the downside of giving

There’s this thing about being an at-home parent. It can be seen as a lot of things: a sacrifice (a professional life), a compromise (waiting your turn), a cop-out (were you really all that ambitious?), a financial gamble (hope your partner never leaves you), a source of regret (“I coulda’ been a contender!”).

It can, in fact, be all of those things. At any given moment, repeatedly, and simultaneously.

There’s this thing about working full-time (or more) when you have small children at home. It can be seen as a sacrifice (can’t spend as much time with partner and children), a compromise (somebody needs to cover the bills and health insurance), a cop-out (don’t enjoy being around kids all day anyway), a financial gamble (are you sure your job is the best there is?), a source of regret (“I wanted a job with more flexibility…”)

It can, in fact, be all of those things. At any given moment, repeatedly, and simultaneously.

All of these things, for both kinds of parents.

These things reflect the nature of work—work as in, the opposite of leisure. None of it was designed to be 100% effortless fun.

But when you work for money, you get… money. You get tangible validation that your choice, no matter how it might be making you feel on any given day, is “worth” it. Your choice is rational. Your choice has benefits that can be easily shared (cash, retirement savings, health insurance coverage, to name a few). Your choice gives you power, power that is universally recognized in a store, at a cocktail party, and at family reunions.

When you’re an at-home parent, you are a “giver.” You’re giving up your professional life for a bit, you’re giving time, you’re giving yourself to your children and your partner and your home and your pets. You’re basically a public charity, you’re so stinkin’ generous.

And you’re lucky, to boot! To be able to give so much, freely, without worry, with the safety net that is your working partner—admit it, you’ve won the lottery of life.

Sounds lovely. Except you can’t put your luck in a bank account. And political candidates never say they want to create more “generous parents who give up their jobs to support those who earn money.”

I was talking with my husband about my earlier post the other night — that if being at home with children were valued in some way, if it were counted toward a nation’s productivity (as the Genuine Progress Index attempts to do), and if it were more attractive to both fathers and mothers in equal measure, maybe, over time, the pay equity gap between women and men might shrink over time. The labor market might adapt. Evolve.

“What I do counts,” I said to him. “You wouldn’t be able to work as hard, and produce as much, and be as reliable and conscientious and thorough, if I weren’t doing what I was doing. You really only have to think about work. And the lawn*. I take care of everything else–feeding us, making our home what it is, managing everything with the kids. Because of the way I spend my time, you have far more time for your job. Isn’t that true?”

He pondered this.

“Yeah, that’s true.”

Now, my husband and I both already knew these things to be true. We had just never spoken these words out loud.

There’s a downside to giving: it can be a very silencing thing. As an at-home parent, so generous and so lucky, you can talk yourself into believing that you’ve no right to feel at times down, or jealous, or wistful, or bored, or lonely, or worried. Your life is so good, after all. You’re being taken care of.

“You want to count, too?” the eye-rollers (or even a small voice inside of you) might ask. “Get over yourself!”

No. I will not. I would never ask my husband to work for less than he’s worth, to be less proud of his accomplishments at the office, to express less of his feelings and frustrations about anything to me. And I would never ask that of myself.

We both have jobs, you see. He works. I work.

He talks, I talk.

He counts, I count.

*I don’t do outdoor chores, unless they are related to snow. I’ll sweep the garage and porch and take out the garbage. That’s about all my bug phobias can handle.

cost cutting

I have to share this comment, made by a reader of yesterday’s piece by Lisa Endlich Heffernan in The Atlantic, “What Do You Do? A Stay-At-Home Mom’s Most Dreaded Question.” The reader, named IowaBeauty, nails it, “it” being the driver of all angst in parents everywhere. Actually, angst in anyone, anywhere.

Expectations. They must be adjusted.

“While I understand every thought in this great survey of the psychic and career perils of being a stay at home parent (yes, there are a few men doing this too), one thing that always bothers me is that everyone who does this seems compelled to compare themselves 5 or 10 or 15 years later with the most successful of their peers, as if it were somehow guaranteed that they would continue to be on the top of the heap through the mid-career sorting of a professional career.

It just isn’t so. By the time we’re 50, most professionals are actually in a dead end, repetitive role, hoping like hell the next envelope won’t be a pink slip, whether at work, or at home. The world doesn’t need or want or make room for an army of [S]heryl Sandbergs, and once you’re past the first 3 or so promotions, in most careers, the weeding for further advancement in terms of responsibility and being on the cutting edge is ruthless. So, yes, the stay at home track raises the probability you’ll plateau from 80+% to nearly 100%, and yeah the money is really completely gone, but hard as it is to admit, most of us weren’t going to be on the bleeding edge at 50 anyway, so give yourself a break and stop comparing yourself to an ideal you probably wouldn’t have achieved anyway. (Of course, I know all of you who read this will think “but I WOULD HAVE because I was THAT GOOD.” Sorry, you probably weren’t.)”

I read this aloud to my husband this morning — it made him laugh, chortling especially at the line about the pink slip. It’s funny, because it’s true.

We each have a vision of ourselves. Our parents told us we could be anything we wanted to be. We could do anything we wanted to do. But can we, really?

Do we all, each of us, want what is attainable? And do we all, each of us, have the resources and tools around us, constantly, to make sure we get what we want? Are our timelines reasonable? Are we all that driven, that skillful, that talented, that persistent?

Are we all that lucky?

I’d have to agree with IowaBeauty: it seems a bit of a mathematical impossibility.

Every choice we make bears an opportunity cost of the option not taken. You know, “the loss of potential gain from other alternatives when one alternative is chosen,” as in, the basic relationship between scarcity and choice.

A key to contentment, and to avoiding the conflict experienced by Lisa Endlich Heffernan, is to set the correct value on potential gain from other alternatives.

Opportunity costs are high. But never as high as we think.

‘What Do You Do?’

I like this essay, I understand this essay, far more than her first, (“Why I Regret Being a Stay-At-Home Mom.)

‘What Do You Do?’: A Stay-at-Home-Mother’s Most Dreaded Question – Lisa Endlich Heffernan – The Atlantic.

This essay speaks to the real issue that fuels Mommy Wars and gaffes by political pundits (Ed Rollins: “bored housewife,” JuanWilliams: “corporate wife).

Parenting has no explicit monetary value.

Note, I didn’t say “no value.” We all feel great about parenting. “It’s the most important job a person can do.” “Children are our future.” We think parenting is invaluable, in fact.

That’s a problem.

I just googled “economic value of parenting.” I was led to this:

The Economic Value of Unpaid Housework and Child Care in Nova Scotia.

It was published in 1998. Fifteen years ago. The authors advance a “Genuine Progress Index” to accompany GDP, or Gross Domestic Product, when trying to see how productive (and sustainable) a nation or economy is. They put a monetary value on parenting, because:

“In sum, failing to measure and value unpaid housework and parenting renders it invisible in the economic accounts from which policy makers take their cues and which guide the behaviour of governments, businesses and individuals. What is not counted and measured is insufficiently valued and given secondary priority in policy planning. By making the economic value of housework and parenting more explicit, the Genuine Progress Index can draw attention to hidden factors that directly impact our quality of life, our wellbeing and our prosperity… As the economic dimensions of our social and environmental assets are quantified and measured, they necessarily will become more visible and valued, and thus incorporated more readily into the framework of policy discussions on the provincial economy.”

“What Do You Do?”

I, like Ms. Endlich Heffernan, am asked that often, countless times over the past 8 years. And as I noted in the comments section on an earlier post, I have decided to answer that question in the following way:

“I work at home, raising my children. And I need a raise.”

I am my own first defense against any who might accidentally or intentionally undervalue what I do.

We each are our own first, and best, defense.