Madeleine Hagan is a student at the University of Portsmouth studying Creative and Media Writing. Originally from North Carolina, she likes telling stories about her experiences as an international student on her blog The Salt Compass (http://madeleinehagan.com/). In her spare time she is a seaside coffee shop tourist, passport stamp collector, and aspiring novelist.
I was raised by a full time stay-at-home mom. She put aside her career and swapped it for a 24/7 occupation without a lunch break or vacation days. My mom got the flu when I was eleven, and even though it wasn’t the first time, I noticed a larger effect on our household.
For one thing, she still made me do the day’s math lesson, which I thought was rather unjust. If I attended a local school and the teacher was out with the flu, we’d practically have the day off right? Well here at home, my teacher was confined to the rocking chair in the living room, unable to keep down anything but noodle soup, and she still managed to use my full name when I rolled my eyes in objection to completing my math homework.
Mom home-schooled us until we were in middle school, planning our every lesson from math to handwriting, our history lessons and more. I just tried to avoid doing math whenever possible.
“What if I don’t understand it and get stuck?” I asked, in a last attempt to get out of it.
“Then your Dad will help you when he gets back from work.” She was leaning back in the rocking chair amid a nest of pillows and answered without opening her eyes.
I finished the lesson soon enough though and discovered to my delight that since my mom couldn’t make lunch for my sister and me, the menu selection was up to me. I flat out refused to try making a PB&J (it just wouldn’t have that same perfect ratio between the peanut butter and jelly that Mom always got just right) and resorted to filling up two plates with cheesy goldfish, grapes and chewy fruit snacks. I presented these plates with pride to my sister at the lunch table with two kids cups full of apple juice while mom supervised from her chair.
“What’s Mom going to have?” Lexie asked as she examined the items on her plate.
“She said she’s having soup later. Will you sit down.” I frowned at Lexie until she quit using the chair as a jungle gym and sat with a huff to eat her grapes.
As the youngest at the time, she didn’t have to work on any school that day and decided on playing “doctors and patients” with Mom all morning while I insisted every few minutes or so that she stop.
Couldn’t she see Mom obviously needed to sleep? Or at least wanted to?
Mom finally succeeded in napping while we ate our lunch and when I pointed this out to Lexie, we finished the rest of our food with many suppressed whispers and giggles. Whether or not we managed to sneak upstairs without waking Mom, or if she just pretended not to hear us, I’m not sure. I was a bit more focused on having the afternoon off school.
Mom got better soon enough and life returned to normal. School resumed, my laundry magically appeared in a clean, folded stack on my bed a day or two after I dropped it in the basket and any dishes I left in the sink were washed and returned to the kitchen cupboards.
But there was so much more, more than the mundane and the generic. We had our weekly picnic of McDonald’s fries and honey mustard in the back of the car the following Tuesday. I got a little older and she helped me make a blue Lego costume for Halloween as well as her helping me braid my hair. I got even older and she taught me how to save memories between scrapbook pages, how to drive a car and how long to boil pasta. Mom stayed up late with me while I studied for Spanish tests in middle school. She brought me Taylor Swift’s new album during one high school lunch break, and she smiled when she caught me singing to my hairbrush later that night. Mom was there when I picked my prom dress and stayed up to hear me babble excitedly about my first date when I got home late. She showed me that it’s okay to make four trips to the grocery store in one day and the importance of contentment in your own company. The list goes on and on, first with me and then Lexie a few years later.
Now, I come home from University each summer and watch as she does it all over again.
Mom still loves home-schooling and all the prep involved, Julianna is the youngest now and the only one still in elementary school.
I woke up many mornings in the summer to the sound of the printer in the next room spitting out page after page of study questions and colouring pages for Julianna’s upcoming school year. Julianna specifically requested purple be the theme for her fifth grade year, so Mom made the fonts and headers on a lot of the worksheets different shades of purple for her.
“I can take personalized requests. You’re my only student this year after all” my mom told her.
Julianna considered this. “Can I also have no tests this year?”
Mom just laughed and Julianna frowned the same frown I had made when told to do my math homework. I suppose it would’ve seemed like a fair request to my eleven-year-old brain then as well.
The next day a stack of freshly printed spelling tests was sitting on her desk on bright purple paper, and Julianna sighed dramatically, accepting that her future would be full of spelling and mathematics.
I watch Mom prepare Lexie’s lunches before driving her to high school every day, as well as how often she checks the clock after lunch to make sure she isn’t late to pick her up. When Lexie does climb in the car after a long day at school, I’m confident she’ll hear the same question I did.
“How was your day? More-than-one-syllable answers required.”
I wonder if Lexie answers quickly or if she’s like me and struggles to understand how Mom can seem to pick out the good in every single day.
I watch Julianna run downstairs after dinner to show Mom her new Frozen themed pyjamas. As she spins a shy twirl, I watch as Mom’s eyes widen and all too familiar exclamations of “You’re a princess!” make Julianna laugh and twirl around again and again.
I wonder how I never saw how important all of this was before.
Many times over the years I have been asked, ‘What do your parents do?’ and it’s one of the hardest questions I have to answer. Dad’s job is all about computers and software development, which is always fun to say because it sounds like I have fancy technology vocabulary, but my knowledge of what he does stops there. But Mom’s job? There are too many words I could use. There are too many activities, tasks, assignments and errands done in one day. How could I possibly shorten all these into one snappy and concise term that does all the hard work justice?
Little girls talk about their dreams for when they’re grown-ups. One holds their chin high with resolve and purpose as they say ‘I want to be a lawyer!’ and another whispers that they want to be “just a mom” with a timid and self-conscious shrug. While society grins in smug satisfaction that the “Career Woman” has priority and significance, my frustration boils over at the world’s attempt to belittle and reduce an equally worthy and ambitious dream to an embarrassed shrug. Just a mom? Where does this idea come from?
It’s a double-edged sword. Society and culture both worship the Career Woman, but if you do choose to step away from a career and be a stay-at-home-mom there’s an idealistic image and list of criteria to pursue there too.
This is the “proper” stay-at-home mom who contributes home-made, gluten-free cupcakes to her child’s bake sale at school and perfects the lasagne from The Great Family Recipe Book that’s been in the family for twelve generations. Not that any of those are in any way an evil, but that can’t be the gold standard for what it means to be a mom. Otherwise, all of those moms who don’t value those particular constructs are going to either get lost in a sea of performances in what feels like a giant yet pointless masquerade, or they’ll resign themselves to thinking they just aren’t good enough at the job they once dreamed of. Talk about an embarrassed shrug. The whole hypocrisy which surrounds the entire concept is nauseating.
Stepping aside from the corporate ladder to raise your children at home does not make you unsuccessful, just as choosing to have a job away from home during your child’s younger years does not make you a bad parent. Do not let the society that measures an individual’s worth by their title and pay check tell you that your potential is being wasted if you choose to stay at home and be present full-time as your children grow older. On the flip side, continue to shake off the pressure that insists you feel guilty for choosing to pursue your career and provide for your children while they spend time in childcare.
In the end, staying at home is definitely not a rule in the How to Be the Best Parent Ever handbook, and working 9-5 every day for ten years is not the only way to model hard work and diligence or inspire children to be great.
Both are respectable and valid options, and no woman should feel embarrassed for her choice. Whichever you choose though, go really outside the box. Shock the world and enjoy whichever “work” you choose. I don’t mean you necessarily should be grinning from ear to ear while cleaning up sick in your car when your child gets the flu on the way to the store, or clapping your hands with joy during your commute to work at 6am when your coffee stains your only ironed shirt.
But that’s life.
Studies into the way in which parents influence children’s success, as conducted by social psychologists in 2004 at Duke University, North Carolina, USA shows that parents’ involvement in their children’s lives really does matter. Parent-child relationships, particularly “in adolescence, when children [are] deciding whether or not they want to go to college”, are fundamentally important as the “parents’ knowledge about how to be involved is what matters,” an associate professor of social psychology at Duke identifies. In order for “children to reach their potential, they need their parents as informed advocates”. Imagine the hope you can pass on to your child’s little eyes watching your every move on a daily basis. Children can tell when their parents are miserable and when they are happy with the life they lead.
My mom is living proof that her choice to stay home is as valuable and fulfilling as any other mom’s chosen occupation, and her attitude about it all was an encouraging confirmation that she never regretted her choice.
Some children could not happily strive for a lifestyle that mirrored their parents’ choices. Not meaning they should want to do the exact same jobs, but some wouldn’t even consider the option. Imagine a generation that wasn’t frightened of “adulting” because they were under the impression there was still so much to look forward to rather than fear. Or in contrast, will they dread their potential future because they grew up watching an inescapable juggling nightmare that drained the joy out of their parents?
I’m proud to say that I’m not one of those children. My mom’s example was a constant reassurance in my mind that I don’t need to spend my life chasing after the next best skill to add to my resume because it is possible to find purpose and fulfilment apart from a salary. The key is in the quality of the time you invest, not the quantity, and women who have made both choices regarding their careers as moms are role models in my book. The work, sacrifice, effort and ambition do not go unnoticed or unappreciated.
Hold your head high, little one.