Sunday, January 2, 2011

A Sign of the Times

As I write this, I am looking at a well meaning magazine story about the Modern Stay-at-Home Mom. I am modern, by virtue of the fact that I live now, and I am a mom who stays home with her kids, so I suppose I fit the bill.
But I don’t identify with the piece.
Because layered in the story’s presentation—kicked off with a photo spread featuring a woman first dressed in a 1950’s styled silk dress and pumps, clutching a nearly naked babe and fully clothed vacuum cleaner, and then pictured in present-day jeans and sunglasses, pushing a trendy stroller and presumably a child, is the implication that that those of us who are SAHMs now are doing it because we have reached a more enlightened place than those who stayed home with their kids—or did not stay home---in generations past.
Should I feel superior to my grandmother who raised four kids, worked in a factory during World War II like Rosie the Riveter, read more books in a year than I can hope to in my lifetime, and subscribed to MS Magazine—in her late 70’s? I may be contemporary, but in her beliefs and actions in the name of equality, she was modern.
I stay home because I have reacted to an imperfect situation—work/family/childcare---by joining my generation’s “opt-out revolution.”
I admire my peers, both those who head to the office each day and those who join me in the bullpen of domestic negotiations. And I know that in an economic sense, I am excessively and exceptionally lucky to be home with my kids.
But being called Modern implies that my predecessors were old-fashioned. The times may have been, but many of the women were not.
Certainly moms who stay home now can more easily have parallel lives in other spheres, especially because of the technology of our particular era: we can write blogs, sell creations on Etsy and run philanthropies from home offices during nap time. Some maintain the contacts they built before they left careers, and many have partners who are uniquely good at understanding and respecting their contributions and versatility.
But am I more modern than the complicated but ambitious stay-at-home mom of another century, Elizabeth Cady Stanton? Or the moms of more recent times who never became famous, but raised a generation of men who have had the confidence to become Stay-at-Home Dads or support SAHMs?
In her essay, "A Mother of a Year", Stephanie Coontz cuts through the distractions of the time and gets to the heart of things. She writes of a child-care crisis, imperfect work and family leave policies, outdated and impractical school vacation and class schedules--- and the fact that “the woman who stays home faces the frightening prospect that if she gets divorced, she and her children are far less likely to regain their former income than a mother who went back to work within the first year.”
She wrote that in 1998.
I finished graduate school that year. A coincidence that makes me think that the group of women finishing college or grad school now, and the ones who couldn’t afford to go, are poised to be the next cohort to find themselves called “Modern Stay-at-Home Moms".
I know these young women because they are my daughters’ baby sitters. They are the education majors, the mechanical engineers, the graduate students in psychology, who arrive at my house and look at me---my kids running circles around my legs, my dog barking, and my eyes still droopy from a night of little sleep, and are welcomed by a, “I am so glad you’re here,” as I hand my kids off and make my escape.  
I imagine they are thinking, “That is not going to be me.”
The big secret is, “Yes, it will be. You will inherit the chaos of child rearing. But, you’ll do it in your own way, and hopefully, with a little less chaos, and paid sick leave.”
Which brings me to the other side of the misnomer Modern.
To the generation of women starting their careers now, or finishing up a women’s studies class, we "modern" SAHMs are part of what has already been—lives and choices to study, observe, emulate or reject.
I know our stories are far from over.
But, it seems to discount the past, and shortchange the future, to call us modern, as if that, in itself, were a destination.   
We are just one stop along the road. And, looking around, this place appears to be called 2011.

Painting by: Mary Cassatt


Tim Morrissey said...

Your excellent post reminded me of my own (SAHM) mother, who raised six children and in her "spare time" at home did the administrative work for my father's nascent Real Estate and Insurance business, until it grew large enough for him to hire full-time administrative staff.

As is so often the case, your thoughtful posts speak to the ties between and among generations, and provides supporting evidence for the thesis of Ashley Montagu's "The Natural Superiority of Women."

Kudos, Sarah.

Rachel said...

Wow - what a great, thought-provoking post. Having just quit my 9-5 job three months ago, so as to spend more time with my son, I really resonate with your words that this is a reaction to an "imperfect situation".

And I totally remember being that babysitter and thinking - "wow, this is never going to be me." And guess what happens next!

Jeff Still said...

"One stop along the road, indeed." It turns out that moms and dads, and kids, all seem to be like snowflakes; no matter what trends "modern" life throws their way, they are and will always be individual. Simply put, there are as many ways to grow up as there are kids to grow up. Nice work, Sarah!

Kelly said...

What a thoughtful post. You have me thinking about my mother and two grandmothers, all SAHM, each with their own styles. I emulate each of them in different ways. One was a fabulous decorator, one intensely involved with the community, one a dynamite cook. All were welcoming and made home special. All were very invested in their children, neighbors, various crafts and homemaking.

I am a hybrid SAHM - truly home most of the day, but am the PIC (parent-in-charge) from 7:30-1:30. My husband takes over at 1:30 when his work day finishes, and I go work on my graduate studies and consulting. I think we are a very modern family as our non-traditional division of labor allows us a lot of time together but also time to be away from the family and work.

The difference between my family and my parents and grandparents families is the men - I'm not sure if the men would have wanted or tolerated being in charge of the kids four hours a day while mom went off to work!

It will probably all change when my graduate studies are done, but for now it's pretty great!

parenting ad absurdum said...

Insightful and well-written - we are all so overly anylitical and (as much as we mean so well) judgemental - we all make it work as best we can and should embrace and support those who came before us and are beside us!

Alyson said...

Oh the dreaded "That is not going to be me" look. I've given and gotten it, now I try to leave it home, cause it never seems to get me into anything but trouble. Great post!