"http://www.w3.org/TR/xhtml1/DTD/xhtml1-transitional.dtd"> urbanMamas

Parenting, home-keeping: Work that we love?

The thing is, this day pictured here was a hard day, as days go. Many of the days are hard. My sister was babysitting, a rarity for a Saturday, and Monroe wouldn't be left behind while I biked to the farmer's market. It's easier by myself. I can really chat with the vendors, a thing that is always fascinating and lovely; I can buy all the produce and meat and cheeses I want, quickly, and proceed with photographing or browsing; I need never chase or carry or negotiate with a strong, strong-willed child. Monroe cried, fussed, screamed, begged with tears in his eyes and hope in his voice, 'go wif you?" I couldn't resist him, I went, I could barely talk with anyone, I had to rush through my list and never once got to photograph a pile of radishes.

But this picture, as so many of my pictures are, is of joy. And as I look through my photographs I see all my children's personalities, and I see many moments of joy, moments that spark out amongst the hardness. I see much work, but I see love in that work, I see that it is all work that I love, every minute of it. The washing dishes, the gardening and the bread-kneading and the lacto-fermenting, the biking and carrying and chasing children, the bringing to events both minor and major, the "talking to children, answering questions with questions, and treating each child’s thought as a special contribution," these are the things I love most!

I have been reading two pieces meant, I am sure, to spark discussion and controversy. The first was a piece in Salon by Babble blogger Madeline Holler. The second -- also written about by Madeline, curiously -- is a cover story from New York Magazine by staff writer Jennifer Senior. Holler spends a lot more of her time comparing her own personal life -- and how hard, indeed, it is -- to the lives of others, specifically the "radical homemakers" of whom Shannon Hayes writes.

She writes of how difficult it was, for a few years, when her husband took a huge paycut -- to $36,000 -- for their family of three. "I enrolled our daughter at a co-op preschool, where, in exchange for low tuition, I wiped down toilets, attended endless meetings and worked several five-hour shifts a month. I spent hours on Craigslist -- and days of follow-up -- to find a suitable coffee table. Meanwhile, Crate and Barrel had the perfect one in stock. Finding a new shirt to meet up with an editor turned into a soul-crushing ordeal, since I shopped nowhere but Target and Old Navy."

She can't grow anything, especially basil -- she hates kneading bread -- "A little piece of me dies when I notice the baby sitter drives a nicer car than us." Living on $36,000 was way too much work. "Also? I sort of hated it."

Senior's piece is more nuanced; instead of professing to "hate" parenting, she portrays many other parents who do, comparing herself as she experiences a lovely moment (her young son running into her arms as she gets home from work) and then the hard "reality" of parenting (she goes inside, seeing a broken toy garage, and a tantrum when she tries to fix it). She writes, "The scene ended with a time-out in his crib.  As I shuffled back to the living room, I thought of something a friend once said about the Children’s Museum of Manhattan—'a nice place, but what it really needs is a bar'—and rued how, at that moment, the same thing could be said of my apartment."

She has lots of damning quotes from experts and scientists studying parenting and happiness, like this one: "Annette Lareau, the sociologist who coined the term 'concerted cultivation' to describe the aggressive nurturing of economically advantaged children, puts it this way: 'Middle-class parents spend much more time talking to children, answering questions with questions, and treating each child’s thought as a special contribution. And this is very tiring work.'" And this one: "It wouldn’t be a particularly bold inference to say that the longer we put off having kids, the greater our expectations. 'There’s all this buildup—as soon as I get this done, I’m going to have a baby, and it’s going to be a great reward!' says Ada Calhoun, the author of Instinctive Parenting and founding editor-in-chief of Babble, the online parenting site. 'And then you’re like, 'Wait, this is my reward? This nineteen-year grind?'"

It's easy to assert, as I find Senior herself does in a follow-up interview about her piece, that "this is really a story about the self-invented misery of the middle class." And a lot of it is about your approach to the business: if you face parenting by continually comparing the reality of the present to the best bits of your childless life ("I could be out sipping cocktails and winking at hunky men, and instead I'm wiping up little tiny bits of my childrens' and their friends' poo!"), of course you'll be miserable. If you decide that you can't keep a basil plant alive and that canning enough beans for winter makes you want to take a nap (it doesn't take many beans for a winter, really), you're probably going to conclude that gardening and canning are drudgery. If you subscribe to the "it needs a bar" philosophy of parenting, well. You'll end up soused.

But there's another option, one that I have come to believe, not quickly, but fully-wholly-as-I-can. And it is that this work of parenting and homekeeping is rewarding in and of itself, that also? I kind of love it, that treating children as if everything they say is a special contribution is not tiresome work, but truth. And this, this is the work that I love.


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Best piece I've ever read on this site...especially after just finishing another middle of the night nursing session. It was exactly what I needed.

I agree, it is a lot about your approach to the business of parenting. If you think it is miserable, well, then it's going to be miserable. However, I think there needs to be a bit of shift-parents need to be able to say they're tired and that parenting can be very challenging without being vilified for not appreciating their children. The comments on the New York article-I read the first 6 pages or so, and a lot of them were incredibly negative.

It's difficult to always have a positive attitude when most of us do not have the time or resources to make sure we get time to ourselves for reflection and rejuvenation, and time with our partner without children to nurture that relationship and keep it from getting into a rut.

However, as my husband and I were folding laundry together on Saturday night after a lazy day at home together with our daughter, he remarked (in all seriousness), "This is so much better than life in our 20's." I love our life, messy and chaotic and imperfect as it can be with a strong-willed toddler. But even though I sometimes miss 3-4 hour browsing sessions at Powell's followed up by a delicious meal alone with a book, I wouldn't ever trade it for my life now.

AMEN! LOVED this post!! It's good to know I'm not the only one who struggles with these issues - exactly what I needed to read this morning -

I hear from friends/family with substantial incomes and zero/one child, that if I "just went back to work" and put my kids in public school/daycare... or my husband found a more lucrative (and less meaningful) career... how we'd have material comforts and "freedom" they provide - I wouldn't have to count my pennies to buy craft supplies, or buy our clothes at the thrift store. My home wouldn't be a constant mess, because no one would be home all day. I could afford a sitter and do things BY MYSELF.

Sometimes (esp. lately, when all of my kids seem to to have launched into particularly trying developmental phases at the same moment), what those folks say gets to me, and I wonder what I'm doing... but I'm reminded that my children are a precious inheritance - so infinitely more valuable and wonderful than dinners out and trips to Tahoe. I gladly take the little inconveniences to have chosen this life.

Thank you for sharing this!!

Another voice of thanks here. Great work to put this out there. I especially liked the end of Senior's article, about measuring life over a span of time versus the day to day. Honestly, my day to day life pre-kids wasn't all that spectacular every day either. Lots of fun but very little joy? As a point of reflection, it is far more satisfying now.

I was intrigued by the first article, though, for reasons I see playing out with other moms I know. It's the idea to me that somehow there needs to be a strict philosophy involved in parenting, living, etc. Trying to adhere to a strict conceptual model only opens up room for feeling like you aren't doing it right, to me. It may work for some, but if it's not working for you, it really is okay to let go of it and do something more free form and that fits better. Don't can green beans if you don't want to. It really doesn't cost a huge amount to purchase them over the year and it really doesn't make you any more or less of a parent. I think that a lot of us who are educated and focused kind of folks are at a loss of how to do this more nebulous job of raising children so we look for a set of directions rather than going by instinct. It makes sense to me, but I wonder if that keeps us trapped in feeling less than successful at doing this when it isn't working for us. I imagine if Holler had let go of some of her self-imposed expectations, she might have been able to relax just a bit and feel a touch less unhappy. Maybe not, but maybe.

I really appreciate the even-handed, non-judgmental tone of this post and this:

"...treating children as if everything they say is a special contribution is not tiresome work, but truth."

...is probably something I will be repeating for years to come.


Thanks for sharing these, I hadn't seen the second one.

I love the idea of not measuring satisfaction as moment-to-moment happiness. If I look at the moment-to-moment I'm a very grumpy and frustrated person; I want the career that tickles my brain back and I want to be able to have a glass of wine & read a book in the bath. The thing that sustains me through the "unhappy" moments is that my gut tells me these children chose me for a reason and I am here to help them become who they are destined to be.

I try to do the same thing for myself that I do for them: when I say, "No, you can't X," I follow it up with, "You can do Y." Maybe I can't read a book in the tub, but I can have a hug pretty much whenever I want. I have to remember how lonely I was when I feel like I just can't stand another little hand pawing at me. And then I try to realize that soon enough they won't have the time of day for me. This too shall pass.

It is hard work, but satisfying work. I never enjoyed making cookie dough with a mixer, and my bread-machine loaves were thoroughly nasty. I love the satisfaction of creaming butter and sugar, the work that it takes to knead and shape loaves. I know that the food will make me happier, and in some way that makes it taste better. I think choosing to become a parent is similarly difficult and the rewards may not be worth it for some, but they are to me.

I just woke up from a fitful nap, another pointless attempt to sleep as I nightmare about how to keep all the kids safe (the toddler keeps figuring out the barriers and escaping!) and I read THIS. I agree, the best I've read on here. I am EXHAUSTED and can't buy or drink my way out of this job and into some respite, and also? I love it too. Thanks!

I think my kids are amazing - I wouldn't trade being their mom for anything *AND* parenting is a lot harder in this country than it needs to be. Staying home with kids is "work" if you're doing it right - work with real economic benefits and consequences for our kids and our communities. Doing it over another job shouldn't mean having to live in poverty or without health care.

Also, mothers should have actual choices! Childcare shouldn't cost more than what most of us can make in wages. Parents should be able to choose to work part-time, so they can retain some economic security and be more present for their kids.

I'd like to move the conversation away from work full-time or be home full-time dichotomies. Many of us want to meet in the middle. Feeling like we have actual choices might help us all feel more satisfied.

The thing about parenting is that it is not always immediately rewarding, which can be discouraging. The pay-off for all of your hard work and devotion to your children may not come at the end of the day, week, or even the year. Yet it does pay off eventually when you can look at your well-adjusted child and realize you played a big role in that result.

This lack of immediate pay-off can be a hard reality to stomach if you worked in a career where you could see the fruits of your labor right away, where others recognized your achievements and where you were compensated accordingly for them.

As a parent, it can be discouraging to have nothing concrete to show for all of your work at the end of a really trying day. So I think it's ok to be honest with ourselves that parenting involves as much drudgery, boredom and frustration as it does joy, love and wonder. It truly is a job, and like a job, you are not going to like all aspects of it.

Once I realized this, I was able to relax and stop wondering what was wrong with me that my parenting experience wasn't all hugs and kisses and warm, fuzzy feelings. And once I relaxed, I could see -- and enjoy -- more clearly the moments when it DID all pay off.

For me, the second article validated my reasons for wanting to keep my family small (one child family). Parenting is HARD. I don't enjoy A LOT of it. And, I have no desire to have more children mostly because of how difficult the day-to-day is. I KNOW that for me the chaos can put me in a place where I am not as good of a parent as I want to be , where I can become depressed and angry. And the realty of increased chaos with a growing family is quite scary. But, I find it amazing at how much my feelings are dismissed by other parents/family and how much expectation there is for me to have more kids even when I KNOW my limits. Thanks for linking to that article.

I can relate a lot to Madeline Holler's piece -- I became a SAHM for pretty much the same reasons. I love being home with my daughter and definitely think my being home is the absolute best thing for her right now. But there isn't a day that I don't miss my career nor the financial security we had with two incomes.
As for the housework associated with being a SAHM, I generally hate it. I enjoy cooking and I'm eager to learn how to do things to make us more self-sufficient -- canning, making our own bread, etc. But I cannot stand the cleaning, the scrubbing, the laundry, etc. -- burdens I used to share with my husband but now pretty much land solely on my shoulders.
My biggest fear is the example we're providing for my daughter. I worry how our temporary assignments into traditional gender roles will impact her view on marriage and having kids when she gets older.

oh boy, i am thrilled to have found this site. my heart echoes with these words. just yesterday i longed for a bike alone to the grocery store but when my 8 year old told me (didn't ask), "hey mom, i'm coming," i couldn't resist.

those are the fleeting moments we'll miss.

also as a preschool director/teacher i am eager to read more.

thank you!

What Andrea said.

I'm all for celebrating parenthood in all its messy life-changing paradigm-shifting glory, but it's hard to make peace with/feel empowered by choices that operate out of economic disenfranchisement and a culture that doesn't support a multitude of options for families.

Don't get me wrong, I have no desire to go back to my twentysomething self; I'm not longing to bar-hop and run around Europe. But honestly? I'm not the kind of person who can relax into the quiet domesticity and frugality of raising a family on one income that (in my case) is not much more than the Holler family's. It is nerve-wracking, and disempowering, and not my choice at all (have been looking for work for 3 years now) -- which I guess is the key factor. If you deliberately choose that constellation of family life, and it is beautiful and sacred to you, you'll be willing to make peace with the difficulties. Which is awesome. I'm glad people *can* do that.

But ... I don't think that means we should look at parenting and lifestyle choices in a manner that situates them completely in personal choice, preference, and inclination (the parameters so often set up by personal essays and reflections). It feels short-sighted, somehow, when we live in a nation and society that is absolute crap at supporting families, and sets up all or nothing scenarios of how parenthood should look.

Maybe we cling to our perceived choices more fiercely when the greater culture polarizes them so much? It's tricky stuff.

thanks for this post...I read the NY Times article and was astonished by the authors negativity. I couldn't even finish the article. I'm a happy, working mama to a 10 month old. We're trying to balance professional careers, parenthood, running a farm & lots of commuting. Sure it's stressfull, and we've had alot of serious health issues to deal with, but there is so much joy in our lives. Watching the sunset with our baby is a joy, watching him ride on the goats is pure joy, giggling while he grazes on grass & dirt is delightful. Life is very rich for us. It's too bad the 'miserable' Manhatten parents can't spend a few golden moments soaking up life in the slow lane.

I enjoyed reading the New York Magazine article because of it's negativity. As modern mothers we're supposed to be able to do it all and have it look easy and be completely fulfilled all the time - at least that's what it can seem like. You're not supposed to say that you're tired or not completely fulfilled by playing cars on the floor for 3 hours straight or that parenting can be boring, hard work. I'm sure there are many mothers out there who feel differently, but I appreciated the candor of the stories. I find that admitting my frustrations makes it easier to go home to my kids and love them and have fun with them. I think we need more honesty about the downs as well as the ups of parenthood.

I just thought to myself today, "wow, I haven't looked at UM lately," and what a pleasant surprise, the new look and this post. I didn't read the articles but I sure needed this perspective today, thank you for the reminder, the picture says it all.

The comments to this entry are closed.