Stay-at-home parenting is harder than I thought. Maybe it's the fact that my child was colicky for the first six months of his life, and that even at eight months old, he—and, consequently, I—have yet to sleep through the night. Maybe it's my own fault for setting unrealistic expectations for what sort of stay-at-home mom I would be: the kind who preserves her own produce, makes her own laundry soap, and still has time to put on makeup every morning. They do exist. Or so the blogosphere says.
For the last eight months I have wrestled with disappointment in myself for failing to be the peppy, positive, endlessly energetic mom I had hoped. Instead, I have spent much of my mothering career to date feeling sad, frustrated, and irritable.
Apparently I am not alone. A new Gallup poll found that stay-at-home moms are more likely than moms who are employed outside the home to feel negative emotions such as worry, sadness, stress and anger on a daily basis, as well as to have been diagnosed with clinical depression. Although the gap between the two groups of women is only 5 to 10 percentage points wide in most of these categories, the fact remains that as a group, stay-at-home moms are emotionally worse off than employed moms.
Sharon Lerner (author of The War on Moms: On Life in a Family-Unfriendly Nation) dug into the contributing factors behind the Gallup data in a recent Slate article. Lerner credits financial strain and lack of appreciation as the two leading causes for the negative emotions of stay-at-home moms. She also references census data released in 2009 to show that today's stay-at-home moms are more likely to be poorer, less educated, younger, Latina, and foreign-born than other moms.
In other words, the average stay-at-home mom is more likely to be a woman who stays home because she needs to, not because she wants to. Given the context, Lerner argues, the increased levels of negative emotions and depression among stay-at-home moms are understandable.
Ironically, Lerner's article made this stay-at-home mom feel more depressed than ever. I'm part of the relatively small group of stay-at-home moms who have willingly opted out of the workforce. I'm not Latina or foreign-born. I'm not under significant financial strain. I have a master's degree. And I have a strong network of family and friends telling me that the parenting I do is appreciated. And yet, I would be the first to admit that my emotional well-being has suffered since I became a stay-at-home mom.
The way I see it, there are two possible explanations for this. Either I am an incredibly wimpy mother, or there is another, overarching factor contributing to the difficulty of being a stay-at-home mom that Lerner doesn't fully address. Given the fact that in the past eight months I have undergone sleep deprivation levels that Amnesty International would deem torturous, I'm going to rule out that first possibility. Which leads me to conclude that Lerner undervalues what is perhaps the one factor that makes being a stay-at-home mom the most difficult: the sheer challenge of parenting all day, every day. The constant sacrifice of body and soul to another being. The unrelenting subjugation of your desires to another's needs. The fact that sometimes you can't even go to the bathroom when you want to.
To be fair, Lerner mentions the "emotionally grueling, physically exhausting, tedious, and isolating" nature of caring for kids in conjunction with her reference to Ann Romney's highly publicized defense of her own career as a stay-at-home mom. But she doesn't give it much attention. I think it deserves more.
Honesty about the difficulties of stay-at-home parenting is particularly important in an internet atmosphere of idealistic mommy bloggers whose posts feature far more parenting triumphs than challenges. Bloggers like Glennon Melton of Momesary are few and far between. Her post "2011 Lesson #2: Don't Carpe Diem," which addresses the difficulties of parenting, went viral in January 2012. The deluge of attention Melton received (over 2,000 comments, offers from advertisers, reality TV producers, and publishers) makes me think that women are hungry for this kind of honesty, and that they aren't finding enough of it.
Ultimately, though, honesty may make all of us sad, angry, stressed-out moms feel less alone, but it won't necessarily make the work of spending every waking moment with our children more palatable. I need to know that there's a reason for pursuing a career that doesn't allow me to leave my work at the office at the end of the day just as badly as moms who work outside the home need to feel like their unique set of struggles has a purpose. As a Christian who is deeply invested in becoming more Christlike, I can connect the parenting struggles I face as a stay-at-home mom to the ongoing work of sanctification that God is doing in my life.
Being a stay-at-home parent is hard work, whether you choose to do it or you are forced into it by circumstances beyond your control. We can't change that. But we can give ourselves the grace to feel angry and sad and worried without judgment as we go about our daily work. More important, we can remind each other of the fact that God can use the frustrating, dehumanizing aspects of being home with our kids full time to mold us in to more loving, more patient, more compassionate, more Christlike women.
Although this character-building mindset doesn't erase the difficulties of being a stay-at-home mom, it does imbue them with a quiet, sustaining hope. Most days, that's enough for me.
Ellen Morgan Peltz lives in Defiance, Ohio, where her husband serves as a pastor and she works as a stay-at-home mom and a freelance grant writer.