It was just a line on a fairly unimportant formal document but seeing it in print made me wince. Occupation: homemaker. I remembered the conversation – address? phone number? employment? I had answered honestly. I’m not working right now. Somehow in my head that couldn’t possibly translate into the archaic term printed before me. Surely I had little in common with a relic from a time before the feminist revolution, a role that, like the word itself, belonged to my grandmother’s generation. I think the term is stay-at-home-mom, I remember thinking.
g was not yet a year old at the time and I was awkward in my new identity. I can laugh now at the memory of preferring to tell people that I was “unemployed”, rather than tackle the subject of how I had utterly failed to combine
career and motherhood. Surrounded by high-achieving parents on the playground, I was withdrawn and uneasy.
But mostly, I was busy. Despite having only one child, I was working constantly to learn the new skills that I needed for the job. I was, quite possibly, in over my head. I learned. A lot. And over time I began to forget about old expectations and stop caring what people might think of my choices. I took ownership of the decision to stay home and I began to see it as the right thing for us. I let go.
Even more, I began to see the value in my new life. Beyond the dedication to my tiny son and his giant needs, I began to see how I could relieve pressure on my spouse who needed to work, sometimes long hours, to make rent and secure health insurance. I began to notice the importance of the food choices that I controlled and their impact not just on the health of my family but on our entire political and economic system. I began to recognize how more time at home translated into gradual improvements to our environment, mostly in ways that involved time and thought rather than money. And I began to appreciate how getting to know our neighbors could have a genuine impact on both our lives and theirs. I discovered that self-reliance and community begin at home.
But I haven’t forgotten my beloved grandmother. I will always remember her telling of how badly she wanted to work outside the home. When a job opportunity came up, she brought the idea before my grandfather who agreed, hesitatingly, but warned that she could keep the job only as long as it didn’t interfere with her duties at home. She kept the job and recounted that story with pride. Across the distance of generations, I listened in absolute horror.
Power dynamics and gender politics still play an unfortunately large part in the discussion of domestic work. But, I honestly believe, they don’t have to. There are so many benefits to taking back some portion of caring for our own needs. Over reliance on convenience leads to a form of corporate paternalism that has enormous social and environmental costs. There is much to be gained at home.
It is ironic that I am compelled to write this now, just as I begin to take my first encouraging steps back into the world of paid work. I can’t deny that the need for greater participation and a more tangible contribution to our household economy are important driving forces for me. But I sincerely hope that I can avoid ever returning to 40+ hr work weeks. Because these years have taught me something that I can never unlearn. Despite the inherent injustice in my grandfather’s approach to household division of labor, it turns out that we fundamentally agree on one thing about the work that goes on inside the home: it’s truly important.