mom guilt if you do, guilt if you don’t.

June 25, 2015

I never imagined myself as a mom who stays at home.

I mean, it always seemed like a really nice option, especially during the years when I was waking up at five in the morning to take a shower, get ready, and drive an hour to work, teach all day, drive an hour back home, go to class until eight or nine at night, study and write until midnight, and then toss and turn to sleep and do it all again the next day, with Diet Dr. Pepper as my fuel. Even though I loved my work and was (and remain) passionate about it, it’s true that in those days, getting married, having a mess of babies, and staying home with them all day sometimes seemed like the real brass ring, a distant, unreachable dream much further beyond my grasp than any other goal.

But realistically, I always expected to be a “working mom,” in the sense of having a nine-to-five job outside of my home. Given the seemingly endless hours of blood, sweat, and tears that I put into my education and my résumé throughout my twenties, it was difficult to conceive of a reality for me that did not consist of academia, research, conferences, classrooms, the desperate scramble for a tenure-track position, and generally doing my best to sound like I knew what I was talking about.

This is where I have to pause and just say, for the record, that I despise the vernacular that surrounds this issue of mothers working outside the home and such. I really, really hate the way we talk about these things, because as it stands, our discourse is inevitably wrapped up not only in sexism, but also in privilege, classism, and even racism. But on a very basic level, the terms “stay-at-home mom” and “working mom” are belittling to all moms. And I hate them. But I will use them, because in this day and age, that’s how we talk about these things.

Anyway, I sort of fell into stay-at-home motherhood without really thinking too much about it. When I first arrived in Riyadh, I was offered a couple of different jobs, but the plan was to settle in and write my dissertation, a piece of unfinished business that haunts me to this day as I plod stubbornly toward its completion. Within a few months, I was pregnant, and although this was not unwelcome news by any means, it was…let’s just say, surprising. Before I knew it, I was the mother of a little pumpkin named Lavender, and she was nursing on demand, and she was taking her naps curled up in my arms whenever possible, and the idea of sending her to daycare so that I could take an outside job seemed unnecessary at best and well, a bit mean at worst, especially since I had no particular desire to decrease the time I spent nursing Lavender and wearing Lavender and holding Lavender while she slept, and, alhamdulillah, we were not in a position where it was necessary for me to have an outside job in order to ensure our family’s survival.

Fast forward to today. I’m still, shall we say, a stay-at-home mom. I work online here and there, but I’m at home with Lavender while Mr. Mostafa leaves the house to go to work. And perhaps surprisingly, I’m really happy. In some ways, I want to work outside of the home; I have dreams outside of motherhood, even though motherhood will always be tied up in my dreams, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. And I tried to get back in the classroom…but in the end, it didn’t work. Lavender wanted to be with her mom…and that was okay with me. I wanted to be with her, too.  And even when I was gone for only four hours a day, it was just heart wrenching on those evenings when Mr. Mostafa would pick me up with Lavender strapped into her car seat in the back, and she would scream and cry and writhe to be let out of her car seat so her mommy could hold her and feed her and I just felt like the worst mother in the world, and not a great teacher either, because even as I delighted in lesson planning and staff meetings, I was stressing about Lavender. Thanks to my wonderful mother-in-law, I knew she was warm, safe, snuggled, and loved while I was away from her, but I still worried…was she sad? Was she upset? Was she wondering where I was? Did she think I had abandoned her? And then I would get home, and when she saw me, instead of smiling and crawling to me, she would burst into tears and crawl to me, as if to say, “I thought you were never, ever coming back! Don’t you ever leave again!”

So…I stay at home. I get Lavender out of bed when she wakes up in the morning. I put her down for her nap. I am up with her at night when she can’t sleep. We play during the day. When I brush my teeth, she brushes her teeth and when I spit in the sink, she spits in the sink. I sit her on the potty and we chat while we wait for business to happen. We work little toddler puzzles and we draw and we work on using crayons only on the paper and we eat snacks. Sometimes we meet friends for breakfast or a playdate. Occasionally we make a craft. We read books. And I write. And I read. And I study. And I work. All while Lavender strews toys all over the house. I’m cool with all of that. We’re basically a package deal, Lavender and me.

It’s such a weird position to be in. For many, staying at home is a position of privilege–I don’t have to work in a job outside the home and I know that my child and I will still have food to eat, a bed to sleep in, a roof over our heads. At the same time, it’s a position that many look down upon–“What do you do all day?” “Aren’t you worried that you’re wasting your education?”

I don’t really know how I feel about it, other than I’m happy. Sometimes I feel guilty for being happy about it, though.

Why is there always guilt?

I can’t figure out if we do it to ourselves or if the rest of the world does it to us. Probably it’s a combination of both.

My mom was not a stay-at-home mom; she went back to work right at six weeks after I was born, and I went to a babysitter until I was about seven, when we switched over to a regular daycare. My childhood was absolutely magical. I always knew my mom was coming back for me, and while she worked, I played. During the summers, our daycare took us roller skating, swimming, bowling. We went to the library (and if I’m being honest, library day was probably my favorite day). I never felt my mom’s absence during the day; she had her job, and I had mine. Yes, the rare days when my mom was home when we got off the school bus were a special treat for me, and I often wished I could have more of them. But overall, my mom and dad gave my brother and I the most amazing childhood a kid could ask for. We were spoiled rotten, and loved even more.

Still, my mom always felt guilty. She always felt like she was missing things…although I never felt that at all. She used to tell me that if I could, I should be a stay-at-home mom while my children were tiny, I should, lest I become a mother who feels like she is missing out on things, too.

Why the guilt?

While pregnant and after I had Lavender, I felt guilty for not working, for wasting the education and experience that I’d devoted so much of my time, effort, and money into building. Then when I started working, I felt guilty for leaving Lavender.

Why?

Recently, an article has been flying all over my Facebook newsfeed, shared by both the news sites I follow and by many of the moms I am friends with. Lots of high-fiving is going on…a lot of, “See, we’re not terrible mothers after all! We’re okay!”

But I always knew working moms were okay. It never crossed my mind that they weren’t. I was raised by one.

I can’t lie; every time I see this article, my heart hurts a little. And I think, “Oh, my God, am I crippling Lavender’s ambition for life? Will she be willing to accept inequality in her relationships because of the choices I am making in how I mother her? If I have a son, will he grow up in to a monstrous husband and a distant father who is useless in his home because I stayed home with him?” And then I feel horrible because I know that the judgment that I feel when I see this article is only a tiny microcosm of the judgment that working moms have had to face throughout the years, not to mention the logistical difficulties of being a working mom (having to find childcare when a kid is sick, having to discern whether or not the sickness merits taking a day off, missing class parties, etc.).

There is never a right way to mother. When one group of us moms gets a pat on the back, the rest of us feel like we’re failures. It feels like there are never enough pats on the back to go around for us moms.

But there’s always a right way to father.

See? Father isn’t even a verb in English! You can always mother. You can’t father. I mean, you can. But when you father a child, all you do is have sex, and you’re done. Child fathered.

English, you sexist asshole.

To be a good dad, all a man has to do is go to work, provide for his family, and avoid being abusive. That’s literally all a man has to do in order for society, all over the world, to regard and remember him as fulfilling his duties as a parent. Anything extra is adorable…and we moms are expected to feel lucky to have it.

I don’t understand why I, and so many of the other moms I know, let myself fall victim to the guilt monster, especially since I’m so acutely aware of how grounded in sexism the whole debate is. I know stay-at-home moms who are tremendously wonderful mothers. I know working moms (like my own mom) who are tremendously wonderful mothers. We all fulfill our duties as mothers every day. Why is there this underlying societal current of need to pit us against one another, when we’re all in the leaky rowboat that is motherhood together? Pulling others down in order to grab at the glory for ourselves isn’t going to help keep us afloat. It’s going to make us all sink faster. We have to bail the judgment out of our leaky rowboat, or it’s going to capsize.

When we dismiss the judgment that we secretly harbor against one another, it helps us all. And when we don’t, it hurts us all. Because men aren’t having this debate. Men aren’t wrestling with these questions. Men aren’t wasting their time with this crap. Men aren’t letting themselves be weighed down by guilt, and they’re better equipped to reach for their dreams, whatever they may be, because they’re not carrying that burden. We need to have that same determination for ourselves, whether it manifests itself in staying home with kids, being at a job every morning at nine, or some combination of the two that hasn’t really gained mainstream recognition or acceptance yet, which is totally where I am.

Whatever your path is, Mom, you are doing a good job. You are exactly the mom your little ones need. Keep on keepin’ on. I know I am.

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