Daily Archives: July 28, 2012

Now I Get It: What it Means to Me to be a (Stay-At-Home) Mother


I recently quit training for a job I thought I’d want.

I don’t like that I “quit” something; I am tenacious. Sometimes to a fault. I wrote my observations about over-performing in a post called “The Law of Diminishing Returns” and it’s a law I like very much, unless of course, it applies to me.

It’s a long post, as many of my posts tend to be. I examine things to the Nth degree at times. If I don’t I discover I go back and tinker until it’s done, so for me, it’s best that I beat the crap out of a subject so I can move on.

I’m a Stay-At-Home Mother (SAHM). I’ve often been not proud of that. I grew up in a family whose extended / generational culture didn’t really shine on those who sat idle.  For years, I considered my own mother’s SAHMness as weakness.  Now as I’m in those shoes almost 14 years, I chalk it up to insanity: those cute cherubic children lulled me into believing I’d be good at this. It was easier when they didn’t talk. 

I’m not going to pretend I give a hoot about  the Mommy Wars and the self-perpetuated pseduo-drama stirred up by Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer’s pregnancy disclosure, her letter to her staff or any of that crap. In the final analysis: I don’t give a shit about any of that.  You think I should? Oh, double: I don’t care.

My blog, my rules.

I started this post about six hours ago and I’m clearly having an evolutionary process through it. Usually, I can write a post in about two or three hours and I enjoy writing them.  This one is taking so long because I’m learning a lot about myself today as I type away.

Almost every job I’ve had, I’ve loved. And if I didn’t love it at first, I did eventually or I left.  I had a great job for three years with a publishing house in Virginia and I look back on those years with great fondness. They were bought by Pearson. The next job was with MCI and I SO LOVED THAT JOB. The next job I took was after the MCI/WorldCom merger and that was a disappointment.

Today, I have learned that those two jobs — MCI and the next one were two awesome (or potentially awesome) jobs that I left unwillingly or unhappily. And that’s sorta hard to admit. We like to think that when we leave a job it’s because we wanted to because THEY SUCKED, MAN! But, no. I left with disappointment in my heart.

We’re gonna go in reverse for a moment: Fourteen years ago I was laid off. Whew. Processing. That was the first time I’ve written “I was laid off.”  That’s how it was described in the paperwork anyway. It was sort of worse than that. I was screwed.

The job I was laid off from was with a major (then) internet player.  I’m under a non-disclosure and I can’t say which one until the company becomes defunct, which shouldn’t be too long from now. After ten months of frustration and blatant set-ups for failure at that job, it turns out I was brought on board by incoming management after a big corporate re-org, to keep the legacy employees from smelling a rat. The offer letter was as a manager but they billed me to the legacy team as a seasoned director from MCI to demonstrate to the legacy team that I, as part of the incoming team, was neutral, non-legacy incoming management. Although we settled amicably, I left that job tricked, bruised and ego-beaten. I really wanted it to work out.  They had an awesome café. Oh, my replacement: she was with the incoming management before the shake-up.

The job I had before that was as a corporate communications professional at my beloved and stripped-apart MCI. That job was head-spinny fast, lucrative, fun and exhausting, but I was newly married, I had no kids (well, none that I knew of*…) and I loved it. I grew professionally, I won awards & trips, earned great raises and promotions and was exposed to C-level executives who knew me on a first-name basis (not always a good thing…).  We had an insane production budget which allowed us to really shine and then WorldCom bought MCI.

After WorldCom bought tookover destroyed MCI, my previous ivy league -educated senior manager was replaced by none other than WorldCom CEO Bernie Ebbers‘ executive assistant, a sugary-sweet Mississippi girl who aspired to edit a press release. She became my manager and my copy editor and she knew nothing about my job. It’s one thing to have a new boss who’s accomplished and can train you. It’s quite another to have to train your boss about what you do and why. WorldCom wanted to clamp down all talent and work; all previous publication styles and C-level treatment was upended: instead of listing the executives in the flow of a photo’s caption, we were to list execs first. The content was all about the stock and our previous Q&A section was quashed. Gone was the transparency and pride.  For almost five years I had worked for and with and on behalf of some of the world’s finest people (in my very humble estimation) and I missed them, and the old days, something awful: I had identified myself with my work.

My beloved job was invited to a secret party, drugged, beaten, stripped out of its Anne Taylor duds, dressed in a clown suit, shocked with a defibulator, and pushed out to a stage where a 60-watt spotlight shone from the bed of a dilapidated pick-up truck in a desert.  I was orchestrated like a marionette.  Even though I worked for a breathing Barbie doll, I left that job under duress too, especially when I remember where I went next (the coup), where I thought I’d be treated better.

Ebbers is currently serving a 25-year sentence in a federal prison on charges of conspiracy and fraud. Good. He ruined several companies, including MCI, and totaled my stock and savings plan. Here’s something he wrote on my final edition of “WorldView Today” the corporate newsletter I managed:

“Molly, thank you for the great job you have done. BJ Ebbers 2/2/99” scrawled on the MCIWorldCom “WorldView Today” — little did I know that Adolf Hitler had a “world view” called the “Weltanschauung” — his blueprint for world domination and power. We all know what happened to Hitler. And Ebbers is in prison now.

I see the irony now in both those shake-ups. At MCI, I was the legacy employee distrustful of the new incoming management. At the next job, I was the neutral incoming management and treated like chum.

I don’t think I’ve ever properly grieved either of those jobs. They were both sort of stolen from me. I felt as though I’d failed. By leaving them both and then deciding to stay at home, where I clearly took on “the work” because (I realize right now) that I desperately wanted to feel needed, I felt like I went from the frying pan into the ashes. But I know now that I went to a high-class chafing dish. And I mean that sincerely.

So now I’m a SAHM. For some husbands of SAHMs, there’s a subtle classism to say with élan that their wives are at home with the kids. For me, my husband used to be able to say this while I was wearing day-old clothes over a seldom-showered body under stringy hair with great élan. The kids are older now, so now I have drool cups. I bump into things. I speak incoherently for months, I’m sure. I have felt like that clown on the stage in the desert many times. There’s nothing as effective as your own child screaming, “GAAAH! YOU’RE LIKE THE WORST MOTHER EV-ERRRR!” to make you wonder why the hell you’re doing anything. Ev-errrr.

I’m gonna tell you nothing new: this SAHM shit ain’t for the weak of heart. It is WORK, it is at times, a corporal work of mercy, to be home with the kids. It is mind-numbing, pedantic, hypocritical, frustrating, puzzling, taxing, loud, white-knuckled, depleting, shockingly hard and exhausting at times.  I’ve written a few posts (“Perfect Mother? No, Not Even Close” and “You Have To Have Something for YourSelf“) on how I feel at times about being home.

Back to the training for the job I walked away from.

So I applied for this job about three weeks ago and I suspected it would be easy-peasy lemon-squeezy. Question: How hard can it be to work at the front desk of this place?  Answer: A lot harder than it needs to be. This organization is a local home-grown shop.  I’m not gonna knock the organization, other than to say this: Get with the program, computers are not evil. We are located 20 miles from the capital of the free world and 30 miles from one of that free world’s technology hubs.

To still be using PAPER and PENCIL to make appointments and other operating functions and denoting those place-holder appointments and reservations which are made “out of the box” with arrows pointing to the box which means “temporary” and “inside the box” which means “committed: deposit made”; and making “a shiny super-dark triangle in the upper right corner to denote ‘a pre-made reservation, so no discount'” and a “C with a circle around it to denote a ‘same-day discount coupon rate'” is (I’m gonna swear, so prepare yourself) FUCKING INSANE, STUPID AND BLOODY RIDICULOUS. When I heard that, I was like a Warner Bros. cartoon character when the “NO SALE” signs go up in the eyes after knocking back a shot of absinthe.

I felt like getting out my colored pencils and saying, “Ooh! Pre-tt-y pic-tures! Did you know that yellow, this color… and red, this color toGETHer make ORAnge?” I honestly could not believe I was speaking with an erect, live, sentient adult.

I learned about this sanskrit reservation system on my eighth hour, on the third and my decidedly final day of training. This “system” was the nail in the coffin for me. After my trainer explained, in “a matter of life-and-death” tone, tempo and detail about the circle around the C and the triangle in the corner, I said in an equal but slightly more optimistic cadence,  “OK. So then the triangle and circle-C things are place-holders, so to speak, for putting it in the computer (of which there is only one) when I’d get off the phone or turn away from a client…?”

There was no verbal response.  Instead I got Owl Stares: stares which she previously explained to me on numerous times when she gave them to mean, “Don’t go there.”

And I squeaked, as innocently, hopeful and wide-eyed as possible: “Com-pu-ter?”  Which was met again with the stare and a very slowly, grievously pursed mouth, locked jaw and head shake.  As an Owl, she was perched on a branch and her eyes never moved from her target. Her head slowly turned from side to side with the intensity of an FBI agent telling an armed suspect to NOT point his gun, that the suspect would be far better off dropping the weapon, kicking it down the alley, stepping away from the weapon and getting on his knees with his hands placed behind his head.

The Owl gave me so many of those stares, in response to what I thought were reasonable and progressive questions, that I know she tired of me too. The whole time she was talking about the triangles and the circle Cs, I thought to myself, “surely my husband knows someone who can build a macro on Excel for this…” 

I shrank inside; I knew that stare was the last one I’d tolerate. I wanted this job to be mindless, not brainless. I wanted it to be a job that would get me out of the house for just a spell a couple days a week while the kids were in school. It was paying minimum wage, so clearly it wasn’t about the money, even though I’d love to contribute to something around the house.  I realized that even minimum wage would be cool because I could pay for gas for the cars every month. Or I could treat the kids to a movie or something more often without it affecting our household bottom line.

It wasn’t just the lack of a computer system and automated processes that threw me over. It was the fact that I would endure these obstacles, and a few truly toxic idiosyncrasies about the organization, at the risk of my principles. I reconciled the decision to not continue with the basic personal and American right that I am allowed to have standards and to me, staying on in an aging organization that desperately needs an overhaul meant I was compromising those standards. I mean, if the wheel has been invented: USE IT.  Their wheel is to use a computer.  My wheel is to walk away.

But I got an unexpected gift in return: I accepted that I add value to this family.  It’s not about a paycheck. My interest in being a SAHM was ignited. I came home from that silent owl / FBI and armed suspect in the alley -shift unsure of my next steps — even though I knew it was not going to work — but I was planning to force it… that’s what I do.  But once I’d accepted that I was not able to fix that place and made the phone call and returned the 200-page training binder, I gained a sense of purpose for my home and family, something that was already there.  I didn’t drop everything and mop the floor in my heels and pearls, but I did cheerfully throw some laundry in the washer and looked with pride on my circumstances and home because I accepted, finally!, that what I do do around here is important. My kids need me, we are a team and I know that my effect on the children is positive, profound and sometimes a mess, but I do my best and they let me make mistakes. It doesn’t matter what jobs I left — what matters is the job I have, the one I co-created. I can write my own ticket, so to speak, and I never figured that out until now.

I feel as though this most recent (front desk) job experience was instrumental in helping my heart form a scab to protect a cut that came from the feeling of failure from the two bigger jobs. The pain from leaving those jobs, from surrendering to the inability to go on, was never healed.  It’s one thing to decide to be a SAHM because you’re crazy about the idea of SAHMness, it’s quite another to decide to be a SAHM because you’re having to accept that you aren’t valued as a quality performer at doing what you love. For me it was as a writer.  That pain had never healed.  But now, it’s healing and I can feel it.

Will this post affect my marketability in the future? Who knows… but anyone who knows me truly as a performer with my writing jobs, knows I’m reliable and an eager writer. I know that people / recruiters frown on employees badmouthing their employers, but I didn’t really. I knew in my heart after the second day that we were not going to be a good fit. Because I’m principled and tenacious, I needed a reason to not stay on as I don’t walk away from responsibility much at all or with any ease.  Plus, because they didn’t collect any paperwork from me at all (I-9 or W2) I told them to keep their training wages. It was a learning experience. The Owl and I were at odds; she was exasperated with my questions about processes and I was exasperated from the lack of automation.

I realize now that the only truly impactful and lasting job at this point when my kids are still quite dependent on me is the job as a Mother.  This job needn’t the classification of  “SAHM” or “worker.” I made serious money at the companies I worked for before I left them. But those companies now are gone, mostly useless, and / or totally redundant.  My children are not redundant; nor is the arduous task of molding them into progressive, honest, civil and decent human beings.  My father says “all work is honorable” and I agree with that.  But I’ll still hang on to my drool cup.

Thank you.

*Credit: Carol Leifer