“Work”

At some point, I’d be avoiding the elephant in the room if I didn’t write something about “work” out here in the burbs.  Spoiler alert: I have no solution to the work vs. stay-at-home thing, but lord is it a loaded topic.

Some background about me and my ‘job’ experiences.  For most of my adult life, I’ve worked in education. Out of college, I spent my days loving life as a first grade teacher.  I shifted gears when I moved from D.C. to NYC and dipped my toe into corporate America as a management consultant.  For many reasons, that was awful.  But that stint allowed me to reevaluate what I wanted to get out of a career and what I loved doing.  Turns out megabucks would be great but wasn’t what drove me, and I missed making a difference in lives and being around children.

The part about teaching that I loved the most was the social/ emotional development I facilitated in my classroom, not necessarily the spelling or the phonics or the flashcards.  One Sunday morning sitting in Central Park with the NYTimes Magazine, I read an article about  the troubles that adolescents are going through and how few child psychologists there are out there to help our children manage their teen years.  Lightbulb!

Long story short, I applied to a bunch of schools, got into Teachers College at Columbia University and am now the proud recipient of an M.Ed. in Psychological Counseling with a concentration on School Counseling.  TC’s approach to counseling is incredible.  Their overarching focus is on multicultural awareness, so they pretty much knock you on your ass in order to expose your own preconceptions and baggage.  Tough stuff.

For 5 years I worked as a part-time guidance counselor at a K-8 school in NYC and I loved just about every minute of it.  Not that there wasn’t an inordinate amount of really tough stuff going on, but it felt good to be busy and involved and kinda making a difference in some lives.  At some point, maybe I’ll find a way to share more of this counseling world as I already miss it a ton.

Cafeteria mural I designed and brought in volunteers to help paint. Guidance counselors seem to have license to do anything if it might improve the kids’ well-being.

When we suburbanized, I left behind my counseling which leaves me, for the first time in my life, jobless.  Gulp.  Big Gulp (which incidentally, they’re trying to prohibit in NYC…).

All of this raises the big question of what one considers “work” and why is it that different forms of “work” evoke more or less street cred.  Stay-at-home-momming is hard.  Hardest work I’ve ever done, and my resume isn’t exactly sipping tea and nibbling scones.  But there’s not a lot of cache to the housewife/ mom gig.  Why is it that my role as stay at home mom doesn’t make me feel incredibly proud or validated or accomplished?  Even on days as a guidance counselor when I sat at my desk for much of the day, I still came home and felt satisfied.  That said, I am proud of who I am as a mom.  I am crazy proud of my kids, and I love being around them so often as opposed to being away at an office job every day.  But I don’t consider it a ‘job well done’ the same way as I did my counseling.

I should cut to the chase and mention that I have no answers here, so at the end of this post, there won’t be any rose-colored conclusion.  In the city, just about all of my mom friends worked outside of the house, and here in the suburbs, most of my mom friends stay home.  Different perspectives to be sure, but neither one necessarily better or worse; I’m still figuring out where I sit in the whole equation.  After a mere month out here in burbarama, it’s also very evident that this notion of work is much more of a spectrum than I would have said back when I was racing down subway stairs en route to my counseling job.

Which I suppose is take away #1.  That “work” is a spectrum and everyone figures out where on that spectrum they feel most comfortable landing.  Everyone out here has some degree of non-mom “work” that they tap into so even though it might not be the 5 days, 8:00 a.m. -6:00 p.m. office job, it’s not all dishwashing and diapers.  (In many circumstances, work is not a choice or a decision, it’s a necessity so it’s not lost on me that I could have WAY bigger issues in my life.)

I keep coming back to the question of why is stay-at-home-momming moderately unsatisfying for me?  Is it too menial?  Is it not cerebral enough? Is it just too grueling?  Is it just me?  Perhaps this is the biggest transition for me to maneuver in the urb-suburb journey.  Learning not to just tolerate the job of stay-at-home-mom, but to somehow find the personal value on a micro level.  It’s easier for me to see the macro values of being around my kids so much when they’re little and at home so often…I can hopefully dust off my counseling in a few years, but the kids are only throwing toddler tantrums for a finite amount of time.

Take away #2: Give it some time.  These are early days and perhaps I’ll hit my rhythm and begin to feel more and more validated by the work of keeping house and keeping up with kids.

What makes us consider one thing more “work” than staying home with the children?  Is it a paycheck? Perhaps… Is it the cocked “good-for-you” head that people give when you tell them what you do as a stay at home mom?  Who knows… Is it that a work force of toddlers doesn’t exactly rate high on the employee engagement meter? Possibly…

Take away #3: Maybe I just need to change my perspective.  Embrace the challenges of being at home and recognize that every other stay-at-homer can relate and considers me a rock star the same way I see them.  Remind myself that I can’t please everyone and even at my other jobs, there were people who took me for granted, didn’t always listen and failed to praise my hard work.

Take away #4: Nothing is forever.  This is a big one for me.  I tend to get myself thinking that every decision I make is non revocable and permanent.  Whether it’s a career decision or a new coffee table, things can change.  Things WILL change.

I logged many hours creating a career as a counselor, and I still get bummed out that I’m not tapping into that right now.  But I need to remember the “right now”.  In ten years when we have kids who are coming home after sports at 6:00 and the only conversation we have with them is grunts, I suspect I will look back with real satisfaction at the days when I was staying at home.  Every day isn’t great, and I will never get used to having 7 different projects started with no time to finish, but in the immortal words of Ann Romano, I just need to take this One Day at a Time.

Take away #5: Remember that “right now” will look different in a week, in a year, and in 5 years.  I’m trying to engage in and enjoy the moments without too much thought about how I will get back into counseling.  I’m trying to be my own cheerleader for different things than I’m used to: like making lunch and leaving a clean kitchen, like getting through an hour without Oliver falling on his face, like unpacking another box (none of these things happened today, by the way… but I’m sure there were other housewife victories that I could claim).  I’m still working on the cheer, but I feel good about my pom-pom shaking.

Oh, for the record, my current work force has access to a moon bounce (purchased on Craigslist, natch) which is something I CAN’T say about any other job I’ve held.  Not too shabby.

xo

Charlotte

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5 thoughts on ““Work”

  1. Great piece- and very gently & diplomatically considered. One of the gifts of stay at home parenting is that it’s a course in humility. Not having a professional title is indeed difficult, the children themselves will be happy to take you down a peg, and there is little to no feedback on your day to day performance (“Wow! You brought that laundry in under budget and on time!”)

    The job satisfaction mostly comes from within, and that’s kind of hard to get used to. If you would like a performance review, I recommend waiting until the children have kids of their own, to ask for it. 🙂

    As the mother of adults though, I can promise that there are HUGE bonuses in the offing. The way your heart swells when one of your older children shows some amazing display if character that you know you had a hand in forming, is without price. Of course, these rewards come to working parents as well, but I don’t think you’ll regret a minute that you spent with your children.

    But anyway, since you have a blog, you are now a freelance writer.

  2. Ru, I’ve found that reaching out to moms with much older children has always been an enlightening way to talk myself down from the ledge, so thanks for jumping right in with some words of encouragement! The ‘within’ piece is so true and it’s funny to me that this is one area that I struggle to validate from ‘within’. I keep saying that I think the outside job somehow seems to separate me from others whereas stay-at-home mom somehow feels like the masses. Which we all know is not even close to the truth, but perceptions and presumptions can really get weighty in this mom business. But I’m a rookie so still earning my brownie badges.

    • So true about how we identify as individuals- it’s very hard to boil down to a cocktail party type intro that you’re, say, a stay at home mom who makes art, is passionate about craft beer & mountaineering literature, and grows heirloom daffodils…or whatever. Time is the factor again. People who take the time to get to know you will see that you are beyond labels. The same goes for our sisters in the work force, who are so much more than what they get paid for.

  3. There’s a story I like to tell about my epiphany regarding stay-at-home moms.
    We had recently moved to Santa Monica, CA. My son Stephen was in 4th grade and daughter Sheila in Kindergarten at a terrific public elementary school (I had done my research). I immediately got involved with the PTA. My past experience with school PTAs were mixed….a great one while we lived in Larchmont, NY, not so much in Boise, Idaho. The Larchmont elementary school had a great tradition of organizing a trip to Washington, DC as a culmination celebration for “graduating” 5th graders. My television producing background kicked in and I wanted Stephen to have a similar 5th grade experience. (The boy had moved five times in his brief nine years). I approached the PTA President and she invited me to her home to discuss the idea of an extended field trip.
    When I walked into her home office I spied hanging on the walls:
    1. BA degree from Stanford University
    2. JD degree from Univ. of California Davis
    3. Commendation from the NY Teamster Union for her legal work
    4. Commendation for serving on the Santa Monica Housing Commission
    5. Two recent paintings done by her children ( same age as mine)
    6. A family portrait photo
    Here was a woman who had credentials and work experience up the kazoo but had elected to “stay-at-home.” Like herself, she was surrounded by friends who had the means to support in-home child care so that both parents could continue to work and continue to receive professional validation OR elect to live quite nicely (thank you) on just the husband’s income.
    So why did she not continue her career? The answer could be simple she wanted to be her children’s primary caretaker and teacher) or complicated (past childhood/parenting issues with own parents). The point is that she was utilizing all her brain cells in other ways that included volunteering on the district’s oversight committee for a major reconstruction project and participating on the school’s governance committee that was making major decisions about the quality of her children’s (and others’) education.
    For myself, I stopped working in television when Stephen was born because, at the time, I had risen to the level of Associate Producer which meant I was the one who would be in the edit room all night….and free-lancing seemed logistically complicated. One year out of the biz led to another, one move led to another, one child led to another……and then I discovered something about myself as a parent that scared the hell out of me.
    I discovered that I could lose patience with a toddler’s behavior that put me just short of a news story….and that feeling stopped me cold. Here I was, raised by loving parents, two degrees under my belt, a comfortable living situation, a loving husband and there were times when I felt like slamming him down. How did those single mothers living in the projects with NO support have any chance at all? I took little solace in knowing that all my friends had similar moments of terror….I had to do something. Through a friend I met a working social worker who was ready to retire but was discouraged knowing that simple parent education could have reduced her client load.
    Long story short, we started A Different Start in the Yonkers projects, raised most of the money from the developer of the Cross County Shopping Center. We hired a director and child care professionals. If you had a child under three you could come to the program for three hours three times a week; your kid(s) were in child care while you took a parenting class; at the end of the week you got the makings for a family dinner. After a year, the moms wanted more so we added GED classes. After three years the program became part of Westchester Jewish Family Services.
    Take Away #1: Your own experience can lead to something that is needed and fulfilling …like perhaps a blog that morphs into a forum for your generation of young mothers.
    When Stephen entered high school and Sheila was one year away from middle school, I found myself in a position to go back to work and found a part-time job, not in television production, but managing an arts education grant for another school district. I was very fortunate to have had an intelligent young woman see the value in all my volunteer work within the Santa Monica school district. I think that was a fluke.
    Take Away #2…..Once all the kids are in elementary school; find a part time job in counseling to keep your hand in the field. I had waited too long.
    Stephen is now 29 and Sheila 25. I did my best “work” with them. Because I was so closely involved with their daily lives, I became a strong advocate for public education. I was amazed at my own lack of awareness of how importance of a good teacher is and embarrassed that, as a society, we don’t give the same reverence to the teaching profession as we do to doctors, lawyers, CEOs.
    Take away #3: Keep doing what you are doing now …keep writing….and volunteer for an organization you believe in…..take a leadership role in it.
    Recently, we’ve been transferring all our early videos onto discs…..watching Stephen and Sheila as young children takes my breath away….as I said before, being a stay-at-home mom was the best job I ever had and I was at the top of my game doing it.
    -Joyce

    • Amazing. And very wise. I have the faith that the fog will lift and things will start to take shape so that’s what I hang my hat on. I agree, too, that it’s incredible how one thing does lead to another. Thanks for taking the time to respond. (I had similar realizations when I was working admissions and the education/ degrees listed on many of the mom’s parent info section were absurd, and yet these moms weren’t working.) It’s been heartening to me how so many of these comments really do help to clarify what can easily feel like a mess right now! xo

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