I recently calculated my “Mom salary:”
This is how much it would cost to replace me; but really, this model doesn’t add up. Because I’m not a great housekeeper or cook. I do not have the patience, persistence, or disposition for many domestic tasks. Knitting has too much math. I get bored and frustrated at home. I certainly don’t do enough housework well enough to earn the $18/hr we pay a local woman to clean our place on Friday afternoon.
My cleaning is incomplete, half-assed, and mostly involves moving messes around creatively. I’d be fired. In no way am I “saving” my family over $100k by working dramatically less now that I’ve quit grad school, and that’s my plan next year unless a magical job comes along. Currently, my modest adjuncting income is offset almost completely by childcare expenses, and next year, I’ve committed to teaching a single course at our local community college, which will bring in just enough to cover childcare and maybe pay for my gas. Is that what I’m worth? About $100/week? My adviser asked me yesterday about my career ambitions and I just said, “Shrug.”*
I like to think that as a Mom, I’m greater than the sum of my duties: what makes me irreplaceable, what makes my absence from my children’s lives impossible and unbearable is that only I am myself. Only I am my girls’ mother; only I can be me. So I might not make organic meals every night, create unnecessarily elaborate tooth fairy magic, or sign my girls up for soccer and dance classes; but I can sprinkle nutritional yeast and turmeric on popcorn, have tons of art supplies ready for plunder, and sing the Krusty Krab Pizza song to them as no other human can. I’m not replaceable by a chef, or a teacher, or a robot. No one else can be me.
But I admit that I’m not a particularly ambitious or driven Mom. I remember being vaguely resentful of my Mom as a kid because she refused to play board games with us; didn’t do our hair all fancy like the girls down the street; wasn’t an enthusiastic “room mom” like Kit Davis’s Mom was. But now I can see that she did not do that shit because that shit is boring. I’m really glad we don’t own Candyland. I do not ever intend to make elaborate, healthy snacks a la Weelicious. I want my kids to play together, outside, unsupervised, without need for direction or tons of interaction. At heart, I am lazy, even when it comes to things I care about.
“Each suburban wife struggles with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night- she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question– ‘Is this all?”
― Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique
I’d like to separate the domestic from the maternal when we talk about SAHMing, because I’m very bad at one and very good at the other. I love connecting with my kids, but I’m not Caroline Ingalls: I can’t mother, and make soap and put out prairie fires and cook dinner and garden and pay the bills and take the cats to the vet and and and. I’m not gifted at this kind of coordination, and I am not motivated to get better at it. But I feel like I should be better at it, I feel like I should care more about being good at it. I recognize those things as good things.
I know what I am good at. I can answer every anatomy question Robin has: where babies grow, how they come out, what’s inside our feet, what a placenta does (“It scrubs the pee from the baby,” she says), how our brains work, where our blood goes. I can pretend to be a dog, or cat, or Grandfather, or whoever else Holly decides she needs me to be, at least for fifteen minutes until I want to check my email or read my book. But my talents end there, and I feel like if I’m going to eschew my entire professional identity for the sake of mothering my children, then I should be pursuing maternity as my new vocation to the Nth degree. I even had the insane thought that I should have another baby to sort of seal the deal on my impending mostly-SAHMhood and signify my commitment to the enterprise. Shouldn’t mothering be my new ambition? Why am I not more into this stuff, if I do love them so much?
Some want reclaim “lazy” or “free range” parenting, pointing out the real perils of over-involved “helicopter” parenting. Lazy is good parenting because you allow your children to explore, make mistakes, and self-direct. I trend strongly in this direction both because I agree with it on numerous philosophical levels, but also because it’s the only way I have a prayer for feeling like a decent mother. But I also read “lazy parenting” lambasted as household anarchy, as failing to cultivate talents or abilities that are crucial; as detached and disinterested. We care too much; we don’t care enough. We do too much; we don’t do enough. As usual, we can’t win. I have a lot more to say on the subject of free parenting of all kinds (free range, free thinking, free money would also be great), but right now what I really want to know is, is it acceptable to half-ass this? Is it all right to be a full-time (or mostly full-time) mother without a real zeal for the work of it? If I don’t want to industriously clean my home, take my kids on educational outings, and make complete and healthy meals, should I pay someone else to do those things instead? Can I just drop the ball on these Sisyphian tasks? May I just mother by default rather than by declaration, devotion, or destitution? Who am I without work, real or imagined?
* I didn’t actually say that. But I should have.