The Hidden Work of Housewives

What Didn't Get Done, © amomnextdoor, 2014

What Didn’t Get Done, © amomnextdoor, 2014

Periodically Mr. Banks says to me, “I just don’t know what you DO all day.” He can’t understand how he could possibly come home from a day at the office to find unwashed dishes, rumpled laundry, strewn toys, and cranky kids. As he recently pointed out, “You have fifteen hours in a day! How can you not have enough time?”

Hmmm. Well—setting aside that fifteen hours dedicated to house and home would take me from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. with no meals or tea breaks (and certainly no writing time)—how to describe the intensity of day after day with children to someone who’s never done it himself? I’m not sure it’s possible. But for my own gratification, for my own sense of self-worth, I found myself keeping track one summer’s day, of all that I did with my time.

A day with children is a day spent teaching and learning. Some things I teach them directly, some by expectation, some through modeling, and some by opportunity. All of it I teach with as much deliberation and thoughtfulness as this mama can. I find being present with my children in such a way both deeply draining and relentlessly rewarding. I wouldn’t give it up for anything.

Things I taught my children today:

  • How to exercise daily
  • How to commit to a goal and follow through
  • How to be patient
  • How to contribute to the family
  • How to play independently
  • How to play together
  • How to brush teeth properly
  • How to clean up after brushing teeth
  • How to give privacy to people using the bathroom
  • How to pursue one’s passions and interests
  • How to sew: how to plan a project, use pins, thread a needle, cut a thread, make a knot, make a whip stitch
  • How to share underlying feelings
  • How to listen deeply
  • How to take responsibility for one’s mistakes
  • How to be married
  • How to take time for oneself
  • How to give others space
  • How to respond to an invitation to connect
  • How to speak one’s mind
  • How to keep a house organized
  • How to tidy
  • How to reuse
  • How to recycle
  • How to roll out the garbage cans for collection day
  • How to core strawberries
  • How to break eggs
  • How to cook an omelet
  • How to load the dishwasher
  • How to close a sliding car door safely
  • How to treat clerks and service workers
  • How to behave at the checkout stand
  • The value of a dollar
  • How to negotiate
  • How to wait
  • How to notice the world around
  • How to give and receive love and affection
  • How to be an audience
  • How to hold back
  • How to laugh
  • How to be silly
  • How to create
  • How to imagine
  • How to have fun
  • How to love

That gets us to about lunchtime. I guess the laundry will have to wait until the afternoon.

What Happened Instead, © amomnextdoor, 2014

What Happened Instead, © amomnextdoor, 2014

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For You, Mom

 

Mother's Day Nosegay, ©amomnextdoor, 2014

Mother’s Day Nosegay, ©amomnextdoor, 2014

I have spent the past four Mothers’ Days alone with my children, while Mr. Banks was away on business. Every year, I have wondered if he would remember what day it was, following a foreign calendar all the way across the world. Every year, I have stepped into the bountiful garden we have grown together, and seen the flowers he had already given me. So I would pick myself a Mother’s Day bouquet, and then send those flowers to you, honored mothers of my life. At some point later in the day, the doorbell would ring, and Mr. Banks would deliver his love for me, from all the way across the world, in yet another fragrant extravagance of flowers.

California is facing a serious drought this year. We ended winter with just 5% of our usual annual rainfall, and by the end of spring had only edged up to 30%. We have decided not to water our garden this year. Out here in the valley, our garden needs irrigation from Spring to Fall Equinox in order to truly thrive. We’ve had just enough rainfall to bring out the blooms and the grass. Now we get to watch everything die. It makes spring flowers that much more precious, when we’re unable to artificially extend the growing season with imported water.

I noticed the Mother’s Day bouquet really changed in character this year. Usually I end up with armfuls of giant blooms, and still have flowers left in the garden to enjoy. This year harvested every single stem, and ended up with this little nosegay. The flowers are different, too. Instead of roses and tulips and lilies, I’m getting the self-seeders–forget-me-nots and bachelor’s buttons and carnations–and the hardy perennials. It will be interesting to let our garden go back to what it was meant to be, to start over on the canvas nature intended for this region. To tend my little corner of climate change. And still find flowers, for you, for Mother’s Day.

Imaginary Conversations With My Fictional Husband

A room of my very own, in the beginning     © amomnextdoor

A room of my very own, in the beginning © amomnextdoor

I think he said to me once, As long as you can cover the cost of childcare.

Another time he referred to my writing as a “hobby,” but a severe weather system moved in after that, and the thunderstorm that followed obliterated the word entirely from his vocabulary, if not his thoughts. I am the stay-at-home mom of two children under seven—I HAVE no hobbies. If I am writing, it is a necessary act. But how to get him to understand that—this man who reads neither packages nor instructions nor street signs? A steady diet of work emails, the New York Times and the occasional Lee Child bestseller does not exactly constitute a rich and vibrant literary life, from which to judge my scribblings.

But why have they come up for judgment at all? Another time, when a last minute business trip meant I wouldn’t be able to attend my writing group, I told him that I didn’t want my career to always come second to his when making decisions about our time and priorities, just because I earn less money than he does (in fact, at this point in my writing career, no money at all). He conceded the point, but objected to my use of the word “career.” A career denotes a salary, set responsibilities, a defined position in some organization. What you have, he said, is a business. Much as I hate the term, I conceded his point.

So now I am working on a business plan. And the first question that rises in me, like hot magma or the fury of Yansá, is this: why is it my job to cover the cost of childcare? When we married, I was working full time; my husband was jobless and getting his MBA. We paid for his education. Our child was born. I gave up my teaching career and salary, and instead worked full time from home taking care of our child, our house, and him, while he started two businesses. I was not compensated financially for this work. He did not claim the cost of childcare as a business expense.

(A mild digression, since I fear you may be asking, Who is this guy, anyway? I actually have some trouble naming this character–my husband–so central to my life. Many mommy blogs refer to a “DH”, or Dear Husband, but I am put off by the subtle implication of sarcasm in the word “Dear.” Especially since the term most often comes into play when referencing said character’s propensity to throw his dirty socks into the laundry hamper inside out, or put the can opener away in the wrong place. My personal nickname for my husband is the Big Man, because he measures in at a broad-shouldered 6’3”, can carry anything, takes good care of me, and scares the cat. But “The Big Man” has Orwellian overtones and an unfortunate acronym. I could call him more affectionately my BM, and that would be appropriate in so many ways, perfectly capturing the occasional constipation and effort of marriage, but new readers of my blog would definitely get the wrong idea.

I’d settle for Fictional Husband, FH for short, but that might lead some people to question whether this man—who dedicates his life to building wealth for his family, loving his children, and pleasing his wife—actually exists. I really do have a husband, it’s not just a blogosphere fantasy, but I guess it turns out that I’m also a bit of a bigamist. I’ve taken a second husband here in these pages and posts, an absolutely essential member of our family. My Fictional Husband, who does not, actually, exist or say and do all the things I report here, takes the rap for the man I love and married first. My FH is a necessary construct, because this society that underpays its women, undervalues its children, fails to protect and nourish its most disadvantaged members, has banned Art from its soul to worship Money instead—this society comes down pretty hard on both of us sometimes, and I won’t let that confine me, hurt him, or come between me and the man I love. So my Fictional Husband steps forward here in these posts to take up that burden for both of us.)

But back to money. Because that’s what all this really comes down to: time is money, my time in particular, more valuable than ANY segment of our society ever lets on. How do I carve out and protect time for my writing life, if I am not making money from my writing? How can I legitimately claim this as a valuable use of my time, when there are dishes to be done, bandaids to administer, stressed-out husbands to soothe?

Pat Schneider, founder of the Amherst Writers and Artists movement, gave a talk recently at the Pacific School of Religion about her life’s work and most recent book, How the Light Gets In. She spoke passionately about our culture’s tendency to define as writers only those who have had access to education (and money)—writers with MFA degrees, writers on this list or that list, writers with prizes and incomes and bestsellers. In her book Writing Alone and With Others, she suggests that “Art is the creative expression of the human spirit, and it cannot–it must not, for the sake of the human community–be limited to those few who achieve critical acclaim or financial reward.” (Oxford University Press, 2003).

So many voices are silenced when we believe that to be a writer we must sell our work. There is value in a drawerful of scrawled poems, in a stack of brown journals with black cloth binding, in the lists layered on a kitchen door, in the bits and pieces of blogs. And as women who write, we MUST believe that this activity–this art–is worth our time. We must tell that story–we must sell that story–to the men we marry, the men on the committee for the National Endowment for the Arts, the men in the legislature who decide how much money to spend on supporting the arts in our society, and to the children who want their diaper changed, or help with their homework, or another glass of water.

Ursula Le Guin writes in her essay “The Fisherwoman’s Daughter,” (Dancing at the Edge of the World, Grove Press, 1989) that “the artist with the least access to social or aesthetic solidarity or approbation has been the artist-housewife. A person who undertakes responsibility both to her art and to her dependent children…has undertaken a full-time double job that can be simply, practically, destroyingly impossible….the difficulty of trying to be responsible, hour after hour day after day for maybe twenty years, for the well-being of children and the excellence of books, is immense: it involves an endless expense of energy and an impossible weighing of competing priorities.”

I am lucky in my husbands, Fictional and real. They have worked hard to overcome the training they’ve received at the hands of our society, “the spite that so often a man is allowed to hold, trained to hold, against anything a woman does that’s not done in his service, for him, to feed his body, his comfort, his kids.” (Le Guin, 1989) Like many artists, I expect “to work against the total, rational indifference of everybody else” in the world, but at least I do not have to work against a “daily, personal, vengeful resistance.” (Le Guin, 1989) I have a husband who recognizes that I am a writer, and that writers must write. He has built for me a room of my own. There may be days when he wonders what I have done with my time, why the rice is burnt and the laundry festering in baskets. But like Le Guin’s husband, he brings to our marriage “an assumption of mutual aid,” (Le Guin, 1989) which daily brings to life the epigraph we chose for our wedding invitations:

“And feel a spirit kindred to my own;
So that henceforth I worked no more alone”

Robert Frost, “The Tuft of Flowers

To my Fictional Husband, and the real man who stands behind him, to all you stay-at-home moms and dads who managed to post to your blog today, to the art that feeds us and sustains us, that challenges and defines us, I dedicate this moment of my time.

Thank you for reading, for this moment of your time.

Climbing Out of the Past

Photo by Paul Downey

Photo by Paul Downey

We were talking about fathers, and their legacies. I told her that I have recently discovered my purpose in life: to end the abuse of my past with me, to let none of it creep forward into the generations of my children and their children. Abuse has that way of climbing out of the past. Its shadows creep over every relationship, tainting them with roles and expectations never chosen. My friend worried aloud about a young woman she knew, bullied by her husband. She wondered what she could tell this young woman, how to change the course of her marriage, how to change her life. I began thinking about my younger self, and what I would have told her if I could reach back across time. Continue reading

The Smile That Saves

Aside

Honey honey

Honey honey (Photo credit: weirdfishes/arpeggi ( Ashnaa Rabbani ))

The Husband is still traveling (eighteen days out of thirty-one this month, back and forth three times!), and I find myself turning for encouragement to stories I wrote down last year, at this same juncture. Every time dad comes home and then leaves again, I discover anew the big difference between being a stay-at-home parent, and a left-at-home parent.

Number Two demanded eleven time-outs before noon today, and we reached the developmental limits of Five’s long-suffering stoicism just a few hours after that. It feels good to remember how much more impossible it was to be the left-at-home when my kids were Four and One. Here’s a little something from way back when.

Date: Saturday, May 14, 2011

Time: 7:27 p.m. PT; 4:38 a.m. in Dusseldorf

Subject: Hard day

<mamabee@yahoo.com> wrote:

Hi Honey,

I couldn’t do this without my children. Each of them, in turn, sustains me. And this trip, for the first time, they comfort me together. They don’t mean to be a comfort to me, but they can’t help it.

It’s hard when I know that I am scary to my children. I’m not frying-pan scary—I hope you know this by now—but there are days, and sometimes days and days, when I simply cannot find my smile. When I scold my daughter for being hungry, or awake, just because I am tired, or covered in yogurt. Or when Four backs himself into another corner and all I can do is growl in vindicated satisfaction.

But these two children have come into my life to teach me how to live. Let go. Be in the moment. Do less. Say what’s in your heart. Sleep when you can. If you can’t sleep, rest. Step back. Accept forgiveness.

What broke my heart today? The way Four translated for and defended his sister: Mom, she just wants her own spoon. Her advocate. Came up to me and laid his palm on my cheek: Everything’s okay, Mom. Then goes and whispers in his sister’s ear, glancing sideways at me with a look somehow wicked and serious at the same time. And One, not getting the joke, huffing her imitative, infectious laugh.

Me, suspicious, asking: What are you two up to?

Oh, Mom. We’re just planning to poop at the same time.

And then the smile bubbles up inside me, the smile I’ve been waiting for all day, the smile I so desperately needed, the smile that will save us from me.

Everything will be okay.

Love,

Me

Code Red: Parenting

Version 2 QR code example

Version 2 QR code example (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ll say it now, our kids have us whipped. At Two and Five, these guys already know exactly how to work the parental system. Five tiptoes into the living room after I’ve lovingly and firmly tucked him into bed, gravely lays his night fears out like ominous Tarot cards for his father, then smirks at me over dad’s shoulder when he snuggles in on the couch for some extra iPhone time. Two nods earnestly at her father’s cleanup warnings, then cons me into an elaborate tea party while dad’s busy helping Five with homework.

My husband and I are both very involved in parenting our kids, so lines of responsibility aren’t always clear. Taking turns with child rearing tasks like bedtime or homework means that we each bring different expectations, skills, strengths (weaknesses), and preferences to each event. And our kids know it. It’s hard to find the time, and even harder to find the energy, for effective conversations about how we’re going to do things around here, especially when parenting shoves us up against differences in background or values.

What we need is a code. Single words or phrases we parents can use when we don’t want to say it all in front of the kids. Spelling it out doesn’t work when the message is: This kid is getting away with murder here! or You don’t know the whole story yet! Plus, spelling went out the window three years ago when I hinted to my husband, “I think it’s time for N-A-P,” and our oldest interrupted his two-tantrum to insist, “Not tired!” A fellow mom shared in a recent post that she and her husband use “The eagle has landed,” to remind each other to be on best behavior when their son is near.

Those of you who have been at this longer than us have perhaps worked it all out to the point of seamless alliance. What codes do you use to communicate with your partner when you’re out-teamed? Words? Phrases? Non-verbal signals? What do you wish your partner would understand, and how would you reduce it to a word that could invoke humor and solidarity between the two of you, and confusion to the enemy? We’d love to know. We seem to have lost our codebook.

Your stories and advice would be most welcome—share your best code words by leaving a comment below.

Ten Things She Can Do For Herself: Apologize (less)

Part I: Apologize (Less)

I still recall with great tenderness the woman I became upon the arrival of my firstborn. Suddenly dependent, physically limited by recovery from birth, exhaustion and my inexperience with the quotidian tasks of caring for a newborn, hormonally irrational, new in my marriage…this fragile woman had none of the competence or independence by which I defined myself professionally for so many years. Yet, in those first two weeks before I slipped on some Baby Blues and skidded into a downward spiral of post-partum depression and marital confusion, I had a laugh like none other. My newborn son, belly to belly with me, delighted in the great rolling laughter that shook through his mama from her breath to her bones.

I still have days when I feel like I have lost my smile. A grimness settles over me when I know I have deeply failed my children. I recently read that having a reason to rage does not give me the right. I know this. But there are days when I still do not know what to do with the rage that overwhelms me when my children choose escalation and I can’t unstick the conflict. I’m not Cast-Iron-Skillet crazy, but I can tell from the look in my children’s eyes that even Get-to-Your-Room-Now-and-Stay-There-So-Help-Me! disturbs and intrigues them in ways I would prefer not to repeat. They simply don’t realize what I am trying to save when I-Have-Had-Enough! Continue reading

Rage, or the Distress Call of the Modern Mother

I write to remember what I know. Recently a mom in my Mother’s Club posted a distress call on our online chat board. After watching her two young children all week and through most of the weekend, she became inexplicably enraged at her husband, innocently returning from his relaxing three-hour Sunday workout. She abashedly described herself as screaming, name-calling, slamming things around and basically engaging in an entirely unprovoked adult temper tantrum.

Boy, did reading her post take me back to the days! The last one was about two weeks ago, in fact. Her question to us was: What to do? But I think the more important question is: Why? Continue reading

Introducing the Husband

Disclaimer: The Husband is not the man I married. I make no effort to reconcile my writing with reality here. I need the freedom of fiction when writing about the Husband, because marriage is the hardest thing I do.

The Husband may say things that sound familiar to the man I married, he may look and act in similar ways at times, he may even provoke the same emotional response in me, but always remember that you cannot read this and know who he really is. If you read my journal you would have it even worse: in that writing the Husband’s so totally distorted by singular perspective and moment that he might be 300 different Husbands across those scribbled pages.

No, you cannot know the man I married the way I do, simply by reading this. You cannot taste the comfort in the cup of Earl Grey he invariably offers each morning and afternoon, sweetened with honey and softened with milk. You cannot see how he savors his daughter’s hug, or listens amazed to the ideas in his son’s prattle. You cannot watch him build a toybox or change a lightbulb or install a door, and glory in a primal sense of safety at his confidence and skill. You cannot hear the watery clink of dishes done and the mild roar of coffee ground as he prepares our home for a peaceful morning. You cannot feel the warmth and breadth of his hand on my skin. You cannot run your finger in the groove of his dimple. You cannot know the courage of his confusion, the wisdom of his choices, his willingness to ask, always ask, how could it be better?

You cannot know this man. Don’t even try. He’s my husband.