The one question every new mum dreads

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“What do you do all day?” asked someone who reads my blog. “Why don’t you post more frequently, since you have so much time?” And then later, in a follow-up comment, this reader wondered why I hadn’t published that book I’ve mentioned I was working on. What have I been doing instead?

There it was: the question. The moment I’d been dreading.

When I had a baby, I chose to work part time and spend the rest of my time with my daughter. I am extraordinarily fortunate to have this option. It feels a little like a dirty secret.

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I am embarrassed, sometimes, that I haven’t gone further in my career by now. I would prefer to have succeeded in ways so obvious and succinct that they would fit on a nametag. I would like to have fulfilled the potential that feminism and social change and modernity have given me. That my mother gave me. That my father believed I had just the same as my brothers.

I know the SAHM rhetoric—this is important work, too. Women’s work doesn’t always pay. You are doing something essential. You are doing the work of shaping an entire person! But it doesn’t stick to me, it slides right off. I feel like I’m cheating on my ambitious self with this new role. And yet I’m actively choosing it. I am unable, somehow, to not spend this time with my daughter, knowing I have the chance. I am unable to believe that work is everything, even as I’m unable to believe that motherhood is everything. I flounder somewhere in the middle, in a gray area where balance and confusion circle each other with territorial defensiveness. 

I stared at the question on my phone while nursing my baby. I could practically feel my milk turning sour. I thought about how to answer as I tried for forty minutes to convince my baby that, no, really, she should have a nap. Finally, she was asleep, and I hadn’t eaten yet that day because there hadn’t been time, but under the microscope of the question, I felt abruptly like I was doing nothing.

I sat down at the computer, checking the baby monitor compulsively, and wrote back, explaining my schedule. See, I write these columns, and I work over here, too, part time, and I have these goals, which I am reaching for, and I don’t update the blog more than once a week because I want to take time to make the essays something I am proud of.

Implicitly, I was apologising to this stranger for not being the right kind of woman. I was clarifying that maybe I am a little bit closer to being that woman than I may at first glance appear to be.

It took me a day to realise that. Then I got angry.

And I realised something. I realised that this question is bigger than the balance of my days in my one little life. It’s for all of the women whose accomplishments don’t fit into a neat, impressive, single-word title. It’s for all of the women who can choose to do what looks like nothing to the people who haven’t cared for a baby or a child. It’s for all of the women who are doing something that doesn’t make money or doesn’t make the kind of money they might otherwise be able to make.

And actually, it’s even bigger than that: it’s a question about what it means to be a modern woman. What it means to be a “good” woman.

It’s the same question that magazines ask when they publish articles about “having it all.” We read about it in books about leaning in or leaning out. We are, as a culture, obsessed with what women are doing with their time. What women are doing all day. Are women living up to their potential? Are they opting out? Are they sacrificing their kids for their political career? Are they sacrificing their career for their kids? Who are they spending their time with? Is their time well-spent?

I got angry at myself for trying to explain my days to the blog reader. For always trying to explain to strangers, to the world, to my family, to my friends, to myself. For constantly searching for the right words to make my life sound like it fits into the right narrative so that everyone can agree it’s a good, successful, acceptable kind of life.

I got angry because it isn’t anyone’s business what I am doing all day.

Or why I choose to spend my days this way. It isn’t for the world to decide that caring for a chubby, backwards-crawling baby is valuable or a waste of time, or to evaluate my part time paychecks and decide if they count as enough of a contribution to the finances of my household.

It’s none of the blog reader’s business if taking care of a baby is really hard or really easy, and if my work is adding enough to the culture at large.

It’s none of anyone’s business if I am a good woman. If I am doing the things that they think a good woman should do.

When women are asked what we are doing all day, the next question, sometimes silent but almost always present, is “why aren’t you doing more?” We may disagree on what constitutes the “more,” but it’s always there, looming, bearing down, about to topple over and crush us under its bulk.

Instead, why don’t we look at what is actually being accomplished? We are doing different things from one another and different things even from ourselves, because we are full of surprises. We are doing so many things that change every day, every year, every stage of life. So many things that can sometimes be measured in grades and sometimes in money and sometimes just in the quiet satisfaction they produce that no one else gets to see.

So, what do I do all day?

I try to live the best life that I am able.

And now, damnit, I’m going to finally have something to eat, because I haven’t had time all day. After that, who knows? Use your imagination. I might be doing anything.

 

Kate Fridkis is the author of the new book Growing Eden, Twenty-something and pregnant in New York City, available on Amazon UK and iBooks AU.

23 comments

  • no one who has spent time at home looking after an infant would ask these questions... but, you know, so what if others do? Let it go, or simply say that taking care of a baby is so much more time consuming that you imagined. Don't let it become a big deal as it's not your problem.

    Commenter
    jj
    Date and time
    March 17, 2014, 9:26AM
    • Yes I agree..I think young Mums have to ignore(if possible) a lot of the stuff that is aimed at them.

      It appears to much harder for them nowadays, than it was for people who are 70 to 80 year olds today who when they where young with families, were not expected to juggle parenthood and working like many young Mums and Dads are expected to do today I feel.

      Nowadays it is near impossible to survive on some wages, and bring up a family, and Govs appear to be brutal in their attitudes to anyone with children who is unemployed and disadvantaged and struggling to find work today in my opinion....and the brutality shows even more when our current says wages need to be cut back, and yet this same Gov thinks it's okay for businesses to increase costs and charges in the general communities..

      It is what happens when we get huge inequalities of rich and poor in societies I feel,.......eventually the mega-rich start to become so dominant that they tend to dehumanise the rest of the population, and use the rest of the population to serve their dominant needs...

      History has shown this to happen time and time again in societies in my opinion...

      Commenter
      Frizz
      Date and time
      March 17, 2014, 10:48AM
  • I can distinctly remember the moment I left my youngest child at preschool for the first time. I walked out into the Autumn sunshine feeling like an untethered balloon. It was the first time in seven years that no-one knew where I was or what I was doing. In spite of feeling like I was a secret agent with no identity on an as yet unknown mission ie up to no good, it was so exciting I resisted texting or phoning anyone to see if I was needed or wanted and just floated until they contacted me. Highly recommended.

    Commenter
    Greta B
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    March 17, 2014, 10:11AM
    • Yes, it's not mother guilt it's feminist shaming. It is so middle class and elitist too. Career, career, career. Most women don't have a career anyway, they have a job.

      You have to follow your heart and your instincts and leave the careerists to go career themselves till they climax.

      Enjoy what you are doing and make friends with similar women who understand what it is that you do all day. Life is too short to hang out with those who would shame you with that question.

      Commenter
      Melinda
      Date and time
      March 17, 2014, 10:39AM
      • If there weren't women "careerists" then there would be no progress in society. There'd be no women in government and industry blazing trails and seeking better recognition / compensation for women who choose to stay home or work part time to look after children. If you want to hang out with like minded mothers in the playground, fine - but don't reverse shame those who choose to achieve in the career sphere.

        If you blog about your life, if you write a book about being pregnant - just as our author did - then you open yourself up to questions. If you make an income from posting about your personal life then you can expect to be asked about it - you can't then turn around and say it's nobody's business.

        Commenter
        Lady Careerist
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        March 17, 2014, 3:24PM
      • One of the most committed feminists I know has not done paid work since losing her first child in a late stillbirth around 20 years go.

        If people feel shamed by questions, assuming that it's feminists doing the shaming, they simply don't understand feminism, which is about choice, for women AND men.

        Commenter
        bornagirl
        Location
        Melbourne
        Date and time
        March 17, 2014, 4:09PM
    • I'm not sure how relevant it is but as a stay at home dad for the last three years, shepherding two kids under the age of three through to full-time school, I've got exactly the same kinds of comments. I annihilated a fairly high powered professional career and replaced it with running on the spot in semi-controlled squalor; I went from exercising every day to fitting exercise in at night after I get the kids to sleep; every emotional string I've got has been knotted, stretched, snapped and retied, and generally abused on a daily basis; my marriage has copped a hiding; and I lived on left overs and regurgitated food scraps. I did this in order to give our kids the start in life that we could tell they desperately needed, particularly our youngest , and now they're into school and appear to be thriving so I think it was all worthwhile. And yet, if I want to just sit down and have a cup of coffee and take a deep breath after getting them to school I feel extraordinarily guilty and ashamed.

      Commenter
      Nick
      Date and time
      March 17, 2014, 10:54AM
      • Nick, don't feel guilty or ashamed. Getting the kids off to school is exhausting and mostly manic. People who work outside the home stop for a coffee mid-moring, so why shouldn't you? Keep up the great work and know that thousands of other parents are just like you. At least you are your own boss!

        Commenter
        trinch
        Date and time
        March 17, 2014, 11:58AM
      • wow, Nick, you've just summed up my life... particularly the last bit.

        Commenter
        jj
        Date and time
        March 17, 2014, 12:09PM
      • Great comment, Nick, as it confirms that it's not just directed at women, it's really a comment from someone who just doesn't understand that some days, it's what you can get done with one hand that gets done. Not a lot.

        I remember one time when I was pregnant seeing a woman interviewed on her doorstep with a baby in her arms, and thought, oh that's nice, cuddling the baby. Other way round, I realised later.

        Seeing men out on the street in their suits at dusk wheeling the baby in the pram, well that's nice, isn't it? Er, nope, poor bloke probably didn't get past the front door when he was met by the mother with the baby saying 'take this!'.

        Commenter
        bornagirl
        Location
        Melbourne
        Date and time
        March 17, 2014, 12:58PM

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