What Do I Do All Day? For the SAHMs.

by Rachel Creager Ireland

“What do you do all day?” It’s the perennial question asked of women whose primary job is the care of their own children,* and it came up again recently on the forum at mothering.com. The obvious answer, that we clean the house, prepare food, and do laundry, is invariably followed by, “But I do all those things, and I work 40 hours a week,” which clearly implies that the rest of us have an extra 40 hours lying around the house waiting for something to be done with them every week.

So I’m going to delve into this question today. It isn’t easy. My first thought is usually that anyone who holds a 40-hour job and then does all the housework in her spare time can’t possibly be doing a very thorough job with the housework. Unfortunately, the state of my house would, by that logic, imply that I work at a real job for 80 or 100 hours per week. In fact, I do some haphazard work in our home-based business, and squeeze in a few massages now and then, though I never think those amount to much.

My second thought is that they don’t spend as much time with their children as I do. Which may well be true.

The part I am elucidating for the first time today is that I feel a deep inadequacy for the fact that I have never held a 40-hour job. Well, actually, I did once, for a week, but I’m not going to tell you that story today. Ever since that week, I’ve done everything possible to avoid a 40-hour work schedule, because I don’t believe I’m mentally and emotionally capable of it. It’s not that I’m afraid of working that much, but that I don’t think I can handle having a boss, a schedule, and expectations, nor practicing the mental discipline of forcing my brain to do one task that long, every day. When I was in school, I managed to do well. But I remember many, many times, particularly when I had to wake before the sun was up, and when I looked at my planner and the day was full to the minute from start to finish. On those days, I felt completely empty and devoid of hope or joy. I went through the motions of performing the tasks expected. I pushed my way through the desperation to get to the end of the day, the end of the semester, the end of the program. Today, I would rather die than live with the thought that every day of my life might be like that, even with the occasional weekend off or vacation. (Two weeks for every fifty? Seriously?)

I’ve worked hard to manage my mental health in the last few years, and I can’t afford the risk of long strings of days that are scheduled from start to finish. Because I’m a mom now, it matters too much.

Okay, so that takes care of the part where I admit that I am lazy and mentally incompetent. Now for the part where I tell you I am creative and have different needs than you normal people. I know this sounds bad, but many of the tasks I do involve a certain amount of staring off into space. The other day I spent most of an afternoon making a Halloween costume for my daughter. It was an original design, and I made adjustments as I went along. Particularly when I was wondering how well a part of the costume would work, I noticed myself sometimes stopping and sitting, not necessarily thinking about anything in particular. It didn’t last very long, maybe a few minutes at most. Maybe I could have done just as well without those breaks. But I have come to suspect it’s part of how my brain works, especially when I am engaged in creative work. I do it a lot when I’m writing, too. I’ve done it a couple times already while writing this post. Either way, I couldn’t spend that kind of time on a costume if I had a full-time job.

Then there was the day in the summer when Rowan asked me to help her enter two pieces of art she had made for the county fair. I had other plans and tried to put her off. I chided her for waiting until the last day, and she pointed out that she had mentioned it several times previously but I had put her off then, too. She was right. So I decided to do it. She had produced the art, but we had to purchase materials for the frames (I found frames around the house that we could use, but there was a particular way the fair people wanted to hang the pictures.) We got them framed, filled out paperwork, and delivered the art pieces to the fair just minutes before it was too late to enter them. She won blue ribbons for both, and whatever else I’d been meaning to do that day must not have been very important.

You might say that a more organized person could have done the fair and held a job. That’s probably true. I’m about as organized as a packrat. I probably am a packrat, which is why I can dig around the house and find picture frames or materials to make ghosts or a costume of a goddess with four arms and a necklace of skulls. There’s a lady in the neighborhood (not her real name) who I see in her yard in the evenings, when I’m on the way to the grocery store to get something to make for dinner. She’s calmly watering the hydrangeas while her lovely children play in the yard. I used to envy her, someone who can come home from work, get dinner on the table, and no doubt put the dishes in the dishwasher early enough to have some outdoor QT with the kids, before I even have the food home from the store, much less on the table.

Then I heard that she goes home from her job at lunch and vacuums the house every day, because she doesn’t have anything else to do on lunch break. Are you kidding me? She has a whole lunch break and the most interesting thing she can think of to do with it is to vacuum, every day?

What do I do all day? In the last month or so I played music at the Senior Center, volunteered at the thrift store, held an office in a ladies’ philanthropical society (admittedly the easiest job they have), and am spending several hours a week leading Brownies. I also do all my dishes by hand because plumbing problems make a dishwasher unfeasible. As for laundry, the washer has to be hotwired to go through the cycle manually, so it can’t be left running for more than fifteen minutes, or it will overflow. I clean motel rooms and do maybe 3-4 massages per week. I garden some, and watch birds, butterflies, and wildflowers. I bake. I wash and reuse plastic bags. Did I mention that I self-published a novel this year? And I write poetry, and blog. None of this stuff pays (except the massages). Our clothes come from thrift stores and our vehicles are unimpressive. Our house is untidy and not in good repair. Our life is chaotic and inefficient but it’s also spontaneous and colorful and rich. So to the question, what do I do that I couldn’t do if I were a mom with a full-time job, the best answer I have is, I live.

*By the way, I loathe the term “stay-at-home-mom.” It sounds to me like if anything interesting or fun is about to happen, I’m supposed to say, “No, I’ll just stay at home.” Why not call me a stick in the mud? “Housewife” is more appealing.