The imaginary feminist in my head is extremely judgmental. Of me. Not other moms—they should be able to do whatever works for them, right?
Self-imposed feminist shame can be very intense and very hard to shake. I would never judge someone else as harshly as I do myself. In fact, sometimes it helps to pretend to be my own friend. The imaginary feminist friend in my head is very understanding. She knows how hard it is. She thinks I should do whatever works for my family and makes me happy.
I recently went back to work after being an at-home mom (can we please just keep the puppy command word out of it?) for about five years. Eight months later, after deciding the job was not working for me or for my family, I resigned. So does that make me a SAHM or am I now unemployed? There can be a very fine line for those of us who are keeping one an eye on job openings and another on our families.
I don’t know what’s next for me. I don’t want to “not work,” but I need enough time outside of work to be the person I want to be, whether that means writing or hugging my kids—maybe even going to the gym on a regular basis.
Do you know what’s missing from the debate about whether or not women should work outside the home when they have small children? (I mean, besides a basic sense of reality.) Most of us are not Angelina Jolie or Barak Obama. When we work, we go to jobs that don’t fulfill our whole person every minute of every day. Our work is boring or it’s stressful or just average.
“Working” is not some kind of Shangri-La for every woman or every man. It can be meaningful, but more than that, it’s just something most of us have to do. And being with babies or small children all day is no Peaceable Kingdom either. In my perfect world, everyone would work 15-20 hours max and spend the rest of the time as we please. Like doing laundry and grocery shopping. Sexy stuff.
After almost a year of sleeping on his own, my son crawled into our bed every night while I was working. Two weeks after leaving that job, he’s back to sleeping through the night in his own bed. Most nights. What am I supposed to make of that? I know kids are adaptable. I do. But they do need us, different kids at different times. How is that supposed to work…with work?
In the last five or six years, as I’ve been at-home and then at-work, both of my grandmothers passed away. My mom’s mother was first. When she was close to the end, her family gathered when they could, but there were also deathbed visits from many local big-name types, politicians and such. She was very active in her community, even spent one term as mayor, trying to root out local corruption and having her phone bugged by the local police chief. I remember going door-stepping with her during her campaign when I was little.
She was a very intense woman. Very well respected, but the sort of person that has enemies. At her viewing, about 500 people came to show their respect, as they say. But what I remember from that day is my mom crying, not about losing her mother, but because all three of her sisters had decided not to speak to her that day for lord-knows-what reason. That’s my lasting memory of my grandmother, as someone whose children would be cruel to each other at her funeral.
My dad’s mom only had about 150 people at her service—and about a hundred of them were family. Her children told the most wonderful stories about her. I found out how many shirts she ironed every week, but I also heard about how much she loved my grandfather. My aunt told a story of how her mother would run upstairs 5 minutes before her father was due home from work to change and put on a little lipstick.
I’m sure my inner feminist is appalled that I find this very sweet. But all the tears I could see at her funeral were in recognition of the loss of well-loved matriarch.
She had six kids still living when she died, all married only once, all with kids, and several with grandchildren. Her family was big and, mostly, very close. Outside of family, she was not very social. Her husband was my first grandparent to die, and there were times when her final years seemed lonely.
But at the end, she spent hospice in her son’s home in the constant presence of family. With her daughters and her son’s wives standing in a circle around her bed, holding hands and leaning on each other for support. That’s what I remember from her death: Surround yourself with strong women. They’re the one’s who will be there at the end. My sister and my cousin who’s like a sister and I made a pact—we’ll be there.
Women are the caretakers in our society for the most part. Whether it’s our babies or our parents, our grandparents or our husbands (who live longer because of us, while we lose a few years for being married). And, I’m sure you’ll be shocked (shocked!) to know that when we step away from work to be there for family and for friends in times of need, it’s not exactly a career booster.
When the “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” piece was all the talk, the thing I found most surprising was that she felt the need to step away from her fast-paced, important job when her sons were teenagers. That’s when she felt they needed her the most. Reading that it wasn’t when her children were small that she decided to step back (lean away, if you will) was a shock to me. Damn, I thought, I had been planning on putting in my time by focusing on my children, at the expense of career ambition, during these first formative years and then get back to working. Now I’m finding out that they might need me the most later in life?
These are the things we can’t control—who needs us and when—and how we respond says a lot about who we are. Or it should. At least as much as what we’re paid to do. My inner feminist is appalled at this writing. My inner feminist friend is channeling Emma Goldman saying, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be a part of your revolution.” If I can’t choose family over work, I don’t want to be a part of your feminism.
“No one will lay in their death bed saying, “I wish I’d spent more time at the office.” If we can accept that as true for men, can’t it also be true for women? Working at a paid job can’t be the only way to be a good feminist, but it’s a real struggle to feel like a good feminist as a stay-at-home mom.
Not in theory, just in the actual world, where we are asked what we do all day.
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