The house party was still in full swing, and I knew almost nobody. I'm pretty shy, and really bad at jumping in with small talk, so I was grateful when a middle-aged woman, probably a lesbian, smiled and started chatting. She was a math professor, and the president of the Philadelphia Chapter of the National Organization for Women. Inevitably, she asked me "What do you do?" -- a question I had been pondering myself lately. Pondering, that is, not what I DO, but what I SAY I do when asked that somewhat perplexing question. For several years I had answered with some variation of "I'm home with my kids, and I do a lot of volunteer work." Responses to this generally varied only slightly. Occasionally, someone was genuinely interested in my kids and in my various volunteer gigs. But the most common response was some flavor of patronizing disinterest, usually including the phrase "the most important job in the world!" Now, I actually don't think that being home raising children is the most important job in the world. Raising children well may be, but I know way too many men and women who work and raise terrific kids to think that being home is the only way to do it well. And usually the people who say this to me likewise do not think that being home raising children is the most important job in the world. I know this because A) they are not doing it, even though most of them could be and B) they have no interest in talking to me about it, whereas presumably, had they just met someone doing "the most important job in the world," they would have lots to say. But I have found there is no better way to kill a conversation with a new acquaintance than to answer "I stay home with my kids" when asked, "And what do you do?"
So, I had been pondering for some time now a new response to that question. I had long thought "stay at home mom" was a pretty silly label, since I rarely stayed home. When my son was little, I did all sorts of things outside the home, I just did them with a baby and a toddler in tow. Most of the things I did as a volunteer are things other folks usually get paid for: at my church, I ran a Christian Education program, raised several hundred thousand dollars to support programs for kids living in poverty, and started an after school program; at my daughter's charter school, I researched bond deals, hired and fired staff, lobbied the School Reform Commission, launched a capital campaign and fended off lawsuits. So when the nice mathemetician from NOW asked me, "And what do you do?" I led by describing some of my work as Chair of the Board at my daughter's school. We were in the thick of lobbying the School Reform Commission for financial support we had long anticipated, and quite reasonably should have expected, but which had suddenly dried up upon the discovery that CEO Paul Vallas's budget was suddenly and unexpectedly running a huge deficit. I had called on several contacts from my law school and law firm days to get audiences with anyone who would listen, and I had met with and pleaded our case to all sorts of interesting, high-powered folks, some of whom were even sympathetic (we never did get the money). Professor NOW was intrigued by the crazy politics and the creativity and ingenuity required to keep a charter school up and running.
Then something occurred to her. I could see it on her face, a perplexing questions which she immediately blurted out: "But how can you get paid to be on the Board of a Charter School?"
"Oh, I can't. I wish I could! Goodness knows I put in enough hours! But I'm home with my kids, so I have time, and I'm a volunteer on the Board."
"Oh," she said. "That's interesting." And she smiled tightly, turned on her heel, and struck up another conversation with someone else.
This really happened, I'm not making it up. I actually almost laughed out loud, she was so blatant. In her defense, Professor NOW was just more blatant than even I, after years of being home, was used to. But her meaning, as clear as if she had spoken the words, was not so different than the patronizing "most important job in the world" folks: what you do does not have value because you do not get paid for it.
My life now would be even more offensive to the good math professor: almost all of my work these days revolves around my home and my family. For various reasons I am taking a break from almost all of my outside-the-home work at church and the school, and I'm finding, interestingly, that this makes for an even more mentally healthy me and a happier family. For the time being, and maybe for the long-term, I am fully and blissfully embracing this answer to the question, "And what do you do?"
"I am a homemaker."
I feel comfortable and non-defensive about that answer. But I'm still kind of intrigued by this notion that any sort of activity gets vested with value, becomes "work," only when one is paid for it. I wonder sometimes, if I had a house-cleaning business, or I was a baker, or a personal chef, or ran an urban CSA, or got paid to blog and read books and write reviews, or if I really could get paid for everything I do for the charter school and the church (I'd be rich, let me tell you) -- then it would all be "work," right?
I recall a case I read in law school, about the Commerce Clause. The Commerce Clause says, among other things, that Congress can pass legislation that regulates inter-state commerce. One case interpreting what constitutes inter-state commerce found that a farmer who raised wheat on his own land, entirely for his own consumption, was engaged in inter-state commerce -- and thus bound by federal legislation regarding grain quotas -- because even his subsistence farming created ripples affecting commerce across state lines. What he grew even just for himself and his family, impacted interstate commerce significantly enough to subject him to federal regulation.
Now, it should be said, I hate this case; and in hating it, I suppose it doesn't really support my point. But my point isn't that baking bread and hanging laundry to dry, making beds and knitting scarves, growing vegetables and picking my kids up right after school -- my point is not that these things should be seen as legitimate "work" because they affect inter-state commerce (Lord knows I don't want Congress telling me what to put in the compost, or how to can peaches and applesauce....) But as much as I hate that Supreme Court case, I think it's interesting, because it does sort of speak to this phenomenon I'm noticing, this notion that work is not really work if it does not clearly and obviously have economic value.
Which is all to say, I love being a homemaker, and I also love thinking about being a homemaker. This, you may find, is a bit of a theme in my life: anything I love to do, I also love to think about doing. And anything I love to think about doing, I also love to write about. Thus, the debut of "Diary of a Mad Housewife," an occasional series about my work, and about what I'm thinking about my work. If you've ever wondered what someone like me does all day, keep checking in to see all my secrets revealed!