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Succeeding

By Justine Dorton

I was at my 20th High School reunion last week. It was strange and wonderful and a little creepy all at once. I walked away with renewed relationships and with a heavy dose of disappointment in myself.

I was (pleasantly) not the only one that had five children. No small task considering I was the only Mormon in the entire student body. I was, however, almost without exception, the only woman that didn’t work. And now comes the disappointment.

I found it difficult to say, when asked, that I was a stay-at-home mother. I heard myself saying things like, “I do freelance writing on the side.” “I’ve got this little non-profit gig that I’m a part of.” “I help run this small literary organization.” It all sounds very glamorous, doesn’t it? Well, it’s not. I spend my days squarely in the housewife crowd. I’m qualified to clean vomit and love children.

I just couldn’t own it.

And it troubles me.

Was there some pressure to have “accomplished it all”? Was there some unseen code that left me unworthy if I didn’t manage a career and children? I don’t know if I felt it from my fellow reunion attendees, or if I was placing the pressure on myself. Was I the cause of my own dissatisfaction? I can’t imagine anyone was actually judging me for my choices (although there were a few raised eyebrows at the five kids thing).

I wouldn’t want to be anywhere in the world but where I am. I know I have the luxury of having this debate because I don’t have to work to help support our family. I don’t feel oppressed or beaten down for not continuing my career. But I couldn’t just say I was raising my family. I couldn’t just be content with the truth.

I’ve been troubled by it for eight days now. I am a capable and competent adult woman. I manage a household and consider it my greatest challenge and privilege. I am not afraid of confrontation. I’m a middle aged woman who is comfortable in her own skin. Or so I thought…

I’m on the road this weekend, coming home from the mid-west. If anyone has ever been as troubled as me and decides to comment, I’ll reply whenever I can find wi-fi!

About Justine Dorton

Justine is a mother to five children, and has a husband lodged somewhere (probably in the den). She is not very fond of speaking of herself in third person.

30 thoughts on “Succeeding”

  1. I have had two separate conversations with women about this very topic. It's hard to say "I'm a mother" proudly when "What do you do" always seems to imply "What do you do professionally?"

    I've been thinking about why this is…. Here are some things I came up with. (Not sure what you are looking for here, btw…so fwiw.)

    1-I think also that it's human nature for us to want to 'prove' our worth by externally-measurable/recognized things. Let's face it…much of our lives are performance-driven (and measurable, and often the basis for competition and comparison): grades, awards, credits, resume bullets, promotions, degrees, salaries. It's a hard paradigm to not generalize to everything else in life. It's often the stuff that matters most that can't be measured in this way.

    2-We just have so many options. When nearly every woman stayed home, when there was a more distinct division of labor (esp in agricultural societies) there wasn't a sense that you were 'missing' something if you did. It was a matter of what made sense and what kept people alive. IMO, all the opportunity available to women is both a blessing and a curse. It's wonderful to have choices and opportunities, but that means we have to make choices with more care and prayer…because the tendency is often to want to do it all at once.

    3-I do think there is an unspoken something that ripples out there somewhere that if you DON'T do something besides motherhood that somehow you are not just missing out personally, but also letting women as a whole down. That somehow it's a step backward for women to not embrace (all at once) all that life can offer us these days…that somehow 'just being a mother' is a lesser life for a woman, a disservice to women and to little girls. In short, the emphasis on gender equality (which often focuses on the more tangible measures of success mentioned earlier_ can sometimes leave motherhood getting the short end of the stick, imo.

    Don't get me wrong…I think there is a balance that has to be struck between 'motherhood is the highest and holiest calling' and 'get all the education you can' that we hear. I'm passionate about women and education, in fact, and about not swinging so far on the motherhood side of things that we ignore the realities of the need for education in our lives. I just think our culture at large generally leans more heavily toward education and profession, sometimes at the expense of motherhood.

    I have been thinking about how it really is no wonder that we hear our leaders speaking so much about the value of motherhood…because sometimes we don't hear that enough. (IMO, makes talks like Sister Beck's "Mothers Who Know" mean a lot — it validated motherhood in a significant way. I think we need that.)

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  2. So timely! I am reading Dr. Laura Schlessinger's book, "In Praise of Stay-at-Home Moms". She says we've been brainwashed by our society to not feel that we have accomplished something if we don't work outside the home. It is an excellent book to boost your confidence in the importance of motherhood–even to us Mormon women who should already know this.

    I have a key chain my son gave me that has little cube letters spelling out MOM. When he first gave it to me I didn't use it. It is kind of tacky, to be honest. But something in me changed and now I use it proudly. Maybe it was the birth of my fourth child…or was it the fifth?

    I, too, have felt that sinking feeling from saying,
    "I'm a SAHM" to people at a company party or other social situation(only I do like to use the old-fashioned term–homemaker–at least on forms where I fill in my occupation).

    Justine, you are not alone in trying to use the other things you do to show your value. "I teach yoga" I say, or I play in the county orchestra, or I just spent five years remodeling my house. But what I wish I would say, or could say, is that I have wonderful children because I stay home with them and that being a mother is my full-time career and I am making a real difference in the lives of five very important people.

    But, I probably won't. I wouldn't want to offend working mothers. Or sound like I didn't have enough intelligence to do something else. See. I am brainwashed too.

    I get "God bless you" often when I say I have five kids. And I try to respond, "Oh, He has, five times!" But I usually just say, "Thanks" while trying not to hear ridicule or contempt or just surprise in their tone. People who know my kids do give me lots of compliments, so that helps!

    I think I need to keep recognizing how important my job is…partly by doing a better job of it. So, hopefully the rest of the summer will actually come closer to my little list of "Summer Activities" than usual!

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  3. I feel the same pressure, and find myself embarrassed when I answer that "what do you do" question. I feel like I have to toss my prior career into the conversation, as well as, "I'm keeping up my license" for the future. I like the thoughts mentioned above.

    Missing you, Justine! I hope the trip has been good!!

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  4. Wonderful topic! This is a topic I deal with often.

    I am not considered even a "mom" by most, (furry mom to 10, one, training my handicapped assist dog). So when people ask what I do, then they mention, "Didn't your husband have children or grandchildren? No.

    Most places in my world this is not a big deal. I run with a lot of retired ladies, and have for a long time. About 5 – 7 years ago, my birth defect decided to place me on permanent disability. I was just going to mention what I used to do – but that is ALWAYS the temptation. Then when my husband and I started dating I started back to school, 2 surgeries, medical bills and economy, put an end to that, plus it can hurt the keeping of my healthcare which I literally cannot live without.

    I have a very full life, homemaker, charity, hobbies, wife and then, I go out in the world. Recently we attended one of the large Friends' Mtgs of my husband. I counted 4 college professors, at least one phd, all the rest at least 4 yr graduates. The Phd. came over and said, Well lady we are happy to meet you. What do you do? I stammered, I looked to the floor, I struggled to mention my old life – I said, I am R's wife. My husband says, She writes great stories. I felt totally exhausted! What a struggle. And it wasn't, until I felt intimidated. The real kicker is tho that often women who are not homemakers leave us out of the conversations or ask us questions like we are children – What did you do today, honey?

    My 1st solution, don't leave my comfort zone. Sounded good to me. But my husband is a professional and sometimes it takes us out of our comfort zone. So now I literally practice at a mirror. I smile and say, I am Traci, I am a wife and homemaker. I know that, but it is easy to feel intimidated.

    Their awkwardness and occasional rudeness is their fault, my intimidation problem is my job. Whew!

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  5. I'm a little sad that I related to this experience so well. I want motherhood to be the thing I'm most proud of, and yet it is sometimes the role I am most insecure in as well and I can feel dishonest when I come across too 'proud' of being a SAHM when I know that I have so many limitations. I don't know if that's perhaps part of what you were feeling. But I know when I've told people I'm a SAHM, I want to qualify it by saying I'm one that makes dinner from scratch and gardens and stays on top of the housework–I worry that they interpret being an SAHM as someone who always has her hair pulled back and eats cookies while she watches Judge Judy all day (In truth I fall in the middle of that spectrum most of the time. Maybe that goes back to what Sage said about being brainwashed into thinking I'm being judged for only working at home.

    Of course, I'm not an SAHM anymore. I went back to work this spring part-time as bookkeeper for my husband's company–which is even harder to say I do because, again, I am so underqualified.

    Interesting things to ponder.

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  6. Oh, Josi thank you! Yes! Often I get the phrase – So you just watch TV? I'm so sorry your life has ended up like that.

    I want to mention the making of puppy food 5 X a week, 21 meals for my husband a week, the garden, the cleaning, the baking of bread, making yogurt and cheese, the needlecraft for charity. Ad Infinitum.

    We don't even have TV!

    But, I don't want to be in a position to have to apologize. Plus they would never get it.

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  7. Did the SAHM thing for nearly twenty years. I despised these gatherings. I once found myself answering insipid questions like "Wow, how many loads of laundry do you have to wash in a week?" Blech. Also, people wouldn't listen to me as if I had anything valuable to say.

    I hated it.

    So I gave in. Became a Lawyer. Now they listen, but I'm not a SAHM any more. And that results in very mixed feelings.

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  8. FWIW, from the perspective of someone who isn't a mother, and recognizing that no doubt my view is colored by my Mormon appreciation for mothers —

    When a woman introduces herself as a "stay at home mom," the "stay at home" hangs in the air, suggesting that the woman may not bother to change out of her pajamas in the morning because she's "just" lounging around at home. (Before anybody yells at me, I *know* better than that; I only mean that's the image the words create, because to a woman who gets dressed up and goes to work most mornings, "staying at home" means the rare chance to be casual, lazy, sloppy, and probably barefoot.)

    On the other hand, a statement like "I'm raising five children" (or "I'm raising my child") puts the emphasis on your activities and your anticipated triumph, not on your wardrobe. You could be running General Motors on the side, too, for all I know or for all you care, but announcing "I'm raising my children" says that's what really matters.

    Own it, with your head high and looking me straight in the eye. You're raising your children, and I've got nothing to say about myself that tops that.

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  9. I agree with Ardis about the phrase "stay at home" and avoid using it.

    I relate to this post too. My interests are similar to my husband's (Islam in general, Central Asia in particular). It's hard, when I'm actually more familiar with a lot of aspects regarding Central Asia than he is, to have him taken more seriously than I am because he has the degrees and has worked in Central Asia. I'm just the sidekick. I love what I do, but I hate that my role in what we're able to do together is so easily dimissed.

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  10. Ardis, great point.

    The interesting thing is, I find it hard to answer that question straight on in all sorts of groups, because–yes–the primary role in my life is that of mother. But I also teach part time, and I also write and edit. Interestingly, I feel the same kind of pressure in certain groups NOT to mention the part time teaching or writing and only focus on the mothering, and when I do mention the teaching, sometimes I wind up falling all over myself qualifying it, saying things like, "but it's only one class a semester, and it's at night when my husband's home, and I try to get my writing done after my kids are in bed, and, and, and . .." lest other stay at home moms think I'm neglecting my children.

    One other quick point: when I lived in MN for 8 years in a suburb of St. Paul, almost every mother in the neighborhood with young children was a SAHM. A few worked part time, but most were home full time (which was a surprise to me, because with my Utah-centric view of things I'd somehow assumed that the rest of the "world" didn't value stay-at-home parenting in the same way we Mormons did.) The main difference I found was that more of these women felt inclined (or, some of them, pressured) to return to work in some capacity once their children were all in school.

    My youngest is 2 1/2, and there's a part of me that really WANTS to go back to work during the day once he's in school–teaching more, for example. I'm inclined to want to do that. But I'm also afraid that my neighbors here in Utah might judge me for it, or that my kids would judge me for it because their friends' moms were home and available when I wasn't.

    It's a tricky situation all around, and one where societal expectations and norms plays a huge part. Thanks for sharing Justine!

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  11. It is interesting to read these thoughts because I am in the pre-motherhood phase. I have been married for just over a year, we are still in school, and "starting our family" is soon on its way. I hope that with my MA in English I will be able to teach part-time and raise my (future) kids, but I struggle with questions about potential day care things like that. It is nice to hear how other women handle these issues.

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  12. Uh-oh. I have a High school reunion coming up next week. I better practice–"I'm raising my two boys and I'm a voice teacher…" Does that work? Or does one apologize for the other?

    I think part of the problem is that I'm a "people-pleaser" and I want to give people the "right" answer or the one they want to hear. Maybe we should all wear name tags–not with our name, but with our own acceptable answers to questions.

    I think the bottom line is that as women (and as people) we should have respect for careers AND motherhood. Not everyone is able to have children and not everyone is able to have a career, and that's not enough touching those having BOTH! Really it's between them, their husband and the Lord.

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  13. Speaking as someone who was once told I would never be able to have children, I am so happy to tell people I am a mom. I never use the term stay-at-home or homemaker. I just say "mom". I know that people don't take me as seriously. I know that my intellect is unerappreciated and so are my accomplishments. It doesn't bother me so much because I have three children. I have everything I have ever dreamed of.
    As for Mormons being the only people who understand and expect moms to focus on mothering, I have seen a trend to the opposite, and not in young moms, but in older sisters in our ward. I tried to get our young women presidency meetings changed to Saturday mornings years ago. Evenings were too hard to be away from my young family, days were out of the question because everyone else was working. I was told, "for those of us who work, Saturday is the only day we have to sleep in. It's not like it is for you." M-kay, because I don't get up at the crack of dawn 7 days a week and stay up to midnight cleaning up the aftermath, right….
    As for being intimidated, I am intimidated by all of the acronyms everyone is tossing around. IMO, FWIW, SAHM. It took me forever to get through the comments as I tried to decode. Come on, people, do we have to do everything as though we're texting?

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  14. I think it's a bit ironic and humorous that I misspelled 'under appreciated' when I was referring to my under appreciated intellect in the above comment.

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  15. Owning it and being proud of it definitely SHOULD be the knee-jerk reaction, but I think for a lot of us, it just isn't.

    I've never worked out of the home since college, and yet I'm always quick to say "I teach piano lessons" as if that was somehow making up for not working in an office somewhere.

    I did have success once, though:
    My husband is getting his EMBA through a fabulous University. During the orientation weekend, where all student partners were invited, I was the "talk of the town." I was 6 months pregnant at the time, and although that was not unique at all (there were at least 6 or 7 other pregnant women there), the uniqueness came when they asked if it was my first.
    That's when I braced myself, put on a smile and replied it was my fifth.
    After the shock wore off, they would ask if I worked. I would reply I stayed home with my kids, and then there would be jokes about how one couldn't leave 5 kids at home with a sitter, etc. All in all, it was actually more pleasant than I realized it could have been.

    I did have a fascinating conversation with a woman who had just finished her EMBA, and now it was her husband's "turn." They had 2 kids, they both worked, they were Jewish, and she was fabulous. I sat in awe, listening to her describe her life, their careers, her schooling, her kids, etc. and then something hit me right between the eyes:
    She was just as fascinated by me. The SAHM who was Mormon.
    That made my whole year…

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  16. On the other hand, a statement like “I’m raising five children” (or “I’m raising my child”) puts the emphasis on your activities and your anticipated triumph,

    I often say "I'm a mom – I have three bosses" or something like that. The humor breaks the tension a little, and sometimes people will even follow up with an acknowledgment of the work moms do.

    I do think that there is a flip side of not wanting to offend those who want to, but can't, stay home. Maybe something like "I'm blessed to be able to focus on being a mom right now" or something…realizing that not everyone has that opportunity just out of necessity.

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  17. Wow, I am in the middle of grappling with this! I have five kids and really enjoy being home with them and find it a busy and demanding job. Due to financial pressures, a few years ago I started my own catering company and ended up building a kitchen in the basement and launching full force into small business. It seems ideal, I work "from home" and am available to my children. I have gained a lot of kudos for doing it and seems to impress people which feeds my need for external reward. My kids love to talk about me and my business to others, even when they complain to me about how busy I always am. HOWEVER, I am exhausted, the business does not really make money, my home does not feel peaceful to me because I simply don't have the time to manage everything or the financial resources to hire it out. My kids help but the young ones are well… young and the older ones are busy with lots of activities that are building them. It seems like a no-brainer to quit but then I panic a little, wondering how I'll appear to others and even to myself. "I'm a stay-at-home mom who used to own my own business but couldn't hack it so I quit and am back to just being a mom, even though I don't have any 'babies' who 'need' me all the time." Of course it's complicated by the fact that we have invested a lot of money in it and makes me sick to feel like it's a waste. Long post, sorry. You can tell I'm struggling with my own neurosis!

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  18. I know that I feel somewhat disappointed in myself when I see some of the accomplishments of my former classmates, but then I remember why I sacrificed my professional ambitions. It was for my family. I wouldn't trade the time and experiences I've shared with my wife and children for all the accolades and money in the world.

    From the worldly perspective I may not have accomplished much, but I look at my family and I know that I've been blessed with the greatest wealth a man can have.

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  19. i caught myself "explaining away" a couple of years ago and try really hard to not qualify my answer now. sometimes i just say, "i make babies," which at least makes people laugh (we had four girls in five years). because my kids are all so young and close in age, i think i've dodged the assumption that i sit around and watch soaps all day.

    if conversations continue, i'm happy to share that each day i make three meals from scratch, wash three loads of laundry (including cloth diapers), keep house, shuttle to and from soccer and piano and ice skating, sit on the ptg board, volunteer in the kindergarten class, have a scheduled playtime with the little kids (each day is a different activity), blahblahblah. if conversations don't continue, i hope that they at least hear that i'm a mom and a wife and that i don't feel the need to make excuses for it.

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  20. It can be hard, but I agree you need to have confidence in what you are doing. If you act like it isn't important, others will pick up on that.
    I remember a few years ago that when I met people at my husband's yearly work party (liberals with few or no kids) that it helped to say something about what I did since they were clueless about what a SAHM might do and it made them uncomfortable. So saying "I'm a stay at home mom. We've got three kids 7, 5, and 1. I'm having fun with the different ages….it doesn't get boring" Or maybe talking about "Right now I'm really involved in helping the school choose a new math curriculum" Adding these details helped the clueless have something to talk to me about because I gave them something.
    Right now I've got a toddler so everyone I met at a new work family function knew exactly what I did…..I chased a toddler everywhere.
    I like the idea of saying "I'm raising four kids." Mentioning ages is good or something fun you do with the kids, or a project, etc. I lot of my conversations last weekend mentioned that I was hoping my son would start speaking, so I was teaching him sign since it was getting late, etc.
    I think I'll be good and confident for a few more years, but once they are all in school I might feel that idea like everyone thinks I'm just watching TV while my kids are all in school. We'll see.
    Thanks for the post. I feel like I have to consistantly boost my confidence so it doesn't catch me off guard when someone asks me about my profession and I am suddenly at a loss and feel inadequate, even though I love what I do and it is good, hard, worthwhile work.

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  21. The world has come to expect women to have 'careers'. I think this is why we stay at home mothers feel pressured and maybe a bit embarrassed?! I recently started a parttime, temp job at the local summer school which lasts 3 weeks. The teacher I am to be an aide to asked me what I did, and I, too disappointed myself. And now as I look back, I am ashamed. I have made a vow that in the future, no matter what happens, I will be proud and I will make a stand. I've come to think of it as, 'if we don't make a stand then who will?' The world needs to expect women who are valiant enough to be at home. Remember the good 'ole' days when everyone's mom was a stay at home!?

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  22. When I first tried writing the description of what I had been doing over the past x number of years, I was so discouraged, I gave up. I couldn't figure out a way to "sell" what I had accomplished — great kids, moderately clean home :-)– to people who, at least in high school, seemed to have everything! Those things hadn't seemed important to them.

    Ten plus years later, I think I could write it with more confidence — one thing that helped was writing a resume recently — I looked at my accomplishments, service, callings through new eyes, and saw that I'd learned a lot!!!

    It's too bad we feel that pressure to succeed according to the world's measure. I like the Lord's measure better!

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  23. I love Ardis' comment to focus on the activity, not the location.

    I had the opposite problem recently when I moved into a new house and neighborhood. My next-door neighbors came over to meet me and were VERY excited to see we have similarly-aged kids. The mom eagerly asked if I stayed at home with them and was clearly disappointed when I told her I worked.

    I am disappointed, too, but that is life.

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  24. I am FINALLY starting to be able to answer this question in a way that I feel good about. Ironically it has come after learning to answer a more difficult question for me: "How many children do you have?" Ever since my fourth son died just before birth, this question has caused me much chagrin and indecisiveness. If I mention the one that died, it often makes people freeze up and not know what to say. But if I don't, my heart starts screaming "Not true!"
    Now, nearly two years later, I have learned how to answer that in a way that doesn't hurt my heart quite so much and hopefully doesn't make others terribly uncomfortable. And surprisingly, at the same time, I find myself comfortable answering the question: "What do you do?"
    I say (in a tone of voice that shows it is just as much a job as any other): "I stay home with our sons." I usually mention that I have a college degree, but then I'm sure to say how much I love taking care of my boys full-time, and what a blessing it is to make that my career.

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  25. I find myself feeling like this sometimes. In fact just the other day as I was signing up for an E-trade account and the man on the phone wanted to know my profession. "Um oh a Homemaker" I mumbled. Later I reminded myself "I'm primarily responsible for the nurture of my children." I think that is an important thing and I think it is more accurate description of the work I am engaged in.

    I feel fortunate that I am able to devote myself to mothering full time. I know a lot of women that wish to be home with their children but economically or otherwise it is simply not possible.

    I am blessed to have six beautiful children to nurture. I am not always fabulous at it and sometimes I wonder what the Lord was thinking when he chose me to be the Mother.
    All I know is that these children are supposed to be here and supposed to be mine I just need to have faith that he will help me. I think that I would feel this way whether or not I worked outside our home.

    I am astounded and humbled as I read about the other women and their parenting, domestic, professional and other talents. I feel like I barely keep us moving along together in the right direction and that's on good days. If I were suddenly required to focus my attention somewhere other than this little world I would be asking for some divine assistance or rather MORE divine assistance.

    I am grateful for the gospel and the light it sheds on what is most important. When I start to view my circumstances with anything other than that light that I run into trouble both in my brain and in reality. I feel like mortality is learning to do the right thing in less than perfect circumstances. I think parenting in mortality is much the same thing.

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  26. I find that question a little tricky in general, because like people have said, if you just say you are a SAHM, that doesn't actually tell people what you do, but to go into a full job description seems a little crazy, considering just what type of work the job entails :). And I do find myself occasionally wanting to slip in something about what I used to do, just because it tends to lead to some interesting conversation, where the mom talk is something I get plety of with my friends.

    But I agree that among a group of friends from HS who I haven't seen in years, it would be even harder, especially if they didn't have kids. I think its because those are the people who knew me as the straight A student, involved in sports, leadership, yearbook, who wanted to be a veternarian and seemed set up for success. they knew the young me who was full of all types of dreams and I'll be honest, even though I knew I wanted a family, that wasn't my big focus in HS. And while I'm happy that I'm a mom and that I am trying to raise my kids as best I can, and have no desire (most days) to go back to work, its hard for me to look at it from the place of who I used to be and I just wonder what they think of it all.

    But I do own it as best I can and tell people that I'm raising two amazing little people.

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  27. On a comical note, my husband was just barely released from years of service in the Primary–only to be called back in. He came home from church a little down and said, "You know, just because I have young kids doesn't mean I can't do anything else."
    I smiled serenely up at him and said,"Welcome to my world."

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  28. I know how you feel, Justine, for a slightly different reason. I'm in a lower-level job even though I have an advanced degree in a specialized field and could be doing something "better". I chose my job because it lets me spend more time with my family, but I can't explain all that in a short conversation. I shouldn't feel the need to justify myself, but somehow that feeling exists. Thank goodness reunions like that don't come around very often!

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  29. Perhaps we place pressure on ourselves when we feel others define us by our accomplishments or careers. I have learned over the years to celebrate the blessing I had of being a full-time mom when my children were growing up. Now that I own a successful business, am a published writer, and have spoken at a number of conferences, including BYU Education Week, I love to say simply, when meeting new people at important events, that I am a mother of four and a grandmother of six. Although I have experienced some sorrow in the parenting process, I have learned more as a mother than I could have learned anywhere else. I thank God for the blessing of being a full-time "domestic engineer" and count the career of motherhood as the best–and hardest–job anywhere.

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  30. Ardis:
    Your “I’m raising my children” is absolutely awesome! I'm going to be quoting you forever, from henceforth. Thank you so much! (and to Justine, for the discussion which prompted it.)

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