October 27, 2014

An Open Letter About Open Letters: Really, stay at home parents don't need your validation

I should preface this by saying...I really hate open letters. I really do.

I know there are people that find them encouraging and inspirational. I'm simply not one of them. In fact, in the age of viral everything, I find the genre exhausted and overused. There's open letters for quite literally everything.

A favorite topic seems to be stay at home parents, such as today's offering, "An Open Letter to Stay At Home Parents" from the Huffington Post. As a stay at home parent (at least for a few more days), I find these mind-boggling.

How arrogant is to assume that SAHP want or need your validation or support?

I'm sure there are those that find it encouraging when a working parent says, "Wow, you have it really tough," but again, I'm just not one of them. Let's take a look at why this rubs me the wrong way, shall we?

We shall.

They say things like, "I face challenges you didn't" and expect that to be a compliment.

Here's a newsflash: You have no idea what a SAHP has or hasn't experienced unless you personally know that SAHP.

So don't say things like this;

This is not to say that there aren't challenges in my career that stay-at-home parents never have to deal with. Moms typically never have to face the impending doom of a performance review at year-end (unless their partner is a real tyrant), and there are virtually no politics for a dad to wade through as he's disciplining his unruly son.

No, they don't face it now. But that's not to say they never have, or that they won't again. I know, this probably seems like splitting hairs, but bear with me. It's relevant.

I'm a SAHP now. I was a working parents for the first seven-ish years of my older child's life. So I have experience in the very subjects he's talking about, and I understand them. As we'll shortly, this particular author doesn't share the same.

There's also the fact that different people handle different stresses differently. That's a whole lot of difference in that single sentence, I know.

But it's true. There are somedays that I would gladly take staring down a performance review over having to do one more goddamned load of laundry or another round of dishes.

Last Friday, I had a million things to do. We were planning a birthday party for  our youngest, my husband was called in to work overtime, and I needed to clean and get out to get party supplies and plan a rough idea of what we were going to do for the day of the party. And in the midst of all of that, my youngest got into the pantry and decided to fix himself some more cereal. The result? Coco Pebbles all over my floor.

And it was more frustrating for me than most any moment when I was working, because there was no outlet. All I could do was stop what I was doing and handle it.

I don't think this in anyway makes my life more stressful than anyone else's, and it's honestly not a feeling that comes often--but it comes.

For other SAHP, it's even stronger. There's an incredibly wide variety of experiences, including, believe it or not, folks that HAVE to be SAHPs that don't want to be, because they understand the world of work and miss it.

So it's incredibly condescending, even though it's meant to be kind.

Aw, you spent some time with your children and now you completely understand what SAHP go through?

Open letter writers also say things like this:

But after being home for entire weekdays with my children recently, I came to develop a deeper appreciation for the exhausting, often unrewarding job they do every single day. So, I decided to write these unsung heroes a letter...

No. Just no. Believe me, even if you've spent entire weekdays with your children, you still have no idea. That's just the way it works. It's kind of like if a SAHP who has never worked organizes a volunteer project for a few days and then says, "God, I totally know what you mean about how hectic and crazy your work schedule is, you are just amazing for handling it all like you do."

No. Don't do it. You can't understand another human's experience after a few days. You simply can't. And that makes your praise meaningless in the end. It's empty.

It comes from a place of false assumptions.

Our family has recently undergone a significant shift. My husband's commute has gone from an hour on a bad day, roundtrip, to three hours on a good day, roundtrip. While I am glad that he's got an opportunity to do what he loves and what he actually went to school for, I am utterly exhausted. And there will be no end to it until we move closer to his place of employment, which I am crazily looking forward to.

And I know I'm not the only SAHP to face this situation, or similar situations. Maybe it sounds nitpicky, because the overall message is good--but you simply can't try to sum up the entire experience of an entire segment of the population based on a few days of sharing even a similar experience.

I'm getting ready to go back to work for the holidays. Even given this, I would never, ever, try to assume that I understand every working parent--because I don't. And going to work for a few months, in a position that has a clear expiration date, is nowhere near the same as trying to juggle the responsibilities of parenting and working, day in and day out.

They put us on a pedestal that we don't really live on.

Open letter writers say things like this:

So, whether you're a stay-at-home mom or a stay-at-home dad, know that I am in awe of your courage and persistence. There are nights when I'm not even able to make it through dinner without losing my cool, and I'm typically exhausted by my sons after a full day of soccer, tantrums and answering every imaginable question about life. But you? You've got this locked down in a way I can only dream about.

What they don't seem to realize is that you can't define someone's characteristics like this. You just can't do it.

Courage and persistence? There's days when I want to crawl into bed, and pull the covers over my head, and have one of those hats with straws that's just filled with wine and somehow doesn't spill while I'm in a horizontal position...

I don't feel courageous or persistent in those moments, and I don't need the pressure of an extra facet of my identity being defined for me.

Do you know how many SAHP I've talked to that sheepishly admit that they've popped in more DVDs than they care to admit because they just needed a little break? And yet, despite the fact that so many of us do so, we feel like we have to be ashamed of it, like we have to hide it, instead of accepting the fact that sometimes, we just need a little time.

And it's because of this perception that we are always "on"--or should always be on--that that very shame and guilt exists.

There's a disconnect between this magical image and the reality of what parents exist in every day. It actually goes both ways, but we're only talking about SAHP here.

We're humans. We're not works of art. We don't belong on a pedestal, and many of us most certainly do not want to be there.

They list of tons of benefits that they enjoy being working parents, and then expect us to gratefully accept their thanks.

This dude...I really love his pluck and spirit and heart. But I think he is a bit clueless. Here's the middle of the piece--longer than I usually quote, but I think it needs to be addressed in its entirety:

The minute I leave the house for work, despite needing to be on time for my job, I have complete autonomy. From the language I use to the songs I play on my 22-mile drive, I can de-stress to my heart's content, dropping any conceivable four-letter word on the rude Nissan who cut me off and blasting Alice in Chains, should I be in the mood for '90s grunge that day. You, however, aren't afforded the same luxury. You're far more likely to be listening to Alice in Wonderland instead... for the 278th time. 
When I arrive at my job, I'm faced with a variety of about 12 different clients a day, and the faces are often different depending on which day it is. While certainly stressful, we've established a rapport over time and there's a palpable feeling of respect among us. You have the exact same one or two clients every day, and sometimes they throw food at your face and tell you they hate you. 
Lunch is my decompression time. Whether I stay in the office and eat at the company cafĂ© or venture out to a nearby pizzeria, I separate myself from my worries and enjoy quality time with a root beer and a meatball sandwich. You probably forget to feed yourself most of the time, focusing instead on the other hungry, demanding mouths in the room. 
I work in an environment where bonuses and financial rewards for extra effort are customary and even expected. You never get paid a dime for your work, but are still expected to approach it with the same enthusiasm and diligence that a paid employee of a company would. And generally speaking, holidays are a double-shift, not a day of rest. 
Having a career allows me to separate myself from raising my kids. In essence, my job is "base" in the perpetual game of tag that is parenthood. I don't possess the patience and determination to be a full-time dad. Certainly, I play the part every weekend, or during vacations, but to care for a child 13 hours a day, every single day, is a completely different level of commitment than the gig I currently hold. 

I...really don't know what he hoped to accomplish here. This isn't a competition. And again, he's imagining what life is like for SAHP, and it's absolutely rife with assumptions.

But the most glaring part of these paragraphs is that he's listing off all of the privileges he has because of his job. Of course, he eventually adds a caveat that working isn't a walk in the park (it isn't), but he spends the bulk of an open letter to SAHP talking about working parents. Talk about weird!

They give us permission to exist and don't realize how condescending that comes across.

The last line of the letter (before the farewell) says this:

Keep doing what you're doing, and remember to make time for you once in a while.

Why, thank you. I'm so glad that I have your permission (oh, I'm sorry, it's supposed to be support...) to do what's best for myself, my kids and my family, as my partner and I decided together. It's so nice of you...

And again, with the assumptions. The idea that SAHP don't make time for themselves is a facet of the Good Mother/Martyr Myth.

Again, you can't know someone's experience until you've actually talked to them. This is where open letters fall short, again and again and again. Last night, I attended a great meeting for Americans United for Separation of Church and State at our local Unitarian Universalist congregation. It was amazing, and I was sans kids or husband, because they were at home watching Doctor Who. Fantastic! I enjoyed my time, and they enjoyed theirs.

It's true that the struggle for "me time" can be a facet of SAHP--but it's important still to realize that it's a stereotype too. Only then do we create an alternative narrative, one in which SAHPs feel comfortable taking the time that they need and relying on their partners to help them. "You can't be what you can't see", is a somewhat famous saying nowadays, and it's true for SAHPs too. If all you know is that you are never supposed to have any time to yourself, or that you are supposed to feel overwhelming guilt for relying on anyone else, or that you should never be less than perfect...well, what kind of stressful life will that be?

Instead, it's important to encourage an alternative narrative, one in which we acknowledge that while economic production may not always be a shared experience, reproduction most certainly is, and thus we need to approach parenting as a joint endeavor.

It's not a competition, so you can't declare a winner.

It is kind of amusing that these pieces always focus on the "competition" and who's winning it. In this case, the author declares SAHP the clear winners.

But it's the competition itself that's damaging. Declaring a winner only encourages it.

It's the competition the divides, not the results. Instead of focusing on our shared experiences and identity as parents, it pushes us to focus on who has it harder, who works longer hours, who balances more--and that's simply not productive.

Declaring a winner fixes none of that. It doesn't encourage us to come together. It doesn't encourage us to look at the big issues facing parents today.

Consider this: The United States exists as the only developed nations with no paid parental leave policy. That's an issue that affects families, and yet, when we divide parents, we lose the power of a unified front to push for reform in the area.

Consider nursing policies. A stay at home mom who nurses should be intimately aware of the commitment and willing to support reform for women in the workplace. And yet, when we make it a competition, we lose all of that mutual support, because we are too focused on what divides us.

Consider our educational system. It's another arena where we need parents to come together to push for change.

These are areas that needs us to come together. And competition only divides.

I know you're trying to be nice, but...

I promise, I understand that these letters are written with the best of intentions. I really do. But those intentions are entirely misguided.

I know that it's difficult to see how saying that we have it worse could be a bad thing, but bear with me.

Everyone experiences life differently. For some people, being a SAHP will be the most fulfilling thing they have ever done. For others, the least fulfilling, and for still others, it will be just another life stage, no more fulfilling or less fulfilling than any other. We're not a stock character on a sitcom, humming about the kitchen while "tut-tuting" all of those that ask us, "Well, what DO you do all day?" We're individuals, dynamic and colorful, with experiences as varied as those of any other demographic. We experience life through a range of lenses, in reference to our sexual orientations, gender identities, races, classes, and so much more. Every aspect of our experience colors our interpretations of our circumstances.

An open letter simply can't do justice to that. It can't do justice to the human experience at all.

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