Monday, October 14, 2013

(How not to be) Desperate Housewives

As a disclaimer, I've never seen the show Desperate Housewives (nor do I care to), so I could be totally off on my analysis, but I think the bigger picture is still true, even if I've got the show wrong.  Anyway, when Anna and I accompanied Justin to his conference last week, I was living a life of luxury at the hotel - any semblance of work was being done for me, down to making the bed.  (Confession: I did make it, but then the hotel staff came in and made it even nicer than I had).  The only responsibility I had all day long was to take care of Anna.  We found new playgrounds, we walked around the hotel lobby and looked at the fountain, we read lots of books, we had leisurely meals.  I also got to meet up with a few friends from college who live in the area for lunch and for coffee.  By the world's standard, I should have been really happy.  And I was happy to spend a vacation day with my girl.  But I couldn't help but notice that the day felt somewhat unfulfilling.

I get the sense that the Desperate Housewives have a similar sort of life - glamorous stay-at-home mom types without any of the hard work traditionally associated with being an actual housewife.  Restaurant meals, professional cleaning services, and a closet of dry-clean-only clothes can allow someone to get away with that lifestyle provided that they can afford to sustain it beyond a three-day conference.  I understand that the show is a reflection of the societal trend in general to buck the system of the 1950's June Cleaver.  And there are things about the 1950's women's role in society that deserved to be bucked, but I've noticed that change nearly always comes as a pendulum swing that overcompensates rather than effectively correcting a problem.

It's rare to hear someone define their role as a "housewife" these days.  Usually, it's a "stay-at-home mom" - when I'm asked by a new acquaintance what I do, I always answer "I'm at home with Anna" in an almost sheepish way, as if I exclusively chase Anna around the house, in the same way that I was "in the hotel with Anna" last week.  To be clear, Anna's needs are my first priority, but I'm learning to serve those needs in a more holistic home-making type way.

Our self definition of "stay-at-home-moms" instead of "homemakers" likely stems from the fact that almost all of us were previously professional women who did the homemaking chores (cooking, cleaning, laundry, etc) in the evenings or on weekends.  The only change in life that warranted no longer working out of the home was the arrival of baby, and so I think there's a lingering mentality that the homemaking is just a side job that should be squeezed in around the edges.  I've realized it in myself - and it may be true for others - that I haven't completely embrace the housekeeping responsibilities as part of my "job" persay, but just as annoying things that happened to fall to my plate since I happened to be home all day with Anna (and society certainly hasn't accepted that there's more to do than childcare, given the (yes, real-life and totally off-base) comments like, "oh, Anna, I bet your Mommy gets to take a nap every day when you do!").

Our society also pressures us to be constantly on the go with kids and giving them untiring stimulation, education, and enrichment.  I've long held that elementary school kids are over-scheduled and over-committed to activities (particularly sports), but I didn't realize until I became a mom that the trend also holds for babies!  You could - I and think people do - go from music class to story hour to the playground to baby yoga, followed by a trip to the grocery store and three other errands.  All of this is in the name of educating, developing, and nurturing the babies - which I'm sure it accomplishes, at least before diminishing returns sets in.  But besides trying to be super mom with kids in lots and lots of activities, I think modern moms on the go are also running away from home.  Particularly in Anna's early months, I often wanted to go out.  I wanted to be out running errands or meeting friends or otherwise getting out of the house.  But beyond the healthy need to get out a bit and to have some additional adult interaction (and stimulation for Anna), I think that part of me wanted an escape.  Thinking that your next 6 or 8 or maybe even 10 hours will be filled exclusively with keeping a temperamental and non-verbal tiny little human happy can make you want to run away, too, especially if this is to be done in a place that is supposed to be your refuge but is, in reality, a perpetually messy place filled with reminders of what you "should" be able to fit in the cracks of your day.  And so, off I'd go to Target, returning to a still-messy house and feeling still overwhelmed, if not slightly placated by whatever purchase I had made.

As I spend more time giving analytical thought to my role and reading books on the subject, I've realized that thinking of myself as a "stay-at-home-mom" isn't only inaccurate, but self-defeating, particularly when juxtaposed socially with a "working mom."  I'm coming to embrace that title I once hated - homemaker.  In making a home - and giving proper place to the tasks it requires, I am effectively nurturing, educating, and loving Anna, but in a broader spectrum.  The tendency is to think that cooking or cleaning or doing laundry (in essence, providing for the family's basic needs) comes at the expense of being a good mom (ironically) because of the drive to maximize the amount of quality time reviewing the colors and the alphabet in hopes of raising a child who doesn't enter kindergarten woefully behind.  It really hit me though, when I realized - at the end of the day at the hotel - that I hadn't spent any more quality time with her during a day of leisure than I would have at home.  I had expected that I would have felt like I got the chance to teach her more, cuddle her more, and in effect be a better mom in that day, but in reality I did not.

At home,I tell her about the colors of shirts while I fold them (and she unfolds them).  We sing and dance together while I cook (and she empties the kitchen cabinets).  I give her a dry rag and she loves to wipe things while I clean, and we pause every few minutes for some tickles and kisses.  And in this way, she's learning by the things I tell her, but also by the things I show her - that home is comfortable and a place we want to be, that cleanliness and order are valuable, that hard work in important, and that loving someone requires action.  These lessons are ones that prevail, and ones she wouldn't necessarily learn if I didn't view my job in the broad spectrum of homemaking rather than with the narrow lens of just being a mom.

Of course, all that I've described is on a good day.  There are certainly days with a toddler (and I can't even imagine with multiple kids) that it is literally impossible to get basic things accomplished, even if I want to do them and value them as vitally important.  But, my overall outlook has improved greatly in light of these realizations.  As I spend more time organizing, cleaning, and making nice meals (and learning how to juggle these responsibilities as complimentary tasks to caring for Anna, rather than as opposing ones), our home becomes a place that makes me want to be here all the more, and when I'm spending less time running off to Target, I'm finding more time both to enjoy the home and to keep it up.  Even trips out of the home (like our Friday story-hours) are more fulfilling because I can enjoy them with Anna without the nagging feeling of chores undone.  And (I hope and pray) this approach will also lead Anna to grow up simultaneously less spoiled, yet more cared for and loved.

Perhaps its in losing sight of what being a housewife is all about that those poor TV ladies feel so desperate.

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