It was bad enough that Hilary Rosen put her foot in her mouth last week, accusing Mitt Romney’s wife, Ann, of “never [having] worked a day in her life” even though Romney raised five sons. But what really got me thinking about stay-at-home moms, and ‘working’ parents, was Death of a Salesman.
During a recent business trip to New York, I got to see the new production of Arthur Miller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play about Willy Loman's disappointing life and his relationship with his family.
As I was watching, all I could think about was how Loman’s wife, Linda, gets short shrift — both from her family and from the playwright. Left behind to care for the kids while Loman travels from city to city, Linda is an archetype — the loving, noble wife and mother. She suffers silently and remains Willy's stalwart supporter, rallying to her husband's defense as he slides into dementia and contemplates suicide. She chastises her sons for not giving him due respect.
To me, Linda seemed more caricature than archetype. Everyone else gets juicy dialogue befitting their Brooklyn neighborhood. Linda gets to deliver lines like "He's only a little boat looking for a harbor." Ugh. Really? I grew up in Brooklyn and no one I know talked like that.
Granted, Willy’s gig is uncommonly lonely and depressing, and for sheer stress, almost nothing beats being unable to provide for your family. But it’s not as if life is a picnic for Linda. Nine times out of ten, holding down a full-time job is a whole lot easier than staying at home full-time to raise young kids. The hard part about being a ‘working’ parent is not the work — it’s the guilt and the competing demands on your time. It may be more rewarding to stay home and raise the kids — your mileage may vary — but easier? No.
Guys know this, by the way, and so do ‘working’ moms. But no one wants to say it publicly. I once heard two dads discussing their stay-at-home wives on the train, and their attitude was one of disbelief. “She’s just as smart as I am,” said one man of his wife. “So how does she do it? I couldn’t take it.”
Folks, neither can she, and I don’t care how much your mother-in-law is helping out. Why?
The hours. What’s a long workweek to you? Sixty hours? Seventy? Salary.com estimated the average workweek for a stay-at-home mom in 2011 at about 97 hours. Even firefighters or doctors who are on call overnight get a break eventually. Stay-at-home parents get a break when the kids go to school — so, after about six years. Factory workers get mandatory lunch breaks and bathroom breaks. Not stay-at-home parents.
The job description. In a ‘regular’ job, you’re supposed to do a set list of tasks, and do them reasonably well. When Salary.com set out to create a job description for stay-at-home parents, they figured out it encompassed day care center teacher, CEO, psychologist, cook, housekeeper, laundry machine operator, computer operator, facilities manager, janitor, and driver. They forgot accountant, personal shopper, exterminator/entomologist (depending on the type and size of the bug) and home healthcare aide, but we’ll let that slide.
To pay someone to do all that stuff — assuming you could find someone qualified — Salary.com calculated it would cost $115,000 a year. That’s a none-too-generous base salary of $36,968, plus $78,464 in overtime.
Vomit. Seriously. I remember heading in to what was going to be a particularly bad day at work after having been home with a sick toddler for a few days. I was dreading the stressed-out-boss, the immovable deadlines, the backed-up voicemail. And then I thought: No matter what else happens, for the next 10 hours or so, the chances are very, very, slim that anyone will throw up on me. All of a sudden, work looked a whole lot better.
No me time. Before I had kids, I hated my commute. I didn’t like to sit next to the guys who brought 40-ouncers in paper bags for the ride home. Now I get it. That commute is easy compared to being at home during the crazy morning hours or cranky evening hours. Commuting is our precious time to decompress. Stay-at-home parents don’t get that luxury.
When you’re home with the kids, your needs are almost always subsumed by the kids’ needs. Also, it's a truism that your children will completely ignore you until you try to take a shower, make a phone call or work on a personal project. Then they mysteriously see the opportunity to dust their siblings in flour or try to take a door off its hinges.
Business travel. Traveling is exhausting and stressful, and unless you’re on the road constantly, it’s still way easier than watching the kids 24/7. As my neighbor, also a work-outside-the-home parent, once said to me, “There’s that wonderful silence after you open the hotel room door and drop your luggage on the floor.”
If you are traveling on business, someone will cook for you. You will probably shower each day, and you will likely have the opportunity to get at least six hours of sleep a night. You will not be the one to deal with night terrors, teething, or illness at 3 a.m. (See “vomit,” above.) Remember that I saw Death of a Salesman while on a business trip? Stay-at-home parents get none of that.
Before anyone starts whining about Ann Romney: Of course, economic situations vary. Some parents have the resources to outsource parts of their 97-hour workweek while others have to do it alone. And we haven't even mentioned single parents, who are playing in a whole other ballgame.
Linda Loman was right about one thing: Attention must be paid. But it's not just Willy's life that needs to be remembered. — CG, with KW
Image courtesy of flickr user x-ray delta one