What Do You Do All Day?

by Danielle Veith


 My power suit. No red tie required. 

My power suit. No red tie required. 

A few weeks ago, I went to my state capital, lobbied my elected representatives and gave testimony in a Senate committee hearing. I’ve been overcome by a radical notion that there’s something wrong with a country where toddlers kill more people with guns than terrorists. Where nine women are shot and killed by their husband or intimate partner every week. Where the momentary suicidal thoughts of a teenager are lethal because guns are easier to get than help.

I got a lot of praise from friends and family for doing this important work. Which is nice. There’s not a whole lot of praise to go around for stay-at-home moms. I think that’s the thing I miss most about working—feeling like I’m doing a good job and being told so. Neither of which happen regularly in the parent role.

It struck me as odd, though, and very out-of-proportion with the relative effort involved, that people made such a big deal about it. And it came from everywhere—my parents, other moms, everyone I talked to. My husband even left me a card that said, “Your awesomeness is showing.” Well, that doesn’t exactly happen every day.

I don’t want to say that nothing about the advocacy I (we) did that day was hard, but it certainly wasn’t rocket science. Each little part of it was such a tiny thing—I got up way too early, dressed like a semi-respectable person, drove about an hour, got some signatures and took some photos at a press conference, handed papers to legislative aids (and talked to one adversarial and rather condescending state senator), and then basically sat and waited anxiously for about eight hours for my turn to speak. The testimony I gave was written by someone else, with a little personalization from me, and I’m sure I seemed nervous while I gave it.

Really, anyone could have done it. The truth was that most of my day involved sitting on my bum and waiting for the 90 seconds I was allowed to share my testimony. What was all the fuss about?

All I did was show up. Which reminds me of another thing I show up for every day.

If I was at home, I would have been doing half a dozen things and getting annoyed at myself about the other half dozen things I should have done already. If I sat on my butt for eight minutes, I would bathe myself in guilt the whole time. I would have given myself—and have been given by others—almost zero credit for any of it. Because anyone could do it.

Well, anyone who can handle the crippling lack of positive reinforcement.

In the “90% of life is showing up” category, I’m proud to have taken the time to lobby my representatives. I know it was a big deal because I wouldn’t have been able to do it without the three moms and two dads who juggled my kids so I could be gone all day like someone who has a real voice in the world. I felt really happy to be able to speak and be heard. Especially since so many parents who feel as I do aren’t heard because they can’t get away to spend a day sitting on their butt for eight hours.

I still can’t shake how differently I was treated by everyone, in comparison with a normal day of parenting. Which, more often that not, is a whole lot harder. Although, really, I know the answer.

We all know the answer. (It’s sexism.) But it’s more complicated that that, because—as they say in the movie—“The call is coming from inside the house.”

Part of why what I did was acknowledged as something is because I was doing a “man thing,” something that our male-oriented world values. Something determined to be worthwhile, and not coincidentally, something usually done by men. We were outnumbered that day, two or three times over, by the many men (and two women, one a paid NRA lobbyist) who showed up for the other side.

Politically, I believe that, central to any discussion of gender equality, we have to have a conversation about why we place a lower value on traditionally women’s work (caregiving, teaching, etc.). And that’s when we think it should be paid at all—elder care, childcare, social services…We all know that a stockbroker’s day-to-day work is not 100 times more worthwhile than a kindergarten teacher. This is way beyond an argument for equal pay for equal work, though that figures in, too. It’s about making the work visible in the first place.

But politics aside, on a personal level, deep down in that place that can make it easier or harder to get through a day, I believe in the value of the invisible work women do only when it’s someone else’s work. I can support a friend, but not myself. I know that the other moms around me are doing good, hard work, deserving of recognition. But all I can see is myself doing something one cares about. All of this effort and nothing to show for it. The exhaustion of a long, hard day’s work without the acknowledgement that any work was done. No way to measure it, value it, make it seen.

In fact, it’s when my work is seen that I am most uncomfortable, like I’m walking around naked in public. When I’m with my kids and our day crosses over into the working world that I don’t currently inhabit, I feel a deep discomfort. Like I’m showing something that shouldn’t be seen. Kids—and therefore those who care for them—shouldn’t intersect with the rest of the world as it goes about it’s business. Why are we in this restaurant? In this neighborhood? What are we doing there anyway? Shouldn’t we be invisible, hiding in some sanctioned, approved-for-kids-space? Grocery shopping seems to be allowed.

So, there it is. I feel better about myself when I take a day off to forward my controversial (how is it possible that this is controversial) political agenda of trying to make it harder for kids to be killed and kill themselves with guns. I feel like I’m doing something. Other people acknowledge that I’m doing something.

There’s this idea out there that stay-at-home moms labor under some sort of halo. That supposedly everyone thinks we’re doing this great thing, staying home with little children. Aside from an old lady here or there, who knows it because she lived it, or an old-fashioned man, who thinks I’m doing what I should be doing, I hear no chorus of encouragement and support.

Especially not from my own damn self.

I find it almost impossible to move through each day as just a mother. Because… what else do you do? If there’s nothing else, if it’s just mothering, what exactly do you do all day? Basically, what is being asked it this… Can I think of you as a daycare worker? Is that what you do all day? And for anyone who has worked in a job more valued than caregiving—basically, anything else—it’s uncomfortable to know both how important and undervalued this work is and simultaneously want to be thought of as someone who can do more, who has more value in this world.

I never thought I’d hear myself say that what we need to do to achieve equality for women is to fight to free poor, oppressed straight men. But as a mother, it’s clearer than ever that we really aren’t free until everyone is free. As long as men feel limited to traditionally men’s work and men’s roles in the family, there is nowhere for women to go. As long as being with kids during the day is primarily the domain of women, it won’t be acknowledged. I really don’t see another way of raising up the value of what women do, other than to invite men onto our team.

As they say, if men got their period, menstruation would be a sacrament. Well, if more men knew what it felt like to live your life, day-in-and-day-out, doing something that’s hard and that seems like nothing to everyone (including their own self)… Well, maybe there wouldn’t be a halo, but we maybe we could appreciate each other’s labor in a different way.

Or at least work would seem like work.

Because I can say, “All I did was show up,” about lobbying as a citizen, but it seems like the little tasks of that day add up to something more in a way that parenting doesn’t. All I feel are the little tasks and I don’t dare take credit for anything bigger that it might all add up to at the end of the day. I’d like to at least get to a place where I feel the value of the whole picture more than the exhaustion of the little tasks that make up the day.

 

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