Photo credit: Jonathan Weisberg
My plan was to take a year of maternity leave, like all my friends. I came to motherhood relatively late. I’d completed a PhD and then worked and qualified for a year of EI. I would go back when it ran out of course! A year seemed a long time to be away from work.
I pumped my friends about their first year of motherhood. The overwhelming response was, “It’s great!” This was almost always followed by a weary laugh and, “But I was ready to go back to work by the end of the year. It’s hard and frankly, it’s boring.” The blogs and articles I read, written by smart feminist women echoed this. The experience of motherhood was described as wonderful at times, but the childcare tedious, or even stultifying and depressing. I braced myself for the worst.
But it wasn’t the worst. It was the best. And three years and another kid later, I still don’t want to go back to work.
This was a surprise to me and also seems to flummox a lot of people in my urban, professional peer group. “So, what’s next?” asked one of my husband’s colleagues recently. When I hesitate, she gives me a searching look. “You do want to go back to work, don’t you?”
At my book club, composed of college administrators, teachers and government workers, I mention our younger daughter has turned one. I’m again asked when I’m returning to work. I tell them I’m going back soon for financial reasons, but I don’t really want to. A member gently suggests that “maybe I’ve just never found a job I really liked.”
In fact, I’ve had exposure to many industries. I’ve worked as a bookstore clerk, foot messenger, lemon inspector, barista, elderly support worker, sustainability/diversity analyst, advertising semiotician, university instructor, film consultant, account manager and even, video game avatar. I’ve enjoyed many aspects of these roles. But I’ve finally found a job I really love: being at home with my kids.
I admire the women who are honest about their boredom with motherhood. I’m glad that moms’ real experiences are being heard; it’s an ongoing battle to confront the notion that all women are “natural” mothers. There are many, many reasons women can’t, wouldn’t and shouldn’t stay home. For anyone with a lack of resources, amenities, mom-friend group, physical stamina, general interest, time to complete a passion project, and/or low tolerance for never completing a task, staying at home might be impossible. Anyone who doesn’t want to be home shouldn’t suppress a gleeful yodel as they skip back to work. We were in the privileged position of enabling me to stay at home, with some careful budgeting, on one income, because I happen to love it.
The thing is, I feel really odd for actually enjoying full-time childcare. When I tell people that despite its challenges, I love being at home, I’m met with a certain look of appraisal, restrained silence, or a circumspect “hmm”. I feel disbelieved. Sometimes, I feel judged. I wonder what they’re thinking. That I’m too soft or incompetent to thrive in the working world? (Am I?) Or that I’m kidding myself about liking it…a victim of false consciousness…duped by the patriarchy into menial childcare. (AM I?!)
In general, the question that hovers over me all the time is:
I’ve been told this is hard, boring, awful. Shouldn’t I find this hard, boring and awful?
I’ll concede that obviously, taking care of a three-year old and a one-year old isn’t always easy or fun. Making sure they’re entertained, relatively clean, and rested, basically means that I am none of these things at once. We’re lucky to send our three-year old to part-time preschool, but on the days she doesn’t go, now that she doesn’t nap, my day begins before 5 a.m. when our baby wakes up (whyyyyy?) and ends around 8 after bedtime – with no “breaks”. And of course there are nighttime wakings, nighttime pukings and nighttime diaper changes on top of this schedule.
And yes, there are many boring moments, many disgusting moments. (Must I pretend again to be the dad from the Little Charmers, pooping? I must, again and again.) The pace of life, the tandem tantrums and the sibling squabbling are intense. The drudgery of child-related housework can be dispiriting. (How many times have I cleaned under the high chair where our extremely messy one-year-old eats? 650 octodecillion times this week? That number feels low.) But the donkey work, boredom and frustration is comparable with my experiences in the workplace, minus the profound rewards I experience being with my kids.
Overall, this job is the best I’ve ever had. It engages me fully and simultaneously in physical, emotional, psychological, creative – and yes, intellectual – ways that I’ve never enjoyed in any other job. With the constant use of the stroller and in playing with my kids, I’m in the best shape of my life. I thrive on the proximity of their chubby little bodies and hugs. I’m fascinated by the psychological development of their personalities and language. I find it challenging and rewarding to soothe their childhood anxieties. Conversations with my three-year-old are hilarious and touching. I love making up songs and stories for the kids. (And myself! Just the other night I came up with an amazing rendition of “Black Tar Poop” to the tune of “Black Hole Sun” while changing a particularly odious diaper.) I love doing arts and crafts to impress no one. I even love the multi-tasking and adrenaline-filled pace of our days. The constant, immediate demands of childcare mean I am almost always “in the moment” with the kids, a state which, according to a major study into mental wellbeing by Harvard psychologists, contributes to greater happiness. At the end of the day, I feel spent—in a good way. And even still, I go to bed with the slightly melancholy regret of not having wrung a full appreciation out of this fleeting time.
In my experience, childcare isn’t simple, boring or low-skilled. It requires every ounce of knowledge, good judgment, patience, compassion, imagination and physical strength I have. I recently took on some work as an academic researcher to pad my resume and make money as I look for work again. My husband and a few others asked me “whether it felt good to use another part of my brain again.” It doesn’t feel like I’m using “another” part of my brain—it feels like I’m using fewer, if more concentrated, parts. I’m curious whether an MRI scan would support this hunch. I wasn’t at all surprised to learn that the British spy agency MI5 was recruiting “middle-aged moms” for the “particular skills they have” in “emotional intelligence… and building relationships”, as well as, (presumably) the analytic abilities required for the job.
I recognize that caring for my kids full time fits my peculiar set of preferences and peccadilloes. I’m a non-competitive homebody introvert who dislikes being chained to a computer. I value autonomy and have a strong affinity for the absurd.
Even for women who can afford to stay home, there are intense social pressures to be a professional. The phenomenon of celebrity Instagram moms paid to promote products through a filter of traditional homemaking is a fascinating example of women presenting a fantasy of full-time motherhood, while garnering admiration for their aptitude as social media influencers. They “legitimate” being at-home moms by also being canny businesswomen.
People often say to me, “I don’t know how you do it!” People also acknowledge the value of caring for children; I hear them say it’s “the most important work.” But this can feel like lip service when these kudos are undercut by its common description as “boring” – the implication being that childcare is beneath someone who’s an educated professional, and better contracted out.
What also bothers me about the description of childcare as “boring” is not only does it make me question myself, but that it belittles care work in general. That work requires emotional intelligence. It’s work that has traditionally been done by women. It’s work that hasn’t been seen as real, skilled work, worth rewarding with good pay. I’m not criticizing the individuals who describe childcare as boring (my friends among them), but society’s narrow appreciation of certain skills. Not only does the term minimize the work of stay-at-home mums, it also normalizes low wages for child care workers, nannies and people in other care industries – overwhelmingly women, often minorities.
The financial, social and personal challenges to taking on full-time childcare are real, but the last few years have been the most stimulating and fulfilling of my life. I was recently encouraged to read that Justin Trudeau said he'd like to stay home full-time with the kids if he didn't have the job of PM. I wish that childcare was more widely respected by society, and considered skilled and challenging work. A shift in attitude like this could contribute to improvements for care professionals, as well as for parents like me who internalize a feeling that there’s something “wrong” with being home with our kids.
This article was originally published online in September 2017.