I became a stay at home mom almost by accident. I became pregnant in the middle of my doctoral program, which also coincided with moving to a new city. It made no sense to get a new job in a new profession when I was still finishing my dissertation. I would stay home with the baby and finish my dissertation at the same time, right?
Not quite. When my son was a baby and would nap two, three, sometimes four times a day, this would be our routine:
- My son would be awake for a while,
- We would play or go out,
- Then I’d give him a bottle, and
- I’d put him down for a nap.
- While he was napping, I would make the rounds around the house, cleaning up after the messes left behind.
- I’d do the dishes, wash clothes, scrub the floors, dust the corners of the house, make beds, and change sheets.
- I’d also do things like sanitize pacifiers or clean off all his toys every day (to make sure they were germ-free). There was just always more mess to deal with.
- And then he’d wake up, and the cycle would repeat.
And I got nothing at all done for myself. Nothing. I accomplished barely any work on my dissertation, did no writing of my own. I couldn’t make any progress figuring out what I was going to do with my life and career once I ever did finish my dissertation. I was stuck in an endless spin cycle of feedings and cleaning.
After my son began to nap predictably once a day and he started preschool so I could work on my dissertation, I began to write. And one day I just decided to stop cleaning to see what happened.
Suddenly I had hours of the day open up for me. It didn’t happen overnight, but I gradually gave myself permission to stop caring that my house was a mess. It bothered me at first. A lot. There were toys everywhere, the dishes piled up. The dog became better fed because she ate the crumbs that were always all over the floor. But I let it go and kept writing.
And nothing happened. Yes, my husband began to do a lot more. He cooks almost every night. He is more likely to vacuum than I am. On the weekends, he watches my son far more than I do. Now he does his own laundry.
Soon, I finished the draft of my dissertation and now will defend it in a few weeks. I started my blog and write daily. None of this would have been possible (for me) if I had not let go and accepted that my house will never be really, really clean. The floors will never be spotless. There were always be cat hair somewhere underneath all the furniture.
But I am happier. I am doing what I love. And my son is happier, because he gets my undivided attention and a fully present mother when we are together, not one who is feeling guilty because she is not working on her research or wishing that she had time to herself.
The research on happiness and parenthood is complicated and conflicting: some of it shows that parents are less happy than their childless peers, other research concludes that “happiness” is an entirely subjective term, meaningless when you’re trying to quantify the emotional impact of diaper changes and arguments over curfews. However, mothers are generally found to be less happy than fathers, unsurprising when we acknowledge that women participate more and more in paid work but still do disproportionately greater amounts of the housework and childcare.
I’m not saying that mothers are to blame for the fact that they’re more stressed than dads a lot of the time. But I am saying that we can look at our own lives and see if we’re allowing an ideal of perfection and comparison to make us less happy than we could be.
I’m suggesting that women do three things:
1. Ask for “help.” Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg has been all over the news, telling women to “lean in” to their careers. I have a lot of problems with some of Sandberg’s “movement” but I definitely agree with one of her biggest recommendations for women. According to Sandberg, the most important career decision that a woman will ever make is her choice of spouse. But even if you do choose a life partner who wants to participate equally in household work, you have to let them do it.
This means that your spouse is not your “helper.” He is an equal partner. During the past year, I’ve learned that often my husband has his own ways of doing things and quite often they’re better than mine. And when he takes over certain tasks, my life is made much simpler.
2. Lower your standards. Many women that I know are trying to achieve an unattainable ideal of a perfect house. We see constant “pins” from Pinterest of our friends’ vision for a beautiful bedroom or the perfect layout for a kitchen. We see perfect pictures of gorgeous meals.
Yet we can love those pictures without thinking that we have to reproduce them in our lives every day. We want to excel at our jobs and our hobbies, raise successful kids, and we want the perfect, sparkling house. It’s not all going to happen.
3. Stop the comparisons and the apologies. In the past, I have declined play dates — when I desperately needed the companionship — because my house was a disaster.
But I’ve realized a simple way to make my life easier: Don’t apologize for your house being a mess. It’s called life. How many hours do you spend per week rushing around to pick up clutter when company is coming over?
In sum, embrace the mess. Embrace the dirty laundry. It will get done eventually. Ask everyone — anyone! — to chip in whenever possible. Ask if you can carpool rides to school. Get the takeout and don’t feel guilty. Dust bunnies can be your friends, if you let them. And somewhere the ghost of Betty Friedan will be smiling.
Jessica Smock is a doctoral candidate in educational policy who will be defending her dissertation this spring. When she is not reading educational policy and blogging at School of Smock about parenting, she is collecting stories of female friendship with her pal, Stephanie.