I became a parent almost eight years ago, and I’ve been a stay-at-home parent for much of that time. I kept working part time for a while, and I worked from home as a copy editor or writer, but I definitely considered myself a stay-at-home-parent for several years. I’ve heard it described as the “hardest job there is” or “the most important job in the world,” and I do not at all disagree with that sentiment. But I don’t love to hear my parenting gig described as a “job.” This is mostly because I wish it were more like a job. For me, it’s so much harder because it isn’t. I only know my own experience, and for me the hardest part of staying home with my kids is that it so often requires that I do nothing all day.
Now, of course I don’t literally do nothing. I am on my feet all day long, except when I’m sitting cross-legged on the floor doing a puzzle, lying flat on my back playing yahoo-buckaroo, or squatting next to a toilet trying to convince a child to try for just a few more seconds. It’s more that I don’t do anything that feels significant. As a stay-at-home I do nothing that matters, to me or to anyone else, all day, all week, all month long. I know very well that what I’m doing does have great significance in a larger, overall sense. My kids are only small for a short time, and I would regret it if I were missing too much of it. Early childhood is a very important time for many reasons, and how I parent now will absolutely have an impact on my children’s future. I also believe that I am providing my whole family with a level of balance and stability that is difficult to achieve when both parents work full time. I know that being home with my kids is where I want to be, and I made the choice to do so with my eyes wide open. But that’s all big-picture stuff. The truth is that if someone were to ask me what I did all day, the answer I’m most likely to give is usually “nothing.”
Because, you see, most people don’t want to hear about how I figured out a better way to organize a tupperware drawer, and I don’t really want to hear myself talk about it. It doesn’t sound interesting when I describe how many times I read the same story over and over or how long I had to wait for my toddler to put her socks on all by herself. You may think these things are interesting, or make great stories, but that’s only true when they are told cleverly and in moderation. The reality is that choosing to set a goal to clean my refrigerator without turning on a screen for the kids is not very interesting even to me, much less to the rest of the world.
We all know that being a parent of young children is exhausting, no matter what your work circumstances. Being a working parent is really difficult in a lot of ways, too — I know this because when working parents say it’s very difficult, I believe them and I have no desire to compete. However, the specific way that stay-at-home parenting is hard for me is that it is also so very boring. Every day is about filling your time, balancing your own wants and needs with those of everyone else, and finding fulfillment in tasks that are literal chores. There are no performance reviews to motivate me to keep the TV off, no boss who could come walking in at any moment, no consequences or rewards for success or failure. All measurements of my success and failure as a parent are nuanced and complicated, and, unlike with every other job I’ve ever had, I get nearly no positive reinforcement for what I am doing. This might not sound difficult, but after a while, being self-motivated is tiring. I have an able body and an agile mind, a University degree and lots of big ideas, and yet the biggest decision I had to make today is what we should have for dinner, and no one really even thanked me for making it.
Every job I’ve had has forced me to think, to work with other people, to set goals and accomplish them, and to be held accountable for what has to be done. Success is measured differently when you stay home, and I’ve needed to remind myself more often than I would like to admit that being tired and bored is not the same as being depressed. And considering that I would literally say this aloud to myself after I’d been lying on the living room floor in tears for a while, it seems that tired boredom and depression may actually be pretty similar sometimes.
The thing that eventually saved my sanity during the hardest phase — when I had so many children who couldn’t do up their own seatbelts that leaving the house for drop-in programs was just too much work to cope with, and when my house was too small but it didn’t matter because the kids all insisted on being in the same room as me anyway, and when I spent all my long, long days changing diapers and singing songs and reading stories and wondering when Daddy would be home, even though I knew the house’s chaos and my social isolation would just cause us to argue anyway — the thing that saved me was this blog. I didn’t start it because I knew that I needed saving, but it made such a huge difference to my outlook. Suddenly, instead of sitting on the floor building towers for my kids to knock over, I was sitting on the floor building towers and quietly planning my next blog post in my head. In the evening, when I finally had the kids to sleep, I wasn’t just lying on the couch watching mindless television and wondering what creative idea would help to make the next day pass, I was sitting on the couch writing, or chatting with my new blog buddy, or figuring out what a widget was and how I could install it onto my website without spending any money. Suddenly, my brain was busy. I had stopped doing nothing all day, and instead I was doing something, even though nothing had really changed. My mind just desperately needed more to DO than the vague job description of “raising children.” Turns out that I’m a much more patient parent (of very small children, anyway) when I’m just a bit distracted.
This is a good reason to be slow to judge the other parents who stare at their phones while at the park, or those friends who seem to love Pinterest a little more than seems reasonable. Because maybe the alternative to taking your kids to the park and going on Instagram isn’t taking your kids to the park and playing cheerfully; maybe the alternative is lying on the living room floor, overwhelmed at the thought of playing tag at the park AGAIN, and the only way to bring yourself to do all the work required to get your kids to the park is the knowledge that you can go on Instagram while you’re there. And Pinterest isn’t my personal favourite, really, but I totally get why people love it. Because remember how I said that talking about reorganizing my refrigerator isn’t interesting? Pinterest finds it interesting. I get why other people whose minds are looking for stimulation often find the intersection of social media, household planning and organization, and beautiful pictures to be very sanity-saving.
I actually got another part-time job a while ago. It’s twelve hours a week or so, which is great because it still allows me to spend a lot of time with my rapidly growing, slightly-easier-every-day children. Now that I have no babies, plus a job and a blog to occupy my thoughts, it’s been a long time since I’ve found myself lying on the floor trying to convince myself that I’m okay. I still feel like I do nothing most days, even though I’m still parenting all day long. I’m proud of being a stay-at-home-mom, and I’m grateful that my circumstances allow me the chance to do that. But I also look forward to my days at work, when I can put on real pants and talk to grown-ups and answer the question “What did you do today?” with all kinds of interesting new answers.