My divorce taught me what doesn’t matter (and what does)
When I got married, my first husband and I decided that I would stay home with the children. Every one has their reasons. Ours certainly came out of the financial situation. What I made would barely cover daycare costs. But it also came out of a value-heavy conversation. I wanted to stay home with the baby. My first spouse had a mother who stayed home for the early years and he also said that he valued this choice–this opportunity–this circumstance. (The truth about stay-at-home mothers (SAHM) is that in the US they come from every income bracket. It is not simply a choice reserved for the wealthiest of families. I want to point that out right away because while I feel it was my privilege to stay with my children, it’s not fair to use that word in the broader context).
My labor to care for the children allowed us to have children while my then husband worked ninety hours a week. SAHM labor does many other things both in a household and for a community–most of which are invisible–but I don’t want to get sidetracked by a topic I could write about for a decade. That said, being with the children full time created our family culture. We’d decided that we valued my presence as the caretaker of the children and we designed our life around that.
Or anyway, one of us had decided that. Because when divorce came to settle in our lives, with children aged, 2, 6, 8 and 10 (that’s a lot of childcare! That’s a lot of schedules and driving and activities and after school and not even in preschool care), he immediately suggested a full time position for me and decided the children belonged in childcare.
I came to find out what I had denied much of the marriage which was that my contribution did NOT matter to certain parties. It did NOT have a value. Nor was it part of a vision of a value-driven life as I had presumed. As time went on the children came to ask me such questions as: “Why don’t you work?” “Daddy gave you money when you were married,” and “Why don’t you put us in childcare?”
Now over the course of my stay-at-home time I did publish two novels with Bantam Books. I did teach a regular yoga class. I did serve as a minister. I put my work into the corners of the days and nights. I used nap times and school times and weekends and the late hours of the day when the dishwasher ran and the children slept. I also did the care, labor and work for which nobody paid me. As we well know, the price of work does not accurately reflect its value.
So where did my children hear those questions? They certainly did not come up with them themselves. The problem was not simply going or not going to work, but the attitude surrounding it. All mothers, regardless of how their labor looks or how much they do or do not get paid for it, deserve respect. In the complicated sea of life in which we must make our choices, the choices we make are rarely made without compromise. No outsider, even the most compassionate one, can truly understand the threads that come together to weave even the simplest tapestry of our days. What was missing was the understanding that what I had done mattered–the attitude or appreciation, respect and acknowledgement.
This Saturday I’m leading a Mothers’ Sacred Fire Circle, a time for mothers to gather around the fire pit and have a more ceremonial way to honor the mothering qualities we perform and express as well as to hook ourselves to the higher star of the mother archetype or Mother Power. And when I think about the why of my work with mothers, I think about this story. I think about that moment when my then husband told me I needed to work full-time and without a backward glance took our the stay-at-home decision to the garage like a bag of trash.
Things do not become honored because we wish them so. Hoping doesn’t do much either. Mothers are devalued in our culture and they aren’t going to become valued simply by pointing our the devalue-ment. Even if we got rid of everything we hate about the patriarchy’s effects on mothering, even if we eliminated the “mommy-wars,” even if we had spouses doing a real 50% of the household work, something would need to replace the absence of honor.
Does a mother, any mother, even know what it feels like to be honored? Does a mother, any mother, have the experience of knowing her worth and value? Does a mother, any mother, ever get to access the full breadth of her power?
I would say no. Not in this culture. Not in this moment in time.
It was and is hard to have my children reflect to me an adopted or learned impression that I “did nothing.” I can teach them otherwise and tell them otherwise but we don’t control other people’s thoughts and ideas. The person who MUST understand my value as a mother is…me.
One day perhaps, we will find liberation handed down to us from the hands of the “powerful.” But we cannot ever wait for them to tell us that we matter. If we’re waiting for the hand of the oppressor to reach out and anoint us, we are both wounded and crazy. That mothering is sacred is not something we need to wait for. We don’t need to wait for the “they” out there to decide or make it so. Mothering IS sacred. That’s it. That’s all. We get to claim that and own it. Into the spaces of absence or judgement or invisibility, we get to place this true understanding of the holy ground a mother walks on in her work of raising children.
Staying at home or not (for we know that working mothers do the bulk of all household and childcare work), the value in mothering is inherent. We can choose to see it and amplify it and honor it, or not. But that’s the only choice. It is not a choice to make it valuable. By it’s nature, it has abundant value.Even when we find it hard to locate within ourselves the sense of our worth for our own mothering labor, asserting the truth remains essential. We must assert the truth of the value of the work as we would assert the existence of the sun on a thickly clouded day. It does not matter who sees it, who sings its praises, or who pays it to shine. It is there.
Thanks so much for this.
Panama honors mothers on December 8 with Mother’s Day, which is a national holiday. People get the day off work to spend time with their mom’s. It’s one of the most important holidays in the country. Restaurants are packed with families, weeks ahead of the holiday the malls are full of people getting gifts for the mommy’s in their lives. Mother’s get the respect, honor and recognition they deserve even if it’s just one day a year, but it’s there rooted in the culture. I must also add that this recognition is because in a large number of cases the mother is the one who is the single care taker of the children because the man is gone. Sadly, this is due to the macho culture of most Latin American countries where being macho is defined as having multiple women and children. Father’s day is also celebrated, on the third Sunday of June, but it’s not a national holiday where the country shuts down to celebrate dad.
Thank you for sharing this. Your reflection is so helpful in thinking about the fact that what we think about mothering is not some kind of absolute “truth.” There are other ways to do it. I love the thought of this deeply rooted holiday and what it must mean to the mothers there. Have you noticed that mothers in Panama feel differently about mothering than mothers here in the US?
Thank you , as a stay at home mom . Now stay at home grandmother. I needed this today❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️
Stay at home grandma? That’s awesome! Congratulations–I didn’t know that.
This is excellent! I have long struggled with the dismantling of my own conditioning to view my labor as a SAHM as marginal to the labor of my husband. Silvia Federici’s essays and books on this subject are really enlightening, or rather, necessarily radicalizing. I highly recommend, if you haven’t read her already, her books “Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction and the Femonist Striggle” and “Caliban and the Witch”. A quote from the introduction of RAPZ:
“Through my involvement in the women’s movement I realized that the reproduction of human beings is the foundation of every economic and political system, and that the immense amount of paid and unpaid domestic work done by women in the home is what keeps the world moving. But this theoretical realization grew on the practical and emotional ground provided by my own family experience, which exposed me to a world of activities that for a long time I took for granted, yet as a child and teenager I often observed with great fascination. Even now, some of the most treasured memories of my childhood are of my mother making bread, pasta, tomato sauce, pies, and liqueurs and then knitting, sewing, mending, embroidering, and attending to her plants. I would sometimes help her in selected tasks, most often, however, with reluctance. As a child, I saw her work; later, as a feminist, I learned to see her struggle, and I realized how much love there had been in that work, yet how costly it had been for my mother to see it so often taken for granted, to never be able to dispose of some money of her own, and to always have to depend on my father for every penny she spent.”
Thank you, Michelle! What a powerful quote. And so excited to read her work. Capitalism’s power is key here in the way in which it has made absolute the equation value=money. What is value? What is valuable to me? These are better questions–for us and our children.