Tuesday, December 16, 2008

I don't participate in the "mommy wars"

Up until a couple of months ago, I did not know any committed stay-at-home moms who are also women of color. When I say committed, I mean women who have decided to stay home with their children , providing 95-100% of childcare for an extended amount of time.

Just a heads up: I don't participate in the "mommy wars". I've been on both sides of the fence and both scenarios present challenges and problems. At the end of the day, in my mind, it seems that most women have to decide which challenges and problems they are more willing or capable of dealing with.

Anyway, in my personal experience I have met mamas who stayed home for more than the usual 6 weeks. Mostly they planned their pregnancies to coincide with when they would be off for summer vacation or they decided to stay home for the first year of the baby's life and then return to the work force. The latter was my plan initially. Actually, when Z1 was born, I really did want to be a stay-at-home mother but the hubby rightfully pointed out that we needed my income to move the house repairs along and basically just to gain ground financially, i.e. not stagnate. The compromise was that I would stay home for one year and then I would start working full-time. I was comfortable with that plan because the hubby worked a shift that was opposite to the time I worked so he would be providing childcare during the day. The biggest reason why I am a SAHM right now is the childcare issue. Anyway, a few months before Z1 turned one, I dutifully started looking for a job. I was fresh out of graduate school and green as a meadow. I must have sent out 30-40 resumes and, I kid you not, even with a master's degree, I got about 3 interviews and 2 job offers, neither or which was ideal.

Let's just say that the job I chose was pure hell. Generally I'd come home in tears, frazzled and stressed and then I developed a serious case of hives. But your girl is tenacious and I would have at least finished out the year had it not been for the hubby saying that the price the family was paying was too high--and it was. I didn't anticipate how much work I'd have to bring home, that my entire weekend would be devoted to lesson planning. With the hubby working weekends and basically leaving for work as soon as I got home I was often at home with the baby by myself. And I was one mean mother. Snapping and annoyed most of the time. The principal at the school suggested I get a babysitter to watch him while I did work away from work (work that I was not being paid for--go figure). Anyway, I did look for other employment only to find out that once you've made a commitment to a school, you cannot be released from it unless the principal allows you to and the principal at this school was not about to do such a thing. Nobody wanted my position and she knew it. She basically lied to me to get me to accept it. Anyway, I resigned instead of taking a leave-of-absence, which I perhaps should not have done, but I was ready to be done with the job. I started substitute teaching in my town soon after and that was another special kind of hell. One day in March as the students I was babysitting substituting for were jumping from desk to desk and flicking the lights on and off and throwing pencils across the room, I decided that if I had to deal with that foolishness, at least as a full-time teacher I had a good salary and benefits. I purposed to look for full-time employment for that coming September.

And then I found out I was pregnant and due in December.

Now that summer I had the chance to do the SAHM thing again hard-core and what I realized was that I really enjoyed it and wouldn't mind doing it long term. So the hubby and I had that talk and we both came to the conclusion that as long as it was possible, me being a SAHM was good for the family. It certainly was good for me because I really needed to think about whether teaching was actually the profession I wanted to be in.

This is getting long. Sometimes I think I write more for me than for anyone else because had this been someone else's blog, I may have stopped reading by now.

Anyway, it seems folks always question the legitimacy of being a SAHM. Now, I know that often the issues of class and race are intertwined but as I said until recently, I didn't know any Black SAHMs. Every Black mother I know, including my own, works. Maybe it's because every Black mother I know is essentially in the same class as me, i.e. middle class--no nanny or housekeeper, no yearly Caribbean vacation, no personal chef or stylist. Basically, we all have to work to eat and we're grateful there's a very little left over to spend on things we want. Or maybe it's cultural. Maybe Black women are socialized to work outside of the house. We've always been expected to and, in my experience, it is much more respected to do some kind of outside work even if it's part time. Generally, it's just not cool to depend on a guy for your paper. As such, being a full-time SAHM, to me, is not honored or respected. I even hear SAHMs making disclaimers like, "Oh, I do a little on the side" because it is just not cool to be just a SAHM.

"So what do you do?
"I'm a SAHM."
"Oh, I could never depend on a man to take care of me." Because my man doesn't depend on me to take care of him? It's a relationship based in reciprocity. And at the end of the day, someone has to take care of the kids. It might as well be me.
"Oh, I would never let a man give me money because then he thinks he controls you." Because I'm so weak and easily-manipulated that I would sit around letting him run me for the "opportunity" to SAH.
"Oh, I'm far too ambitious to stay at home" Because, of course, I don't have any ambition. How do you know that my SAHM is not conscious and well-thought out?
"Oh, it must be nice to be able to afford to stay home" Because I'm rolling in a shit-load of dough. Did you just pull in up in an Acura 4X4 to come out of your face and say that to me, the one who walked here to save gas money? Look, I know some people really do struggle on the two incomes but *most* Americans live far, far above their means and if you really focused on it, and really wanted to, you could probably make a good go of being a SAHM. But the fact is, you like the extras. It is important to you to be able to purchase that Coach wristlet just because you want to.
"Oh, I wish I didn't have to work . . . it would be so nice to stay at home all day." Because I don't do shit all day but sit around watching t.v., checking e-mail and eating bon-bons. Maybe that's what you would do but I take my JOB seriously.
"Don't you think you're wasting your degree?" which is related to "When are you going back?" which is basically saying that I'm lazy. If I thought I was wasting my degrees, I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing. I'd be using them. Don't you think I have weighed the costs? Do you take me for a complete idiot? I'll go back to work when it's time to go back to work. But right now I am working. Hard. Albeit not in my field. I'm trying to achieve something here.

So I often find it fascinating. If I were to say, "Oh, I work in childcare" and I leave my two babies with someone else so I can go do my job, I would be commended as "pulling my weight" and being a valuable part of society and hardworking. But if I say, "Oh, I work in childcare" but that childcare is the childcare of my own two babies, then it's open season to say all kinds of nonsense, belittling what I do. I mean, seriously, whenever I go to the playground, I often see Black (I mean Black in the broadest sense, i.e. all women of color) as nannies to White children. If you are a nanny, you get paid so now it's a worthwhile job. Or is it something more insidious? It is that those White babies are worth more to you (maybe because they represent a paycheck or maybe for other reasons) than your own children? Is that unfair and mean of me? Well, if we want to get all historical about it . . .

I know, I know, making money is a necessity and it is a serious blessing (I won't say luxury) to be able to stay home even if it requires as much frugality and cost-cutting as humanly possible. If the hubby couldn't do as much overtime as he does, my behind would be looking for employment if not already working. Probably at a job I'd hate because any teaching position to be had in the middle of the semester will suck as much as (if not more than) substitute teaching.

There are many issues that being a SAHM brings up for me. They are valid issues. The hubby is the breadwinner and does an excellent job, no doubt. It has taken a long time for me to be comfortable and really believe that "his money is my money". I still don't all the way believe it and while I do have my savings, there's that nagging concern, small it is, but still there. One of my favorite bloggers, BlackGirlinMaine, asked just the other day "Can You Take Care of Yourself?" and while I think I can, it's really makes me nervous. Oh, I know I have what it takes to survive. I know I would survive if anything happened to the hubby but how hard would it be? How much would I and my children have to go through while I got on my own two feet? Furthermore and in any case, I know my children won't be small forever so they won't need me like they do no forever. Will I be able to get my foot back in the door when I'm ready? Will I be able to gain ground or have I permanently set myself back by not being in the work force? I saw how hard it was to get a job when I was fresh out of grad school. Who will hire me now that the economy is in the toilet and my resume has huge gaps in it? I didn't fully anticipate what an all-consuming job being a SAHM is. I have to rise at the crack of dawn, literally, to squeeze out a moment that is all to myself. Seriously, that is the only time I can use the bathroom in peace and quiet. I wish for more adult conversation and contact--it gets lonely at times since most of my friends work or are in school. I still struggle with the feeling that unpaid work is not as valuable as paid work. In other words, am I valuable since I'm not paid for what I do?

Really, I should be. I found out through my friend that the state subsidizes child care for low-income mothers. These low-income mothers, it seems, don't go to work. My friend, who daily battles traffic and races like a bat out of hell to pick up her son by 5 o'clock doesn't see the same frenzy on the faces of the other mothers who stroll in leisurely to pick up their kids dressed in whatever house shoes and clothes they seem to have rolled up out of bed in. So the state will subsidize someone else taking care of my kids but won't subsidize me taking care of my own. . . interesting.

Honestly and truly, if it comes down to it, I don't think women should be SAHMs. Look, my Igbo ancestors carried their babies on their backs while they worked tending to their land or buying and selling at market. There was a whole community supporting their motherhood. No mother was ever isolated at home solely responsible for her children. There was a network. But the way our society is set up means that often, being a SAHM or a WOHM are the only choices, and are at extreme opposites on the spectrum. No mother makes the decision lightly. There are few opportunities to bring your children with you to work. Even in a female-dominated industry like elementary education, there is little in the way of on-site child care. There are few opportunities to work part-time doing something that actually makes it worth your while to work. Most times, it seems, it is all or nothing.

As I said, being a SAHM boils down to providing the best childcare for my children. I believe I am the best childcare for them. Being a SAHM allows me to do other things in my household that enhance my family's well-being and experience as I've said before but really, it's about the childcare. But, truth be told, if I could find flexible part-time employment that I enjoyed, that didn't take too much out of me AND an ideal childcare situation, I probably would be working somehow. I am seriously considering going back to school to see if I could make that theoretical situation a real one. It wouldn't be until the boys are school age (that would mean no homeschooling), however. I still want to be a major part of my children's lives, always available physically and mentally.

I don't know that I had any specific point to this post. Everything I've said has been said before I'm sure. One thing I do know is that for me, to be a SAHM requires confidence and sometimes defensiveness. And I guess it is the defensiveness that is coming out in this post. But it's my position and if there's one thing I always try to do is to have a well-thought out reason for my position.

There it is.


blackgirlinmaine said...

I'm still waking up, not much to say but this is a good post. You spoke of your ancestors and you made a great point, they did not raise kids in isolation. That is the problem I have personally when I was a SAHM, it was so lonely, its part of why I am a net junkie.

Niether of the two options to the average woman seems fair, very few women can just have a pt job that is fullfilling yet pays well.

DeStouet said...

Hi Chi-Chi,

As you already mentioned being a SAHM is not an easy decision -but it should be.

Speaking for myself, I have/keep goals while caring for, and tending to, my home. Next year, I am going back to school to get my degree. (I have my tubes tied, so no more children for me).

Right now, I am taking care of MY children. If something happens, I'll face it, overcome it, and more on.

tifi said...

Great post. I agree with so many of your points. My situation is quite interesting, I think, b/c I was a SAHM for 8 years, and was lucky enough to fall into a position where my employer is a former SAHM herself and quite understanding and flexible. Before moving east, I sorta looked for work on and off for years and when I finally found a position, I couldn't take it partially due to childcare. Now, my husband is at home with our youngest. It's been a lot easier for me to get up and go to work (I like my job too) knowing that DS is with daddy. Before finding black SAHMs online or off (a rarity when my 8 y/o was a baby), I thought I was the only one. Things are a little improved now. I also don't do the mommy wars. I think that focus should be placed elsewhere and organizations like Moms Rising (.com) address that.

Did you really hate teaching so much? I'm getting my elementary ed degree (goal is really to get my master's and become a school librarian), but lately I have had teacher friends telling me they are ready to get out. Hmmm.

Chi-Chi said...

Tifi, thanks for stopping by my blog! :) I'm subscribed to yours.

Well, I really did hate teaching. I can't say if it was my position or the school or both factors but it really took a lot out of me. Add to that the fact that my students were really failing, i.e. did not know basic skills but in order to keep my job, I couldn't fail more than 7% of my class. Other teachers didn't seem bothered by that but it gave me such spiritual discomfort that I couldn't look the kids' parents in the eyes. There are a whole lot of politics in education and administrators who often treat teachers like crap. For all the work you do, the pay is really not good at all. In my state, you need a master's degree to teach and still the pay doesn't reflect that. It's not a field particularly friendly to family life (even though you have "all those days off"). Unless the system changes, teaching school is really a challenge unless you find a really phenomenal school/principal. If I were you, I'd go for special education (smaller classes and more support), specialize in something (to become a literacy or a math coach--again small groups and more support) or become a librarian or teach private school (and even at that, research, research, research).

When I started teaching, I was a push-in teacher, i.e. I traveled to 2 sixth grade classes teaching math which meant that the students regarded me as a visitor and it was tough to gain respect and control. And I am not a holler-er or a threatener. I guess not "tough" enough. I taught one 7th grade class in my own classroom. In addition to struggling with the material itself (I had been hired to teach 3 sixth grade glasses--I'm certified for grades 1-6), the 7th grade class was an "inclusion" class which meant that there were special needs students along with general ed students with behavior issues. In other words, they took all the kids nobody else wanted, and gave me all 32 of them. A brand new teacher. They kept pulling the quiet cooperative kids out of my class and depositing other rascals telling me, "Oh we know you know how to handle these ones." Why? Because I'm black and they're black? Because I'd been teaching for about 2 minutes and has so much experience. ((((rolls eyes)))) The other teachers were really un-suppportive and disgruntled in their own way and racism towards the teachers was rampant (I applied to teach English and it was given to a White girl who did not have a Master's Degree and was becoming a teacher via an alternate route--she was routinely given my cooperative students and had her bad asses transferred to me). So I had a really negative experience all around and positive experiences from teachers, it seems, are few and far between. Often there's an attitude that for 50 disappointments, you just give thanks for 1 triumph. After years of that, it becomes too much to deal with, I suppose and many just want to leave. In fact, many do for jobs in administration.

liberationtheory said...

you have said a mouthful and if we were neighbors, i'd sit on the porch and have a longer conversation. but instead, i'll have to rely on some quick bullets.

-- my partner and i are considering so many of the things that you address in your post about childcare. for me, it boils down to the fact that i don't trust anyone else to take care of our little one. so far, we have a short term plan that will take us from the baby's birth (march) through september and there are so many other variables to consider. so thank you for this very honest reflection because it helps us dialogue about the same issues.

-- teaching. this is my 8th year and each year it seems the kids are further and further behind and i literally have nightmares every night about what i need to do to help them. the pressure you described is real even for those of us "vets" that are the "no-nonsense" type. i swear before God that this is my last year. actually i'm going back to school fall 09 to do something about this system b/c public education is a sinking ship.

sorry this turned out so long, but i just wanted to let you know that i'm really feeling this post.

Vérité Parlant said...

First, thank you for visiting my blog and leaving your comment on "Michelle Obama is Covered in Handprints."

I think you're my daughter's age, and my only other child turned 18 last month. So, I'm kind of done, and yet my memories make me identify with what you've said.

Also, don't apologize for writing a long post (even though I sometimes apologize for the same) because a good story, article, blog post is worth reading and writing no matter the length. People who don't want to read them are people who don't like to read.

I've been known to break pieces in parts before (mostly at my old, offline blog or at BlogHer). I thought nobody would read, but sometimes those posts have had the most hits and I could see people clicking from part one to part two in my stats.


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