The baby was extra clingy today. At eighteen months, Monica has just this week cut two of her three emerging molars, which had been bulging and sore for weeks. She did not want to be put down and kept coming to grab my legs as I tried to make sandwiches for the older children, unload the dishwasher, fold laundry. Every time I nursed her, she looked intently into my face, willing me to quiet myself, unwind my attention from the rest of life, and give her the one thing in the whole world that no one else can give: my undivided, loving attention.
But today was a hard day. Last night I’d stayed up much too late reading (one of the habits of my pre-motherhood life that I have not been quite willing to give up), and got up several times to comfort Monica after the Tylenol wore off around 2 a.m. All morning the children quarreled, and mediating between the irrationality of three-year-old Jonah and the legalism of five-year-old Abigail had just about done me in. Of course, then there was the Trouble with the Fruit Drawer, which entailed moving the entire refrigerator just to get the door closed again. No amount of coffee helped me today.
By three this afternoon, as I drove over to pick up Abigail from kindergarten, I was neck-deep in self-pity. Why did I think that this was what I wanted? What was so bad about wearing panty hose and working for pay? Wasn’t I accomplishing more? So much of my day is taken up with triviality, frustration, and minutiae!
When I got home I realized I’d forgotten to take the meat out of the freezer. Then the cat threw up. But I did give Monica some more baby Tylenol, so that was good. And I did get a chance to brush my hair.
It is enormously difficult to talk about how we raise our children these days. How children should be raised, and by whom, are key questions to any discussion of the renewal of culture, but just try bringing up the debate about stay-at-home mothers versus “working mothers” (by which is meant women who work outside the home, leaving the child care to others). Usually it is impossible to get as far as real discourse, because like politics and religion, it matters deeply to us all, and we are, therefore, defensive and cautious.
First, who is the “stay-at-home mother”? Well, the “mother” part means the married woman with babies or small children. The “stay-at-home” part means that she is their primary companion, teacher, and nurturer, watching after them a large majority of the time. Although she may occasionally leave them with someone else, it is her main job during the day. (True, some fathers stay home full time—or split the task with their wives—to raise their small children until they are school age, but since this is still so much the exception, I will stick with “mother,” noting that fathers can fulfill this role too.)
Now—before continuing—I am not condemning those parents who must, through force of circumstance, put their children in day care. Single mothers cannot help having to work; neither can the families that would experience complete financial ruin if both parents did not earn a paycheck. But in my middle-class experience, this is rarely the situation. These parents freely choose the two-income lifestyle, and thus full-time day care for their children, for personal reasons, and it is those reasons that fuel the debate.
But be that as it may, if our society is to be revitalized, the committed, religious, stay-at-home mother will have to be at the forefront, because society truly does begin at home. The Christian worldview recognizes all people as brothers in Christ, proclaims that where two or three are gathered in his name he is present, and demands preferential treatment for the weak, the defenseless, and the vulnerable. The committed stay-at-home mother has the best chance (and the most time) to proclaim this to her small children each day as she feeds them, bathes and clothes them, reads to them, works with and for them. She proclaims with her mouth what she herself performs, however imperfectly.
This is not to say that families with two full-time salaried parents cannot inculcate a Christian worldview. They can and some do. Yet I cannot help feeling that this way is less efficient, all things being equal, and in the long run less than ideal for children and families.
My suspicion is that a good number of people still agree with this thesis, but a minority put it into practice, and an even smaller minority would openly advocate it for others. Why? In a word, because staying at home with small children is very, very hard: sometimes “battle” is not too strong a word for this life. Perhaps it would be helpful if those still willing to advocate full-time mothering would ponder just what makes it so difficult.
One of the hardest parts is the loneliness. Last summer the kids and I spent a lot of time at the local playground. Because there are no basketball hoops or tennis courts, it is a good place for moms to bring their younger children. It has big old trees around it and a few uncomfortable new benches. Most of us sat at the edge of the sand, taking rocks out of the babies’ mouths and hollering at the bigger kids to be careful. I suppose we were all about the same age, early- to mid-thirties.
Amid the chat about the weather (a perpetual topic in Minnesota, even in the summer), movies, and house renovations was a conversation I have heard many times in essentially the same form:
“It’s so nice for my kids to have other kids to play with,” said one woman.
“You know,” said another, “when I was growing up, we didn’t have to go to parks very often. We just ran around the neighborhood.”
“Yeah,” said the first one. “Same with me. My mom just opened the door and we all ran outside, even little ones, four or five years old. We had all kinds of friends on the block and we played outside all day. And all the moms watched out for all the kids. It was safer then.”
“It was a different world,” I said.
All of us nodded, but no one said what everyone was thinking: it would be at least marginally safer in our neighborhood if there were more parents around during the day.
Neither did anyone point out that fewer women our age are having children, and when they do, those kids are in day care all day long. It was easy to see that we all missed that camaraderie for our children. But it was also painfully clear that these women, just as much as I, missed that sense of community for themselves. It is hard to be so isolated so much of the day. While a person can always get into her car and go somewhere, I find myself wishing for someone to say hello to as I rake leaves. It would be nice, if I got locked out of the house, to have a neighbor who could lend me her phone.
If loneliness is one of the hardest parts of this life, then a sense of futility is right up there too. Everyone who has cared for small children knows how frustrating it can be to get to the end of the day and think back on what has been accomplished. True, the stay-at-home mother often gets a lot of things done during the day, her children’s needs permitting, but it all begins to look so, well, pointless. Why clean off the towering end-table clutter when it will be back again in two days? Why go to the effort to cook good food when it will be gone in fifteen minutes and, in the case of the children, might occasion unpleasant protests? What earthly good does it do to be here at home when nothing I offer pleases Jonah, when I cannot pitch a baseball well enough to get it near Abigail’s plastic bat, and when I am so distracted by the noise and chaos that I find it hard to complete a sentence? At least at my old job outside the home I occasionally accomplished something.
Then there’s the problem that comes to mind as I teach awkward Jonah how to put on his shirt (which is harder than you might think when you’ve never done it before). The average middle-class woman has some higher education, not to mention skills acquired on the job. What will become of all that education (which I am still paying for) once its potency has been depleted by lack of use? Many women need to keep up their skills in order to go back to the workplace, and especially for those women who plan to have only one or two children—in other words, most women in the middle and upper classes—the temptation to keep the skills by continuing to work outside the home is almost irresistible. And working at home, for many people, is a lot harder than it seems, because of children’s unpredictability. Even small projects must be accomplished in tiny bites of time: ten minutes here, half an hour there, usually after the kids have gone to bed but before one’s own exhaustion wins out. (It took me a month to finish this essay, for example, although I probably did not spend more than eight hours altogether in the writing.)
Then there’s the money. Our culture no longer values the household supported by a sole breadwinner. Everything—from buying a house to applying for a college loan for one’s son or daughter—seems structured around the two-income family. For example, my husband has a job that pays almost twice the median income in our area for a family of four. Yet when we began looking for larger houses last year, what we qualified to borrow would not buy more than two bedrooms and one bathroom in most of the city, and certainly not in our parish neighborhood. We wanted to buy there because it was safe, with a church, grocery store, library, and post office within walking distance (thus making it unnecessary to have two cars). In the end, we found just the right house—big enough for our growing (and, by the grace of God, large) family—but in a different parish, in a second-tier neighborhood (lots more car theft and somewhat more drug trouble), half a block from a major thoroughfare. This is not a complaint, because whenever I tell acquaintances what we paid for our house (we borrowed at absolutely the top of our range) they are envious. God blessed us with this house and, by extension, with this parish and school.
But not everyone earns as much as my husband. However much women may want to stay at home with their children, they may not be ready to make the sacrifices that it requires. Understandably, they may not be willing to move into a smaller house, in a less desirable location, or to go without a second car, or to give up vacations, eating out, and going to movies.
One final sacrifice involved in staying at home is that it can be—what can I say?—incredibly boring. To mention but one example, there is the difficult stage that children seem to hit at about age three. I call it Narration. Jonah is currently there and shows no signs of moving on. For those who may not recognize it or whose children skipped over this stage, moving straight from Inquisition to Sulkiness, this is the time during which the child tells stories. Jonah tells stories about the videos he watches. He tells stories about mountain lions, about David and Goliath (in which David’s victory is retold and embellished in the most excruciating detail), and about playing baseball. He runs around the house narrating. He narrates on the potty.
Now these are sweet stories, full of cute malapropisms. But after months of constant chatter, I am bored. It is hard to evoke enough enthusiasm to respond appropriately. (“Wow, honey!” no longer cuts it, now that Jonah is almost four; he wants “And what did David do with the catcher’s mitt after Goliath threw it on the ground?”)
Boredom is a common objection that many women raise against staying home. They cannot imagine how anyone could stay interested, with no other adults around for eight hours, no real participation in society at large except through commerce and TV.
The fact is, it can be difficult. It seems peculiar to our time that we have so many more ways to amuse ourselves, and so much more time in which to do it. As the average age of American first-time mothers increases, so do the years in which women are independent adults, working but in most cases unencumbered. Pleasing yourself, setting your own routines, always seeking what is interesting—these things aren’t necessarily sinful. But they are hard to give up. We have so little experience in enduring boredom for the sake of someone else’s good.
I don’t know how to solve these problems for other women. It seems useless to protest that, despite everything, staying at home can be a reward in itself. How to persuade someone else that my growing satisfaction with my occupation is anything more than a quirk of my personality?
Yet I wish I could convey it. Like so many other full-time mothers I have learned the obvious: for my children, not just anyone will do. Even the best teacher, the kindest day care worker, cannot replace me, my attentive presence. No matter how closely someone may agree with me and my husband, she cannot guide and nurture our children as we can. No one else can parent our children. It is God’s gift to me and to John, ours alone.
If we care about how our country’s children are raised, and who raises them, I think this point is where we have to start. And may He who turns the hearts of the fathers toward their children bless all parents, in all walks of life. It is the toughest job we’ll ever love.
Sibyl Niemann and her husband are expecting their fourth child in September.