Melissa Stanton is the author of The Stay-at-Home Survival Guide: Field-tested strategies for staying smart, sane, and connected while caring for your kids; she also authors the blog Real Life Support for Moms. Prior to becoming a Stay-at-Home mom, Melissa was an editor at People and LIFE magazines. Her articles have appeared in The New York Times, Glamour, Parenting, Redbook, and Organize. She lives with her family in a rural suburb of Washington, D.C.
A few years before we had our first child, my husband and I were invited to lunch at the suburban home of college friends I’ll call Dan and Patty.
When we arrived at around noon after a nearly two-hour, traffic-filled, Sunday drive from the city, Patty, a stay-at-home mom to the couple’s three children, was still in her pajamas. Dan was mowing the lawn. Their baby was stationed in a bouncy seat and needed a diaper change. The older children, haphazardly dressed in stained clothes, were playing in a toy-strewn living room. This did not look like a family that was expecting guests for lunch, except that they were. Our visit was at Dan and Patty’s urging.
Lunch was eventually served. As I recall, it amounted to each of us slapping together a sandwich from the half loaf of white bread and cold cuts that Patty scrounged together from the refrigerator. Our afternoon of socializing was spent at a nearby park. My husband and I tried to have conversations with our hosts while they kept an eye on, talked to and played with their kids. I left that visit hungry, angry (that I had wasted a day out of my weekend) and disdainful of stay-at-home moms.
At the time, I was working more than full-time. Patty, I felt, didn’t work. And because she wasn’t employed I believed that, at the very least, her house should be clean, her kids should be well-groomed, and when we arrived she should have been dressed and had a lunch ready for our visit. In my view, the fact that she didn’t do any of those things meant that she was incompetent, and enormously lucky to have found a man willing to support and take care of her.
Roughly a decade later, I had become (yikes!) a stay-at-home mother of three. My once impressive meal prep skills had diminished to a small menu of what my kids would eat. Many rooms in my house were (are!) toy-strewn. My kids weren’t (aren’t!) the most well-groomed.
I had spit in the air and it came back to smack me in the face. Splat! Yuck!
I had become “Patty.”
I tell the tale about our visit with Dan and Patty because, no surprises with this grand observation, it’s easy to judge and criticize and pontificate about shoulds and shouldn’ts. It’s easy to have high standards when we’re not actually the ones having to meet those standards. It’s easy to make assumptions, and even be superior, when we haven’t walked the walk. Patty and her husband were in “little kid mode.” My husband and I were not. As couples, we were at very different stages of life.
Obviously, I’m still a bit irritated by our hosts’ behavior. But unlike before, I am sympathetic to the chaos of caring for a home and small children. Unlike during that visit, I now know that women who leave the workforce to care for children are not incompetent, and as such in need of a Prince Charming to support and take care of them. (In fact, it may be that men with stay-at-home wives are the “lucky” ones: They’re lucky to have a partner who is able and willing to provide the hands-on, 24/7 care of his children and home, and they’re lucky to be able to earn enough for their household to live on one income.)
By trying not to “spit in the air” anymore (or at least not as much), I am more aware of the importance of empathy, and I greatly notice when it’s lacking. For instance, when “Justine,” a woman I’m acquainted with, was pregnant, she considered mothers who didn’t nurse to be bad mothers. Fast forward to a post-partum Justine suffering from mastitis while her screaming, hungry newborn loses weight. Out came the bottles—for good. A couple of years later, when the arrival of a second baby made using a daycare center too costly and logically cumbersome, the anti-nanny Justine (“How can anyone leave their baby at home with a stranger”) hired a nanny.
We all make snap judgments, or demand perfection of others that neither they nor we can achieve. Many of us think we won’t ever be, for instance, unemployed, uninsured, unhealthy, unable to get by without a bit of help or understanding. We’ve all recoiled at the (unhinged?) mom who screams at her child in public. But then, one day, we too snap from our own child’s whining and tantrums, and from our frustration at being unable to complete a simple task without first accommodating our trailing entourage.
I never thought I’d become a stay-at-home mom. Other women never imagined having (or wanting) to stay in the workforce after they had kids. Experience brings awareness.
Life is a journey with many paths, and it’s a game in which the rules change. It’s best to keep an open mind—and not spit in the air.
I used to criticize parents whose children showed up to school with clothes disheveled, hair unkempt. Ummm…. I don't anymore.
I spit in the air less than I used to; perhaps that's why I experience systergy more.
What are your thoughts?