to our kids, to our husbands, to ourselves. We need to take pride in our work, just as we did when that work came with a paycheck. How many times have your kids walked right past their dad to ask you a question? And who do they cry for when they get hurt, or scared, or sick? Yep. That's right. They want Mommy. Ask any child, "Who's in charge at your house?" Every single one of them will say, "My mom."

Slacker Mom Says... when you get right down to it, we moms rule the world. Motherhood is power. Whether we work or stay home, moms do the bulk of childcare, housework, and decision-making for most American families. We determine how our kids are raised, what they learn about life, how they learn to cope with adversity; we give them roots and wings. Whether we work or stay home, we exert our considerable influence over an entire generation of Americans. We are raising the next generation, the ones who will, with luck, find a cure for cancer, solve the world's energy crisis, and fight for freedom and equality. We are moms; we are the world. Embrace the power.