I’ve had the experience, too, so don’t feel bad.
You know, when you’re mingling at some social function, and you ask a woman what she does and she says, “I’m a stay at home mom,” or some variation on that theme, and your mind screeches to a halt.
It’s actually perfectly understandable, when you live in the realm where everything that you do and have done for the past decade circulates around and points toward and is in service of “what you do,” meaning your career, meaning you how make money, meaning how you make meaning.
So, when you encounter someone outside of that realm it’s hard to find a place to go in the conversation because they’re operating in a different system of meaning. It’s hard to know what to say, because you honestly don’t know what they do all day, much less how they make meaning other than baking or perhaps knitting.
I understand the feeling, because I used to be in the academic world, filling my head with every literary fact and theoretical way of thinking that I could fit and training myself to converse in a way that would perfectly hide what I didn’t know. My meaning was built up in belonging to a club of knowing and not knowing could get you kicked out.
During this time, I remember encountering a woman who responded that she was “a stay at home,” and I remember answering, “Huh.” Not intentionally, just as a filler, while I was thinking of what to say next, but nothing came, and my dismissive, apathetic “Huh” hung in the air between us. And I thought to myself, I’m a feminist; I should value the work that all women do, not just the work of career-ambitious women. But I didn’t know how to value her work, because I didn’t know how what she actually did or how she made meaning in her days, and as that dawned on me I realized that the only ideas I had about her work or how she made meaning were populated with June Cleaver images that didn’t mesh with the hip, young woman in front of me.
But now that I’m a full-time mother (a term I prefer, since it foregrounds the work of mothering, rather than the location, and since I rarely stay at home), my ideas of motherhood are populated with experience that I can draw on to have conversations with mothers that aren’t dismissive. I was thinking of this today, because I was hanging out with some young activists, and we were all talking about everyone’s work, and no one asked me what I do. I wondered if that was because I’m a “stay-at-home-mom,” and if they were experiencing the same blank I did in my pre-child days. So, I thought, maybe people just need a list of talking points for when they encounter people who spend their days with children? Just in case, here’s a few:
What have you been thinking about these days?
What are you working on lately?
What is your philosophy of education?
What changes have you noticed in your children’s perceptions lately?
Do you have any time to yourself, and what do you do with your precious time?
If not, how do you mentally manage not having any personal time?
What is your philosophy of housework and how do you make that work in your house?
How does your family interact with the environment?
How do you teach and model empathy?
What drove your choice to mother full-time and how does that choice interact with your other career decisions?
Maybe this can arm you to acknowledge what I wish I had acknowledged in my failed interaction—that full-time parents are fully occupied, fully thinking people engaged in difficult and interesting work. Work like studying the developing psychology of children and responding to it, being trained in a rigorous school of empathy and patience and passing that training on to small humans, having every waking moment accounted for and responsible to someone else, often in the very physical demands of bodies. Work that takes all your time and energy and takes up zero space on a resume, even though it build skills that will benefit any future work imaginable.
What questions do you approach full-time mothers with? Or what questions would you want to be asked at your next awkward social gathering? Are the questions different for full-time-fathers?
©Copyright Elisabeth Hedrick-Moser