Mothering by Default

I recently calculated my “Mom salary:”

Sorry it's blurry. It says I am worth $117,780.00 IKR??!!

This is how much it would cost to replace me; but really, this model doesn’t add up. Because I’m not a great housekeeper or cook. I do not have the patience, persistence, or disposition for many domestic tasks. Knitting has too much math. I get bored and frustrated at home. I certainly don’t do enough housework well enough to earn the $18/hr we pay a local woman to clean our place on Friday afternoon.

This was in my car. It's all back in my car. Because my car is my mobile Mom/teacher/shopper locker.

My cleaning is incomplete, half-assed, and mostly involves moving messes around creatively. I’d be fired. In no way am I “saving” my family over $100k by working dramatically less now that I’ve quit grad school, and that’s my plan next year unless a magical job comes along. Currently, my modest adjuncting income is offset almost completely by childcare expenses, and next year, I’ve committed to teaching a single course at our local community college, which will bring in just enough to cover childcare and maybe pay for my gas. Is that what I’m worth? About $100/week? My adviser asked me yesterday about my career ambitions and I just said, “Shrug.”*


I like to think that as a Mom, I’m greater than the sum of my duties: what makes me irreplaceable, what makes my absence from my children’s lives impossible and unbearable is that only I am myself. Only I am my girls’ mother; only I can be me. So I might not make organic meals every night, create unnecessarily elaborate tooth fairy magic, or sign my girls up for soccer and dance classes; but I can sprinkle nutritional yeast and turmeric on popcorn, have tons of art supplies ready for plunder, and sing the Krusty Krab Pizza song to them as no other human can. I’m not replaceable by a chef, or a teacher, or a robot. No one else can be me.

Holly, just painting, with no special or specific outcome in mind.

But I admit that I’m not a particularly ambitious or driven Mom. I remember being vaguely resentful of my Mom as a kid because she refused to play board games with us; didn’t do our hair all fancy like the girls down the street; wasn’t an enthusiastic “room mom” like Kit Davis’s Mom was. But now I can see that she did not do that shit because that shit is boring. I’m really glad we don’t own Candyland. I do not ever intend to make elaborate, healthy snacks a la Weelicious. I want my kids to play together, outside, unsupervised, without need for direction or tons of interaction. At heart, I am lazy, even when it comes to things I care about.

“Each suburban wife struggles with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night- she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question– ‘Is this all?” 
― Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique

I’d like to separate the domestic from the maternal when we talk about SAHMing, because I’m very bad at one and very good at the other. I love connecting with my kids, but I’m not Caroline Ingalls: I can’t mother, and make soap and put out prairie fires and cook dinner and garden and pay the bills and take the cats to the vet and and and. I’m not gifted at this kind of coordination, and I am not motivated to get better at it. But I feel like I should be better at it, I feel like I should care more about being good at it. I recognize those things as good things.

I know what I am good at. I can answer every anatomy question Robin has: where babies grow, how they come out, what’s inside our feet, what a placenta does (“It scrubs the pee from the baby,” she says), how our brains work, where our blood goes. I can pretend to be a dog, or cat, or Grandfather, or whoever else Holly decides she needs me to be, at least for fifteen minutes until I want to check my email or read my book. But my talents end there, and I feel like if I’m going to eschew my entire professional identity for the sake of mothering my children, then I should be pursuing maternity as my new vocation to the Nth degree. I even had the insane thought that I should have another baby to sort of seal the deal on my impending mostly-SAHMhood and signify my commitment to the enterprise. Shouldn’t mothering be my new ambition? Why am I not more into this stuff, if I do love them so much?

Some want reclaim “lazy” or “free range” parenting, pointing out the real perils of over-involved “helicopter” parenting. Lazy is good parenting because you allow your children to explore, make mistakes, and self-direct. I trend strongly in this direction both because I agree with it on numerous philosophical levels, but also because it’s the only way I have a prayer for feeling like a decent mother. But I also read “lazy parenting” lambasted as household anarchy, as failing to cultivate talents or abilities that are crucial; as detached and disinterested. We care too much; we don’t care enough. We do too much; we don’t do enough. As usual, we can’t win. I have a lot more to say on the subject of free parenting of all kinds (free range, free thinking, free money would also be great), but right now what I really want to know is, is it acceptable to half-ass this? Is it all right to be a full-time (or mostly full-time) mother without a real zeal for the work of it? If I don’t want to industriously clean my home, take my kids on educational outings, and make complete and healthy meals, should I pay someone else to do those things instead? Can I just drop the ball on these Sisyphian tasks? May I just mother by default rather than by declaration, devotion, or destitution? Who am I without work, real or imagined? 

* I didn’t actually say that. But I should have.


13 responses to “Mothering by Default

  1. Great post! Thanks for sharing, it made me laugh at myself because I too am happily “lazy”.

  2. I can totally relate. I am a stay at home mom and full time student and I still have trouble being a “super mom.” I admit to letting my kids get their own breakfast instead me making piles of pancakes with smiley faces. (I’ve actually never made a smiley pancake ever) I let my kids stretch their imaginations by playing on their own and my oldest prefers it that way. I spend a lot of days feeling disappointed that I’m not the mom’s with the great ideas on Pinterest. But, I am my boy’s mom and I’m all they’ve got. They’ll grow up healthy and happy regardless of whether or not I made hot dog octopuses. 🙂

  3. Puja Master Turner

    I’ve recognized some of those qualities in myself, which is one of the many reasons I initiated the search for a MDO program (and found one!). There, they can do crafts, and I don’t have to clean up the fingerpaint that is now embedded in the carpet or brainstorm new and exciting craft ideas (Die, Pinterest!). There, they can sing new songs because I can’t come up with anymore freakin’ nursery rhymes. There, they can interact with other authority figures and children. I mean, the list seriously goes on and on.

    • Puja, I am definitely keeping the girls in part-time childcare for that reason. Robin will be in a preschool program this summer, which she is so excited about.

  4. I relate to this post so much it is uncanny. And that is why I love you.

  5. “Benign neglect,” I think it has been called. I think a lot of people are there, one way or another. Somewhere, something always has to give – you hire a housekeeper or you let the kids watch TV so you can do the dishes and clean the kitchen; frozen pizza is always stocked in the freezer; the front yard is passably mown, but the back yard would make the neighbors cringe if not for the fence. I feel like we are always one step away from white trash meth cookers in terms of the mess in the house, though I have been assured by a friend that it is far from that. My sister, due with a baby soon, has announced that he had better learn how to read early, because there are going to be times when she hands him a book, along with instructions to “sit down, shut up, and entertain yourself for the next two hours.”

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  7. I think we all have our own ideas about parenting and I don’t know that any of them are wrong (aside from those parents who would physically harm their child, or allow them to be harmed, without any concern).

    As for me, I grew up with a “lazy parent” I guess. She was a single mother and I think that she did her best, but there are a lot of aspects where I feel she could have done better. I never felt comfortable having friends over because of the state of our home, which is a big one for me. I missed out on a lot of the normal rite of passages there. My mother also never really took an interest in our school work, so it took a long time for me to develop discipline in that arena. There are a lot of different things where, with a little more attention and work on her part early on, I think things would have been smoother for me.

    Saying all of that: I’m not bitter or anything. But, when I had a son, I made sure that I was ready to give him whatever he needed to be successful. And, for me, sometimes that involves being unlazy when I want to be lazy. I personally would not have had a family if I wasn’t prepared to rearrange my world and focus on their needs above and beyond my own. We do our best to keep our house clean, we always focus on his needs and his development ahead of many other things.

    I’m not saying that our path is the right path for all parents. But it’s the one we chose and it’s been successful. Aside from some recent toddler, almost-two related antics, our little dude is one of the happiest, most loving and most easy-going kids I know. Maybe that would be the case regardless but I like to think it’s because of the time and energy we put into him.

    • I do think that sometimes it’s hard to tell what’s “working” because our kids are so young and so much behavior can be chalked up to age, temperament, etc. I feel like everything I invest in the girls right now is with the idea that someday, they’ll be teenagers, and I want them to be ready for that in all ways, and I want our relationship to be really solid. Things that build towards that — emotional awareness, love, trust, independence, respect — take precedent over more superficial/aesthetic choices. But who knows. We’re bound to do something imperfectly, regardless of good intentions. That doesn’t have to be a dealbreakingly bad thing; probably just a fact of life. My parents did a great job raising my sister and I but there are still things I have in mind to improve upon.

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