Staying Home as a Step Up
My New York Times Sunday Dialogue piece on pro-family policy changes that could improve caregivers' economic security elicited a number of responses. One led me to a post by Valerie Adrian, a mother of 3 currently pursuing her Ph,D. in Sociology on the opposite side of the country, but engaged in issues of gender and work like I am. Instead of the usual middle class context for "opting out" she wrote about "... my own experiences as a working class mom in the secondary sector, for whom staying at home meant a little dignity and autonomy, even with tighter belts." I offer below excerpts from her essay, which you can see in full at its original web home by clicking here. Thanks, Valerie, for letting me feature your work.
I was working in retail management when I got pregnant. I started the job as a part time sales associate before I got married and moved up to assistant manager within the first year or so. And then our store closed, and I went to work at another store, with a 40 mile commute. I worked up until I was 8 months pregnant. Then I started having blood pressure issues and stopped working. Because I missed some paperwork, I was denied sick pay, and denied maternity pay. I did have really good insurance through my crappy retail job though, so the birth was nearly covered.
So, why did I decide to stay home? A few reasons. First of all, I had read a lot about how much a mom's ... income really amounted to, when figuring in child care costs, transportation, and convenience factors. My salary was low, and it would have been hard to justify the 40 mile commute on top of child care. I was also a product of my time. I am a Gen Xer, and many of my cohort have chosen to stay home, due to memories and experiences as the latch key kid generation. I was never a latch key kid, but I was the youngest of 9 kids, and never had much of a relationship with my mom. I wanted it to be different for my kids. I wanted to be fully present for them...
You know those former corporate moms who talk about the parties they go to where they have to deal with the "what do you do?" question by enduring the sneers that come with the answer, "I am a stay-at-home-mom"? This is the privilege I am talking about. Believe me, the same reactions can be found when one says, "I work in retail" or "I am in the restaurant business," unless the respondent is in high management, a chef, owns the business, or is paying his/her way through school. These choices are not considered life goals. So, in this way, staying home with my kids was a step up. Yes, the money sucked. But! I had full autonomy of my day. I could pursue literary pursuits to my hearts' content. I got to read up on child development literature like a scholar, and further my understanding of my new career. And, instead of my knowledge going to clothe lady executives (I was working in women's apparel) and line the pockets of those working in corporate headquarters, my knowledge and experiences were going to shape the next generation of my bloodline. My own offspring, created and incubated by me. If the retail job was the essence of Marx's alienation of labor, my position as a stay-at-home mom was the empowerment of my labor. I was my own boss, creating my own product (in a sense). And it was important work. During this stage of the 90s, there was an upsurge of folks who were telling us kids needed parents at home, and so I was validated for my choices.
Of course, my way has worked for me, but that doesn't mean that I think it is the right way for every mom. Families are not monolithic, and we each have to make decisions based on our own circumstances.
So, what is my takeaway? Do I regret staying home with my kids? No. I enjoyed staying home with them and I think it was beneficial to them. I don't think a stay-at-home parent is automatically better for a child, but looking at what we could have afforded for day care, and the erratic nature that my works hours would have been, I think it was the best decision for our family.
Thanks, Valerie, for sharing your motherhood story with us. Congratulations on that degree, and don't be a stranger!
'Til next time,
Your (Wo)Man in Washington