Everything’s Work

I miss work. I miss all kinds of thing about it: the sense of purpose and identity it gave me; the knowledge I was making a contribution to our living expenses, the kids’ college education and our retirement; the opportunity to speak to adults on a regular basis. Not to mention the work itself. When I was an English professor I was paid to think about words and ideas and stories all day. Some days I felt as if I couldn’t believe my luck. But as I have explained earlier, my luck ran out about four years ago. I won’t go into the reasons here. (If you really want to know– my May 11, 2007 entry has some background.)

Since then I haven’t worked much, if you use the most restrictive definition of work: tasks performed for money. I’ve cast about in various directions, taking on short-term projects such as tutoring a graduate student in writing, scoring the written portion of the SAT, doing the occasional freelance editing job. The majority of the money I’ve earned in the past year a half has come from the research, writing and editing I do for my sister, a freelance writer specializing in issues of nutrition and natural foods, and that work comes to less than five hours a week most weeks.

This is the part of the post where I think I’m supposed to make a passionate argument about how I’m not really only working five hours a week, that staying home with kids is work, that every mother is a working mother, etc. I do believe all that, but it’s been said so many times I’m not really sure anyone needs to hear me say it here, so can you just imagine an eloquent defense of stay-at-home moms’ work here? Okay. Thanks for pitching in — now we’ll move on.

I do find myself wondering sometimes what parts of what I do at home count as work. Is cuddling in bed and reading to a sick preschooler or watching episodes of Max and Ruby with her work? Surely napping with her isn’t, but what about the night of broken sleep that led me to need a nap in the first place? If I’m stapling, labeling and alphabetizing the printouts of online health newsletter articles I clip for Sara while June sits on my lap am I multitasking? Eating breakfast isn’t work, is it? But can it be the equivalent of eating lunch at your office desk if in the time it takes you to finish a bowl of cereal you get up to change a diaper, settle a property dispute and get more food for a child? And what about volunteering? Once every four weeks I spend a morning at June’s school. It’s a co-operative school so these shifts are not precisely voluntary but we did choose the school knowing we’d spend a lot of time playing with other people’s kids, helping them use the bathroom, preparing their morning snack and wiping down doorknobs and toilet seats with bleach. And once every two weeks I go to Noah’s school and tutor adults with limited English. This is probably something I’d be more likely to put on a resume than co-oping at June’s school, but is it really work if my students only show up about half the time and when they don’t I end up sitting alone in a room reading a book?

Noah wanted to know what this blog entry was about and I told him it was about what’s work and what’s not and how it can be hard to tell the difference. “Everything’s work,” he said. It seemed wise, though I’m not sure I should trust a boy who watches online software tutorials for fun.

On Saturday afternoon, Beth took June on some errands, Noah was playing on the computer and I found myself with some unexpected free time. As always when this happens my mind flooded with possible projects. Should I corral Noah and help him clean his room? Try to get caught up on newsletter clipping? Fold laundry? Read the article on an antioxidant supplement for athletes I might be editing and come up with a bid for the job? Make scones? I didn’t divide these activities into work and not work in my mind. They were all just things I needed to do. (Okay, I didn’t need to make lemon-poppy seed scones—I just wanted to. And as it turned out, that was one of the things I didn’t end up doing.)

It has felt particularly hard to get work, domestic or paid, done the past few days. June’s been sick and cranky since Saturday morning (though she seems to be on the mend) and Noah was out of school yesterday for a teacher grading and planning day. But here are some things we did do yesterday and today: I did three loads of laundry. I took both kids to the playground and June to the library. We played in our backyard sandbox– all the more fun now that it has recently had its sand replenished. We collected mushrooms from the yard, arranged the caps on a piece of white paper, left them overnight and observed how the spores fell into the pattern of the gills. I read to both kids. We had an after school picnic on a sunny afternoon. I made breakfast, lunch and dinner twice. Tonight I even tried a new recipe, the Korean dish bibimbpap (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bibimbap). It was good, but not as good as at Mark’s Kitchen (http://www.markskitchen.com/). I also submitted the antioxidant bid and printed a handful of newsletter articles for Sara. I still haven’t made those scones.

At 6:50, shortly after dinner tonight, June took both of my hands in hers and said, “I want you to play with me.” I thought about the unfolded laundry in the dryer, the articles I’d selected during her nap, which I had not yet printed because the printer is too loud to use while she’s sleeping. I told her I had a lot to do. “What do you have to do?” she asked. It didn’t sound quite as important when I said it out loud as when I’d been thinking about it. So we went to the living room and played with blocks. We built a schoolroom for Monster Baby and then I fashioned a backpack for the little plastic Shrek baby out of play dough.

After ten minutes Noah wandered in wanting something to do and I successfully palmed June off on him by suggesting he make a marble run for her out of duplos. I asked Beth how long she thought it would be until the screaming started (the kids fight all the time these days) and she said “Five to seven minutes.” And although Noah did get frustrated with the duplos, the children didn’t end up fighting with each other. June got bored and wandered away before Noah finished, but when he had completed the run, she came back and watched him run the marbles through it. They laughed as they watched the marbles bounce on the rug as they came barreling out of the track. All in all it was a successful project. I even got the last load of laundry folded, averting a potential pajama crisis.

Some days I feel like my life is out of balance and I need more time away from the kids to pursue other projects and yes, to make money. Other days I just go with the flow, like a marble running swiftly down a track and tumbling out on to the rug to rest at the end of the day.

  • I can totally relate to all of this.  Especially the part about playing at the end of the day when there are so many things to be done.  I try really hard to set them aside and have the play time, because I know it won’t be long until PunditGirl won’t give me the time of day! (4/3/09)

  • Mimi

    I agree with Noah. Some days it seems like everything is work! But then other days, nothing seems like work. Such is the life of a stay-at-home mom, I guess. (4/3/09)

  • Tami

    As I read your post, the thought comes to mind:  there is a time and a season for everything.  Although stay-at-home-mom’s obviously do not receive monetary rewards; your children are getting them with your time.  Believe it or not there will come a day when they don’t want to play with you.  That’s a day of mixed emotions because you enjoy your “freedom” and their’s, but your sad about it just the same.I think you accomplished quite a bit in your day! (4/3/09)

  • wendy

    Steph, thank you so much for forwarding me the link to your blog and this essay in particular. Here’s a perspective on work from my 2 1/2 year old: work is whatever happens when mommy is wearing something other than jean or sweats. Easter Sunday was a reminder of that – when I actually wore a dress and heels, which is pretty rare, and Julien asked in a a surprised voice, “Mommy is working?” SInce quiting my full-time job at the university last September, I guess this is the evidence that I am in grunge mode most of the time:).  Frankly, what I do at my remaining hours of ‘work’ (part-time psychology private practice in VA) is often much easier than the hours spent at home. It isn’t so much that the kids themselves are difficult (though there ARE those times, too) I find the challenge to be continually attuned; isn’t every moment an opportunity for learning, caring, negotiating, connecting? Don’t miss it! –  a voice cries out! Ahh, the pressure! Sometimes they play independently and I can sip my now cooled down coffee from a distance, but my ears are always peeled. Yet, I find it dangerous to consider parenting “work” -perhaps because that parallel is laden with measures of sucess and failure, goals and evaulations. Can you fire your mommy?! Can I quit my kids?! Until that becomes possible (without child protective services coming in), it seems like work is a light-weight word for what is going on!   I haven’t found a better word than “work” fow what raising my three boys feels like, but I am still looking. (3/14/09)

  • Hi, I also teach college level English (adjunct) and have an MFA in Creative Writing– I wonder if we’ve crossed paths somehow? For me, teaching high school level English is what is paying my bills. I love it, but miss the higher intellectual conversations I have/had at college. (Can you imagine a coworker at my high school had never heard of Sherman Alexie or Carolyn Forche?) Yet, I think raising children must be so much more rewarding than the life I have as a teacher– even better than finding the perfect, most accurately, delicately composed line in a poem… (you know what I mean, right? this has always been a solitary event for me–no one seems to get it… ) Experiencing children must equate that sense of satisfaction and connection? Let’s us talk sometime, yes? (3/15/09)

  • Steph

    Thanks for commenting, Teaberry. College teaching is seductive, but honestly, I’d advise you to get out unless you’re thinking of adjuncting as a fun hobby.  In terms of career paths, for almost everyone it’s a dead end. I was extremely lucky to be able to make the jump from adjunct to non-tenure track assistant prof at GW but as it turned out, that was a dead end, too.  I also would not recommend getting a Phd to anyone at this point, not with the market as brutal as it is.Yes, parenting is very rewarding.  When I was looking for a tenure-track job and trying to conceive June I always thought if I could only have one I’d choose the second child (not that we get to make choices like that).  Still I wish I could have had both.If you’d like to talk more in private you can email me at slovelady@aol.com (3/15/09)