Beep, beep, beep. He rolled out of bed and sleepily lumbered toward the familiar sound, half tripping over his superhero pajamas. “Breakfast!” he cheered, as he rubbed his heavy eyes and looked up at the microwave through his bedhead mop of blonde curls. He sat quietly at the table, eating his instant oatmeal, while I held his infant sister on my hip and scribbled the day’s to-do list on a notepad.
My husband did a mad dash through the kitchen, looking for his briefcase that had a bad habit of disappearing each morning around 8. Kisses were given, briefcase and keys were found, and he escaped to a land of grown-ups and intellect, while his pajama-clad family waved goodbye.
A tight camera angle would have revealed a scene that glistened with 1950s domestic perfection (minus the microwave meal). But if you panned back, the reality was quite different. Just beyond the frame was a woman doing her best to fake domesticity, but she still came up short. Yesterday’s dirty dishes filled the sink and the pile of laundry rivaled Mount Everest.
Abandoning my career to stay at home was not planned, but sometimes life surprises us. I walked away from my job, reluctantly, and twinges of inadequacy jabbed at me. I was happy in my role as Mommy, but I constantly daydreamed about returning to work.
My biggest fear was that being a stay-at-home mom set a bad example. How do girls learn to value education and professionalism when their primary role model drives carpools and folds laundry? How do boys learn equality and respect when they watch Mommy function as a personal assistant to Daddy and the rest of the family? I worried that my children would grow up aspiring to live outdated stereotypes.
He finished the last spoonful of oatmeal and then that day’s bowl joined its brethren in the sink. Superhero pajamas were tossed aside and were replaced with a favorite dinosaur T-shirt and matching shorts. We headed to the car where I cranked up the kids’ music CD, and we were off to the play gym to jump and tumble.
As I drove, I looked at the driver in each car we passed. At the mid-morning hour they were mostly moms, like me, but I stared and wondered if they were doing something more significant. Maybe the woman in the blue sedan ran a thriving business from home. Perhaps the blonde in the SUV was headed to an important client meeting. My mind wandered to the torturous what-ifs.
He raced through the play gym door with the excitement only a 3-year-old can feel. “Where’s Connor?” he asked. “He’s not here today, because his mommy is at work,” I replied. His tiny face looked confused. “Huh?” he questioned. “Mommies don’t work. Daddies go to work, and mommies stay home and cook breakfast.”
He may as well have kicked me in the stomach. I felt sick and couldn’t concentrate on the requisite tumbling assistance because all I could think about was how worthless I felt. The satisfaction I had in my mommy role instantly evaporated. I was raising a child to believe that women were inferior. I felt a crushing load of responsibility to demonstrate something very different, and I was failing.
For the next several years, I was determined to show my kids that I mattered. I took on freelance projects and tried to explain why my work was important. Each time I sat at the computer, I reminded the children that I was working, just like Daddy does at his office. They were age-appropriately indifferent, but from a place of fear I continued to cram feminism down their uninterested throats.
Sometimes I felt like I was confusing them. Telling the children that it’s important for women to have a career, while I was baking cookies, felt like a high form of hypocrisy. No matter how loudly I preached, our daily reality was a constant lesson in do as I say, not as I do.
Several years have passed since that morning at the play gym. An infant and one sleepy toddler with a bowl of oatmeal became a crew of one teenager, one tween and one wannabe tween. They enjoy ignoring much of what I say, but they give me little hints that my years of soapbox speeches have seeped into their heads.
When Career Day approached, I assumed my elementary school daughter would ask to dress like a princess as she had requested in prior years. I beamed when she asked, “Can you get me some doctor’s scrubs? I want to dress as a surgeon.”
Then, the ultimate reassurance came from the same child who started the whole thing. No longer a toddler but now a teenager, my son said something that allowed me to fully exhale. During one of my many woman-power lectures, he cut me off with a touch of teen exasperation and an eye roll. “I get it, I get it,” he said. “You could work anywhere you want to, Mom. We know.”
That was all it took. I stopped panicking that my domestic example warped their view on gender roles. Maybe my efforts were paying off. Or, perhaps, I just needed some reassurance that I have worth. I don’t think the kids doubted me for a minute.