Last week, I started chatting with another mother I’d just met. Our daughters are about the same age and were playing sweetly together. We are both stay-at-home mothers, so we discussed the changes our lives had undergone since quitting paid employment. She said, “Sometimes I miss using my brain.” We then changed the topic, but that comment stuck with me.
What she said isn’t all that unusual. I’ve heard other mothers say similar things. In fact, I’ve made remarks along those lines myself. So it’s not my intention to single this one woman out for criticism. She was just making small talk with a new acquaintance. I’m sure if she took a minute to think about it, she’d realize what she said wasn’t true. And that’s exactly the problem: those of us who do homemaking know that it is intellectually demanding work. But we’re still happy to denigrate our roles.
Pop Culture Is Also Comfortable Degrading Motherhood
Popular culture is so negative about women who stay home full-time or dial back their careers. Of course we miss using our brains. Our days are full of drudgery. This idea pops up in the unlikeliest places. My husband and I like “Colony,” a sci-fi show in which aliens occupy the city of Los Angeles. (Actually, I like this show a lot. My husband tolerates it.) The female protagonist, Katie, is a married mother of three children who runs a successful bar and fights the aliens. Talk about having it all.
In a scene prior to the alien invasion, another character asks Katie why, given her busy family life, she also feels the needs to run a bar. She answers, “Purpose. I grew up watching my mom dedicate her life to being a mother and wife to a naval officer. It was important to me that my kids see me as more than that.” Ouch! I tune in to watch space ships getting blown up and instead I get told I’m wasting my life. Apparently, mixing up Long-Island ice teas has more “purpose” than being home with your family.
When mothers make comments like “I miss using my brain,” we help perpetuate this cultural narrative. Perhaps it’s understandable that we’d parrot something we hear so often, but that is even more reason not to go along with it.
We’re Using Our Brains, But In Different Ways
Since the birth of my second child last year, I’ve made a conscious effort to own the label “stay-at-home mother.” Up to then, I still did a large amount of freelance work. When people asked me how I spent my days, I usually mentioned that. I couldn’t bear to let them think I didn’t have a “real job.” But the adjustment of going from one to two children has mostly killed off my freelancing. And I’ve realized the difference is far less significant than I assumed it would be.
I have a college degree and worked for nearly a decade before I became a mother. The energy and ambition that I used to put into my career, I now put into my family. I’m still constantly drawing on my education and professional skills, but for a much more meaningful purpose. Most of the projects I worked on in my previous career are now obsolete. I believe my husband and children have eternal souls.
In the past, I sometimes said that my freelancing provided me with “intellectual stimulation.” I regret saying that. Freelance projects are more like an intellectual change of pace. No doubt we’ve all experienced how refreshing it is to get away and do something completely different. When I go out and do freelance work for a few hours, I come back energized for my homemaking.
I still draw on my academic and professional training in countless ways. I read books on child development. I am constantly thinking about strategies to encourage good behavior and reduce disobedience. I’m trying to figure out how to incorporate traditions from my husband’s and my cultural backgrounds into our family life. This list could go on and on. My work as a stay-at-mother provides me with more intellectual stimulation than I know what to do with.
At this point, I should keep it real and admit that I hate cleaning. But even here I draw on my professional experience. I apply the 80/20 rule: 20 percent of the mess is responsible for 80 percent of the messy appearance. Deal with that 20 percent, and the rest doesn’t matter so much.
I should also acknowledge that, yes, it is possible to do homemaking in a brainless way. I suppose you can put in a bare minimum in the morning then spend the rest of the day on social media. Maybe then you are better off running a bar. But most of the mothers I know strive to do their work in the home with excellence. They use their brains all day long. As mothers, we should refuse to make comments that suggest otherwise. It’s up to us to take a stand. If we wait for popular culture to start respecting our work, we’ll be waiting a long time.