Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Will Work For Children

“So what do you do?” It never fails. Within minutes of arriving at a social event (on the rare occasion I attend one), someone invariably asks me that irksome question. So there I am feeling like I’m standing under an interrogation light. My questioner is smiling, eyes attentive, waiting for my reply. A list of responses rifle through my mind. I could always go with the sarcastic response. “I breathe. I sing in the shower. I floss at night. I cry at Disney movies. I nibble at my nails when I’m nervous or anxious. I shave my legs (sometimes). What do you do?”

Or I could pretend that I’m still a regular productive member of society and say, “I’m a writer.” In this case, I’d wait for the ooooohhhs and ahhhhhs as my questioner’s eyes widened with wonder. I’d feel the spotlight shining down on me – it’s no longer a harsh, threatening light, but a warm, pleasing cascade of warmth. I’m a writer. So romantic. So interesting. In my past life, people were always so impressed by my response. Until they asked the inevitable follow-up questions, “What have you written?” or “Where are you published?” The drum roll thunders in my ears. I feel like they’re expecting me to say something like “The Greatest American Novel. It’s up for the Pulitzer.” Still, despite the mild letdown, this response always spawned further conversation, even if my credentials were far more modest than Paris Hilton’s wardrobe.

Or should I come clean about my real full-time job? “Actually, I’m a stay-at-home mom.” Silence. There goes the icebreaker – the small talk ends there. How interesting is that? I feel like a would-be actor who just stammered her lines at a career-defining audition. Unless I’m fortunate enough to be talking to another at-home mom, my questioner shuffles his or her feet and quips with the never-fail exit line, “I’m going to get a drink. Can I get you something?” He or she departs searching the room for someone far more interesting that an at-home mom.

And even if the conversation does continue, what can I really say? If I start talking about the product of my work – two lovely, little girls who give spontaneous hugs and kisses, high fives and a perfect performance of Annie's “Tomorrow” and more fulfillment than any day job I’ve ever had – then I sound like one of those obnoxious moms out there who being convinced her child is a genius, recounts every milestone – “Yesterday he picked his nose and didn’t even eat his buggar! We’re so proud.” No, I refuse to be one of those moms. Unfortunately though, that leaves me with little to say.

The truth is I love being a full-time mom. It’s the best career move I ever made. Still, I dread that proverbial question because in my mind I feel like people want to hear something more interesting than just being a mom. Take my husband. When asked, he gets to say, “I’m a medical resident training to be a radiologist.” This always fascinates people. A budding doctor! How interesting! Tall, handsome and a doctor! Just like Gray’s Anatomy! Dr. McDreamy in the flesh! Of course, he never tells them the truth. That it’s nothing like what you see on TV. Most of the time it’s very unglamorous unless your idea of razzle-dazzle is performing repeated rectal exams or in his case, staring at images from CT scans all day.

Really what he does isn’t that much different than what I do. I see my daughters’ bottoms at least 10 times a day and am constantly trying to interpret the oldest’s Pollack-inspired artwork. But it does sound better.

In others’ minds, especially those who are childless as many of the socialites I encounter are given my relatively early entry into motherhood, being a stay-at-home mom translates to something like: $0 salary. 0 social life unless you count singing along with Elmo (La, La, La, La, It’s Elmo’s Song.). Being knee-deep in dirty diapers. Interacting with germs from constantly wiping all those drippy faucet-noses. Watching soap operas while the kids nap. Not showering. Smelling like poop, spit up, snot, and all those lovely kid smells.

Reality check: I don’t get paid in cash, but I get some pretty amazing benefits – the aforementioned spontaneous kisses top the list. I don’t talk to adults every day, but I do shower (most of the time) and I don’t think I smell. I don’t watch soaps (we don’t even have basic cable), but I do think Elmo’s Song is rather catchy.

Although I’m sure most people respect my decision to be at home and that a lot of my angst stems from my own insecurities, I also know that being a mom – whether you work outside of the home or not – is undervalued in our society. Sure, we give plenty of lip service to the importance of motherhood, but when it all comes down, the role of mothers is often reduced to a string of tedious tasks: laundry, diaper changes, chauffeuring children, serving meals, etc. Then there’s the not-so-subtle message from the media that you can do it all. Mother for hire isn’t enough anymore. Even though I’m doing the most important job in the world, I sometimes feel that if I’m not also balancing a career or am on my way to being an acclaimed humanitarian, I’m a lesser human being.

And don't forget that whole “mommy brain” cliché. Women who stay at home to care for young children don’t partake in stimulating conversations. Their brains turn to mush from all those Barney songs. While everyone else is out in the world making things happen, they’re stuck at home leading dull, intellectually dissatisfying lives. But the way I see it, my job is the most demanding, stimulating and important job in the world. What I do is more than just the day-to-day tasks, which do often include those not-so-clean, not-so-fun chores of grooming a messy, messy baby. What I do demands creativity. We don’t listen to Barney. We make up our own songs, and sometimes we listen to the Beatles and Beethoven. What I do is multi-task like never before. Baby tries to kill herself by sticking finger in outlet. Mom saves child while simultaneously talking on the phone, slicing up onions for dinner, teaching preschooler the ABCs, and filing nails. What I do is teach my child values and empathy. What I do is fill these little black holes of need that we call children with the most love I can in hopes that they’ll one day grow up to be happy, confident and caring women.

Being a mom may not be the most glamorous job in the world. And it may not make good conversation during life’s mix and mingle situations. But someone’s got to do it and it might as well be me.

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