Being a stay-at-home mom in a world that needs 24/7 activists

Frida Berrigan and her son Seamus. (WNV / Bill Hughes)

Frida Berrigan and her son Seamus. (WNV / Bil Hughes)

When you are a stay-at-home mom, the world gets very small — nursing and diapers, and then when that is mastered, adding in the rest of the laundry, the bills, the dishes, the groceries and the tidying up. I almost added meals to that list, but thankfully, my husband does most of the cooking.

I embraced all of this with gusto when Seamus — now almost 19 months — was born. Before baby, I was the kind of person who always said yes to almost everything: plan this action, sit on this committee, give this talk, attend this conference, run this race, write this article, meet these people, take on this new commitment, be in these two places at once. After baby, I relished, reveled in and rollicked with having created a demanding, wholly cuddly and delightful reason to say “no” to just about everything outside of my front door.

I learned to love my small, domestic, mommy world. I learned that it was precious and finite. I learned that many mommies covet and crave and cannot have what my husband and I have chosen. I learned that saying “no” to a lot of the big things meant that I could say “yes” to my son, my family and my community. And that is no small thing.

But then, right when I was getting ready to start saying yes to things again — activism, organizing, a paying job, even maybe a regular exercise routine — I found myself pregnant again. And life inevitably, and perhaps wonderfully, slowed down and shrank again. Taking care of a toddler and having morning sickness tend to narrow one’s field of vision.

For the last eight or so months I have barely kept up with email, barely written this column, barely gotten my household chores done, barely kept up with the bad news of the day, barely been an activist of any sort. I have tried to “keep my head in the game” so to speak. But, over and over, given the choice between those things and being with my family — building my marriage, growing our fetus, watching our little boy develop a language all his own, celebrating our seven-year-old’s daily triumphs — I have chosen family. I have stayed close to home, been an active part of my Unitarian Universalist congregation, walked my little city with a greeting for most people, baked and cooked for families with new babies, helped to raise money for needy people, and tried to be a good neighbor and local citizen. I have built a network of friendships and relationships. I have tried to be generous. I have kept up with correspondence of the old fashioned variety. I have visited people and stayed connected with my far-flung immediate family in Baltimore, Kalamazoo, Philadelphia and the Bronx. It is not the stuff of legend, but it is the stuff of life.

And now, a week or so from my due date, I am trying to wrap my head around the fact that even those little efforts will become nearly impossible, at least for a while, when baby number two shows up. I worry sometimes — and have been straight up told by some people — that my choice is selfish; that it is all about me. But having lived for years as an out there, doing it, 24/7 activist individual and now being hunkered down as a stay-at-home mom with two kids and another on the way — I have to say, “No, this is not a selfish choice.” It is a humbling, human, hard choice. My own ego is much less large and in charge in the rearing of children and managing of a household than it ever was organizing an action or giving a speech before hundreds and getting to absorb the accolades and attention afterward. When you are a headline speaker, no one smears banana in your hair. When you organize an action and get quoted in the newspaper, none of the activists willfully ignore your important discourse on listening and respectfulness.

I opted away from the limelight by choosing to be a stay-at-home mom, who doesn’t get a standing ovation for still being standing at the end of a long day. In fact, if you are doing a really good job, almost no one notices. They notice when you forget their strawberry toothpaste — or underpants — on an overnight trip. They notice when the toast is burnt and the broccoli is al dente. They notice when you are surly and sarcastic and short-tempered.

When you rock it, life is smooth and happy and the snacks are free-flowing. That is what the kids expect, so they don’t line up to thank you afterwards. There is only one person (God bless you, Patrick Sheehan-Gaumer) who regularly tells me I’m doing a good job. Right now, that one person’s gratitude and admiration is more than enough. Right now, the fact that my kids take my rocking it for granted is A-okay. They appreciate me implicitly and will learn to express it explicitly as they mature — and the seven year old does a pretty great job already, with a little nudge from her dad.

So, if it’s not for the praise and if it’s not for the ego-trip, why am I doing this? Why am I a stay at home mom? Because it doesn’t make economic sense to have a child and pay someone else half, or two-thirds of, my salary to rear them while I work. Because it doesn’t make political or social sense to miss out on — and have very little hand in shaping — the most dynamic developmental stage in my child’s life. Because I love it and the kids love it and the husband loves it. Because I think it is the right thing for us right now.

In talking with other stay-at-home moms, I get the sense that our culture celebrates, hyper-validates and commodifies our contributions, while simultaneously making them invisible, value-neutral and second strata. There are lots of magazines, advertisements and inducements to be thin, fit, happy and 110 percent there for your baby, but not a lot of encouragement to create and sustain a culture and community that truly supports women as mothers. We have to make that up as we go along and thank goodness we are doing it.

For me, being a stay-at-home mom can seem lonely, repetitious and boring at times. But, in truth and upon reflection, it is not forever. I am not alone and we — the kids, me and our world — are always growing.

So, I am ready to embrace this new phase of life, as the mom of two kids under two, as the step-mom of a dynamic first grader, as the wife of a social worker, as a person whose world is small but demanding of the lion’s share of her attention and compassion and energy. I am ready to embrace this new phase of life, knowing that the larger world and its universe of needs and ills will still be there when me and my little ones are ready to tackle it — head on and with our full attention — the work of building a more just and peaceful society. In the meantime, that work is being carried forward by countless able hands and hearts. It is not — and never was — ours alone. And I believe that the love I lavish on those closest to me is large enough to heal some small but suppurating wound in the world.

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