Friday, April 5, 2013

The Real Housewives of Angst

I met my cousin for lunch a few weeks ago, and within minutes recognized that she was suffering from something I call ESAHMA, or Educated Stay-At-Home Mom Angst.

 “I’m not sure what I should be doing with my life,” she lamented. “Should I start a business, volunteer more, or write a blog or…”

 This is a woman who currently takes care of two young and active children, an over-worked husband, and three dogs, while maintaining a beautiful home and yard, cooking gourmet meals and even baking her own bread – and yet she thinks she is not doing enough

Surely the June Cleavers of generations past were not bemoaning the fact that they needed more to do;  they were housewives pure and simple, for better or worse.

But these days those of us who are housewives (a term which can have a heavy, rather negative, connotation in this day and age) often find ourselves looking around to figure out what else we should be adding to the mix, and it seems there are not many who are content with their activity levels.

Either we are overworked due to all of our side ventures, businesses and projects, which gives us angst that we are cheating our families because we no longer have time to make 3 homemade meals a day or iron dear husband’s shirts, OR we are only cooking and cleaning and wiping and tending, and we have angst over the fact that there must certainly be more valuable things to do with our lives. 

As a fellow carrier of ESAHMA, I can attest to the fact that when we were girls in school, we were told to dream big, to get as much education as possible, to prepare for careers – and we did.  My fellow moms are highly-educated, bright, ambitious and talented.  Many of us have graduate degrees, certifications, and impressive resumes.

But then, after having children, our career plans changed.  Some of us have chosen to stay home with our children because it is a key value to us; we want to be present in our children’s lives on a daily (hourly) basis.  But this life path is not necessarily what we trained for.  (Very few girls that I’ve known have followed a “housewife” education and career plan.)  We learned trigonometry and chemistry and English literature and French… Not once did I enroll in “Dishwasher Stacking 101” or “Sleep Methods for Infants 204.”

So now we have a collision of sorts; my desire to be a stay-at-home mom crashes into my training and background.  I want to be a stay-at-home mom, but my education has prepared me for something more -- or less – certainly other than what I’m doing.  And the angst begins.

The outcomes of this have been interesting for me to watch, both in my life and in the lives of others around me.  My sister has 4 young children, but in the short decade that she’s been a mom, she has also started an entire retail business from scratch, sold it, and then turned around to start a charter school.   Moms in previous generations no doubt complained about the schooling their children were receiving; the ESAHMs of this generation go out and start new schools!

My other sister, with 2 young children, managed to work as the Executive Director of a thriving non-profit – largely by working during naptime.  June Cleaver and Carol Brady may have volunteered at a soup kitchen occasionally, but did they ever aspire to run the whole organization?

Public schools are surely benefiting from ESAHMs.  The various events I see being planned by the PTA groups are nothing short of fantastic.  One woman I know recently spent a good 3 weeks of her life, all waking hours, putting together the most professional-looking school carnival I’ve ever seen.  ESAHMs are brimming over with abilities and the desire to use them!

The tremendous growth of the Etsy Marketplace must have its roots in ESAHMA.  Moms have skills, and now a way to use them from home.  The surge in network marketing companies (it’s not just Tupperware anymore!) can likely be traced back to ESAHMA as well. 

Even Pinterest has spread like wildfire as we dream of doing much more than we are…. shaping our children’s snacks into animal shapes, crafting all homemade Christmas gifts, redecorating our homes…

ESAHMA results in overdesigned bedrooms and over-engineered tasks.  Did our grandmothers all have “themes” for the baby nurseries and children’s rooms, tying in all of the furniture, knick-knacks, wall-art and window treatments?  Did they use Microsoft Excel for grocery shopping and coupon-organizing?  Our over-training means we will come full-force to whatever daily task stands in our way.  We re-invent, renovate, and research our brains out.

While part of our angst comes from the excessive education and work experience we now carry around with us growing stagnant from under-use, part of it comes from the sudden shift in mindset that our new “career path” dictates.  When I first started staying home with my son over a decade ago, my husband continued to work.  He also continued to get accolades, verbal praise, evaluations, and the occasional lunch out at a real restaurant. 

Meanwhile, I was now home doing things that were constantly getting un-done -- dishes, laundry, changing the baby into something clean, vacuuming, etc.-- and no one was giving me a raise, a positive evaluation or a promotion.  (My husband, thankfully, was very appreciative of what I was doing, but it wasn’t the same!)  I had no sense of moving forward, nor even a sense of fulfillment for completing a project or a job.  Some days felt like a scratched CD that just kept repeating the same unintelligible phrase over and over.

No longer was I working for an “A,” or thinking in terms of how this would look on my resume.  Up until that point, everything I did was quantifiable.  I accomplished, read, performed, transformed, wrote, scored, built or sold  ___ number of things.  Now, home with a little baby, counting diapers and dishes as accomplishments didn’t quite cut it.

So the angst started to rise.  What am I doing with my life? Why do I have all of this training if I’m not going to use it?  And if I don’t use it, then I’m going to lose whatever abilities I had, and then what will I do once the kids are raised and out of the house?  What will I do then?

As with most other forms of angst in this life, this thinking is born of a lie.  No matter what our grade-school teachers may have led us to think, being a wife and mother is not only a high calling, but also a sufficient and even honorable life’s work.  Sufficient.  We don’t have to be a Mom AND ___. 

Not surprisingly, the ever-wise and quotable C.S. Lewis had something to say even about this area of life.

“I think I can understand that feeling about a housewife’s work being like that of Sisyphus (who was the stone rolling gentleman). But it is surely in reality the most important work in the world. What do ships, railways, miners, cars, government etc. exist for except that people may be fed, warmed, and safe in their own homes? As Dr. Johnson said, “To be happy at home is the end of all human endeavour”. (1st to be happy to prepare for being happy in our own real home hereafter: 2nd in the meantime to be happy in our houses.) We wage war in order to have peace, we work in order to have leisure, we produce food in order to eat it. So your job is the one for which all others exist…” (Letters of C. S.  Lewis, pg 447, 1988 ed.)

And a more modern author, Jon Acuff, recently remarked:

If you’re a parent and you have young kids, don’t for a second be ashamed that you’re not working on a dream. You are. It’s called “kids.” You are raising humans. Do you understand how crazy that is? You don’t need to go kill yourself looking for a big new dream, you have one. You’re raising humans! ~Jon Acuff, blog post from February 13, 2013

I often have to repeat these truths to myself.  “Mom AND” thinking is dangerous to my own soul but also to my family.  For now I am entrusted with several individuals who reside under my roof, and I have been given a complex, multi-dimensional, multi-colored career path that may not draw on my business training or my liberal arts education in a direct way, but my past has equipped me for this present nevertheless.

Traces of ESAHMA may stay with me for decades, but the antidote of truth is well within my reach.  I just need to take time to serve this healing medicine to myself -- in between all the chauffeuring, nursing, cooking, washing, tending, nurturing, designing, purchasing, planning, re-washing, wiping… and raising humans.


  1. I often think that if we took Titus 2 more seriously, we'd be more content: "And teach the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled."
    First, if I worked hard to master all those admonitions, I wouldn't have time to lament my condition.
    Second, this can't be accomplished by any human endeavor--I can never work hard enough to master all those admonitions! It is only a work of the Spirit.
    Third, it is also incumbent upon me to work hard. Paul says to make sure that the younger women are "working at home"--that means it's really hard work to actually do what you're called to do at home. He doesn't say, "staying at home" or "being at home" but rather, "working at home." I always found that quite convicting.
    That said, I'm going to throw in a load of laundry before feeding the newborn while organizing the week's menu.
    Happy hard working Amy--I think you're doing a great job!!

    1. Wonderful thoughts, Catrin. Thanks for the reminders and encouragement!

  2. Wonderful encouragement, Amy! Love knowing that I am not the only one who struggled through laundry and feeding the baby as "accomplishments" for the day...and feeling that praise from your husband just wasn't the same as praise from the boss and co-workers. Thanks so much for sharing - so blessed to have read it and to know you!!