When I was invited to share some thoughts and personal experiences on stay-home motherhood in conjunction with International Volunteers Week, I was somewhat perplexed because, to many, stay-home motherhood defies logic, let alone ideas of social responsibility or volunteerism.
For good or bad, the culture in which I live is preoccupied with work, education and achievement. Not infrequently have I met people who ask, “But what do you do all day?” or “When are you going to start working again?” as if much of the time I have is spent watching my toenails grow, or as though the tasks I do cannot be properly considered work precisely because it is unpaid and home-based. Worst of all, I have “wasted” my learning, not to mention my parents’ hard earned money.
This kind of pressure can be somewhat daunting. And in my context, void of domestic help, stay-home motherhood to 3 young children aged 5, 3 and 10 months is intense labour 24 hours 7 days a week without a mint of money in it.
Additionally, stay-home motherhood is a multi-faceted and demanding experience. In the sentiments of Kate Harris, another stay-home mother, I am now a professional hygiene attendant with “an advanced degree in banana-mashing”, plus a poo-cleaning portfolio guaranteed to impress. Also, I am the family’s CEO with razor sharp management and multi-tasking skills because cooking, cleaning, baby-carrying and training my children in dining etiquette and alternative dispute resolution techniques must happen all at the same time. All this – if to be performed with grace and a patient, nurturing spirit – commands every ounce of strength, moral character and skill.
The menial nature of some tasks can appear off-putting, not to mention having to live with the constraints of single-income status. So, while this quiet, nurturing lifestyle is borne predominantly out of an instinctive sense of responsibility to my children, there are moments in which I question: “Why did I sign up for this gig?”
For me, volunteering for this simple life has been worth it because it affords me and the children the thing we treasure most – time to be with each other.
This time has enabled me to breastfeed my children for as long as possible and give them the best nutritional start in life through healthy, home-cooked meals everyday. I am able to focus on being a hands-on parent without the distractions of a full-time job.
Being home also enables me to be available for my children during their various stages of growth. I have the time to learn to understand my children and vice versa. Stimulating conversations can happen any time of the day, not just within a few restricted hours. I have peace knowing where they are at – not just physically, but emotionally, intellectually and spiritually.
As the main caregiver, my children look to me, not to any domestic helper or babysitter, for love, comfort, security and guidance. And as our relationship grows, I am able to understand better and deal more holistically and consistently with the attitudinal and behavioural challenges of each child. The greatest challenge is in modeling values to the little ones, because they watch every move.
For various reasons, mostly developmentally and financially, I have been home-educating my 5 year old and 3 year old and so am a kindergarten teacher of sorts. The beauty of home-education is that learning happens naturally throughout the day and there are plenty of opportunities for field trips. There are sit-down times for the 3R’s but we also focus on other subjects our family feels as important: music, history, art, social responsibility.
Here is where being home, teaching my children, affords me unique ways to apply my education, interests and previous work experience in creative and intentional ways. As far as the children are concerned, this has yielded interesting results.
About 5 months ago, my daughter and I finished a riveting book as part of our school curriculum. Set in the context of World War II, Claire Huchet Bishop’s Twenty and Ten is based on a true story that occurred during the German occupation of France. Twenty French children are sent to a refuge in the mountains. They take in, and hide, 10 Jewish refugee children. It’s a book you can’t put down, especially from the part when Nazi soldiers arrive.
There is a touching scene at the beginning, when a Jewish boy gives his one-and-only treasured piece of chocolate to a French boy in gratitude to the latter for having given to him the remainder of his meal.
My daughter and I poured over our world map and looked for all the locations mentioned in the book. We had an interesting time discussing the story. I learned that 5 year olds are capable of understanding a great deal of things.
On the very same day we read that chapter, our family had lunch with several young friends. One of them, a refugee girl, was reluctant to join in as she didn’t have money to pay for her meal. We wanted her company, so we told her not to think of money. As we left the restaurant, she slipped something into my daughter’s hand.
Guess what it was? A piece of chocolate.
I looked at my daughter and said, “Remember that story?” Her face was shining.
Some time later, my mother came visiting. As I washed the breakfast dishes, I overheard my girl said to her, “Do you know the Nazis?”
There was a short silence. Then my mother said, “What?”
“The Nazis,” my daughter said. “They killed Jews. And they wanted to kill the Jewish children.”
It was then I thought about the things my daughter and I had talked about – human rights, racism, equality and courage. I thought about our refugee friend and about how I, as a parent, am privileged to invest in the life of my children throughout the day.
Thus, although I receive no financial remuneration for my job and find it exhausting, I have found stay-home motherhood to be a meaningful part of society as a whole. It offers real value for families and the world at large. I do my work with the conviction that I am fulfilling a social responsibility, that I am promoting and improving a particular quality of life, that I am teaching the importance of Truth lived out in human relationship.
So, while I hesitate to define stay-home motherhood in terms of its market value, it is important to place stay-home mothers on the same playing field as other nation builders and culture-shapers. Lest anyone persists in thinking that stay-home motherhood is not as important as the work of lawyers, doctors or accountants, I echo with Kate Harris, in her observation of G. K. Chesterton who, in his book What is Wrong With The World, asks, “How can it be a large career to tell other people’s children about the rule of three, and a small career to tell one’s own children about the universe? How can it be broad to be the same thing to everyone, and narrow to be everything to someone? No. A woman’s function is laborious, but because it is gigantic, not because it is minute. I will pity Mrs. Jones for the hugeness of her task; I will never pity her for its smallness.”
Volunteerism carries with it the notion of rendering aid or performing a service beyond one’s basic obligations. Many of the aspects of stay-home mothering are really, I think, fundamentally elementary and lie within the reasonable expectations of being a normal family member and responsible citizen. And so, stay-home motherhood for me is not quite the same as volunteerism although it encompasses many aspects of the definition. At its heart, stay-home motherhood is a vocation.
When I am faced with the Day of Small Things, wherein I am smeared with spit-up for the 10th time and inundated with requests for tooth-picking services and butt-wipes simultaneously, I remember that throughout human history, millions of women have given themselves to – or volunteered for, if you will – this timeless vocation that is stay-home motherhood. They have done so willingly, without financial reward, and their nobility lies precisely in acting out of a sense of duty towards the little people entrusted to their care, not because they have the extra time, energy or money on their hands.
The simple, yet multi-faceted and busy life that is stay-home motherhood is a challenging one, and there are many valid factors for which some mothers desire to, or are compelled to, work outside the home. For all of the above, however, my passion is to see women – who want to stay home with their little ones – empowered to embark on this journey with their children, and find intentional and creative ways to apply their education, work experience and skills alongside and within their role as mothers.
The road to greatness begins at home ~ Chinese proverb.