The Mommy Shift

Having spent much more time thinking about cleaning the house than actually doing it, I’ve mentally sorted housework into two categories: executive and shift work. Cleaning the house is mostly executive work, stuff that if it’s your responsibility, you do it whether or not your 40 hours for the week are up. Cleaning a bathroom, washing dishes, doing laundry, those are all things that can be time-shifted. Fewer of the household chores are shift work, meaning whoever’s on duty at the moment is responsible: things like letting in a plumber, replacing toilet paper (should be), taking out garbage (sort of, depending on your tolerance for stinkiness).
Taking care of young kids is a lot more shift work – just try telling a baby to wait when it’s hungry. There’s the basic watching, making sure they don’t decide to fly off the roof or something, and since kids don’t have a hibernate button, they need an adult or responsible substitute actually on-duty. Playing, changing diapers, meals, bedtimes, all are things that come up and that you can stall only briefly and usually at the cost of making more trouble for yourself. But things like buying shoes, making doctors’ appointments, finding preschools, and lots of the kid-related housework like washing clothes are all executive chores – things that wouldn’t be handled by a babysitter, for example. Well, maybe a Mary Poppins type. And though meals themselves are partly an of-the-moment kind of thing, somebody’s got to take a bit of an executive view of them, or else it’s take-out every night. (Those businesses that provide everything a cook needs to prep meals are making money off that idea).
It’s the executive nature of housewifery that created the second shift – the round of chores that working mothers and increasingly fathers come home to after paid employment. But it’s the on-call chores that create the mommy (and yes, daddy) shift. That’s the at-home parent’s round of work-for-pay that starts around 10 p.m. or so, after the kids are asleep and some of the dinner crumbs are wiped up. (The same time a working mom would pull out office papers too, of course, assuming she can keep her eyes open.)
I know mothers who have the main at-home responsibility for the kids and who also have some kind of part-time work going on, and that seems increasingly possible thanks to the Internet. Which seems like a great opportunity, until you get a whole crew of sleep-deprived moms in SUVs cruising around during the day. So why is there a mommy shift? Well, firstly, that kind of part-time, at-home work – like editing, transcription, eBaying – doesn’t support paying a lot of babysitter or daycare hours.
And secondly, it’s a reflection of Americans’ split-personality view of mothering. On the one hand it’s seen as so important we’ve created a new kind of Stay-at-Home Mother position, filled with scheduled classes and playdates and chauffeuring and enriching and shopping local and organic from pregnancy on. But on the other hand, mothering is seen as worth as much as it pays. What are you really doing, when you’re home with the kids? Nothing, right? So if you’re a stay-at-home mom, sure you can fit in some part-time work.
So whoopee, we can all work at home these days. Makes you want a nice cubicle to go nap in. Actually, working at home is a great option, but a child-filled house does lack a certain amount of the peace conducive to working that you’ll find in a grown-up office, not to mention you have to keep your short colleagues from stealing all your tape and staplers. I’m sure your kids are much more scheduled and self-sufficient than mine, but working at home means you’ll have interruptions and you’ll figure out a technique to nurse while typing on the computer and you’ll put in time on the mommy shift. And that’s true even in the preschool years, especially with the short hours of preschool a stay-at-home parent might choose (not to mention parenting time needed for illnesses, and school vacations, and doctors’ appointments, and recitals and so on). (I’m assuming schedules change with older kids, but I’ll get back to you on that.)
Smushing together parenting and working sells what moms do short, and it sells kids short. Kids certainly don’t need full-time, full-beam attention (and possibly less than all the directed adult attention some of them get these days), but caring for kids (and yes, the house too) is something real in itself, not something you can always do when you’re distracted (maybe only 90 percent of the time, depending on how much “Baby Einstein” you’re willing to crank on the TV).
Sure, moms used to strap the kid on their back and head out to gather nuts or whatever, but the sound of a computer keyboard isn’t quite as soothing as tramping through the fields. And in any case, once the kids got older they were left with an older child or relative. Sometimes a babysitter is the next best thing to a room of one’s own.