leaning out, leaning in, leaning on each other

I was pregnant with my first child and in graduate school when I read Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. As I listened to my classmates, mostly older mothers, talk at length about the sense of malaise they’d felt when their kids were young, I thought it would never happen to me. I would never fall prey to “the problem that has no name.” I was educated. I had chosen to become a mother, so certainly I would not be one of those women who ferried cub scouts all day and lay in bed at night wondering, “‘Is this all?'”

Fifteen years later, it’s my preoccupying worry.

A few years ago, I won a writing contest, and got a check for $50 in the mail. I didn’t want to cash it; I wanted to frame it. It’s the only time I’ve ever made money for my writing. It was both incredibly gratifying to be paid and a little bit depressing to see that the sum total of years of my work is less than my husband could make in an hour.  Marriage isn’t a competition– I know that. But it still rankles.

A year or so later, I took a job teaching writing at a local college. I taught two classes twice a week, and paid a neighbor to watch my baby. One day, when I was avoiding the 60 essays that had piled up on my desk, I did the math: after I paid the babysitter, I made enough money from teaching to take myself out to lunch on the days I taught. Once I figured in all of the time I spent planning lessons and grading essays, I cleared about a dollar an hour.  I could write a whole other post about the injustice of adjunct pay, but today I’m navel gazing.

Several months ago, I was sitting on the couch, trying to get something done for Segullah. Our toddlers were crawling on me, and I asked my husband to take them away so I could finish my work. “Your work?” he said. “You don’t earn a paycheck at Segullah. Segullah is a hobby.”

It’s true that I don’t earn a paycheck. I guess in his mind work is defined by compensation. It’s also true that his paycheck is what gives me free time to write. It’s what allows me to take the adjunct teaching jobs that pay (as I figured out when we did our taxes a few months later) not even enough for lunch on the days I teach, but enough for a soda.

In her fascinating book Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg talks about the phenomenon of how women, especially those women whose husbands are in careers with long hours and big paychecks, stop making choices to keep them engaged in the workplace even before they have children. I saw this in the choices I made– I romanticized the idea of staying home with a large family, and felt that it was the “right” thing for me to do, and would be worth whatever sacrifices I made.

But I didn’t know how hard it would be not to live through my children, to make their successes my success (and their failures my failure). I didn’t know how hard it would be, after working from the time I was fourteen years old, to be dependent on someone else’s paycheck, and to know that even if I went back to work full-time today, I would make a tiny fraction of what my husband does. I know that our earning power shouldn’t determine our self-worth, but part of me still thinks that making my own money would legitimize me in some way.

Friedan says, “The only way for a woman, as for a man, to find herself, to know herself as a person, is by creative work of her own.” My husband is blessed to feel incredibly fulfilled by his career. He saves lives and makes a generous salary. The old ladies in the ward bring treats by the house to thank him for taking care of their husbands. I love my creative work as a writer (and yes, I will defend the fact that it is work, even if it is unpaid), but I feel huge amounts of guilt that I’m not able to devote the attention to it that I should, that the ideas I have for novels I want to write remain unwritten as the years pass. I worry that as a mom of six, I have leaned so far out that leaning in won’t ever be possible again. I’m afraid I might fall flat on my face. However, when Sandberg talks about the process of writing Lean In she says, “Writing this book is what I would do if I were not afraid.” She embraced her fears, and I shouldn’t expect any less of myself.

My husband would never want to feel that he’s holding me back, but he’s never had to adjust his professional goals to accommodate mine, so he doesn’t  really get it. So I’m turning to you. Sandberg says, “The more women help one another, the more we help ourselves. Acting like a coalition truly does produce results.” She also says, “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” You may never want to write a novel, but you may want to start a small business. You may struggle with feeling like an equal partner to your spouse when you don’t have the same earning potential. Maybe you leaned out to support a spouse that is no longer your partner, and you’re dealing with the financial ramifications. Maybe you feel entirely fulfilled by your choices and you don’t understand where all of my angst is coming from.

How can we support each other better, make things easier for each other? What is your definition of work and how is it related to financial compensation? What advice would you give to your twenty-year-old self about career and family life?

Kat Sturman is the pen name of a Segullah staff member. She has a bunch of kids, a bunch of aspirations, and a bunch of people she’d rather not offend.

 

25 thoughts on “leaning out, leaning in, leaning on each other

  1. I’m an older mom who choose full time motherhood and now has a small creative business and who always had some kind of “on the side” creative endeavors. I think a great deal of our problem is that the job of being primary care and nurturer of children is so devalued. It is literally unpaid and thus, in most views, worthless. When we give up or put to the side pursuits that are seen (sometimes by ourselves) as only fulfilling our own creative needs in order to give our children nurture and care we are not rewarded with any tangible (read monetary) figure to show that we are true contributors to the family and our society. If we work at creative, educational or artistic pursuits for a paycheck then we are doubly devalued as these jobs often are low paid especially when education and skills are factored in. It’s a situation that I feel will not change in any future I foresee. The fact is our society values some work over others – for far too many reasons to discuss now and frequently society’s values don’t represent our own values. When your desires and talents lead you to other work that is also not well paid it’s a perfect storm! It takes a strong spirit with a lot of support to persist with faith and joy. You are “in the trenches” with young children. The demands are the fiercest! There’re will be time later when your education and talents can shine more but again, if we are creatives or educators it most likely will not be in a highly compensated way. We do what we do because we believe in it. We write, paint, teach, nurse, etc. because it’s what the Lord put in our hearts.

    This is why I read Segulla. We desperately need communities that nurture and support all work and I find some of that here. With the blessings (and it has been) of greater opportunities for women has come the greater devaluation of traditional “women’s work”. Men and women, especially in the Church, need to recognize the enormous value a full time mother (or dad) contributes to the family. We need to celebrate and support them in their “other” pursuits as well. We also benefit greatly to hear that others struggle – even “stars” like you. Keep up the fight. I don’t think it’s ever supposed to be easy.

  2. I’m tempted to support you by punching your husband for his remark about your work. But I’ll refrain, and just support you by telling you he’s got it all wrong and that I will hope he realizes it one of these days.

  3. I also was surprised and disappointed by your husband’s remark. Editing an online journal, even without pay, is unquestionably work. I hate that the value of our activities is so often tied to financial compensation.

    I don’t know that I’d go back and change much, or give my 20-year-old self different advice. I do have regrets though. I wish more degrees had been possible for me, and one of the drawbacks to my very mobile lifestyle is that it’s very hard for me to have creative work outside my family. But I am lucky to have married someone whose interests matched mine in some ways. I do at least have a degree in international relations and my husband’s research and work have taken us to different countries so I’ve been able to have the international life I always wanted.

    1. They made me ruffle too, but unfortunately sounded like something my husband would say…. and has said. Multiple times. Being too busy working for free to make time to work for pay is a peculiar, vulnerable place. (Says the mother of 4 young children/grad student in a program with no great promise of making me employable who really loved and needed this post).

  4. I believe that we make things easier for each other by verbally appreciating the work our friends, in and outside the home, paid and volunteer, like our own or wildly different. Doing so builds their confidence, which confidence, if they choose, can empower them to give that same gift of appreciation to others. (And as your experience makes clear, this is especially important between husband and wife, but that’s fodder for another post.)

    Work is work, paid or unpaid, respected or disrespected. If work is only real, valued work if it is compensated with money, then not a single volunteer in the whole country is working. And that’s hogwash.

    What I’d tell my 20 year old self: Expect to feel dismay when you choose to do work in an uncompensated field. We grow up in an academic world that is focused on career preparation and supports the notion that to be an at home mom is a “waste of your education”, so be prepared. No matter how strongly you feel about your choices, and whatever it is that you choose, you will have to fight that demon. Also, I support you 100% in your decision to be at home for your children. You may only know the benefits in theory at this point, but I assure you that they are real and powerful and worth it and you will see that unfold as they grow. The toddler years are the hardest because they are the most non-stop, sleepless ones. In the years when when your husband is out of the home 80 hours a week the only time you will have to pursue your passions will be the few hours a week when the toddlers are simultaneously napping. Enjoy those few hours and know that as the children grow those hours will increase. In the meantime, integrate your passions into your mothering work and your conversations with your children. Whether it’s art, architecture, health, medicine, law, sociology, theater, dance, biology, chemistry, journalism, literature, physical education, organizational behavior, business or anything else, it can be part of your mothering. We are not called to mother like clones. We are called to mother with our gifts and passions. And, blessedly, each of us have our own set. Integrate what you love into what you do with your children and your home.
    Finally, I would tell the 20 year old me that one day, when your children are elementary school and middle school age, you will be feeling intensely bothered by a long mental list of all of the things that you chose not to do because you chose to be at home with your children and you will be feeling resentful because you are sure your husband has no idea about sacrifice of professional goals for family needs and that he hasn’t made any such sacrifices at all. You will write down your long list and tuck it in a drawer. And then, thinking to make a point, you will ask your husband to make a similar one. You expect that it will be a short or non-existent list. He will look puzzled by the request but will say he’ll do it. Three days later he will hand you a list a page and a half long. You will be surprised. You will have had no idea that there were so many things that he forwent because of his commitment to you and the kids.

    I hope such a list from your husband is in your future as well.

  5. I have enjoyed this post and the comments immensely. And yes, I get the angst. Except on those days when I am particularly worried about money, I am beginning to move past the earning potential comparison. But, wow, I miss feeling fulfilled in a way that housework and children’s games just don’t provide! Goals help. Boosting my spiritual life helps. Serving helps. Creative effort helps a lot. And humility goes a long way toward adjusting my perspective (not an easy one for me, I’m afraid).

    Summers just about kill me. Can I admit that? My blog and book have suffered from neglect in a shameful way, and I have no excuse other than lack of routine and the fact that I give in to the feeling that I need to schedule my life around my children (whom I absolutely adore, of course, even if I grumble).

    I would echo MB’s thoughts about the husband list. I know it’s true for my husband, even though I’m not wild about admitting it sometimes.

  6. When my husband and I had been married for a little over two years a lot of things changed for me. I had graduated from college the year before, my job as an administrative assistant had just come to an end and I had just given birth to our 2nd child (our first was not quite a year and a half.) That summer was the first time in a LONG time that I didn’t have a deadline to meet or a tangible way to measure what I did in a day. I went from having structure and someone to tell me what to do to having two tiny babies to take care of while my husband (who was still working on his degree) worked a summer internship. It can be challenging to measure your accomplishments or success when your days involve changing 15 diapers a day and soothing people who, when they are unhappy bawl at you and when they are content are deadpan. At the end of my husband’s internship the people he worked for took him out to eat and had a cake specially made for him. When he came home with the pictures of it I realized something–if I continued in the path of stay-at-home-mom, NO ONE would EVER take me out to eat* (and certainly not make me a fancy cake), in fact, they wouldn’t even know what I was doing. Or care. That was (for me) a really pivotal point–I knew I had a choice to make–to choose a career or choose stay-at-home motherhood and then go into oblivion. (I realize it is NOT that simple, but that is what it felt like to me back then. As you have probably figured out from my user name, I chose oblivion. ;) ) Now my husband has a nice (albeit stressful career) and is the sole wage-earner in our partnership and I have continued to change diapers and soothe children (except when he is home–then we share those jobs.) Since we have one child out of the nest (serving a mission) and one still in diapers, I feel like I have an interesting perspective. I KNOW how quickly things change (and also how permanently) but I still feel the stress and strain of the different phases of childhood. While I made a conscious decision 18 years ago and have never regretted it, that does not mean it has not been HARD, especially sometimes. Raising children is THE MOST important/demanding work I have ever done, but it is not the ONLY work I do. I have had to learn to order my days so my attention is mostly on the kids and their progress but if I didn’t also have something I love to do–write, read, do photography, etc. on the sideline for the times when they are (mostly) sleeping, I don’t think I would have been able to keep going. That other work (the writing, reading and photography) is important in its own right but also because of its ability to refuel me for what I consider my primary job–raising children.

    As for financial compensation–MY answer is meh. It doesn’t matter to me. I consider that my time is AT LEAST as valuable as my husband’s so his paycheck represents not just his efforts, but also mine–not in the sense that I am the cook, laundress and bottle washer of the two of us, but in the sense that OUR most important work is this family and we are both pulling as hard as we can at it so whatever compensation either of us brings to the table represents both of us.

    *Oh, and I was wrong about not getting taken out to eat. My husband and children have done that and more.

  7. I like the idea of recognizing that both partners make sacrifices for the good of the family. I also like the idea of extending some of the perks of working (paid sick leave, celebrations, business trips with your own hotel room) to stay at home moms. Of course, this assumes that you have a husband who has a job that allows him to take a sick/mental health day to watch the kids while you have a day to yourself or a budget that allows you to spend a night in a hotel on your own, but if you’re lucky enough to have that kind of wiggle room, take advantage of it!

  8. I have thought about this so much. I actually regret some of my restlesness while kiddos were young (although I think I could only learn by experience that kids really would grow up and the dynamics of each day would change dramatically). That said, I don’t regret always having on my radar screen the concept of keeping a toe in the puddle, keeping a résumé active. I think we as women sometimes can think in binaries, and I think that it’s a myth that if we aren’t part of the workforce when our kids are growing that we’ll never be able to follow our dreams or be in the workforce. I do think there are a few fields for which that would be true, but I think for the majority of opportunities out there, even small efforts to stay in the loop in some way can yield dividends, provide networking opportunities, and keep enough of the saw sharp to be able to enter more wholeheartedly if and when the time arrives.

    I also have been surprised and quite delighted to see how opportunities have unfolded in very unexpected ways — that wouldn’t have happened if I had been in the workforce full force from the time I had my first child. What I thought I’d be doing and what I am doing are very different. And yet the opportunity that came into my life actually assimilated everything I’ve done during my adult life. I couldn’t have created a better opportunity for myself. So I’d say we can also trust in God that He will open things up, too, as we stay committed to divine priorities and seek divine guidance in the process along the way.

    FWIW, I wrote an article about staying connected (networks and résumé building) while staying at home for the BYU Women in Business blog. http://byuwomeninbusiness.blogspot.com/2014/03/staying-home-staying-connected-keeping.html

    I’d also recommend connecting with Aspiring Mormon Women. They have an active FB group that keeps women connected and gives people a chance to have these kinds of conversations and help each other.

  9. I wouldn’t choose to do things differently. These past 6 years have been full of more growth and experience than I ever imagined could happen to me. I’m glad to have stayed home with my boys, but I’m also glad that I have realized that I need a job for my mental health. :) It makes things a little busier, but I am honestly a much happier person now that I’m working part-time. I get to miss my boys for a couple of hours, I get a break from bedtime, I get to experience adult interaction in a (mostly) professional atmosphere, I get to have better quality time with my kids because I know it’s not going to happen whenever I want now. And holy cow do I enjoy contributing to the ol’ savings account! I love that my husband feels slightly less pressure and that it’s me contributing to that.

    Shelah, what your husband said was hard for me to read. I feel like my husband has the same thoughts, yet hasn’t shared them yet (lucky for him). I’m glad to find the support here for all the work we as women do, especially when we aren’t getting that in our homes. :) My husband would have gotten whatever was closest to me flying at his head. In fact, I had a vivid slow-mo picture of what it would be like. It wasn’t pretty. I guess it just hurts to be so open to supporting whatever goals my husband has in mind without it being reciprocated in kind.

  10. I didn’t read all the comments, but I related to the first dozen that I read. There’s a lot of angst behind all those words. And behind mine. But I hope, after my temper has cooled and the messes are clean and I can put two coherent thoughts together, to be able to look at the creative process of being a mother – sculpting the lives, values, and possibilities – of people outside myself as a truly beautiful, fulfilling work. Deep beneath all of these emotions and fears and mortal dilemmas, we’re trying to become like God. That’s why we came here. When God says his “work and [His] glory is to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” I believe He sincerely means that He loves what He does. Our job as mothers is essentially His job on a mortal scale. So I think women can support each other by being kind to one another. Encouraging our collective efforts to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of our little gaggles of children. I think we should try to allow ourselves to forget about financial compensation and let men provide for us if they can, freeing us to do the work and privilege God gave to us to be the nurturers of His children. And if I could talk to my 20-year-old self I would try to teach her what I know now about the glory of being a mother and how God is eager to illuminate our understanding that we might enjoy it as He meant for us to enjoy it. If my young self can wrap her silly, self-centered brain around that, maybe she won’t spend as many hours as I have in a frantic panic that I’m doing nothing with my life, while there are three beautiful little sets of eyes looking at me and needing me to just love loving them. I believe if we ask Father, He will teach us truths about motherhood that will bring us profound satisfaction and pleasure in this work we do.

  11. I had thought my husband thought the same thing but then the other night he said that in about a year we could afford me going to school part time. I sure hope that’s accurate. It’s hard not seeing motherhood as bipolar, said to be the most important job but given very little real power and authority religiously or in secular society. Having paid sick leave for all jobs and affordable childcare and paid parental leave required in this country would go a long ways in helping women and men but especially moms. Love this article, hope your husband has fully apologised.

  12. He has apologized, and I do think he understands. We all say dumb things from time to time, and he’s just unlucky enough to be married to someone who will publish the dumb things he says on the internet. And he was fantastic when I went back to grad school for a second graduate degree and had four small kids and he had to do lots of juggling to make things work. My intention wasn’t to demonize my husband at all– I think I made even more conscious choices (the choice to stay home, the choice to have six kids) that put us in this position. I think my point is more to highlight the inequities that I feel now that our roles are so polarized, and how I feel like I’m not exactly sure how to correct the imbalance I feel once I’m in a place to do it. And, I guess, to show that earning potential is related to power in a lot of subtle ways. And also, I guess, to show that although we profess to value the arts, we’re often not willing to pay well for things we can get cheaply or for free.

    1. You know, maybe it’s just my perspective, but I heard his works as annoying, but maybe because my husband has said the same thing over and over and over until I gave up the writing and editing I did, I heard his intent as being mild… Like I think you did, even though it was obviously not right to say, everyone accidentally betrays themselves in words sometimes. I worry more, in my life, when it’s a pattern, continually degrading…. But then, that was my experience…

  13. I am a full time working mom. I always wanted to be one and I knew from an early age that staying home with my children was not good for me. I have wonderful days at my work and sometimes I do wish I was home with the kids. However, I have no regrets in terms of not being home with the kids and baking delicious cookies often (something I aspire to do). With every choice, there are certain sacrifices and in the long run, you have to make sure that things add up in your favor. My husband has supported me but I have also understood that no matter what, if someone has to make a sacrifice for the children, the name of the mom is always the first that gets mentioned. It is important to stand up for yourself and make your partner see that he has to make adjustments too. I personally work to invest in myself and feel fulfilled outside of the house, I like making money, the time I get with my kids is always very precious and I do not loose patience quickly, two salaries help in times of bad economy, and it makes me feel secure in case my husband suffers a disability or decides not to be present in my life anymore. I feel that I can take care of myself and the ones I love. The professional experience gives me knowledge and confidence.

    I do think that mothers that stay home make tremendous sacrifices and put themselves in a vulnerable position because the family has less flexibility in terms of dealing with an unpredictable future. I do think at church and at society, we need to talk more favorably of their work and the value of their work and that the husband still needs to ‘lean in’ at home because parenthood is for both parents.

    In terms of supporting the mothers that stay at home, I think it is important to offer babysitting for free to them so they can jump start their careers and hobbies. As sisters, we need to provide encouragement and advise and refrain from judging and opinions that don’t help anyone.

    I can go on and on but I think I have already written too much.

    1. We don’t stay home to have more time to bake cookies. I know that’s probably not what you meant, but I worry that comments like that trivialize what it is we actually do. Stay-at-home mothers are present. Always. That’s the gift. We are saying that being physically with our children, watching over their lives, is more important than anything else we could possibly be doing.

  14. A couple of thoughts:

    1) As a SAHM, I was afraid that my best years were behind me, that I would never again achieve something just for myself. I wondered why God had given me the blessing of a college education if it would just torture me later with laying dormant while I changed diapers and planned meals.
    2) My freshman dorm roommate (who started having children a few years before I did) told me this: she still had all her abilities, skills, and gifts from before she had children. Being a SAHM had taught her another skill set that made her even more successful professionally.
    3) It was terrifying for me to depend financially on my husband. That is a scary situation to be in. The “what ifs” actually do happen in life, and we are foolish to abdicate our responsibility to be self-sufficient IMO. We must always have a Plan B, keep ourselves professionally engaged. This could mean keeping licenses/certifications current, starting a small business, joining professional organizations, etc., etc. I am a school/college counselor, and I worked 5 – 10 hours a week in my own college guidance/test prep business when my kids were young. This kept me current in my profession so that I could re-enter the workforce when my kids were in school full time.
    4) I wish someone would have told me it would get better, so I’m going to say it now. We have (God willing) long lives. We can expect to live 80+ years. This means that the current stage will end. We will find ourselves with time, wisdom, skills, abilities, gifts, talents, humor, experience that employers or customers/clients will pay big money to enjoy. When the children are young and physically needy, we are building the bonds that will enrich our lives later. Being a mother does not detract from our skills – it adds to them. We are not becoming professionally obsolete – we are becoming richly valuable, highly skilled, and wise. These young children will become our favorite adults, and there will be many, many years available for professional contribution after they are raised.

  15. This is so emotional for me, that I don’t have a cogent comment. My husband is very successful by professional standards, and I do a little bit of everything (part time work, part time volunteer, part time home maintenance, distracted parenting) that I feel as though I do nothing well. And I think there is a strong gender filter that I think it’s really hard for him to see what I do. I do better if I validate myself. Which is silly, because I’m overscheduled because I’m begging to be validated on several fronts. I need to do more yoga and more devotional reading so that I can find my center. When I have those moments of self-validation, my critics don’t bug me at all. But I’m projecting my situation very strongly on yours. I hope that you can find a path. You may find it through a different means. Hugs.

    1. Your words touched me, Karen. I relate to the feeling that I do a lot of things and none of them are done as well as I’d like. I just try to remind myself that the only opinion of my work that truly matters is God’s. Not even my husband’s! :)

  16. I just finished reading President Eyre’s biography. This was said about his wife after all 6 of their children left home:
    “She wondered and worried about whether she had done enough while they lived under her roof. She took comfort in the image, provided by the scriptures, of Heavenly Father’s expressing a similar concern. And she became all the more grateful that she had followed the counsel of prophets and the promptings of the Spirit to focus her life on her children.”

    1. Thank you for this. Sometimes it’s so easy to get distracted from what actually matters. Father will give me the capacity to focus on my children. Thank you thank you for posting this.

  17. This made me so angry that I could not respond at first. I don’t agree that earning potential should be related to power in a marriage. It is not inevitable. The book “Financially Ever After” by Jeff D. Opdyke, which is a Wall Street Journal personal finance book but talks about how pernicious that thinking can be.

    I think that practicing writing is one of the more valuable things that one can do to prepare for return to the workplace should that be necessary or desired. Technology evolves, computer programs come and go, but the ability to organize and document survives, albeit on new platforms.

    I was glad to be at home when my children were little, but that phase doesn’t last forever. I think that Friedan was right about women needing some kind of life plan. Of the cohort of women I knew at BYU prior to my 1980 undergraduate degree, all of us have returned to paid employment as our children got older.

    Partly because we are the first generation whose husband’s lacked a defined-benefit pension from their employer. So being able to save for retirement has been huge in terms of looking to serve a mission, etc. There have been years when I only netted $200 per month, but maxed out a 401k. Because I do prefer part-time employment so that I have time for grandparenting and community work, etc.

Comments are closed.