I usually try to stay out of the working vs at-home mom debates, because I’ve been around the internet long enough to know that they never go away, and they usually go nowhere fast. But I’m intrigued by this latest rash of work-at-home vs stay-at-home vs work-out-of-home debates.
In some of the posts and ensuing comments there are statements to the effect of: “Being an at-home mom doesn’t even compare to being a working mom.” “Being a SAHM is way harder than being a working mom.” I’ve even seen some moms say that they’re tired of “whining” from other groups. People seem absolutely certain that whatever lot in life they’ve chosen, the other side has it better and has no right to complain.
As somebody who’s been an at-home mom, a working-out-of-home mom, and now a working-at-home mom, I call baloney on any kind of “which group has it better” contest. Fact is, there are too many different factors at play to make any kind of sweeping generalization about whether WAH, WOH or SAH is “hardest”. Do you like your job? Is the commute reasonable? Do you feel good about your child care situation? Do you have a supportive spouse? Then you might have a pretty sweet WOH life. On the other hand, being in a stressful job you never really wanted, not having enough time for your kids, and hating their daycare is likely to make your life feel much harder. I’ve had WOH situations that were far “easier” than the years I spent as a SAHM. Likewise, I have had months as a WAHM that made me feel stressed and completely detached from my kids.
But to me, the bigger question is: why bother trying to compare at all?
What does it hurt you if somebody else shares that she’s having a hard day or is disenchanted with the difficulties of her situation? It doesn’t invalidate any frustrations you might be having. It doesn’t mean the other mom has won any kind of martyr award.
We all want validation for how hard we’re working and how frustrating this motherhood/life juggling act can be. And talking about the issues we face is an important part of helping make change for future generations of mothers and children. But getting irritated with another group of women daring to vent their frustrations because yours are so much worse is just plain counterproductive. It doesn’t encourage change. It just muddies the water.
Here’s an example of what I’m talking about: my husband currently works out of state 4-5 days a week, every week. That means I’m alone with five kids, while earning a large chunk (about half) of our family’s income via my freelance work, with very little child care (currently a few hours a week bartered with family).
He’s traveled a lot since our oldest was just a baby, and we’ve been in some kind of “commuter marriage” situation for the majority of our marriage. So I admit that sometimes I find it amusing when somebody complains about their spouse being out of town for a night or a weekend.
But what good would it do me to feel angry, annoyed or put out that somebody else is complaining about their life? What right do I have to decide that my situation is “worse”?
Perspective matters a lot. Maybe the other mom’s situation feels harder because she isn’t used to it. Or maybe her kids are in a whiny or clingy stage or experience anxiety when Daddy leaves (mine don’t do this; they’re pretty used to it). Maybe she has a lower tolerance for mess and chaos than I do. There are many reasons why another mom might feel more dissatisfied with her spouse’s occasional weekend absence than I do about my situation. Whatever the reason, what good would it do me to try to one-up her frustrations or complaints by telling her how much worse I’ve got it? When you try to play the “who’s worse off” game, everybody loses.
The point here is that there’s no way to be happy when you’re focused on what’s wrong with your own life that other people expressing frustration over theirs actually makes you feel angry or competitive. We’ve all got struggles. We’ve all got frustrations. And we all make choices.
Now, before you get your hackles up, understand that I’m not talking about the to-work-or-not-to-work choice. I realize that many people can’t afford not to WOH (or can’t afford to WOH—can you imagine what child care for five kids would cost me?) Not everyone can choose their work situation today, tomorrow or next month. I fully understand that our current culture makes it nearly impossible for many women to really have a tenable work/family balance. I get it. I’ve been there.
But yes, we have choices—all of us.
If you’re unhappy with your job or child care situation, you can choose to take steps toward eventually finding a better one.
If you are well and truly stuck for now, you can choose to see that the situation is temporary. One day you will have more experience. One day your children will be older. One day your hard work and saving will pay off and you’ll be able to pay off some debt and get in a better position.
If you believe that your situation stinks in part because of societal or governmental issues, you can work to help change those issues. Maybe you won’t succeed in making changes today or tomorrow or this year, but at least you’ll feel like you’re helping to make progress.
And if you are so stuck in your current circumstance that you can’t see them ever changing, you can choose to look at your life with a healthy dose of perspective. I’m reminded of a story I heard on NPR last month about an Iraqi woman who was forced to flee the country to save her life—and didn’t see her young sons for two years.
Somebody always has it worse. Somebody always has it better. Why worry about who’s on top and who’s on bottom? It’s a waste of time and energy.
All you have is the life you have. The question is this: will you work to make it something you can be happy with?