Before marrying me, my wife was a well-known interior and furniture designer in Finland. She is a SAHM, but to stay current in the field, she enters design competitions and does pro bono work from time to time.
I’m a school teacher who recently started 9 weeks of summer holiday. We decided it would be better for her and the family if she were to do her design work ‘full time’ for the summer when we aren’t traveling. She leaves at 8 and returns at 5, roughly the schedule I follow during the school year. She does a lot of visits to exhibitions, architects and manufacturers, plus my school gave permission for her to use my empty classroom as an office space. And I take care of our two year old boys.
I did not go into this thinking it would be easy. I have done every part of the routine with the boys many, many times. I have had sole care of them for several days at a time. I knew that I would not have time to catch up on my reading or any such thing. At the same time, I don’t expect pity. Many people have a much harder job than taking care of two generally well-behaved and active 2 year-olds during the summer.
I have generally enjoyed it. The boys are hilarious fun, and maybe I didn’t really know them hardly at all before starting this. It’s amazing to be a part of their lives on this scale. But I cannot claim that being a SAHP (p for parent) is personally fulfilling in the way my job is.
Growing up, I believed that the SAH mother and working father were basically mirror images of each other allowing for gender differences. This is basically the line the Proclamation on the Family takes as well. In my experience, it’s not accurate.
Let me put it this way: my last day of work was graduation. I was unanimously invited by the students to be the faculty speaker, a huge honor. My speech, all humility aside, was very good, and I nailed it. I got a standing ovation from the graduates and two offers at public speaking gigs at embassies in the autumn. Being at home with the boys can be very nice, but does not offer this sort of instantaneous ego massage.
You might say, the fact that I like that sort of thing shows my lack of spirituality or humility. Guilty as charged. Most people do like this sort of thing and find it motivating. If it’s a moral weakness, it’s a moral weakness allowed — and even encouraged — in the working individual. People are praised over the pulpit for being prominent in their field, successful businessmen, leaders of the community. (How often has it been said with praise, ‘He works just enough to provide for his family?’) These are not bad things, and they can have great potential for good. The working individual does not need to avoid them. But the sense of fulfillment that comes with honor and position is largely denied to the SAHP.
As I’ve said, being at home with the kids is great, in a different way. There are little moments when I see one of them doing something new, or developing their sense of humor, or learning a new expression, and I feel privileged to be around. When one (or both) want a cuddle, it’s great to be here. But these moments do not grow out of the work I’m doing, really. It’s incidental to being home, which is still a good thing.
I’ve tried to look at this in spiritual terms. I can see that teaching my kids right and wrong can have eternal consequences, and in theory this idea could be inspirational. But I’m not eternally-minded enough to make the battles about putting toys away, the ‘don’t bite your brother’ conversations, transcendent. We do it, but it doesn’t spark me up. Others might say the knowledge that they are caring for children of God inspires them. I can’t see how that makes a difference when I’ve cooked a meal that a boy throws at me without tasting, or the other boy walks into the bathroom holding a turd he just laid on the living room carpet. Maybe I’m just not spiritual enough. My point is, when you’re working outside the home, you don’t have to be.
I’ve also found I cannot be totally honest with my wife about how I feel about being at home if it’s been a tough day. In my case, it’s because she would give up on work if she had a feeling it was hurting the family, which it isn’t, but I don’t want to put her in that bind. I imagine some mothers have a similar dilemma, or even feel that they will be judged because they don’t thrive in what the Proclamation on the Family calls her divinely designed role.
I think the SAHP work is sometimes rewarding, allows for a lot of bonding and really benefits the kids. But in my brief experience I would not call it fulfilling. I say this not to put down SAHPs, but to honor them. To overemphasize the personal fulfillment of the SAHP is to minimize his or her effort and sacrifice, and to unfairly judge those who need fulfillment beyond their devotion to their families. And may God bless the single parent.