My Not-So-Secret Desire to Be an 18th Century Lady of Leisure

lady of leisure
Boilly, La Toilette Intime ou la Rose Effeuille. Image @Wikimedia Commons

The way my husband and I balance our world of working, parenting, and living is a bit all over the map.  Because we are both consultants sometimes my husband only works, sometimes I only work, and sometimes we work simultaneously.  This has allowed me to taste pretty much every variety of motherhood, from full-time working mom to stay-at-home mom and everything in between (including single working mom when my husband has been traveling away for work).  I’ve decided that being a full time working mom is not for me.  And being a full time stay at home is also not for me.

Before I became a mother I was pretty convinced that as soon as I held my baby in my arms I would want to do nothing else in life but be a mom.  If we could swing it financially, I was pretty intent on being a stay-at-home mom, romanticizing the 1950s image of a beautifully primped cookie-baking delight (minus the Valium and plastic covering my furniture).  The thought of being a domestic goddess focused on raising happy healthy kids, cooking nutritious food, and greeting my husband at the door with a cocktail in one hand (and my own cocktail in the other hand) felt incredibly appealing.

Don’t get me wrong, I actually love my work.  When I was 16 I left the country for the first time and lived with a close friend of mine in Colombia for a summer in between my sophomore and junior year of high school.  I fell in love with Latin America, with traveling, and with the idea that I was going to use my career to make a difference in the world.  I set my sights on a career in international development and now have a bachelor’s in international relations (with a year of study abroad in Ecuador and Chile), a Master of International Policy and Development, and 10 years of professional working experience, primarily in….gender and development.

That’s right- I trot around the glob trying to figure out how to empower women.  Yet I am totally smitten with the idea of spending the day being barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen.  Cut to almost two years into my motherhood experience, and I still am pulled in this direction, but the reality of what being a stay-at-home (Err…Executive Household Manager) means for me has also left me wanting more when I’m actually in that role– or maybe the grass is just always greener.  When I told My grandmother, who raised six children during the late 50’s -70’s, that my husband and I would like at least four children she replied, “If I had access to birth control then there’d only be two of them,” in a very loving, grandmotherly way.  She’s Catholic and she used the rhythm method.

My first consulting gig after my daughter was born was when she was only 6 weeks old.  My husband and I packed up the baby gear and schlepped our newborn to Paraguay.  It was a short-term job- just a month and half total, only 3 weeks of which was spent in country.  But it was tough leaving my newborn for incredibly long stretches (sometimes for 14 to 15 hours each day when I was driving out to rural farms to talk to women and men about what their ideal work/ life balance is).

With that first separation from my baby, though, I didn’t necessarily miss her, and I don’t feel guilty for not missing her.  Part of what made it easy is that I knew she was safe, loved, and well taken care of by my husband back at the hotel.  I dove into my work and I loved it.  What made it most challenging was my constant obsession with making sure I was pumping enough milk for her and worrying about her taking the bottle.

After one long tired day including an 8 hour ride there and back I left my day’s worth of pumped milk inside a locked truck in the locked office– and we had to leave early (4AM) the next day (in a different vehicle) for another entire day away.  My daughter needed that milk.  So I had to call my Paraguayan colleagues (whom I had just met) after midnight to free my pumped milk from the car so my baby had milk the next day.  We left Paraguay with over 150 ounces of freshly pumped, unused milk- I really had nothing to worry about in the end.

My husband was happy with my daughter, but had subtle complaints every day, including: “I’m exhausted,” “I didn’t have time to eat today,” “I couldn’t take a shower today,” “I spent all my free time washing the cloth diapers today,” etc.  I tried to empathize with him, but in reality I couldn’t because I hadn’t experienced being a full-time stay-at-home parent yet.  We spent the first 6 weeks of our daughter’s life tag-teaming with loads of visitors coming every day (E.g. adult interaction and a moment to do something while someone else holds the baby).  He was eager for me to return home each night, sometimes just so he could take a shower, and to have some adult company.  I’ll admit I found this to be mildly amusing at the time.

Six months later I found myself in Paraguay again, but this time my husband had to be in South Africa for work at the same time.  So I brought my mother along with me, who ended up tripping on the first day and was immobilized for the entire trip, so I had to hire a local nanny (whom my mother supervised).  At 8 months old, my daughter refused bottles of breast milk and solid foods and waited stubbornly for her mother to return after 12 hours of being gone to nurse.  I woke up at 5am every morning to pump my milk, get a plate of breakfast at the buffet for my mother, feed the baby, feed myself and get to work.  At night time I usually had more work to do, and my daughter shrieked when I didn’t pay her enough attention.  By the end of the trip I was spending time in the bathroom at work in tears out of frustration, and declared to my husband that I am never working again- my baby needs her mother full time.  And I don’t feel in the least guilty for tossing my career away.

When the tables have turned and my husband’s been the one coming and going for work, and I’ve been on full-time baby duty, I sometimes relish in how much I feel I excel in this role.  I feel accomplished when my baby is fed, happy, and loved, and I’ve also managed to do the laundry and cook dinner.  But typically after a few days of this the feeling of accomplishment and charm wears off for me.

Perhaps I am lucky since both my husband and I take turns assuming this role.  This means that I never feel taken for granted by my husband.  He always expresses his appreciation, suggests getting take-out if it’s been a stressful day with baby, and is always supportive of hiring a nanny, someone to come and clean our place, etc.  So I can’t complain that I don’t feel valued or appreciated.

Yet, when I have no time to do anything but be a mom and be a household manager I start to not value myself as much.  Perhaps this is because I grew up in an environment and society where great value is placed on productivity, and not so much on motherhood?  I don’t think that’s the reason, although maybe there’s a bit of that sprinkled in.  I personally believe that being a mother (and father) is the most valuable job we all have.

I just, quite frankly, start to get bored.  I absolutely delight in my daughter.  Yesterday we spent a good 15 minutes just laughing back and forth like some sort of laughing spar.  It was incredible.  Seeing her first steps, hearing her first words, watching her figure things out for herself is an amazing experience for me.  But I’ll be honest (and again, I really don’t feel guilty about saying or feeling this) I start to get bored and my mind starts to wander to other things when my daughter politely asks if I will help her put together her bus puzzle…for the 300th time.

There have been numerous times when I have had a lull in my work, or have turned down jobs if they didn’t work with my husband’s travel schedule (he earns almost twice the money I do, so it would be financially stupid not to put his work first). Many times my husband has encouraged me to hire a nanny just so I can have time “to pursue adult endeavors.”  I love my husband.  This past summer my mother spent much of her time with us in Chicago helping to care for my daughter, schlepping her to soccer and music classes, etc.

I resisted this at first.  I totally bought into a feeling of guilt when my husband suggested I hire a nanny.  When I wasn’t working?  I thought this was silly- if I am available to care for my daughter, why in the world would I be selfish enough to pass her off to someone else while I do….what?  While I do what?  The strange part is where this guilt is coming from.  In college I had a part-time job as a nanny (20 hours a week) for a stay-at-home mom with four kids (newborn to four years old).  Most of the time I was there she was doing things like going grocery shopping, dropping her oldest kid off at school or activities, etc. without having to pack all the kids in the car.  Sometimes she just spent some quality one-on-one time with one child while I cared for the others.  She still had no time for herself with a part-time nanny.

My husband doesn’t push too much, usually.  We have a pretty equitable and balance partnership, and when it comes down to making important decisions, I’m often the one who makes the final decisions.  But in this case my husband did push more than usual.  So I hired a nanny.  Not even part-time.  I hired a full-time nanny for two whole months when I wasn’t working.

This was the best thing I have ever done.  I’ve realized that I don’t actually aspire to being a 1950’s housewife.  What I actually aspire to be is one of the 18th century Parisian Victorian women- you know the high society ones who stay at home with au pairs looking after their little ones, while they write letters, paint, and meet a friend for a lunch date or tea?

The economics of our times, especially where we live in the U.S. where the cost (and quality) of child care makes it financially pointless for many women to continue working, doesn’t allow for most women to aspire to be an 18th century high society lady of leisure.  But after sampling all of these parenting styles, I am going to say (again without any guilt) that hands-down that is the most wonderful arrangement that I revel in what it happens to work out that way.

The perfect balance that I have found is to have about 5-6 hours of solid child care five days a week.  This allows me time to seek stimulating activities outside of being a mother.  This allowed me to start up this blog, write a novel, and work on a plethora of photography projects that make me incredibly happy.  Yes, people can manage to do these things while being a stay-at-home mom without help, but I would definitely have to call them out as a liar if they said they were completely happy and stress-free.

Having that 5-6 hours of solid time each day where I can just focus completely and immerse myself completely in something that excites me beyond watching my child grow is perfect for me.  It makes me a happier more fulfilled human-being.  That makes me a more pleasant wife, and a much happier and indulgent mother.  I find myself to be more patient, engaged, and loving with my daughter when I am able to have some time to myself.

For the past two weeks I have been in the role of full stay-at-home mom in South Africa while my husband works.  I could have hired a nanny, but I decided not to (despite my husband encouraging me to).  I’m not entirely sure why- I argued to my husband that at 20 months I’m afraid my daughter needs more stimulation and attention that I think I am most capable of giving.

Yet my daughter, who is napping right now, fell asleep sniffling away tears in my arms after I snapped at her for throwing an apple on the ground (I peeled and cut one, she didn’t want that, so I gave her a whole one and she threw it).  I totally lost my temper and yelled at her, “We do NOT throw food!”  I could tell that I sort of broke her heart.  I normally would patiently ask her to pick up the apple and have her hand it back to me, ask her questions to figure out what is frustrating her and what she needs, and work that out together.  But instead, I yelled.  I hate yelling- I think it’s incredibly hurtful and incredibly ineffective.  I didn’t teach her anything- I just scared her.  And now I feel guilty and bad, and those feelings of excelling as a stay-at-home mom I felt in the beginning have withered away.  And I’m laughing at myself for arguing that the best thing for my daughter is me.  Maybe I’m not the best thing for her- 100% of the time, anyway.

In two weeks we are all setting off to Nicaragua as a family.  I’ll be the one working full time, and my husband will be full-time dad to our daughter at our hotel for two weeks.  I think he has more patience than I do- I haven’t ever seen him yell at our daughter, nor can I imagine him doing so.  But I know he will also be restless by the end of the trip, and I know he will be eagerly awaiting my arrival each night so he can have a moments to himself.

What I’m really looking forward to is December.  I’ll be 33 weeks pregnant and won’t be able to travel much more as we await the baby.  Both my husband and I will have breaks from work.  I have a list of projects I want to do before the baby is born (which include finishing the edits my editor sent me on my novel, creating a family photo album for last year and starting one this year, working on some ideas I have for this blog as well as a book about traveling with babies, etc.).  I also just want to enjoy some quiet time with my belly doing some prenatal yoga each morning (or maybe lounging in a warm bath with smelling salts).  I’m going to hire a nanny in December and relish in the month I will have to enjoy being an 18th century lady of leisure- and a much more patient and happy mom when it’s time to give my daughter my undivided attention.

Then next year we will go back to juggling work, for both my husband and I as we can’t afford to have me not work, at least some of the time.  I will look forward to times in between when I might be able to have no work commitments and affordable childcare options so I can pursue some things that make me happy as an individual.  Or maybe we should just move to a more progressive country where quality childcare is subsidized or provided as it is viewed as a way to make the world a little better to live in- for the kids and the less stressed mommies- and ultimately society as a whole.

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