We all have this vernacular when we talk about our professions. Take this for example: I have a job, and my wife is a stay-at-home mom. We understand this to mean that I leave the house to go to a place of business while my wife stays home to raise our child. Culturally, we think of this as “Brandon goes to work. Sonja doesn’t.”
Once upon a time, I really wanted to be a stay-at-home dad.
Years ago, when Sonja and I would daydream about our future, I was really pushing to become a stay-at-home dad. See, Sonja was very career-driven and couldn’t picture a future where she wasn’t going to work. I, on the other hand, could very clearly imagine a future at home. Waking up early to make breakfast for the family, sitting out on the back patio with a laptop and a cup of tea, taking a good two-hour nap in the afternoon, then starting up the grill to have dinner ready when my wife got home. Come on, tell me that doesn’t sound amazing.
Some of you are ahead of me. You’re saying, “yeah, but you didn’t mention your kids in that little fantasy.” Well, you’re right.
My fantasy describes retirement, not stay-at-home parenting, which I learned firsthand during some time off a few weeks ago. While Sonja was away, I finally got the chance to stay home with Jebecca for a few days in a row.
What it’s really like to stay at home with a child
I’m struggling with the best way to describe the experience. Imagine you’re the pilot of a Boeing 787, except instead of having jet engines, you keep the plane in the air with two bicycle pedals at your feet. Despite everything stacked against you, with great effort and motivation, you’re miraculously able to keep the plane in the air. But each time you slow your pace, even a little bit, all 250 passengers scream like they’re going to die. You muster every ounce of strength and pedal back up to speed, but they continue crying. When you finally land at the airport after 8 hours of continuous, strenuous pedaling, you’re tired and drained, emotionally and physically. The passengers don’t thank you, they don’t mention how amazing it was you kept a 545,000-pound aircraft in the air. They don’t even acknowledge you. Instead, you discover they pooped their pants, and it’s your job to clean them up.
That’s being a stay-at-home parent. And I only did it for three days.
Heading back to work was like a vacation. Yes, work was my vacation. Parenthood makes things opposite.
My wife lives this pedaling-a-Boeing-787 existence every single day. I have absolutely no idea where she gets the strength to take care of herself and another human being, let alone the rest of our household. AND me! The other day I got home from work and she asked me how it went. “Oh exhausting,” I said. “I was in back-to-back meetings all day and the catering they brought in for lunch…well, it was okay, but the chicken was a little dry. I’m just so tired.” Then I laid down on the floor, face first, like I was run over by a bus.
With my face pressed into the floor, I asked her with a voice muffled by carpet, “And how was your day?”
“Oh, it was fine,” she responded. “Jebecca was a little fussy.”
The definition of ‘a little fussy’
Before my stay-at-home adventure, I thought this meant exactly that: the day was good, but Jebecca fussed. I now know that “Jebecca being fussy” is much more than that. She was fussy one of the days I stayed home with her. Being fussy means that she whines and cries pretty much all day, except when you stumble on these tiny bursts of happiness when you read her a book or give her a snack. So what happens when you get that burst of happiness? You repeat said activity over and over again until she inevitably dives back into fussy territory.
So what Sonja really meant when she said “Jebecca was fussy” was that she read Don’t Push the Button 627 times. She walked with Jebecca in her arms in an endless loop around the house 2,134 times. She made funny noises until her throat was scratchy. She fed Jebecca so many Cheerios, General Mills will celebrate the profit bump in their next earnings call. She dressed Jebecca and went outside, only to realize Jebecca wanted to go back inside, only to then realize she was less fussy outside. Between the bouncing and rocking and reading and singing, somehow Sonja managed to get dinner started, do the laundry, catch up on bills.
And what do I do? I come home from my day job, complain about being in meetings – where my coworkers neither fussed nor messed their pants – then I collapse on the floor like I don’t even have enough strength to keep my head on my shoulders. Meanwhile, Sonja is so composed, so full of patience and motherly skill, that her day doesn’t even register as exhausting to her. It’s just a day where Jebecca was “fussy.”
As a stay-at-home mom, Sonja summons strength I’ve only read about in Marvel Comics. The only reason they haven’t introduced Stay-at-home Mom as a superhero is because she could easily wipe the floor with any of the Avengers, she would dish out fair and balanced discipline to the villains, and she’d still have time to make dinner. This much success makes a very uninteresting plotline. Plus, you really need a weakness to make a hero compelling, and I’m not sure stay-at-home moms have any. Well, unless you count house centipedes.
Sitcoms have always based entire plotlines on “which parent really works.” If we had an easy answer to that, I don’t think Everybody Loves Raymond would even exist. It’s an endless debate because the amount of effort it takes to raise a child at home is relative. For example, the very fabric of my being would unravel if I was a stay-at-home dad. I would play along, teaching my daughter her alphabet and singing songs, but I know within a week, I’d be plopping her down in front of the TV while I give myself a mental break.
I have so much respect for my wife and her ability to manage everything at home. No, she doesn’t have a traditional, conventional job. She doesn’t drive to a place of business. She doesn’t have coworkers or performance reviews. There’s no office with a window or stale cafeteria food.
Yes, she gave up office-life to be a stay-at-home mom, but she absolutely did not give up working.
I’ve since learned to appreciate all my wife juggles to keep our home running. And while she spends most of her time with our one daughter, she spends many days also babysitting our nieces, nephews and our friends’ kids. Some days, she’s watched up to eight kids at a time. At the end of the day, she was great – still energetic and happy. If that was me…well, I think I’d last five minutes then I’d run out the door like Forrest Gump.
Not all of us are built to be stay-at-home parents, and that’s perfectly fine. It’s not a lifestyle suited for everyone, and because of that, we have even more reason to admire and praise those who stay home.
This is a job for which you don’t earn a paycheck. This a job for which you don’t get merit awards. This is a job without sick days, without vacations and without perks. That’s why small gestures of appreciation can go a long way, and while I know they in no way “pay her back” for the work she does, I like to think I play a role in keeping her motivated to tackle each new day – regardless of the level of fuss.
How to support your stay-at-home spouse
Here’s my advice for any spouses of a stay-at-home parent. Audibly notice work being done around the house. Don’t try to empathize with their challenges. Offer to do chores when you have free time. Be extra generous with back and foot rubs. Offer to take the kids off their hands for an evening. Above all, say thank you.
When you’re heading to your office, tired and cranky, take a moment to appreciate that you’re only able to go to the office peacefully because your spouse is home counting the number of plums the caterpillar ate for the 59th time this morning.