In basketball terms, I am the Shane Battier of stay-at-home parents. You probably don’t know much about either of us; but we’re good at what we do. We are described as role players. We have a lot of intangibles. Most of our strengths don’t show up on stat sheets or scouting reports. We don’t have an endorsement deal and no one buys our jersey. Despite this, we are a valued part of the team. In essence, we are the glue.
Like other role players, as a stay-at-home parent, I feel that I must constantly justify my worth–Mainly to myself.
Recently, however, my worth as a stay-at-home parent was questioned by someone else, a friend of a friend who asked, “What does she do all day?”
The question, as it is reported back to me, sounds more like an accusation. It lands on me like a right hook and leaves a mark that lingers as I write this article.
What do I do all day?
I think to myself, What the hell does SHE do all day? She, too, is a stay-at-home parent. She should know, right?
I take a deep breath. It could just be a misunderstanding. It has happened before. After my son was born and I had left my full-time job, my husband came home from work and asked the same question. It made me bristle then as it still does today.
“What did you do all day?” he asks. On reflection, he is only being thoughtful. He wants to put his stressful day behind him. He wants to focus on what is most important–his family–and to feel part of it. Yet, as he wades through a room littered with building blocks and upturned sippy cups while our toddler wails in his playpen unattended, in my head his question takes on an accusatory tone and implies that I have simply thrown up my hands and taken the day off.
Can’t he see the dark circles under my eyes and the spaghetti splattered in my hair? Can’t he see that I am still in the tee shirt that I slept in and haven’t gotten around to brushing my teeth? Can’t he see that our son is teething and fevered and refuses to sleep?
Instinctively I lash out. “Really? What did I DO all day? I curled up on the couch, ate ice cream from the carton, and watched reruns of Sex in the City!” I am appalled that I have to account for my actions even though it is apparent that my day has been a living hell.
But…the question, as it is asked of me now, isn’t a miscommunication between an eager husband and a frazzled wife in the early stage of their marriage. The question, I am certain, is asked of me as an attempt to undermine my value and perhaps to bolster her own. She may not know me well, but as a stay-at-home parent, she very well knows what I do all day.
And that’s not to say that it’s all sleepless nights and poopy diapers and pediatrician visits. Especially now that my kids are much older. I find joy in my supporting role. But I admit that I do struggle with issues of personal identity and finding purpose beyond motherhood. I have been blogging about this struggle for the past year; but, in fact, my fixation with it goes back to a specific moment almost a decade ago when a family friend was asked about her future plans beyond high school.
I admit, I was flattered (and somewhat flabbergasted) when the girl announced that she wanted to be just like me. Similar to me, she would have to work her way through college and would also have to overcome some health issues. I was happy that she regarded me as a mentor and that I could provide her with a template for success. At that moment I felt like my life had been validated and that the tough choices I had made were just. I surveyed the elaborate table that I had set for this holiday meal, smiled at my kids, and beamed with pride–And almost missed the next thing she said. It went something like this: “…because she’s lucky to get to stay home every day and not work.”
My husband coughed up his food. It took me a second to recover from the unintended insult. I said, “Yes, I am very lucky.” And I left it at that.
But as the saying goes, The harder I try, the luckier I get.
To this young lady and others, my life looks like a walk in the park. And in many ways it is. Early on, there were many days with my young son spent strolling through Lincoln Park Zoo, visiting the butterfly haven at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, putting our toes in the sand at North Avenue Beach, and meeting up with my husband in the evenings for a treat at Anthony’s Italian Ice when he got off the “L” after work.
I grew up in the 1980s and was inspired by the ad slogan for Dry Idea®, “Never let them see you sweat.” A great compliment is when someone says to me, “You make it look so easy.” Especially when it isn’t. I praise those who do the same because I know that flawless execution is usually the result of great effort.
Still, the question, What does she do all day? bears down on me like a hot, blinding light bulb in an interrogation room.
I am still pondering this question as I shut down my computer and head to Ann Arbor, Michigan, to move my son into his new apartment at college. While he is away at his summer job, I meticulously compile everything that he will need to kick off the school year. When the supplies are taken up to his room, I look at the new comforter and coordinating sheet set (already washed), the floor lamp that we will assemble together, and the plush area rugs that I know he will appreciate on cold, snowy days. My chest flutters with excitement. We are in his apartment; but we are in my wheelhouse. This is my thing. Domestic Goddess, that I am.
Then, even before I can hang the shower curtain and arrange his toiletries, my son asks me to leave.
Leave? Wait, what? I haven’t even started yet. This is what I do all day!
When I see that my son is serious, I suddenly feel like a drunk Reese Witherspoon pleading with the cop that charged her for disorderly conduct during a traffic stop. Like Reese, I want to shout, “Don’t you know who I am?!”
Sadly, the cop didn’t care, and neither does my son. In the most respectful way, he tells me that he does not need me to make his bed or hang his shower curtain. “I’ve got this,” he says.
I should be proud. I raised him to be self-sufficient. However, I go back to my hotel room, crawl into bed, and cry. This is the moment all parents simultaneously wish for and fear. My job here is done. To my eldest child embarking on adulthood, as a stay-at-home parent, I am obsolete.
To find one’s role diminished is to question the role itself.
Surely, Shane Battier questioned his roll and his contribution to his team when he went into a shooting slump during the 2013 NBA Playoffs. Benched and beyond his prime, he remained positive and cheered on his team, knowing that after the season he would likely retire. And when he was given some minutes in Game 7 of the Finals to let another player rest, the basketball gods smiled down on him as he launched 6 three-pointers to help put the Miami Heat over the San Antonio Spurs to win the championship. I think of this as I head back home after my weekend in Ann Arbor that ended in a similarly surprising and satisfying way.
I say goodbye to my son. The moment is bittersweet; it will take some time for me to accept my new role as bench player in his life. But before I leave, he stops me and asks if I would like to stay a little longer to help him assemble a bookshelf. Not because he can’t do it himself, I know. His apartment has been expertly arranged and put together, no thanks to me. It’s because he knows that in my own silly way I will feel needed and necessary, at least for the next twenty minutes. It’s a selfless act on his part; I gather he is anxious to meet up with his friends. I savor the work as the bookcase is quickly assembled, my small contribution to this major move.
When the task is complete, I expect confetti to drop from the ceiling like an NBA Finals celebration and for Doris Burke to thrust a microphone in my face and say, “Describe what you are feeling right now…”
To be honest, it hasn’t sunk in yet. This moment is a victory, a common one perhaps, of a stay-at-home parent and a child moving on to their next roles.
And to the haters who ask, “What do you do all day?” My answer will be this: I show up, I play hard, I fight through slumps, and even though I might not look like much on paper, I make a meaningful contribution to the team every day.
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