An Interview with Melissa Stanton

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 (Seal Press/Perseus Books,) and founder of www.lifesupportformoms.com.

1. Many moms love the idea of being a stay-at-home mom, but in actually doing the work everyday women get burned out, lose their own identity and end up resentful they had to give up their own dreams, work, etc. How can moms balance this very serious commitment and still feel like they have their own lives?
Burn out, resentment, second thoughts are real issues facing many stay-at-home moms. As much as we love our children, and appreciate being able to get by on one income, it can be lonely and uninspiring to spend day after day managing feedings, naptime, cleaning, carpools and diaper changes. Doing so can make even the most devoted stay-at-home mother batty.  For that reason, being a stay-at-home mom shouldn’t mean being a hands-on mom all the time. It’s essential to a stay-at-home mom’s sanity and self-worth that she have interests and activities beyond her home and family. This means maintaining friendships from the past, and creating supportive friendships with fellow stay-at-home moms. It means a stay-at-home mom needs to have time away from her kids—for herself and to be alone with her husband or partner. It means participating in the “grown-up world,” by reading, socializing, staying informed about current events, and finding family friendly ways to use her professional skills or at least keep them in shape. (For instance, if a woman has a finance background or is good with money, she can take charge of managing her family’s finances.) Since no one knows what the future will bring, as much as possible, it’s important and smart for a stay-at-home mom to keep her “big toe in the door,” as career strategist Tory Johnson has described it, by doing things to keep her skills current and resumé active. Anyone who was in an occupation that requires certification should keep that certification valid. Stay-at-home moms are called upon to be volunteers for, essentially, everything, so they should volunteer smartly. If a woman has the time and ability to take on a managerial or professional-level volunteering assignment, she should. If she can take on very part-time freelance work from home, she should. Raising $100,000 as the volunteer chairperson of a charity auction isn’t a job, per se, but it’s a valid achievement that speaks to a woman’s ability and skills. When I’m feeling down about what I left behind, I try to focus on what I’ve been able to experience and achieve because I did leave the workforce for home. (One achievement: I wrote a book about stay-at-home motherhood while at home caring for three small children.) And because I let go of the corporate ladder I had been climbing, I now look at the paths I can pursue instead—once I have a bit more freedom from my kids and they from me.

2. The concept of appreciation comes up often with stay at home moms. They have husbands who often do not truly appreciate what they are doing or how tired they are. However there is a mentality out there that says being a stay at home mom is a 24/7 job and if the husband helps, great but it isn't HIS job ... what would you say to women in this situation?
I tell women who have unappreciative husbands to stand up for themselves as best they can. And I’d tell a woman considering stay-at-home motherhood to have a frank talk with her partner ahead of leaving the workforce. Assuming that having children was a mutual decision, the hands-on care of those children should be a shared responsibility. A father should never get away with saying something along the lines of, “I can’t go out, I have to babysit the kids.” Fathers care for their children, they don’t babysit them. I also tell women and their partners to recognize that stay-at-home motherhood is essentially a 24/7 job. People in the paid workforce are generally not expected to work 24/7, but stay-at-home moms live where they work. People in the paid workforce leave the office and leave their work, at least for a while—and their co-workers don’t accompany them every waking minute of the day. In order for a stay-at-home parent to do her job, and enjoy her job, her day needs to end. She needs time to regroup, to do something other than care for her kids and home. In my family, my husband takes charge of the kids after dinner. It’s not a burden to him. He enjoys being with his children. However, after a 12-plus hour day of my being with our children, I need a break. Sometimes I’ll leave the house and go out with friends. Usually, I disappear to our home office and answer emails, do the banking, deal with the piles of paperwork that come with managing a home and family of five. Parents don’t get a lot of “time off,” but a change of scenery and varied tasks help keep us energized. My husband gets a break from his paid job by hanging out with and caring for his kids. I get a break from the physical and emotional demands of being the hands-on, primary care provider of our children by being able to focus, uninterrupted, for a few nighttime hours on “brain work” or creative pursuits.

3. How did you come to be a stay at home mom and is it working for you?
My husband and I had demanding jobs and a long commute between our home in New Jersey and our offices in Manhattan. When the Internet bubble burst and the events of September 11 led to layoffs in the financial sector, my husband took a job in Baltimore, where he spent his week, coming home only on weekends. I stayed behind with our son, trying to juggle a career and weekday single motherhood. (At the time I was a senior editor at People magazine.) With my husband’s new job, we would be able to get by on his salary alone, so it became harder to justify having him in Maryland, while I was in New York and our child was spending his day at home in New Jersey with a nanny. Related to that, my husband had been on his way to the World Trade Center (his subway station was beneath the towers) during the terrorist attacks. He avoided most of the horrors of that morning because his train was diverted to a different stop. I personally know (knew?) several people who weren’t as lucky. I wasn’t in the city on 9/11, having taken the week off from work to get our three-year-old settled into preschool. Our nearness to the day’s events and good fortune compared to so many others made me reevaluate my priorities.
After much agonizing about what to do, I woke one day and decided that I needed to live a different way, and work a different way, so I quit my job. In retrospect, I would have planned the transition better. I might have tried to negotiate a temporary leave, or a more-flexible work schedule, with my employer or elsewhere. Instead, I lined-up a local, part-time retail job for evenings and weekends, so I could care for my son by day and leave him with his dad, grandmother or an occasional sitter when I worked. I made next to no money and essentially worked for the health insurance (since we weren’t yet eligible through my husband’s employer) and my sanity: It was nice to get out of the house and, even more, to have work that didn’t come home with me. I had to leave that job when I became pregnant with twins and got very sick early in the pregnancy. Is stay-at-home motherhood working for me? It did, for the first few years, because I was so consumed by having a commuter marriage, a challenging pregnancy followed by caring for three kids on my own 24/5, and then relocating to Maryland and getting settled into a new home and community. However, I do struggle with not having an identity and work life beyond my home and family. I worry about us being on one income, especially during these tough economic times. I am working from home now, as a freelance writer and editor. I’d love to get a “real” job, but the economy and the logistical challenges for my family of me returning to the workforce make flexible work-from-home projects the best option for now.  I look at my life and career in a way many women, and more men, do or may need to do. I had an interesting career for more than 15 years and left it to become a 24/7 parent. I now freelance from home while still being the primary caregiver of my children. Someday I’ll be able to take on more and do something else. In many ways it’s liberating to not have to follow the traditional male path of working full-tilt until you get laid off, retire or die. I think women, and men, can be many things in their lifetime.

4. What is the most common issue/trend you are asked about?
Most women who contact me about my book thank me for speaking the truth about stay-at-home motherhood—and acknowledging that we don’t all love every minute of everyday being home caring for children. Some women do, and that’s great. But for a woman who sometimes has a tough time getting through her day as the primary caregiver, books that trivialize the experience as slapstick (“Oh, darn, the baby spit up on me again”) or overly sentimentalize it (“Being a mom is the best thing I’ve ever done in my life”) can make a struggling stay-at-home mom feel even more isolated.
Women who have left the workforce to stay home with their children are often told, “You’re so lucky you don’t have to work.” Sure, stay-at-home moms who have nannies and housekeepers may be lucky to not have to work. Otherwise, being a stay-at-home mom is nothing but work! Stay-at-home motherhood is a job, and no one loves their job all the time. It doesn’t mean we made a mistake, or that we don’t love our kids, or that we’d choose a different path if offered a do-over. It means that, yes, caring for children and a home can be lonely, boring and frustrating. It can be frightening (financially, emotionally, career-wise). Women, especially, become so defensive about their roles as mothers—and society sends such mixed messages—that instead of supporting one another, and being honest with ourselves, we have “Mommy Wars.” Sometimes stay-at-home moms are celebrated and employed mothers are vilified. Sometimes the wind blows the other ways: Employed moms are using their educations and helping provide for their families, stay-at-home women are dependent, coddled and aren’t using their brains. Stay-at-home moms have great days and horrid days. Employed moms have great days and horrid days. To pretend everything is perfect about ourselves—and to deride someone else’s parenting choice or circumstance—is dishonest and, I think, harmful. And, by the way, because all mothers are “working mothers” (stay-at-home moms work as mothers), I purposely use the phrase “employed moms” to describe women who are moms and in the paid workforce.

5. Is there a true benefit for kids who have a stay-at-home moms versus a working mom?
I can’t say, and I don’t think anyone can truly give a definitive answer to that question. So much depends on a family’s individual circumstances, the personalities involved, the household’s finances, the child care arrangements.  Being a stay-at-home mom is a tough job. Not everyone can handle it. Likewise, being a mom who also works outside the home is demanding and stressful. Some women can juggle work and family successfully, some can’t. In some cases, a loving, devoted live-in nanny is a better caregiver than a parent who wishes she were someplace else. In other situations, a child who spends 12-hours a day in various care settings (before school care, school, afterschool care) might be better off not having to be on-the-go all the time.  For me, and I think many women, living on the extremes is tough. Being out of the workforce and home full-time with no help can make a gal crazy, as can having to be in the workforce full-throttle and unable to spend much time with one’s kids. I think we’d all be better served by having family friendlier work opportunities and career paths so women, and men, can participate in the paid workforce and be the hands-on, primary caregivers of their children.

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