I often wonder what sort of category people place me into when they meet me. I suppose it’s very egocentric to speculate about these kinds of things, but I think most people do it. Like if you were to eavesdrop on a conversation about yourself, how would people be labeling you?
When I am first meeting someone and they ask what I do and I reply, “I’m a stay at home mom.” They’ll sometimes give me a head tilted back, “Ah! I see…” almost as if to say, “That makes sense.” It’s more than a little unnerving because I sometimes get the impression they were just able to put some kind of check mark in some imaginary box to identify just what I am when I don’t even know what that is.
I recently found out what that check box is for at least a few people in my life and probably more now that I have a frame of context to put it in. I was at a birthday party, and chatting with two moms, our kids were all playing happily together. They are both teachers and were commiserating over their eagerness for school to end for the year. I smiled politely and empathized as best as I could. One of the moms asked me, “So what is your plan when you decide to start working again?”
I was caught off-guard by the question but replied, “I don’t really know…I’d love to make more of a go at this writing thing I’ve been chipping away at for the last few years. I have a blog with a small following, but I’d love to try a novel or even a children’s book at some point.”
“Oh, that would be nice for you,” she said vaguely but almost seemed to imply something else. She and Working Mom Number Two sort of skittered off deeper into the kitchen while I checked on my kids to make sure they were behaving.
A few minutes later, they made their way back towards me and Mom Number Two said, “If I were you and anyone ever asked me how I liked being a trophy wife, I’d totally own it! Like, ‘It’s awesome!’” followed by a hearty laugh. I suddenly felt like I was in the adult sequel of Mean Girls where the comment was dressed up in the guise of pure innocence, but at its core was inconsiderate and hurtful.
I think I was more shocked than anything else and responded, “Huh…I’d never seen it quite that way,” though I my response was drowned out by her prolonged chuckle at my expense. I forced a smile. I didn’t wish to make a scene at a child’s birthday party so I quietly excused myself and told my kids to start picking up the toys scattered around the house. It was time to get going.
Later on, I went to the gym to blow off some steam. The comment still was brewing in my consciousness like dark gray clouds gathering before a torrential downpour. I grabbed a pair of weights and was staring at myself in the long mirror, I suddenly saw the irony: a thin, young woman working at her appearance, no responsibilities of the professional sort; just a mom working on being fit. Her daily agenda includes packing the kids’ lunches, folding laundry and making dinner, oh, and of course, working out. To a career mom, I am just a wife and mother; a trophy. Nothing more.
I’d finally found my label. We all fit nicely into some sort of simplified classification for most people we meet. If a person really tries to get to know us, they might see more of the facets we see in ourselves, but to most people we encounter, we get categorized very early on. I know I’ve been guilty of it. I suppose on some level I should have been grateful to this woman for making it so glaringly obvious.
“Trophy wife.” The words just kept hitting my ego like a hammer. I saw myself as some ditzy caricature, outfitted in formfitting workout apparel on an episode of Family Guy where they typecast everyone in some cliche generalization. I felt so ridiculous, I left the gym and drove home in silence. I started replaying dozens of conversations with all sorts of women I know and realized these two moms are not the first two women who have thought this of me. I felt stupid for not having figured it out sooner.
There are other women who have said to me, “I can’t wait to be able to quit working and just stay home all day with my kids like you do,” and others who say, “I could never do what you do. I need to work. I’d go crazy being home all day.” I never know just how to respond to these comments because neither is entirely accurate. Every minute of my day is work and even if I do take the odd minute to sit quietly with my thoughts, the whole time I have this nagging feeling at the back of my mind that I should be doing something more useful. Still other times I feel like I should be contributing more to the world but then I think of my kids and how could I do anything else but be their mother right now? For me, I don’t feel it’s a choice just as for most working moms it isn’t a choice; they do it out of some sort of necessity, whether it’s personal, financial or both.
I came home from the gym and told my husband about my conversation with the working moms, feeling ashamed of my insecurities. His reply (somewhat exasperatedly) was, “You are a mom out of necessity as well. You wouldn’t be happy doing anything else. We’ve talked about you going back to work and we land in the same place every time. Of all the jobs out there, you have said that being a mom is what brings you the most fulfillment. Why are you letting these opinions undermine that? This is what you want.”
“Because I got check-boxed into such a shallow category,” I said. “Trophy wife?! Do you know how demeaning that is? The worst part is, I started trying to think of evidence to disprove it and I CAN’T! I am a wife and mother. My outlet besides occasionally writing, is working out. I am not part of anything larger than being the matriarch of this family. To anyone on the outside looking in, I am a completely one-dimensional show piece.” Tears welled up again. He looked at me sympathetically.
“Is that how you see yourself?” he asked.
“Of course not…I know I am doing just what I need to do, but how can I not be affected knowing that this is what many people probably think of me?”
“I value what you do,” he said quietly. “I think you are the strongest person in our family, if that is worth anything to you.”
I looked at him skeptically. I didn’t believe him because of all the self-doubt I was feeling. How could I project strength? “You’ve never told me that before.” I said.
“You determine all the really important things for our family,” he said. “I mean, we talk about it together, but you are the one who finds “the way” for us. You chose the kids’ school. You do all the research regarding major decisions for them. You comfort them when they are sick and take them to the doctor – I mean I gagged when Noah lost a tooth the other day! You do the majority of the disciplining. You make sure we pray every night. You make the big and the little decisions around here. You hold it all together.”
I didn’t say much. I felt on some level he was patronizing me a bit. He could tell. “Look,” he said, “when we first got married, before we had kids, I felt very strongly that you should continue working even after we had kids. And you did it for a while, but you thought it was more important, for many reasons, that you become the one to raise our kids all the time and not leave it up to our parents or a daycare while you went to work. We knew money would be tighter for a while, but you felt it was the right thing for us. I was really unsure about that decision at the time. But YOU insisted that your time had come to be a stay at home mom. We knew that meant you’d be putting your professional aspirations on hold and I’d become the sole bread-winner. Don’t you remember how hard it was at first?”
I nodded. I remembered feeling guilty for not working but simultaneously resentful that I’d given up my dreams to raise our kids and consequently guilty about feeling resentful. But it was true. My desire to raise our kids myself won out above all the other emotions.
“You’ve made me see and believe how important your work is,” he said. “I am proud of you. You are a trophy to me but not for the reasons you are being accused of,” he smiled.
I still was not feeling very light about it, though my trampled ego was feeling a little less bruised. I knew at least part of what he was saying was true. I often underestimate my worth to our family and simultaneously undermine the efforts of women everywhere who are doing what I do. There are many women staying home with their kids who’ve given up as much if not, more! I think of my sister who quit working and gave up her hard-earned law degree to stay home with her son last year; no easy task. I think of my own mom who didn’t even get as far as college so she could get married and start a family. I know so many strong women who, from the perspective of others, might be mislabeled because they spend all day at home with their kids and I would never oversimplify their work that way. Nor would I slap such basic classification on a working mother because who is only as simple as the work that they do?
I have read so many articles about this very thing; working moms and SAHMs ripping on each other. I’ve always avoided these debates because I didn’t want to believe anyone was really judging anyone else this way. Surely we all recognize how hard we all work, whether we’re working at home or working at a job and juggling both career and being a mom. To me, these all seemed like stigmas that people were still writing about because they were living in places where one or the other was a minority and it was just easier to judge. But I live in a place where the balance of SAHMs and working mothers is split neatly down the middle. There really isn’t any excuse for this kind of thing. I see all of us moms hauling our kids to t-ball practice, eating dinner on the fly, moms wearing heels or moms in yoga pants, cars full of screaming, whining kids. Aren’t we all kind of the same? Still somehow, we make room to pass judgement on one another. I see all too clearly that the discrimination is very real no matter where you live or what you do. How naive of me to think we were all evolving and seeing each other as being complex and multidimensional.
Look at yourself! Do you fit into some neat little bubble based simply on what you do? If there is more to you, couldn’t there be more to me, too? What if we just respect one another and not go on assuming we’ve got each other all figured out?
I hugged Scott then. I still understand that people will see me however they choose to and I won’t be able to change that, but I guess it means more knowing that my family values what I do. I do it for them and not for anyone else. I guess the working out part is mostly for me. It’s my one selfish thing, but I love seeing what I am physically capable of. I am proud of being stronger now than I was before I became a mother. I don’t think that’s wrong. Plus, it’s a lot healthier option than a self-destructive outlet which I know some women sadly fall into.
I wish I had been quicker on my feet with the moms at the party. I wish I could have said something to sum all of this up in a snappy one-liner. But the truth doesn’t always work that way. Knocking someone down a few pegs is much easier than building someone up. I will remember that next time I’m thinking about check-boxing someone else.