When I became a stay-at-home mother, the structure of my week took on a new and vital importance. I began to conceive of time in blocks, or units—the pre-nap unit and the post-nap unit. That’s 10 units of time per week that must be filled. By Sunday night, those 10 squares on my mental calendar would start to blink, begging to be filled. I couldn’t have those units empty, or I’d be clawing the walls by Tuesday.
I generally filled up a few of the blocks with errands and grocery shopping and maybe a cooking project if I could somehow include the kids. The library took up one unit. On really desperate days, we went to the pet store and looked at cats. But that still left five or six chunks of time empty—hours of potential loneliness and boredom.
Those 10 blank units of time on the calendar are why SAHMs so desperately need their fellow mom friends. If, like me, you’re far away from your family, your mom friends form your primary support system. When we had our second baby, the moms in my neighborhood organized a two-week casserole brigade. (I wept in my mesh underpants as I forked up homemade pad Thai on day one. “We should have a third kid just to get the meals,” my husband mumbled on day 14, sadly mopping up Marsala sauce with a piece of bread.)
The moms take your kid for the day when you have foot surgery and keep you company as you recuperate. They send you the link to the Nordstrom sale with free shipping. When you have to rush your husband to the emergency room, they’re the ones who swoop in and collect your kids as you consult with an orthopedist and wait for X-ray results. The moms pass hot summer afternoons with you, making lemonade and teaching the kids to play blackjack. They know your son desperately wants his own, personalized superhero cape—so they sew one for him. They give you helpful parenting tips like, “Buy two cans of shaving cream and put him in the bathtub. Guaranteed 45 minutes of peace.” In short, for families who have one parent at home, the SAHM (plus the odd D) community becomes a second family, a brigade of deputy moms and quasi-siblings. Big Love minus the icky stuff.
But as in any group, there can be tension. Maybe two moms disagree over a (in the grand scheme of things) minor thing, like whether to cry it out or not, or how much to intervene in playground disputes, and when one feels judged, or slighted. Or two or three moms plan an outing but don’t invite everyone in the neighborhood, and someone’s feelings are hurt. Or maybe there are legitimate disagreements and personality conflicts, just like there are in any group.
These dustups can loom large, for a couple of reasons: One, because it’s a small, somewhat closed world—yes, a little like high school, in that you’re a part of this community for a set period of time, and these are the women who happen to be there with you. And two, the women in your SAHM group play several roles in your life—they’re your coworkers, your friends and your kids’ friends. The relationships have a triple level of importance. You want to maintain good relations, because a falling-out with a mom, or with the group, affects not only you but also your child.
Recently, a friend of mine complained to her brother about a conflict she was having with another mom in the neighborhood, and how distressed she was by it. The brother rolled his eyes and said, basically, “This is so petty and high school, you need to go back to work.” (Never mind that her previous career—as a restaurant chef—is a difficult one to pursue while raising small kids.)
Now, this really ticked her off—and me, when she told me—for a couple of reasons. This brother often relies on his sister for last-minute child care when he picks up an extra freelance job. She manages his two small kids and her own baby and preschooler by having a friend or two over to spend the afternoon and make homemade pizza, giving the kids a fun time and the brother a day of free babysitting. And when their elderly mother needs some kind of assistance, she’s usually the one who dashes to help, while one of her friends watches her preschooler. He’s profiting from her social capital—but belittling her concern about the relationships that create that social capital.
This sentiment, that the social dynamics of at-home mothers are somehow less important or meaningful than the social dynamics of any other group, is pretty common. It’s dismissive. For those of us at home, these relationships are critical to our emotional well-being, the well-being of our kids and the fabric of the community. Whether we’re out of the workforce because of ideology or circumstance or some combination of the two, we create value in our community by plugging holes in the social fabric, like the lack of affordable child care or elder care. Our relationships are as important as anyone else’s—and I just want to point out that workplace dynamics, and family dynamics, can sink to petty levels too. Social undercurrents and power struggles are the same everywhere. It’s not like people who work outside the home somehow exist on a loftier plane of human interaction.
In our community, stay-at-home numbers have dwindled as our kids have gotten older. I myself am back at work now, and the single greatest loss I feel is no longer being a daily part of that mom community. Those relationships are meaningful to me, both as friendships and as a substitute for the extended family that I don’t have nearby. In a world where relations are far-flung and grandparents might not be available, the moms make the community. They are critical.