Monday, October 21, 2013

What Money Can't Buy

When my son was in junior high and I met his friend's mother for the first time, she asked that question. It's nearly the first question any adult is asked when meeting another adult, "What do you do?" In fact, I know that I've written this article before, and I know that I've even cited that same incident on many occasions. I still get asked that question, but I like to remember that particular incident, because, at that time, I was still new to being a stay-at-home mom, and I hadn't quite worked it all out in my head.

"What do you do?" she asked, standing next to her shiny, black, new SUV, which she could afford, because she had a full-time job.

I hesitated. What did I do?

"She's a writer," my son blurted.

And it was true. I did write, and I wrote a lot. This was before blogging, and way before Surviving the Apocalypse in the Suburbs was conceived, written, and published, but I have been writing since I was twelve years old - poetry, short stories, novellas, and a couple of novels that still need to be fleshed out.

I was also working on getting my home business off the ground.

But neither of those things was what I did, in the sense that she meant. I didn't make any money from either of them, yet, and that's what she meant. What did I do to earn money, to make a living. The fact was that I didn't make a living. What I did was stay home with my kids. My two oldest kids were school-aged, and my, now, teenager had not reached her first birthday. My two youngest weren't born.

What I did, and what I was, was a stay-at-home mom.

The late 70's/early 80's was a banner time for women's independence. We were (finally) given choices that weren't, necessarily, afforded to our mothers and grandmothers. We were encouraged, perhaps even goaded, into believing that in order to be a strong, independent, *real* woman, we needed to have an education and a career. As the perfume commercial back in those days claimed, a woman should be able to "... bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and never ... let him forget he's a man." As I reached adulthood, I knew that I would go to college. I knew that I would work. I figured, eventually, I would get married and have children, and I'd ... bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and be a wife/mother/full-time professional, and pull it all off ... with aplomb!

This is not a commentary on working moms or non-working moms. This is my story. My story is that I was a full-time working mom, but it felt like someone was getting cheated. My kids spent too much time with people who didn't really care about their well-being, and it hurt every time I had to leave them with an apathetic care giver. I hated having to convince myself that I was doing my best, and those times when I was in-between jobs or on vacation (like when I was teaching and had the summer off), and I was able to be a full-time stay-at-home mom, I knew that's what I wanted.

Of course, when I finally got to that place, I had a very hard time reconciling the fact that I didn't have a job. I wasn't making any money, and per society's opinion, I was, therefore, worthless. And, lest, you think that I was just being supersensitive and egocentric, I have had people validate this idea, in not so many words. The life insurance rep, for instance, basically, told me that I could only be a rider on Deus Ex Machina's insurance policy with a payout that was 5% of the coverage we had on him. He had a job, he earned all of the money for support of our household, and since there would be a lag between the time my youngest child turned 18 and I turned 65, during which social security would not pay me, it was much more important - for me he insisted - that we have a large payout for Deus Ex Machina. The implication was that my death would cause no financial strain on my family and also that, because I was a full-time stay-at-home mom, I'd need the life insurance money to support myself, because I had no marketable skills as a stay-at-home mom. In short, we could have life insurance on me, but the policy would only pay for funeral arrangements.

What that insurance company failed to understand was the true value of what I do, and the fact is that, without me, my husband and my children would not be able to have the lifestyle we have, because they couldn't afford it, without me.

In the years that I've been home full-time, I've seen several studies, like the one discussed in this article, which attempt to put a monetary value on the work stay-at-home moms do. The numbers and how they are derived are really interesting, and I don't dispute the fact that we, stay-at-home moms do valuable work.

I am concerned, however, that we're still trying to monetize what we do. I hate the fact that, as a society, if there's no dollar value, there's no value. We bandy about ideologies like how the best things in life are free, but at the same time, we try very hard to justify our time spent by showing how much money we've earned ... or saved.

I disagree with the final number given in the above linked article, because I think some of the jobs they list overlap. I also don't think that the average stay-at-home mom could, even in her wildest dreams, command the compensation that would be due a private chef for such culinary masterpieces as peanut butter and jelly sandwiches - unless said sandwich is made with home-canned preserves and hand ground peanuts slathered on homemade bread. Most moms don't go to those lengths. I'm not saying that we, moms, can't cook, because a good many of us can, and do, create what could be described as gourmet meals, but if we're looking at apples and apples, the average mom is not a private chef.

I know it sounds like I'm contradicting myself. I bristle at the insurance agent who tells me I'm only worth what it would cost to bury me, but I insist that being a stay-at-home mom does not qualify me to command the salary of a private chef. Mostly, it's because I know I'm still conflicted. We live in a society in which only money matters, and the fact that I am at home, available to my daughters for whatever they need, that my husband usually has clean clothes to wear, that my family eats a lot of pretty wholesome food, that if things were to get really bad for us we would be okay, because I have worked over the years to help us be more self-sufficient, but if I had had a full-time job, those things would not be our reality. My worth is in what I do, not what I earn, but society doesn't value action that can't be fit into a neat little dollar sign.

I guess, for me, the bottom line has to be no bottom line. I have to stop allowing myself and others to think that they need to give my work value. As stay-at-home moms, I know we like to see articles like the one linked above, because it, somehow, lends more credence to what we do, but we have to stop these people from doing those studies and from minimizing what we do by comparing it to jobs people do for money.

It has to be true that there are some things money can't buy. Relationships should be one of those things, and there is simply no monetary value for who I am to my children, who I am to Deus Ex Machina ... and who all of them are to me.


  1. Hi Wendy,
    If its any consolation I have a job and still don't know what to say when people ask me. They don't even understand what I do, when I do tell them. The point is that they need to be able to rank you on their social scale. Doctor or Lawyer fits in nicely, and even for a stay-at-home mum, they know where to fit you. But if your job is a bit obscure then you just get an 'Oh' as if they understand and put in the weirdo bracket, or bottom of the rung based on what your shoes look like :)

    The point is that social position means a lot to people. There is a great book called 'The Spirit Level' about equality, which shows that we are happiest when there is less difference between the richest and the poorest, in other words roughly the same level as everyone else. Big inequalities in our society screws us up. Even with energy efficiency they have shown that the best way to sell it is to tell people that their neighbours are using less energy than them.

    I'm just trying to say that you are right to care about the fact that the current social system does not value your contribution, when you are clearly a very resourceful and capable person. Being in a job, may not necessarily work out any better. I would love to live in a World where people had respect for other people and the planet that supports us.

    Nice to find your blog and I am looking forward to reading your book.


  2. Dear Wendy, thank you so much for this post. It does feel oddly difficult to own up to being a stay at home mum, especially now my youngest is nine.
    But equally, it seems ridiculous for me to be working when we can easily get by on one wage, and I can grow some of our food, and cook all of our dinners, volunteer in the community and make life easier for everyone in the family.

  3. I remember well the 70's and 80's when we(women) were finally going to get into the real working world. I got a late start though because of marrying young and having 2 sons but as soon as I could I went back to school and became an RN. I was going to be in the working world getting paid real money.
    Well my full time, well paying job lasted all of 4 years before I realized that all I could do now was time for my kids, my garden, my sewing. All I did was work, cook and clean. I was miserable.
    Luckily I had the opportunity to do part time work which I took, and the rest of my working life I worked 2 days a week before I retired at age 55.
    What I discovered when I worked fulltime is that I needed a wife:)
    simply put the home needs someone to run it, like a business needs someone to run it.
    Just to add that my husband did do his share when I worked

    I've just discovered your blog and find it very interesting reading


  4. My good friend (a guy) sees the importance of parenting, and how "what you do" is the only way many people can relate to each other. To avoid that, when meeting folks, he likes to ask "What do you like to do?" as a conversation starter, rather than the status question of jobs. Go Dave. :)

  5. Kudos to marygee's friend! I think I might co-opt that one. I hate being asked what I 'do' for a living. When I was a kid, I was always so proud to tell everyone my mom was a teacher and my dad a woodworker. It's interesting that my kids don't have an answer for their parents--my mom 'used to be' a teacher and my dad 'used to run' a planetarium don't really answer the question for the present. I suppose parents who cobble together a living and make the best of circumstances are on the lowest rung of the social ladder? We're probably even worse-off because we're both well educated. We have no excuse for not working at successful careers; we must be slackers :) But we do things we love, we have time for our children and we manage financially. No fancy expensive cars or gadgets for us--but that leaves even more time for spending meaningful time with family. In my eyes, we're rich.