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'I Hate Being a Stay-At-Home Mom!'
A family is not built to keep one person thriving while everyone else suffers.
Blue and Green Music (1921) by Georgia O’Keeffe
You are a mother and an artist, and I desperately need advice from a mother and an artist right now, though I feel so far underwater that most advice sounds like muffled shouts coming from somewhere far away.
I have a two-year-old son, and between postpartum and COVID I have been home with him every day for his two and half years. I love him so much. I have expanded since I had him. I have rooted since I had him. I have been given wings, and a bigger heart, and a bigger brain, and more courage etc. etc. etc. He is a joy and unequivocally the best thing that has ever happened to me.
And yet... I am absolutely fucking miserable most of the time right now, and I am at a complete loss about how to fix it.
My husband and I are both artists, and had spent our twenties and most of our thirties doing odd, low paying jobs and just barely scraping by. Then about three years ago, he hit a professional jackpot so large we didn't know it existed. Then I got pregnant. Then we had a baby and I stayed home with the baby because my husband was off making so. much. fucking. money. I thought maybe I would be a stay-at-home mom! But it turns out I kind of hate being a stay-at-home mom. At least it feels that way right now. Unfortunately, we are in one of those careers where you are mostly dealing with rejection and waiting for other people to give you permission to do your work, and I've had a long run of just... really shitty luck. I know I'm good. I know if I keep truckin' along I'll get to work here and there — but none of it is adding up to any kind of career that pays bills, or that justifies the cost of full-time childcare.
I'm trying to be an artist and a parent Polly. I'm writing. I'm trying to pursue work in the career I love. I'm getting really weird and trying new things. ("Maybe I'll write a detective novel! Maybe I'll sing with a jazz band! Hey- improv class!") And yes, I'm in therapy and I exercise, and yes, they help me feel like I'm occasionally treading water instead of drowning. But none of it is catching right now. I'm so lonely, and frustrated, and it's making me resent my time with my son when all I want to do is soak up every moment of my time with him. He's also being SUCH A FUCKING TWO YEAR OLD right now, and being home for eight hours with a whiny unhappy toddler is just... oh man it's hard.
I also hate that I've fallen into a gender cliche in my marriage, and I hate how our extended families' eyes light up when they ask my husband about his job, and ask him about being recognized (yes he gets recognized on the street), and then they turn and ask me what time our son needs to go down for his nap. I want to add that my husband is AMAZING, and does most of the cooking and cleaning, and changed every diaper on his days off. But then several days a week he gets to leave and go be around other people and do creative work he's good at that he loves and gets paid out the ass for it, and more and more I'm feeling myself drifting further and further away from feeling like I'll ever have that opportunity.
I'm just not quite sure where I go from here Polly. My original plan was to stay home for a year with my son and then start trying to book work again. Then COVID happened and that turned into two years (and we lost several family members to COVID so there's been a lot of grief and fear baked into all of this). Now I'm trying to make a career happen almost three years later and I've had nothing but rejection in the past few months (on top of the millions of rejections I was dealt before-child, which I was better at brushing off for some reason). It feels like this insurmountable mountain to climb, and I feel like I'm next to the mountain in a lake drowning. I also have fears of when my husband's job ends (it will) and what we'll do for money if he doesn't book another one, and I want to be financially contributing, but the only jobs I seem to book right now pay me less than we pay our babysitter. (My husband will probably continue to book other jobs, this year has just turned me into a worrier).
ALSO I want more babies! I've always wanted two kids, maybe three, but I cannot even fathom the idea of doing this two more times right now.
I don't even really know what I'm asking here, Polly. (Career advice? Money advice? Parenting advice?) I just hate where I'm at, and I hate hating where I'm at because I know I have a really gorgeous lucky life, and when I'm eighty there's nothing I'll want more than to go back and relive a day at home with my son when he's two.
Any thoughts or wisdom would be greatly appreciated.
Dear Miserable Mother,
There comes a time in every parent’s life when they have to set aside their perfectionism, idealism, and masochism, frankly, and they have to look themselves in the mirror and ask one question:
Am I really cut out for this?
The question is not Am I cut out to be a parent? The question is Am I built to do this alone for this many hours straight?
The question is not Am I failing, every single day, to live up to my (impossible, unforgiving, punitive) ideals? The question is not Am I the worst mom alive? Or Am I the biggest failure as a wage earner and as a dad! And the question is most definitely not If I quit staying at home with my kids and got more help, would I judge myself badly and would our (perfection-focused, sexist, masochistic) culture judge me badly, too?
The question is CAN I REALLY DO THIS? Am I a person who loves to do the same repetitive things with a two year-old for eight hours straight, every day? Am I patient enough for this? Do I like running around in circles over and over? Do I enjoy putting my creative projects to the side every few minutes and never receiving recognition for my work and being condescended to by everyone alive, and will I continue to enjoy these things for decades to come and then will I look back after all that time and say, IT WAS ALL WORTH IT FOR SURE BECAUSE I WAS ABSOLUTELY CUT OUT FOR BEING A STAY-AT-HOME, AROUND THE CLOCK PARENT, I WAS FUCKING GREAT AT IT, AND I’M PROUD OF MYSELF!
Many people will say that! Good for them! And listen, every single parent alive would love to be cut out for a full-time job as a stay-at-home parent. We all love the idea that we are the absolute best human for our kids to spend long hours with, and our culture loves that idea, too, especially if we are women. We cherish the concept of a child transforming us into something much, much better than we were before. It plays on all of our weird magic thinking and our self-improvement-fixated impulses.
And it’s also a little true. The shift in your perspective after having kids is something you can feel, and it feels good! Kids humble you. You become more resilient. Your heart grows bigger. Maybe you even feel a kind of satisfaction and calm that you never felt before.
That’s how it was for me. But I knew – I always, always knew – that I was 100% not cut out for staying at home with my kids. I always had a full-time job and I always knew that I needed that. I could not handle being in my husband’s shadow and being treated like a helpmate, by him or anyone else. My husband also wanted a spouse who worked and liked her career.
Not everyone has to be that way or prefer those things! When I talk about my husband and my kids and my choices, I am offering one small, narrow, muddled, sometimes even impulsive or bewildered or inherently faulty perspective on life. Yes, I have the bad habit of dragging these things out into the light of day with an arrogant EVERYONE SHOULD DO THIS tone to my braggy voice! Dude. THAT’S JUST HOW I FUCKING SOUND. But dude. Dude. Dude. Dude. I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing and I never have. I am just a person who writes down words to solve PEOPLE PROBLEMS as best she can. I enjoy doing this. I am cut out for this!
IT DOES NOT MEAN I AM AMAZING AT LIFE ITSELF. In fact, I am a slow learner. Maybe that’s why I need to relearn big life lessons by writing this column every week. I have to remind myself of where I am and what I know.
But the best lesson I’ve learned from doing this job might be this one: I am not good at that many things, and that’s fine. I am very bad at most things and that’s actually okay. Trying to be good at things you’re shitty at can be rewarding, but if it’s making you miserable for a long time? YOU STOP. You try something else.
Everyone must follow their own compass, every day. Today is the day for you to try something new. Kids under 12 obviously aren’t vaccinated yet, so you might not want to go to daycare yet. I respect that, and I also respect wanting kids in school. We all have to figure out our own compromised path through this transitional, uncertain, still-extremely-taxing time! But if you don’t choose daycare, you should rework your budget and figure out a way to get a part-time or close to full-time nanny.
It will be expensive and you will feel guilty when you’re working. But the nanny is not FOR YOU. The nanny is for the family. The nanny saves your husband from being married to someone who slowly starts to resent him. The nanny saves your child from seeing his mother at her worst for eight to twelve hours a day because she’s just DONE. The nanny saves your creative work from being panicked and desperate because you’re interrupted 15 times every hour. The nanny saves your brain from screaming at you YOU ARE BAD AT THIS, YOU ARE A FAILURE, YOU CAN’T DO ANYTHING RIGHT, YOU ARE FUCKING EVERYTHING UP.
You will choose a nanny who’s cut out for spending all day with a two-year-old. You’ll pay her a living wage and treat her with respect and care. You’ll relish how good she is at what she does. And then you’ll leave the house, and go somewhere close by to work, somewhere small and stupid that you still can’t quite afford. Or you’ll go to a coffee place. Or you’ll go to a friend’s house who works during the day. And you will do your work. And while you work you’ll say, This is the work I’m cut out for. I just need to be patient with myself and keep believing.
Does having a nanny or sending your kids to daycare or preschool make you an asshole? Fuck no. It makes you a regular human being with a job you love and a family you love. Many humans live this way. Does staying at home with kids make you a chump? Fuck no. It makes you a regular human being who’s making their own choices about how to live, full stop.
We all have to make highly personal and sometimes esoteric choices about what works for us and what doesn’t. We also have to make choices based on our greediest desires. Sometimes our egos need to be fed a tiny bit. THAT IS NORMAL. It does not make you an asshole. I wrote about craving these things five years ago when I was in a little slump and my husband was traveling a lot. (That essay is in my last book What If This Were Enough?) Humans are social and crave connection and admiration. It’s a perfectly common way to feel and it doesn’t make you a garbage person.
But just in case you’re still feeling guilty and sure that you don’t deserve to have help raising your kid and don’t deserve to make space for work that isn’t currently bringing in big money, let me add this: Two year-olds are very social. They thrive around new people and also around other kids and it’s good for them to learn the rhythms and structures of the world outside their homes. Even when you’re pretty inventive and energetic, they get bored quickly. It’s not like it is with babies. When you have a toddler, suddenly you go from having this adorable delicious bundle of cartoon love that you can move from room to room to having a wild animal in your domicile, one that says, repeatedly WHAT NEXT WHAT’S NEXT LET’S DO SOMETHING! (But it sounds like this MOMMY MAMA WAN DAT MAMMA MAMMA MOMMEEEEEEEEEEE WAN DAT WAN DAT WAN DAT! *screaming begins here.*)
My kids had a nanny and then they went to daycare. We were living in LA and it was horrendously expensive. One might argue that we could not actually afford it, since we sank into debt and I started waking up in the middle of the night just to add and subtract numbers. But we slowly got through it. Keep in mind, I worked from home and my husband had a solid job across town. But I was adamant about not being the default parent who ran to the rescue every single time something came up with the kids, because it really had to feel like we were both on call for those things. Some jobs are not that accommodating, I get that. But his was. That helped.
Do I look back at photos of my kids when they were little and think, “I should’ve savored that time much more!”? Of course I do. I think most parents do that. But those photos of adorable, docile little toddler rabbits are not the same thing as hearing “IMMA PEE RIGHT HERE!” and seeing your kid pee on the floor in the middle of your kitchen. I did plenty of parenting, trust me. I have the video footage and the stories and the fond memories and the visceral nervous reaction to a toddler’s screams to prove it.
But I was absolutely, positively NOT cut out to be there all the time. My kids spent their daytime hours during the week with paid professionals who were far more patient and calm than I am. And then my kids came home and spent every other hour of their lives with me and my husband. I kept working and pursuing my (often frivolous, egocentric) creative projects (some of which barely paid), and feeding my needy stupid ego and writing books and talking about myself like I mattered, and you know what? That lifestyle was sort of dumb and maybe not that honorable, ultimately, but that’s what I enjoyed and also, it’s what I was cut out for.
You are a person with a career. You need the time and space to do your work. There will always be hard times and you’ll have to scrape by and you’ll often worry that you’re doing the wrong thing. That’s just how it is to be a parent who also wants to work on things she loves. You will feel shitty when your drop your kid off at preschool. That’s just how it is, for everyone. He will have a great day even if he’s crying and hugging your legs and begging you not to leave.
It’s not on you alone. Your husband’s time is not worth more simply because he makes more money. Open up the windows and let some of that capitalism out of the house. You two are not a limited liability corporation, you’re a family. Everyone lifts everyone else up and helps them to be the best, happiest human being they can be. Everyone believes in each other. Everyone makes small sacrifices to keep each other happy.
If you don’t make big changes now, you’ll still probably want more kids (that’s not wrong or bad, either, it’s fine and natural). And your career and your identity and your emotional well-being will bear the weight of this problem, and it will be very hard and also not that fair.
But if you do stand up for what you need – time and space to work without panicking – you’ll be setting up a sustainable, loving, mutually supportive environment where you and your husband and son and future children can actually thrive. They will learn that people work together to serve each other, and no one’s value can be reduced to how much money they make. Everyone is equally respected. Everyone gets a chance to thrive.
Figure out your principles and talk about them. Tell your husband about your dirty little greedy ego, that needs more. Give him space to talk about his fears about your vision of what needs to happen next. You are on this planet to honor and serve each other’s wildest desires. Doesn’t that sound hot? It is hot, motherfucker. Because you were both cut out for it.
Thanks for reading and supporting this newsletter! It is a goddamn miracle I could use my brains to write that, given the week I’ve had. So here’s a shout out to all of the tired, frazzled parents out there, at home and at work and everywhere in between. Let go of your perfectionism (and masochism!) and be kind to yourself. Show yourself more compassion and your kids will learn to show themselves more compassion, too. Ask Polly publishes twice a week for subscribers, so