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Working mothers, hipsters, and what we see when we look at other moms

My blog buddy Liz Gumbinner won an award for being a fabulous working mother. And while I don't know any of the intimate details of her at-home life, beyond those on her blog, I can attest that she gets so much done I quake in her shadow, amazed, and her children always wear the most adorable clothes! But, as she says, she doesn't do it all. There are sacrifices she makes -- some so dear she writes long blog posts about them -- and she wanted to acknowledge that. That none of us "have it all." She wrote of the other honorees, "...mostly there a lot of [acceptance speeches] stories in which everyone has a perfectly supportive husband, doting children who never miss us, stellar colleagues, and no need for “me time.”"

Part of the comment I left on her post: "I do not believe there is such a thing as a person with the ideal life and the rewarding career, who is also a mother, who is giving up nothing. I too go through long periods where I have no personal time, and don’t really miss it (in fact, when I’m away from my children for more than a few hours, as happens about three times a year — and I dearly dearly love these times! — I am torn between embracing the experience and missing my boys desperately), and have not had a manicure nor a professional haircut in so long I don’t know how it works any more. but: I do see every day the things I do not have, and sometimes those are terribly missed (oh how I miss business lunches out! with pinstriped suits and big napkins that take up all your lap! they’re so lovely) and sometimes they are just observed. We all make sacrifices; none of us have it all."

I feel like this brings up a vein that rose to the surface in this post (about, of all things, TriMet's new fare change proposal). I was addressing the challenges I thought it would create for low-income working families. Elle wrote, "Refreshing & real to hear families talking about true financial day to day matters.... I have lived in Portland since 1997 we had our first child in 2006 and although we make good incomes we struggle... although sometimes it seems like we are surrounded by families of "trustafarians." Families piling into their new Range Rovers or Volvo SUVs shopping in the independent children stores that sell $30 t shirts for 5 yr olds and this is in the SE. On the rare occasion we do go out for dinner for example for our anniversary we (my hub & I) went to Laurelhurst market there are numerous families with young children, eating out like it is a common occurrence for them... I often ask myself "how are they doing it?""

There was some agreement with Elle (and I have to say, I agree too!). We've lived on an income over the past few years that, usually, barely had us above the cut-off for reduced-price lunches at school. We've certainly made some choices that resulted in our income bracket -- I chose to give up most of my professional career a while back in order to give back to my needy boys. (And it seems to be helping, despite it all.) But no matter how I got into this place, I still look around at my friends, online and offline, here in Portland and in New York and Los Angeles and Paris, and think to myself too often, "how do they do it all?" They can afford to eat out two or three nights a week in restaurants I consider a once-every-few-months luxury. They never seem to have a shortage of cute kid clothes when I get everything from thrift stores and relatives. They can afford to get dental work (seriously: I never have money for dental work, I don't know how anyone affords this! related: I think I spend all my spare cash on photography supplies. No self-portraits of teeth included).

Most importantly, their houses are clean! Ack! I think my main source of low-self-worth is my messy, messy, messy house. I start cleaning one part and another part seems to dirty itself while I'm working. I ignore it for a day thanks to a project I'm completing and I have to work for a week to get it back to where it was before my day of cold turkey (and very probably, the project created its own mess. See Valentines). I read about someone else's brilliant "15 minutes a day!" plan of paper organization... and I get to the end of the day and am exhausted and never did my 15 minutes. I don't even have one minute some days, due to, of course, time management choices I made myself, and made badly.

Of course the answer is that no one has it all, no one does it all, no one lives these financially secure perfect lives, no one is completely clean, without some secrets or sacrifices. Maybe the family who has the new Range Rover and just remodeled their kitchen so beautifully you want to cry and invited you out to dinner at Pok Pok last night (you couldn't afford it so you made excuses) is getting help from their parents, or maybe they've second-mortgaged their house to the nth degree. Maybe they're making crazy money working for a private equity firm. (Heck, it's certainly possible.) Whatever it is, it's not perfect, and the more I see of other perfect lives the more I peek in to the cracks and see the imperfections. Sometimes these are 100% endearing, and sometimes they're terrifying, and sometimes they're just ordinary, run-of-the-mill, every day, imperfections. They're not the stuff we confess on blogs or put in photographs on Facebook or Instagram. Heck, half of my cleaning is done in order to take a photograph that doesn't contain clutter in the background.

So, take heart, mothers: we're all not perfect, none of us have it all. Some of us just do a better job of appearing as such than others. When it comes down to it, my favorite people to hang around are the ones with whom I can discuss imperfections at length and ad nauseum. The ones who look guilty when they tell me something endearing and "perfect" their husband did. The ones whose sacrifices are worn on their sleeves. I'll take the imperfection that speaks its name over the perfection that hides it, any day.

I'm still cleaning before I take photos. OK: fear of judgment runs deep.


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One of the reasons I go out to eat now and then is this: If I don't go out to eat, I save $20. The next week, the breaker box blows up at my house and needs to be replaced, and I am out over $2000. So much for the small savings. It's just not worth it to make that sacrifice. We have dumped cable, my mom provides my cell phone or I wouldn't even choose to have one, and my land line now has no caller ID or call waiting. So to the ordinary eye, it may seem like I have expendable money to throw away at Sweet Tomatoes, but it is my way of feeling sane. Also, most of the hand-me-downs I receive for my daughter are adorable. I don't know how the original owners kept them so nice, or maybe they just outgrew them fast. The trick is to find a kid who is 1-2 years older than your kid who wears cute clothes and is growing like a weed, and start working the mother. Little single-mom-with-low-income-but-high-stress-job tip!

I needed this today. Thank you for writing it. It is amazing how alone on this journey you can feel until you connect with another who is willing to speak their truth. We all have them, some of us are just more willing than others to be authentic about it.

I have asked myself some of the same questions. I agree with Debby regarding cute kids clothes. We are lucky to be getting many from friend with older kids. Also, my relatives love shopping for children clothes so they get us cute things every now and then.
Regarding the clean houses - I have been recently finding out, mostly by accident, how many of my friends use a cleaning service. I am talking about people who are not making more money than I am. Many of them don't have a college fund for their kids but have a cleaning service. I guess it is a matter of priorities, like with everything.
I too consider eating out a luxury and even when we do, we choose less expensive places. We don't really plan to eat out on regular basis but every so often we come home from work and realize we didn't plan the meal or are lacking some ingredients. At that point there is only enough time to go get a take out.

We're one of those families that scrimps and pinches pennies so we can take a sunny vacation every couple of years. Not anything over the top, but definitely tropical. We also sometimes get assistance from family to go on said vacations. I think a poster referred to that as being hippycrits. We call it prioritizing and also lucky for having a family that can help us afford such luxuries. I thought of this blog yesterday when I spent $3 on a t-shirt and said to myself "I could wait a few days and spend 50 cents at that other place instead". We also don't spend money on haircuts, spa treatments, car payments, etc. It makes me wonder if the folks calling out us "hippycrits" would also envy our crappy home haircuts, free box or hand-me-down clothing, lack of tv, and the huge student loans payments. My partner makes a pretty good salary thanks to 8 years of college and incredible work ethics. It's a shame that anyone would sit back and waste their time being jealous and/or judging how we choose to spend, or not spend. Live and let live. We all have our battles.

I am approaching 40 very soon and am starting to feel embarrassed that our house is full of hand-me-down furniture. It's all functional, but old (and not in a cool, retro way). However, even if we weren't broke, I can't imagine furniture getting to the top of the list over things like a weekend at the beach or a dance class for the kids. Not having money makes me feel like less of a grown up in a way. When I was young, I always thought I would have more of this figured out by the time I turned 40.

For getting the house clean, I intentionally plan playdates or to have people over frequently enough that it forces me to clean up. And I do enjoy my house more when it's clean and tidy. It helps that it's only 800 square feet.

Thanks for the post!

cc, I'm 44 and feel that same way sometimes. But then I realize that I'm 44 and don't need to be self-conscious anymore!

money or no money. tidy house or not. it's just important to remember that none of us are perfect and that this mom-ing thing, while absolutely incredible, is the most button-pushing journey imaginable. thanks for the post. a little mama camaraderie goes a long way. just trying to be nice to myself, and then i can be really nice to the other mamas out there, my kids, my husband and so forth...

Great post-- thank yoU!

In AA they have this thing about not comparing your insides with somebody's outsides and maybe this is the insidious thing about the internet is you think you're seeing somebody's insides because they you have this very intimate window onto the lives of a prolific blogger or tweeter.

I am attached to this idea that no matter what there is some sacrifice of something. I feel like I give up a lot of creative time trying to keep the house orderly in a way that my order-craving sole-earner husband needs to function and I have to work not to get resentful by remembering the series of choices that have shaped my family into what it is and reminding myself I am still a feminist in the sense of being a person who owns her choices.

I had been thinking recently that ethical choices would be entirely uncontroversial if they were straightforward good vs. evil; where they get complicated is that they are often between different sorts of good, and are about the balancing points each of us might find between, say individual good and the group good or between liberty and security, and sometimes having to value one of these things over another feels just wrong, because we should be able to have both, right?

And I think that inside of each of our homes and lives there is a long series of choices, not between things that are good and bad, but between things that are good for us in one way and things that would be good for us in another way. It's easy to feel insecure about the choices because we really are ambivalent, and a book like Bringing up Bébé is seductive because it sort of promises that one could make a set of choices, valuing a mother's needs and independence, and get the benefit of strong, self-disciplined children. I think it's healthy to be skeptical of such promises, and also healthy to step back from the choices one is making every single day to make sure that over the long term the choices we make reflect a balanced commitment to all of the different things that important to us.

I look at other people's lives and often do some pondering, but I don't think I'm being judgmental. And I try not to be envious, or at least to acknowledge that I'm envious of one piece of what I see and that the whole package is far more complex. Often my reaction is just "how does that work for that family? where do they get the money? how do they deal with the stress if they're living on credit?"

I edited my typical blog list awhile back to no longer include anything that made me feel lesser in comparison. If I read something that inspires me to try a new skill, strive to meet a new standard, etc, that's fine. If I'm reading something that gives me insight into how another family does make life work, that's fine, too. But if I'm just drooling over glossy pictures and then feeling inadequate in comparison, and putting myself in that situation on a daily basis . . . that's not healthy or helpful.

Thank you, Mara, for the AA insight. I think I had heard that before but it's a much-needed reminder.

wow,i like this post. i am someone who feels like i have sacrificed (material) things in order to be a parent who is THERE for my two boys. sometimes when i go to friendshomes who work full time, i leave feeling bad that i don't have the same "stuff". (cute party dinnerware, all those little cute kitchen knickknacks or cool neat STUFF in general...which actually doesn't mean ANYTHING). and then i have to remind myself that having an abundance of meaningless material things do absolutely nothing for the soul. i have a happy marriage, we have what we need. we actually have a nice house with nice furniture purchased before kids.but there's no extra money. none. but we have what we need and are not going without. it helps me when i feel down about not being able to buy luxuries that MOST of the world lives very poorly and me, in comparison would appear to be wealthy from the perspective of the majority of the world. you have to stop looking at silliness like the kardashians et al. to compare what you should and should not have.
switching gears, i try to keep my house simple and free of clutter. it makes it easier and faster to clean. when my house is clean, it's directly tied to how i feel about myself.
(sigh). anyway, i could go on and on, but just thought i'd vent a couple of my own thoughts.

hmm... just returned from a trip to India and Singapore... our problems of not keeping house clean, no spas, no haircuts, no eating-out opportunities are laughable... in singapore, for example, I looked really hard for organic fruits, finally found an apple for $15. Each. In India, I was scared to drink the milk after I had just heard on the news that when they tested milk, they found many contaminants - including detergents - and the long list of contaminated foods was too long.. anything they tested was contaminated and not fit for eating... And in the state where my folks live in India, they have NO power for about 7 hours a day everyday! No relief in sight!
So.. do you have access to good food, clean water, milk, plumbing, a roof over your head, good roads, libraries - then please rejoice! You are in heaven. Don't worry about all the "stuff" you don't have... most people on Earth have NOTHING compared to us...

Debbie, that is my favorite thing to say to my nieces and nephews these days when they make complaints about their cell phones or cars, etc. "That sounds like a 1st world problem..." It gets them to shut up pretty quickly! Thanks for keeping it all in perspective! :)

A very nice place to rest in. I love the concept as well as the interior design.

Hello all - I am Elle and my original comment in the TriMet post was not out of jealousy but as I stated in it it was more a question of "how are they doing it?" and I went on to say "I am not saying all this as a "hater" but just as an observation many families are choosing to live here and have the ways and means to live very "comfortably" for those of us that truly need to worry about trimet fare increases I think we have a valid voice that the city needs to listen to..."

To me it was comforting to actually hear a post on UM that other families are scraping & saving too, very refreshing to hear in fact....

As Portlanders we do have to recognize that there are many wealthy families that move here because they can - it has been documented our high level of net migration. These familes can buy houses, in the "cool" neighborhoods, not have to work & be subsidized by their parents/ trust funds etc - no hate... just an observation about this unique city we live in...

I'm with Elle. It's not jealousy, it's annoyance at the hypocrasy of pretending to struggle and making a big deal of it when actually it's nothing but a charade to gain cred. It's a complete denial of the priviledge they benefit from and an unwillingness to own up to their actual reality and admit that it differs from many of the families around them. At least the wealthy in the west hills acknowledge who and what they are and don't slum it to be cool. It's not the money, it's the self serving fiction that pisses people off.

Not sure what this post is alluding to, exactly. I try to be happy with who I am, the life that is here with the beautiful kids we have (although frustrating at times) and the home that we are lucky enough to have purchased reasonably years ago...our life is full of ups and downs, imperfections, frustration, growth, learning and love. We are both FT working parents, in jobs that are contributing to to society, and don't feel we'd be happy or fulfilled or be providing our 2 children (1 boy, 1 girl) with good role models if we were (one or both) FT stay at home parents when they were both in school all day long--one or both were lucky enough to work 1/2 time in the earlier days, but now they are in school FT in 2nd grade and kindergarten. Nobody's life is perfect, it is all in how you deal with the life you have. You are going to have stress, hardships, hurdles, good times, celebrations, triumphs and quiet smiles..and if you don't have a good mix of both, well, in my opinion, perhaps, you just ain't living!

@ anon, I don't necessarily think that just because some people prefer to not live in an upscale neighborhood or spend their $$$ on certain things makes them hypocrites. It's just thier choice and also what comes from living in a city like Portland (some of NYC is like that, too).

If anything I'd see people like that as unassuming and down to earth. In fact my daughter's former classmate (Atkinson's very diverse economically) was very much this case. Her entire family was friendly and looked like a pack of hippies. They had a play date one day and we were amazed by their REALLY nice house and yard. It turns out her dad's a hotshot heart surgeon.

But meanwhile they really didn't think about it and other than a large house and yard felt no need to advertise their material success. If anything, they worried about the cost of gas, etc, just like everyone els. I found it charming and honestly wished I could be LESS focused on my clothes habit and decorating obsession.

Why is there a picture of Zenana spa above?

Cafemama, I hear so much frustration and pain in your post, so much that I keep thinking about what you wrote. I know you are not alone in feeling this way.

Your post made me think about this song from Dolly Parton called "Coat of Many Colors." (I'm in a bluegrass kick right now.) Dolly dedicates it to all of the "mamas out there who make do" on the version I listen to on Pandora. You're a mama who makes do (perhaps most of us reading this blog are), so I think you might find something comforting in it. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w_-YbWHs6DE&feature=related

Thank you so much for this. And wow- I have to remember Mara's (or AA's) line about "not comparing your insides with somebody's outsides." That's pretty brilliant. And painfully true.

I find this very interesting Cafemama, lots of good "food for thought." I have always loved your honest and frank writing style...that's why I love to read your stuff. I drive a pretty nice car (my old van was totaled in an accident last year,) and though I really dig being in a new car for the first and undoubtably last time in my life, it has brought a lot of these issues up for me. Worrying about how I'm perceived, feeling embarrassed at times, fancy and proud at other times...and all the while being aware of the fact that it's just a car, who cares? It has been an interesting experience for sure. Thanks for your post.

I think that Anon hit on it. What I noticed when I moved here was all the "poor-mouthing" (as they used to call it) that people do in Portland. Where folks with six figure incomes in 2001, pretended that they needed to "glean". Growing up I had a very diverse group of friends and you often never knew what people's sitch was til you went over for a visit. And I don't remember any focus on income/assets, it was what it was and no one pretended to be struggling when they weren't.

When the single mom whose parents help with the mortgage and paid for childcare, admonishes me about managing my money better. . . . it stuck in my craw. I have friends in their late 30's early40's, childfree and not, whose parents bail them out regularly financially. It's much less expensive to bail out your adult children in Portland. I get upset when same trustafarians collect food stamps, etc, because they choose not to disclose ther parental support. I realize that is my own sh*t, especially around the stereotypes about who food stamp recipients are, and the political backlash.

In the Bay Area we had a cleaning lady, it kept me sane and was cheaper than therapy. In Portland we could never afford it because it was more expensive here related to my wages.

I thought I had it rough as a single mom whose income ranged from 24-36K my tenure in Portland, until I was laid off and actually lost the house and the car. And you know, it is a REAL struggle. . . .but the biggest part was my self-concept and my perceptions. I can figure out how to sip on a $2 beer s-l-o-w-l-y, or how to maximize a Chinook book coupon at the DKB outlet. Divorcing my self-worth from the pr machine of the mommy wars, has been harder.

I have found your post because I have been searching for some information about it almost three hours. You helped me a lot indeed and reading this your article I have found many new and useful information about this subject.

Debby and Mara and others, you've made a lot of good points. For me it comes down to keeping sane by 1) minding my own business and 2) being grateful for what I have.

Awesome article. As a husband of a wonderful woman, I embrace imperfections. I am thankful she accepts these too!

Thank you.

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