I think of her as the bus stop bully. But she isn’t under 5 feet and is not the tormenter of one of my kids, ages 8 and 11, name calling and stealing the proverbial milk money. No, she’s about 5-foot-8 and in her mid-40s. She is a mom at our school bus stop. And last year her target was me.
It started innocently enough.
Early last fall, when we were still bus stop friends, we sat in the shade on her front steps across the street from our sun-scorched bus stop. Talk was typical: Our fifth graders’ new teachers, the need for a four-way stop at the nearest intersection, the mystery of our sons’ enchantment with Pokémon cards.
Here it was, to my face, the very question that I had become suspicious people were asking about me in their heads, or even aloud behind my back. Now that I wasn’t home with babies-turned-toddlers, changing diapers and sharpening crayons, I had come to find that, in the words of Ricky Ricardo, this Lucy had some ‘splaining to do.
I did not plan on but rather meandered into stay-at-home motherhood. I was a freelance copy editor for several years before having my first child and so continued with projects I could do from home. (And though I couldn’t have predicted it until the first baby arrived, home was the only place I wanted to be.) About four years ago, my regular editing “gig” took its publication in-house, and I did not pursue new clients. I missed the paycheck, but not the squeezing in of work during the kids’ nap times (when they still napped) or at night after they went to bed, when all I wanted to do was collapse onto the sofa after a 13-hour workday.
I also missed the ability to answer the “What do you do?” question more comfortably. First I would mention my freelance work and then that I was a mom home with my kids. The combination of the two was the truth, and more, it served to protect my feminist ego, with which until this point I had only had a casual acquaintance. Between my esteemed liberal arts degree, a physician-mother who in 1964 took her place as one of five women in her medical school class, and a pendulum that had swung hard in the other direction, being just a mom did not roll off my tongue with ease. As my years into motherhood proceeded, my mom and I learned, after enough awkward conversations, it was best not to discuss my “career.” I know it’s disappointing to her that for more than a decade now I have not had one. She pushed the boundaries of her generation, and I don’t think it’s easy for her to have a daughter whose life resides back inside them.
Beware the pendulum: Judgment rides it like a tree swing.
* * *
Two years ago, my youngest child started kindergarten, a notable milestone for all parents, but of significance all its own in a SAHM’s life. For the first time since our eldest child arrived, a SAHM has a substantive block of daytime that is not expressly used to serve a pint-size human’s immediate needs.
For some SAHMs, their plan is swift and sure and they return to work outside the home. But for those of us whose trajectory is less clear, perhaps muddied by a decade’s pause from the “working world,” having from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. without a child underfoot is a milestone fraught with a peculiar mix of elation and melancholy, even self-doubt. The latter often creeps into our brains by way of two-word phrases such as “Now what?” and “What next?”
Sitting on her steps that afternoon found me a week into my second school year as a SAHM empty-nester. The year before had illustrated just how easily a SAHM can fill a seven-hour block of time on the weekdays without her children home.
After I watch my kids’ bus pull away, I usually skip home to drink coffee in cherished solitude, sometimes folding laundry while — get ready – watching Jon Stewart from the night before. (Sorry, no soap operas.) Twenty-two minutes later, coffee drained, I begin a day that is some combination of more laundry, house cleaning, dog walk, grocery shopping, myriad errands, appointments for house and kids; and yes, like everyone, whether in an office or on a mountaintop, I spend some time online. (The blogs will not read themselves!) Last year I started to explore woodworking and made a desk. I also volunteer at my kids’ school, both in their classrooms and heading the PTA’s eco-action team (the new term for committee, by the way). I do not do all of these things each and every day, and I end some days feeling more accomplished than others. And yet the time goes quickly. (Do not mistake mine for a Cleaver household: Our house is not immaculate, dinner is not always ready on time and is sometimes out of a box, and I have more than once forgotten the kids’ dentist appointments.)
At 3:30, I meet the bus, and for most of the next six hours, I am in full-on mom mode: chauffeur, cook, homework and piano nag.
When she asked her question — “What do you do all day?” – part of me was ready for it. I replied, calmly, “I don’t think one can ask such a question without some amount of judgment attached.” She told me she was just curious what someone who doesn’t work does to fill her time. (She is a therapist, sets her own hours, and takes multiple dance classes each week. Six in a week even, she once told me.)
I explained to her that I had not “planned” to be a full-time SAHM, how I lost my freelance job a few years ago, that our move to this town had kept me plenty busy the year before, that I clean my own house, but yes, I am now finally at a point where I can begin to figure out what’s next. I’m not sure I paused for breath.
The bus came and our conversation ended. But by the time I got the half-block home, I was unsettled. I was sorry I had entertained the question, and so defensively. My blood simmered at the image of one woman sitting next to another on a front stoop explaining herself. My blood boiled at having been asked.
It feels important to mention that I am fully aware that it is a privilege that our family can live on one income. I could go into detail about how my husband and I make it work, but I shouldn’t have to. Besides ours, whose business is it that I am a SAHM with school-age children?
My friend Jen was once asked by a stranger at a party, “What do you do?” Having tired of this question and the lack of suitable terms to describe her nonworking status, she decided to go bold and replied, “Nothing.” He walked away quickly. Jen is an environmental attorney who until recently had not worked outside the home since she had her son, who is in third grade. We met conducting a waste-free lunch in the school cafeteria, weighing the gooey garbage of 400 children.
I like to garner the support of the women in my life when I need backup on, well … my life. So I told a few of them what the bus stop mom had asked me.
“You should have told her you’re busy volunteering in her children’s classrooms and organizing events at her children’s school,” said my friend Jill. She is also a SAHM. She volunteers at her kids’ school more than anyone else I know.
My best friend from college, Jodi, an oncologist and pregnant with her first child, yelled, “How dare she ask you this! I wish I could come to your bus stop and slap her across the face!” Jodi is my champion and does not put up with bullshit — in her own life or, as it turns out, in mine.
And my best friend from high school, Kathy, a SAHM across the country, insisted that from now on I quote directly from the gospel of her grandmother Nan:
“I don’t know what I do all day, but it takes me all day to do it.”
Armed for bus stop battle, I returned each day. It was several weeks before the next incident.
I had been working with concrete mix that afternoon (don’t ask), so had been wearing a face mask to protect my lungs. I noticed the mask had left peculiar indentations on my cheeks, so I explained this to her. Her reply?
“It must have felt good to be so productive today.”
I knew in that moment that this was no longer about her curiosity, and probably never had been. I later told my husband what she had said, that I had managed to ignore it, but that the next time I didn’t think I could.
He deadpanned, “There will be blood.”
* * *
While she certainly took it to a new level, the bus stop mom was not the first person to make offhanded remarks that offend me and cause me to squirm in my admittedly thin, unemployed skin. The mother of one my daughter’s friends once said during a discussion about our kids’ after-school activities that it was not as important for me to schedule them as I did not “have a job to ground” me.
This stunned me. Although the toils of being a SAHM are unpaid, my daily work hasn’t ever felt un-grounded. I suppose the weight of the laundry basket or a child on my hip may have helped keep me in place, but I felt at peace with my choice. It is only since my youngest started school that this peace has begun to fracture. The cracks have opened a bit wider with each comment, each question, each suggestion that a house empty of children during the day means the woman still inside is not fulfilling her potential in the world.
A friend of ours is a financial analyst and travels abroad on business regularly. She has two young children and talks openly of her demanding hours, being on the train before her children are awake, and that she is not at all involved in her son’s elementary school. I think she loves her career. I know she is a wonderful mother.
I can tell my SAHM status baffles her. She has said to me more than once, “How is your PTA stuff?”
I know, I’m overly sensitive, but when someone refers to what you spend your time doing as stuff, it’s difficult to interpret it positively. Perhaps she is unaware of the condescension and insult her question carries. My equivalent would be to ask her, “Do you ever get to see your little girl in her afternoon ballet class?” But I would never ask this. I understand that we are another two examples of women who have negotiated — differently — the elusive balance of work and family. My balance right now just seems to bewilder people.
And yes, increasingly, it bewilders me, too. Creating a new balance is daunting, perhaps paralyzing. Stay-at-home motherhood has played some tricks on my identity, fading away the one I was working on before I had children and blurring the one I try to envision as my kids are getting older and need some amount less of me. And the time goes quickly. Always easily filled. But the cracks remain, and while others may have started them, I have taken to them with a crowbar, aware that while I continue to spend my days working for my family and our household, and do not wish to have anyone else do it in my place, this work is now sharing space with a feeling of not enough.
There is only one thing wrong with being just a mother, a wife, a homemaker (or anything else, for that matter). It is being all of those things and knowing something is still missing.
* * *
The third strike at the bus stop happened just before winter break. She walked up next to me, let out a long sigh, and said, “Do you ever feel like you get everything done in a day that you wanted to?”
I replied, “Never. Who does?”
She sighed again, and continued where I knew she’d been heading all along.
“I just think that if I didn’t work, I would be able to get everything done.”
The details of what followed aren’t actually that interesting. (No blood.) I forced my voice steady, asked her why she made these comments to me about my not working, reminded her that a few months before I had sat next to her on her steps and been honest about the fact that this is something I am grappling with, that it’s nothing new that women everywhere make different choices at different times. She was defensive, told me through gritted teeth that she would never talk to me about it again (bless her heart) and that I should look inward as to why her comments bother me so much. (I mentioned she is a therapist?)
For the remainder of the school year, our conversations went from stilted to cordial, eventually returning to small talk by spring. But I approached the bus stop each day with the reminder, “Arm’s length.”
Without any help from her, I often cast long glances inward, quietly self-conscious of my perceived lack of productivity since my little guy went to kindergarten. I do intend to work — and earn — outside the home again. And while I still appreciate what I can get done in the quiet of my house during school hours, on some days that quiet is in stark contrast to the din created by my own thoughts about how to get there from here.
And I know it is not the judgment of others from which I truly recoil. Nor the judgment I bring down upon myself. It is what may come from my quickly maturing daughter, who is 11 and in sixth grade, and is just beginning to learn what she is capable of. I worry that soon she, too, is going to question what I do. My years with her at home, my hopefully good example as a citizen, my killer banana bread, they are not the only impressions I wish to make upon her. In her eyes, and my son’s, mom is not enough. It could be, but for me, it’s not. My kids do not yet know what — who — their mother is. For them, for me, I will find out.