By Tamara Reese
I went back to work when my firstborn was six weeks old and I felt like my heart was being ripped out of my body every minute of the day until I could race home to him.
Deciding to stay home was scary and I feel blessed our family was able to make financial sacrifices enabling me to make this choice. But once the band-aid was pulled, I found myself in a day-to-day rhythm that was completely foreign to me. In addition, I felt like I was a one-woman-show with a social stigma to refute. If I was “giving up” my career to stay at home, it needed to be productive. I needed to cook and clean and craft and be the best damn homemaker I could be because the degrees I’m still paying off are wasting away on a shelf until I get back to the workforce.
My firstborn loved to nurse and would wake several (thousand) times throughout the night. Often times after his 7:00 a.m. nursing session he would snuggle up beside me in bed and go back to sleep until 10:00 a.m. As he drifted off to sleep with the sun shining in on us I’d have a mental battle with myself. Should I slide him into the crib and get something done or give in to my own exhaustion sleep alongside him. After all I was up half of the night nursing and changing diapers, I could use the extra sleep. And then I’d picture one of those, ‘what-do-stay-at-home-moms-do-all-day-people’ catching me sleeping until ten thirty nodding judgmentally – “that’s what I thought. You sleep all day.” While I was so torn about those morning lie-ins with my first born, I realized it will be decades before I sleep in a quiet house until 10:30 a.m. again. Never again would I have the opportunity to snuggle this baby, because as they say, babies don’t keep. So I chose our lazy mornings together, which faded and changed as he got older, like all stages of motherhood do.
When my husband would come home from work and innocently ask what I did that day, I’d defensively rattle off a list of tasks—changed diapers, went to the grocery, emptied the dishwasher. And on the days when laundry went unfolded or dinner wasn’t ready, I let guilt completely overwhelm me. I felt like I was failing, not at motherhood—but at homemaking. I’m staying at home, that means I should be able to care for my child, my husband and my home. The house should always be clean, the baby fed, the laundry folded, the pantry stocked, and the dinner made. That was my expectation of what being at home meant. And then my son cut his top front teeth and screamed for two days straight while I rocked and hushed him. I didn’t shower, or clean or even leave the house. I nursed and sang to him amidst his blood-curdling wails. And when my husband asked what I did I said, “Nothing. Nothing is done,” and I chalked that day up to failure, and added to my to-do list for the following day.
To ease the burden that was weighing me down, I told myself that rather than complete my entire to-do list, each day I needed to complete one task in addition to taking care of my child. One task. Anything else was a bonus but as long as I scrubbed the bathroom or made a dental appointment, I was doing an acceptable-to-me-job. I found my mornings were infinitely more pleasant if I went to bed each night with an empty sink and I started lowering my standards for just how clean the kitchen floor needed to be. And this is how I learned to let go of what were probably my own insecurities and expectations about what “staying home” looked like.
When you really think about it, being a stay-at-home mom is about taking care of your child(ren). That is your job. Feeding, changing, bathing, kissing boo-boos, reading and playing with them—it takes up most of the moments between 9:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. and then some. Sure you can throw in a load of laundry here or there, or get dust during naptime. But sometimes, naptime is the only quiet you get. The only time in the entire day that you have to be alone with your thoughts, squeeze in a shower or (gasp!) sit on the couch and read. The second your child falls asleep the timer ticks down to the moment when you are “on” again, you are theirs.
I think about how if I trusted my children to a nanny or daycare provider while I worked how outraged I would be if I found out the person who was supposed to be caring for my children was washing dishes instead. How furious I’d be if my child’s teacher didn’t have time to play blocks with him because she was vacuuming. If I were entrusting my child to another person I would expect that caring for him would be their number one priority. Because caring for a child, whether it is done by you or by people that you trust and pay enormous amounts of hard-earned money to, is a full time job.
And when I feel guilty (which even now three years in with two children I often do) for not getting enough done or taking an afternoon nap, I look at my children. They are happy and clean and cared for. We read ten books, they were fed three meals and cuddled and listened to. We sang songs, built towers and after five public tantrums by the time both children were simultaneously napping—I have nothing left to give. So I lay down on the couch and fall asleep trying not to think about the laundry waiting for me. Because laundry is waiting for working Mamas, and laundry waits for dads, and laundry won’t be awake in an hour begging for attention and crackers. My babies will be. And babies, don’t keep.
Tamara Reese is a stay-at-home mama, freelance writer and part-time consultant in the field of Maternal and Child Health. She is a contributing editor to Kveller.com (http://www.kveller.com/blog/author/tamara/) a website with a Jewish twist on parenting. Tamara lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and two boys. You can connect with her on Twitter (twitter.com/oiler02).