We've all been on the receiving end of the question. #MINDRMAMA Alexis Barad-Cutler reports.
When you’re not in the trenches of early motherhood, it can be hard to grasp the kind of mental and emotional work that it entails. From the outside, it seems like a cushy job that lets you work from home, nap during the day, and maybe even watch some daytime TV. But as any new mom eating over a sink and calling that lunch can tell you, early motherhood has little to do with rest and relaxation. It’s hard work, full of sour milk, boob sweat, and lots of tears. And yet, any new mom constantly gets asked the question, “So what is it that you actually do all day?”
The first time I remember being asked the “what do you do all day” question was during a trip to visit family in Florida with our first-born. We were walking through town, trying to get our then-infant son to nap, when my mother-in-law spotted some family friends in one of the outdoor cafes. We went over to say hi, and all I could think was, “Can we just keep walking?” (As every mom knows, babies not in motion don’t stay asleep.) Suddenly everyone was staring at me, and that’s when I realized the husband was asking me a question:
“So what is it you do all day now that you’re a mom?” he asked, an amused look on his face, like he expected me to melt in a pile of maternal bliss just thinking about how great my days were. “Do you guys, just, you know . . . hang out?”
I stood there, speechless, and my brain started to overload with the millions of things that my baby and I did during the day that did not by any stretch of the imagination feel like “hanging out.”
I wanted to scream about the four times a night I was still waking up to soothe my baby back to sleep, which made my attempts at napping during the day a necessity and not a luxury. But then I would also have to mention that the terror of waking to the sounds of a cat being skinned from chin to tail – i.e. my child’s shrieks anytime he was put down in his crib – didn’t really make the naps seem worth it. I wanted to tell him about the hours per week I spent hooked to a wheezing, huffing breast pump. And how pumping while taking care of a baby is like trying to chew gum and walk, except instead of chewing gum, you’re trying to hold a baby out in front of you so that you don’t knock your pump shields off your nipples and you’re walking to the changing table to deal with a poop situation.
And that wouldn’t even have touched the daily logistics of caring for a baby; like the fact that the minute you get them changed into a clean outfit, they’ve already managed to pee up the back of it and you need to start all over again. Or what about the Amazon orders, or signing up for baby music classes and movement classes, scheduling doctor’s appointments (there are so many in those first few months), doing laundry, washing bottles, cleaning breast pump parts, and making sure to never, ever run out of diapers. It is monotonous. Relentless at times.
It’s not easy to be with a child all day. The ones who are too young to move or talk have very big needs – the feeding, the diapering, the swaddling. By the time a baby is mobile, you can’t even think about sitting down or looking away. Every moment feels like you’re playing defense against “Team Death.” And when your child is older, it sometimes seems like they never stop talking – to the point that there’s no room for a single thought of your own. It can make spending a day with a kid feel like you’ve been trapped inside a free-association method acting exercise – except that’s just how elementary school aged kids talk.
So, hanging on by a thread? Yes. Hanging out? Absolutely not. The good thing is, as time goes by, and you earn more of your parenting stripes, the logistics get a little easier to manage, but of course, they get even bigger. I have two boys now, and I work part time, but a huge chunk of my day is spent managing my children’s schedules. It’s like I’m a personal assistant to two very important, high-up execs. For example, sometimes it takes ten texts to various nannies or several rounds of emails before I land a play date for one of my kids because Yes I Live In New York City and we are crazy here.
I’m not alone, or special. Women – moms – are mostly the ones who carry the mental load when it comes to the care of their children. Even when they are at work, the mother is the one doing all the stuff behind the scenes – advocating on behalf of their child with a learning disability, or seeking out support for a child with an emotional problem, or a medical issue – society has decided this is women’s work. Personally, I think women would take it on either way.
There was something else that troubled me about this stranger’s question, more than the fact that he asked me and put me on the spot to explain my day (I could easily have asked how he spends his retirement, but I didn’t). His question felt like an accusation. “You must have it good. What could you possibly have to complain about, Miss I Get To Stay At Home With My Baby?” When I was finally able to respond, I was grasping at anything I could think of that others would deem “important work” and muttered something about random freelance projects I was doing in my spare time.
But why did I do that? It was because I knew – from his question, his tone, and from the look on his face – that he didn’t think my life as a mom was difficult, or important. Unfortunately, he’s not an outlier in his perception of motherhood. Women must continue to share their stories of motherhood, and to speak about their important work. I wish I didn’t give that family friend the satisfaction of any stumbled or insecure answer, all those years ago. Mothers shouldn’t have to defend or explain their days to anyone.
Alexis Barad-Cutler is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer, content creator, published children’s book author, and mom of two. She regularly contributes her unique and sometimes off-kilter perspective on motherhood to Well Rounded, Fatherly, Hey Mama, and other sites in the digital parenting space. Read more about Alexis at alexisbaradcutler.com and give a follow on Instagram @alexisbaradcutler.
Photo credit: Stylish & Hip Kids.