Wednesday, June 28, 2006

How Much Is Enough For a Stay at Home Mother To Do? (A Rant)

Okay here is a rant. I was ready to write this in May but put it off and the anger subsided. However reading more about Linda Hirshman has me fired up about this all over again.

I ranted last week in this blog entry, about volunteer work. Well here is some more ranting.

I started thinking about this topic of how much society thinks that a stay at home mother should do back in May when I had a certain discussion with a working mother. This mother knew that I homeschooled our children and had commented in the past that it was a huge undertaking. She knew that I volunteered to do two Cub Scout jobs, one as her son’s Den Leader and one job on the Pack level. (Note that in the last two years she did not have any volunteer positions with the Cub Scouts, so she relied on mothers like me to do the work necessary for her son to have a program to participate in.) This mother knows of my volunteer work with helping mother’s breastfeed and she had commended me on that endeavor in the past and felt that was of high value. This mother does volunteer with the PTA, specifically, to rally for more spending for the schools by doing publicity to push passing the budgets (in our town each citizen votes on the budget).

What this mother was upset about was that she felt that I should know more about the details and negotiations between the Board of Education, the Superintendent and the town officials about the content of the education budget and about the proposed tax raise. I was told that I should be attending meetings to hear the budget discussions, etc. I was a bit put off by that and explained that with all my volunteer work and with homeschooling my children I didn’t have time in my schedule to attend the two long night meetings that she was telling me that I should go to that week. Probably what set me off was also the fact that one of her opening lines to me was that "as a homeschooling mother I don't know if you care about the children in town who use the public schools" implying that as a homeschooler I'd vote the budget down just because my children are not in the public school. I found that comment highly offensive.

I explained that while living in my hometown, when I was in my 20s and single, I served as a volunteer as an elected official and that I know what that the whole process is like, “been there, done that”. I explained that I was on the education committee to boot so I know what it is like to go to the meetings to discuss budget, etc. etc. I know what the spiel is, and it seems the same now as it was then. “The increase in the budget is almost all fixed and non-negotiable. Past agreements in the teacher contracts to give the teachers raises cannot be negotiated. Necessary repairs on the school must be done. Special education services mandated by Federal law are making the budget soar and nothing can be done about it.” Blah, blah, blah. Other than the hot topic of the moment the process never seems to change.

I was really ticked off after that conversation. Yet again someone was making me feel that I was not doing enough. I find that in 2006 a mother at home is not just allowed to be a mother at home. Back when I was a child (not too long ago) people accepted that a mother’s job was at home (and even when kids in school) and that was it. Not all mothers did volunteer work. When the children were in school the mothers did housework or whatever other things they did. It doesn’t seem to me that such pressure was placed on mothers back then to do a zillion volunteer jobs.

Now mothers at home are not expected to do just one volunteer job, nor are they expected to do just one per child they have. You see the guilt trip comes on, “If you want your child doing this activity then you must volunteer”, they tell us. So that means that for each child we are asked to do at least one job. But one job is not the reality either. I am asked to do numerous jobs for each child, for community based events. No one gives a hoot that we homeschool and that really that is like a full-time job. Teachers are given such praise, “Oh that is such a noble profession!” School teachers are given kudos for doing their hard work on their job, and often are let off the hook from doing volunteer jobs in their non-work hours. As a homeschooling parent, don’t expect that same treatment; if you do, you will be disappointed. If you are lucky your support will be from your husband. My heart hurts for those homeschooling mothers who don’t even have the support from their spouses. The reason that I have worked to help homeschooling support groups thrive and exist is because for many of us, the mothers we meet there are our main support systems. Those of you who have churches that support your homeschooling lifestyle are very lucky (I don’t have that).

Then in the homeschooling community, since we are such a grassroots movement—with no infrastructure guiding us or providing us with services, we have to create the things we want. There is no shortage of opportunities within the homeschooling sphere for us to do ‘volunteer work’. If we so desired, we could be arranging field trips, gymnasium days, co-op’s, homeschool 4H groups, First Lego League, Odyssey of the Mind, Geography and Spelling Bees, and any number of other things. I have found that if I want my children to do something with other children I often have to create it. Okay that is fine and well. Additionally there are opportunities to help support groups, to be a leader of one, to help the state’s homeschooling organization, etc.

But something has to give. I was told by that mother that it was my duty as a taxpaying citizen of my town that I go to all those meetings so I can know the most about what is going on (in order, she said, to realize that a 10% tax increase every year is fully justified and in fact, even more money would be better). “If I only knew, if I only realized”, she said, then I’d be happy to approve every tax raise.

I only have so much time to live and to try and enjoy life and to spend with my children when they are young. How much is enough for me to do for volunteer work? I’ve given up my career and money in order to raise them and to home educate them. At the point in time that this conversation took place I was doing no less than eight volunteer jobs. Isn’t that enough? How much is enough?

I told the mother that I read the town newspaper and that all the things she talks about are not discussed in detail in the newspaper. I said that I rely on that source of information to base my voting decisions on. That is as much as I could do. I was told that is not good enough. As a busy homeschooling mother at home with eight volunteer jobs, is it really reasonable to expect me to go to every Board of Ed meeting and every Board of Finance meeting? As a taxpayer should I and do I really need to be spending multiple hours per week at such meetings to fulfill my obligation as a taxpayer and a citizen of this town? I don’t think so!! Sorry!! Enough is enough.

The whole discussion got me thinking seriously about how much volunteer work is enough. I am really getting sick of the mentality. Not only does this American society not respect mothers at home overall, they don’t show much appreciation for those of us who do volunteer jobs, let alone eight of them. I am constantly being asked to do more and more, to fulfill my obligation to society. I have been told that if I want something to happen or something to exist I must work to make it happen. I can understand that to a point but there is a point where overload occurs. Is it not possible for my children to just attend something as a participant? Why am I always the organizer? Why are the others let off the hook while I am given the guilt trip? I have been made to feel guilty when I refuse to do a certain volunteer job. One organization I work with has no problem making up loads of red tape positions then complains when there aren’t enough bodies to fill the open positions; they have no problem asking people to do three, four, or five jobs all at the same time!

When a mother at home is overworked with volunteer jobs, some enjoyment in life can be taken away. Throw a problem in the mix, like a sick or dying relative and all heck breaks loose.

Homeschooling mothers are seldom given kudos for what they do. The mentality around here is basically “you wanted to do that weird thing (homeschooling) that goes above and beyond what the normal people do so don’t complain if your life is stressful as you brought it on yourself”. THAT is the attitude that is all around me. (I hope that this mentality doesn’t exist all over the county, I don’t know if it does, and if that is the case, then that is a shame.)

So after that discussion with the mother in May I seriously began reexamining my volunteer jobs and began resigning from some of them. I have been thinking about what I want to achieve, what I want my children to achieve, what kind of home environment I want our children to grow up in, etc. I realize that some volunteer jobs that I have held have hindered or prevented me from being able to do some very simple things like relaxing with my kids and reading a book aloud to them, because the minutes to a Cub Scout meeting must be prepared and distributed, or because the latest problem with Cub Scouts resulted in me being on the phone for over an hour with the Cubmaster.

So one by one I am eliminating my volunteer jobs. No one is looking out for my best interest. I feel like the various charity organizations and other organizations are like blood suckers, they will take all they can get from a person to achieve their goal and their mission, even if the family of the volunteer suffers in the process.

Another thing that hit home for me is hearing children’s book authors speak at the Rabbit Hill Festival of Literature. Each spoke of achieving a dream, that we should be doing what we love, and spending our time working at what we love and spending time on that which is our passion. It was long ago that I heard Joseph Campbell say “follow your bliss”. Well, in 2006 it seems that no one wants anyone to follow their bliss. It seems to me that the overall attitude is that anyone who does something like following their bliss is living out some luxury that they don’t deserve. It is all about achieving someone else’s goal or some smaller goal that is not ‘a dream to fulfill’. If the goal is to have a child in the First Lego League Competition then work must be done to achieve it. If the goal is to help mothers breastfeed then X, Y, and Z jobs must be done to help that come to fruition. If your child is to be in Cub Scouts then you must step up and do volunteer work for that. None of those people give a hoot about your own personal bliss; they all are working toward their goal. I know this because I hear it. When I reach out for support for feeling burned out, all I get is one-upmanship. “If you think it is hard with two children then how about what I go through with three (or four) children” and “I am even busier than you” (followed by many details of all the things they do and how their lives are driven by the many appointments that they have). In the end I am left feeling even more incompetent, because my friend over there, and that one over there, and that one over there, well they are even busier and they are doing more and their children are doing more culturally rich and educationally deep or more physically demanding sports activities.

So the hard part of finding balance in one’s life is about defining what the children need vs. what they want, what mother wants vs. needs, whether time will be spent doing something to help make a program happen for your child to participate in or if the mother will work for pay so money can be had or will the mother spend time working on something to fulfill her own bliss? Oh, whoops, I forgot to mention the husband and the marriage and doing things to nurture intimacy and a strong connection with the spouse (that is another area that ends up being a target for neglect in this busy-busy-busy lifestyle).

Just to make myself very clear: the last thing I’d ever do with my time is spend it in political meetings in town. That is a lost cause. I have ‘been there, done that’ as a volunteer and saw that it is a machine, and I know first hand that the involvement of the taxpayer citizens in the political process is next to nil (i.e. the citizen impacting setting the education budget, the citizen doing something to get spending in the education budget in the right place, etc.).

I don’t quite know what a perfect mother is. People used to think it was SuperMom who was home with the children and did lots of volunteer jobs and who did worthwhile work to help the community, or maybe they thought that it means the mother works outside the home at some great career which fully utilizes her fine education for high pay, and then is also a spectacular mother and wife.

Well I have come to a point where for the sake of my own health (physical and mental) I need to cut back on some volunteer work and concentrate more on my own self and on my family. So right now I am cutting back and back and back on my volunteer jobs. And guess what? I don’t think I am being selfish at all. I don’t care if someone accuses me of not being SuperMom. I am going to realign my priorities and my family’s priorities to do what is best for me and all of us and for once helping charity organizations and helping ‘the community’ will be behind my own family. Sorry if that disappoints some of you.

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the spouse said...

(Not Christine's spouse!)

It's pretty clear that you are not busy enough. LOL!

The secret number is "9": you need nine volunteer jobs to be free from criticism. Eight volunteer jobs is clearly not enough, and apparently you did not get the memo which set out this requirement very plainly.

You also did not get the memo that describes in detail how you must attend and fully participate in a plethora of community activities so that the working mother (with, in your area the six-figure personal incomes) can be assured that their town continues to be a "nice" one to live in, subsequently ensuring that her home and property values also continue to soar. If she is to maintain her community's status, her own freedom and ability to earn a substantial personal income, and continue to see her home price reach the stratosphere (all the while ensuring that her kids are enrolled in competitive schools), you really do not have a choice. You must help her. I am not sure why you do not understand this, Christine!

I have somewhat of a problem with those who are very quick to put down many of a lower socio-economic level who might receive government assistance or some other help at various times of their life. These same people do not realize how much they also benefit very directly from the services contributed by others like you. If you put a dollar value on your time, and added it all up, you are making a significant contribution in a very real dollar sense.

This woman you speak of is on the dole, she just does not realize it. And, like so many (people or governments) who are generous with their "handouts", it is not illogical for you to find that your generosity is unappreciated and instead of being thanked, you are asked for more, ever more.

Unique said...


Your 'Ignore' button must be broken. Are you sure that woman is your friend? Doesn't sound like it to me.

It really doesn't matter how busy other people think you are - what matters is how busy *you* think you are. If you're too busy - leave it on the side of the road. Someone will pick it up. Believe it.

christinemm said...

Hi Unique,
No she is not a friend. She is the mother of a Cub Scout in my Den, which I am the Leader of. This conversation was brought up by her in the middle of a Cub Scout event. Actually I did move away from the conversation when she picked up a debate with another parent who was there. It is a tricky situation for me as here we are with our sons in the same Cub Scout Den and I am her son's Leader, so I can't just tell her to go f*** off. I basically did ignore her. The way it turned out in the end is she has cooled to me, being angry that I questioned the spending on the education budget rather than automatically just approve it based on the notion of 'more money = better education" and based also blindly on the PTAs recommendation to approve the budget (they say to approve every budget). I have been snubbed the two times I saw her since then (over a seven week period), when in the past she was much more friendly and chatty with me. I have left that Cub Scout Pack as of 6/30/06 for other reasons,so my interaction with her will be probably nil. This is what I get for trying to make connections with others in my own town and with me as a homeschooling parent trying to mix with the schooling parents.

So I did basically ignore her but what she said stuck in my head. I let go of it after a while, for example, I didn't blog about it when it happened, but reading Linda Hirshman's article got me flared up again on the whole topic of what mothers do, what they should do, working outside the home and the notion that being a mother at home is not good enough. So anyway...that is that.

I am trying to get back to just living out what I think is right and best. However at various times when I try to connect with 'normal' 'mainstream' society such as those living in my same town who don't homeschool, I am only reminded by them that what we do in their eyes is not good enough or not right or at the very least, weird and wacky. Sigh.

A friend once told me she considered homeschooling but her desire to do what is mainstream and her desire to be part of a clique, and to be accepted by others due to her choices being the same as theirs was more important, she said. Going against the mainstream was not something she was willing to do, even if it meant her children got a worse education or had problems with other children socially (bullying, etc.). So you see some of us have different things that drive us. I am trying to do what I think is best even if I go against the norm. But it is not always easy.

Kathy said...

I've enjoyed this rant and the last. It is interesting to see your thought process as you go about discerning your involvement in the community.

My biological grandmother (not one I grew up with) recently asked if I was still just a stay at home mom. Kinda stung, although at 86 I don't think she meant it to. Of course I explained that I AM educating my children, which does take a considerable amount of time, not to mention the various things I do to support other homeschooling families and people in my neighborhood and church... blah blah blah. Somehow doing things without pay doesn't count much in our society, even if those things are esteemed otherwise (like teaching). {I recently had a post to a NatlSciTeachersAssoc blog chosen to be published in their magazine. Once they choose you they ask for your title - I'm wondering if they'll still publish it now that they know I am a "homeschool teacher".}

Your post also got me thinking of how many older people are working instead of volunteering. I remember retired people or women whose kids were out of the house volunteering at church, in the schools and in the community. Now almost all of them are working for pay either because of need or for something to do. How much stronger all these organizations would be if the ethic of giving back in your older years was still appreciated.

Henry Cate said...

In my first job after college my manager once said that as a young man he felt like there wasn't anything he couldn't do, but it took awhile to realize he couldn't do it all.

Life is like that. There are a ton of interesting and useful things we can do, but we can't do all of them. We need to pick and choose.

I don't understand people who seem to thing that having a job and being able to buy more stuff is more important to helping a child to become a competent, caring, mature adult. Most stuff is gone in a couple years, but the effect of one person can last for generations.

It sounds like you are being wise and focusing on the really important things, like family. Keep it up.