My littlest one started kindergarten this fall. I’m happy. I’m sad. I’m headed back to work.
At least, that’s the plan. Kind of a scary plan. I’m worried about whether I will fit into my interview suit. I’m worried that it’s impossible to find a job in this market, or so I keep hearing. I’m worried that my kids will struggle to adjust to aftercare. I’m worried that there will be nothing left for me if I’m working full-time again. And, maybe most of all, I’m worried about how to explain my stay-at-home mom years to a potential employer.
So, naturally, I turned to Google for all the answers. I started my search with “resume how to explain stay at home mom,” and after reading the handful of articles that populate the first page, as one does, I’m kinda pissed.
Every single article I read about returning to work after being at home with kids had this one piece of advice—include all of the volunteer work you have done.
The idea that someone might have just stayed home to care for their kids seemed unfathomable, and these articles assumed that if that was all you did, you’re obviously be headed for a career in child care or preschool teaching. In which case, it might be ok to mention the word “mom” to explain that time. But even then, only kinda-sorta.
For a woman hoping to return to a professional career, it is absolutely assumed that you will have headed the annual school book fair or organized a charity fundraiser or… Just what exactly have you been doing with your time?!
Well, I did. I fundraised. I event planned. I blogged. I organized. I phone banked. I staffed (not "manned"!) tables. I advised. I volunteered to recruit more volunteers. I said yes to everything.
I gave it all up for free! All my milk. As we women do. As women always have.
I worked hard as co-president of our co-op preschool. I served on my college’s marketing advisory board. I joined together with some amazing women to do gun violence prevention work that has meant more to me than any of the paid work I’ve ever done. I did a lot of things for free. We all did it for free. And we did it while we did all the mom stuff, and all the life stuff, and even, sometimes, a little me stuff.
I enjoyed doing everything I did. (Well, almost everything—could’ve done without the compulsory parade marching.) All in all, I feel like my time was spent well. I was happy to help. I met great people, created a community for myself and my family, did a bit of good work, and most importantly, had something for myself, where I could be an adult and separate from my kids for a few hours here and there. So that I could stay sane while I stayed home.
But… I also felt like I had to do it. Not any one thing specifically, but… something…
What if I didn’t volunteer? What if I spent the time “just” being a mom, “only” being there for my kids during these formative years? What if I did it because it meant a lot to me and I could, and I didn’t add all of these volunteer gigs with resume-ready titles?
From the day my maternity leave ended and I didn’t go back to work, I knew that I would eventually be working on a resume to “return to work”—as almost all moms these days eventually do. And, from the beginning, I was terrified of that dreaded “resume gap.” I knew I’d need to show I was doing something. I’d need references to say that I wasn’t one of those women who will stay home forever. I didn’t just watch my kids—I had ambition, drive… I would, one day, work again. Someone would want to hire me and pay me.
And that’s what I’m pissed about—the compulsory nature of it. That it’s required. That there’s a clear expectation that women, especially moms, will work for free. That women’s free work makes the world go round. And that I have to put it on display in that way if I hope to return to the kind of work that the people pay you to do. You know, the kind of work that’s valued, compensated, not assumed, expected.
One of the best pieces of journalism I’ve ever read—the kind of article that stays with you and transforms forever how you view something—was called, “Internment Camp: The Intern Economy and the Culture Trust,” written by Jim Frederick in The Baffler magazine. Pretty academic, but what really stuck with me was what was written on the spine of the magazine (do I date myself?):
Interns Built the Pyramids
That was back in 1997, when I was in my 20s, happily on my way up, up, up a career ladder. I hadn’t been able to afford doing an unpaid internship in college, which is why I started working in the publicity department of a publishing house, instead of the editorial department, where I wanted to be. One was paid, the other was not.
Back then, I wasn’t thinking a drop about having kids, and I had no idea of the lattice my career ladder would become. It looked so straight-to-the-top from where I was standing. I also wouldn’t have imagined there would be a day when I would have the luxury of working for free.
There’s an old New Yorker cartoon, with a young woman standing in front of her boss’s desk at a publishing house, with the caption, “My Daddy can’t afford to send me here anymore.” I know I’m lucky that my kids’ daddy can afford to “send me there.” That I can afford to do the volunteer work I have done, which has often meant paying for the privilege. Literally. Hiring someone for however many hours I had to be at a meeting or making calls or whatever. Or doing it while the kids were (earlier) napping, or (bad parent) watching tv or (later) running around like motherless heathens. And when I haven’t paid with cash, I’ve relied on another mom’s free labor, for which I would later trade for my own free labor.
As this era of my life comes to a close, I am grateful for the things I have been able to do—from working in my kids’ schools to the activism I’ve been able to do for political causes that matter deeply to me. I’m also wondering how I’ll continue to do any of it when paid work takes over my week. Some of it because I’ll want to. And some of it because I will still feel like I have to.
Working for pay doesn’t exempt moms from being asked to give up your time for free, even if it does help a little with saying no. For men, having a full-time job does often exempt them from even being asked in the first place. Those men who do show up to help with the “women’s work” are actively choosing to be there. For moms, you have to actively choose not to be there.
I’m not trying to say that men don’t also do volunteer work, but they seem to give up their unpaid time much less easily. I’m sure stay-at-home dads face even steeper climbs back to work, in many ways, and feel different kinds of pressure to justify why they took time away from work for pay and what they did with all that free time they had while they were home. I hope this becomes less true as more dad take time away from work to be with their kids. I also hope that the expectation that you do something else, on top of parenting all day, subsides as men join in all the stay-at-home fun.
As they say about getting your period—if men did it, it would be a sacrament. If men stayed at home more, it would be understood that you don’t need to add to it to make it a full life. And this very normal thing that so many women do—take some time off to raise their young kids—wouldn’t require an explanation beyond what it was. I’ll bet moms (and dads, because that’s what makes all of the difference!) in countries with year-long paid childcare leave aren’t asked to account for that time.
So, while I feel like I’m coming out of a grown-up unpaid internship, I also know it’s not actually ending. It’s a life-long expectation that women will always be there to do unpaid work.
This may all sound like the biggest “first-world-problems” post you’ve ever read, and in some ways, it is. But this isn’t a wealthy issue or a white women’s issue. Or even a stay-at-home mom issue. This is true of all women. Women at every level are expected—whether they work or not—to offer their labor for free. And don’t forget to smile while you do it!
Care-giving of aging parents (no matter whose parents they actually are, because it usually falls to women, even when it’s their inlaws), tending to sick or injured friends or neighbors, childcare for other women… This is the work that falls to many, many unpaid, often—but not always— poor women. These are not things we can just step away from because no one is paying us. The world would stop if women stopped doing these things for free.
Sometimes, it’s poor women supporting other poor women so they can work. Sometimes it’s rich women supporting the classical music or ballet or other frequently mocked but unprofitable things that wouldn’t happen if those women didn’t do that work for free. Or it’s any and all women working for direct aid organizations—diaper banks, homeless shelters, disaster relief.
All of those things—from childcare to the PTA to the ballet—are important things that we’re all grateful are being done by someone. And we would only notice it if it stopped happening. Which it won’t. Cuz women don’t roll like that.
What’s maddening is that it’s a simultaneously dismissed and expected part of stay-at-home motherhood. Not to mention that it’s challenging to pull off while actually also raising a kid or two. There’s a saying, “Women hold up half the sky.” I would like to add, “…and many of them are doing it for free.”