I was chatting with a SAHM (stay-at-home mom) friend the other day. We were doing that idle mom sharing where we bond over our kids’ tendency to eat rice and spaghetti with their hands, have breakdowns on sidewalks and the aisles of Trader Joe’s after school, and the other daily glories of having young children. Although those rants are good-natured, they are also an effort to connect with another person about the very intense fears, anxieties, joys and victories of parenting. My friend ended her rant with a grimace as she observed, “I probably hadn’t spoken to another adult all day!”
The eating spaghetti with hands and Nutella mustaches resonate with me. The need to connect around parenting resonated too. I heard in my friend’s words that being a SAHM has left her feeling a little lonely and spending an inordinate amount of time doing tedious routine tasks. For me, parenting is much less lonely then work has been. I have fellow parent friends. I have kids that I talk to about everything and with whom I love to play. (I’m quick to turn a walk home from school into an expedition to a foreign magical land.) And, my husband and I are co-parents, staying up late into the night reveling in the cuteness of our girls or working through parenting decisions.
At work, on the other hand, I am pretty isolated. My writing days are full of talking to myself (out loud and on paper) and my teaching days are full of lecturing and instructing (which is much like talking to myself.) In fact, one of the really big things I’ve realized about my job is that I have hated being there because I have felt socially isolated. I’m the only one with young children. The only one who doesn’t go out drinking at 8 pm after waking up at 8 am and starting work at 10. (I’m in my PJs at 8 pm!)
I’ve also felt isolated intellectually. For all the promises of creating an intellectual community, the ONLY time I’ve felt that in my job is in my graduate seminars. My colleagues, for the most part, have always been too busy doing their own work or pressed by deadlines to hang out and talk about ideas. Further, I have slowly learned that academic success (ie: PUBLISHING) depends upon following existing formulas and conventions; not introducing new ideas!
Thinking about both my experience and those of my friends, some of whom are so pressed for time that they stay up half the night finishing their work, others who work part time (often from home) and still others who have opted out and are giving the SAHM thing a try, two major themes emerge: not having enough time for the kids or not having enough time for oneself. My friends comment that they don’t have time to exercise, to cook, to sleep, to play a favorite sport or continue with a favorite hobby, with or without their kids. This table taken from a PEW report on work-family balance backs this claim up. About half of all moms say they don’t have enough time for friends or hobbies; this is especially true for working moms.
So, working moms are pressed for time. But, they clearly are not the only ones feeling stressed or worried. Although this table is from a 2012 Gallup poll, it tells a stark story: SAHMs are actually more likely to be worried, lonely and stressed. (But, notice too that moms are more likely to non-moms to feel these negative emotions. Moms are torn!)
The thing is, when I take this all together, I see a damned-if-you-do / damned-if-you-don’t scenario. This is obviously not an individual problem but a more generalizable issue: lots of parents are seriously stressed and don’t feel emotionally fulfilled.
Thinking about both my anecdotal evidence (friends) and the sociological research I’ve read, it seems to me that people who are happier (in work and/or at home) are those who are part of a collaborative community group that is focused on progressive improvement, those who are intellectually stimulated, those who have control over their own time, and, most significantly, those who are doing creative work.
I think the creativity part is the part most often overlooked. Lots of researchers observe that people who have hobbies are happier. Increasingly though, it seems that it’s not just the busy-ness of the hobbies but the creativity. (Check out an awesome podcast on this topic from Note to Self http://www.wnyc.org/story/what-your-creativity-has-do-lego-kits/ for more, also see http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/11/08/creativity-happiness_n_4235417.html, http://www.pbs.org/thisemotionallife/topic/creativity/creativity.)
Ironically, we are not a culture that especially values creativity. Art is cut from school budgets. Wood shop is a thing of the past. Schools focus on benchmark exams over writing. Marketing persuades us that the purchased is better than the homemade (in food, clothes, decorations, and especially toys!). And, for the majority of workers, decisions are made at the top and passed down the line, convention is rewarded over innovation, productivity matrices predetermine the “right” way to make a sandwich, build a machine, and even write a paper.
There are exceptions, of course, and my personal goal is to find them. For some, this is why being a SAHM is glorious; it’s a chance to be creative and free! For others, this is why work is wonderful; a place to think and build and create.