Monday, December 18, 2006

"what do you do?"

i get asked this all the time, and i have yet to come up with a satisfactory response. in the first years home with micah, i said simply, "i'm a mom and a homemaker," or "i'm home raising my children." that's what i wanted to be doing, that's what i was passionate about, and that work completely fulfilled me. i loved the work, and i loved resonding that that's what i did.

in the past year, and especially in the past months, however, my work outside the home has exploded. it's very very exciting, and i'm feeling very invigorated by it, thinking about possible new directions for a career when micah is in school full-time, and learning about and honing skills i didn't know i had. it feels very very right to be shifting focus as i am, as my kids enter new phases of their lives, and i do too.

so, these days, the things i do in addition to raising kids and keeping a home include:

  • i'm a la leche leader, and i lead a monthly meeting on my own (i don't have a co-leader as yet). i also spend about three months a year (in two week chunks) staffing the helpline, which means i take from 0 to 4 calls a day from moms needing breastfeeding help in all of philadelphia county. i've also just begun leading several leader applicants through the accreditation process, which will involve at least bi-monthly meetings.
  • i have several leadership positions at my church. for the past three years or so i have served as church school superintendent (before that i taught sunday school). in that capacity, i recruit and train sunday school teachers; organize regular teacher's meetings; negotiate space so that we have sunday school rooms, and also make sure the rooms are in good shape; evaluate and order curriculum; buy supplies; arrange for substitutes or sub myself; and conduct a 15 minute children's worship service each sunday before the sunday school hour.
  • for the past two years, i have also served as a deacon on the official board of the church.
  • for the past year, i have met bi-monthly with a small group dubbed the "reorganization task force," charged with proposing a whole new vision of how we "do" church. the culmination of that process finds me on a new administrative council, coordinating partnership-building and fundraising for our outreach programs (homeless shelter, food and clothing cupboard, summer day camp for at-risk youth, and city work camp program for rural and suburban youth groups).
  • finally, and by far the most exciting and time-consuming, is that i serve as the chair of the board of my daughter' s charter schoool. in that capacity, i have in the past three months doubled the size (and racial diversity!) of our board; begun implementing an entirely new model of board governance called policy governance; and begun to work with the ceo on launching a capital campaign. i've also found myself pulling out all my connections from my law school and law firm days in order to bring some political muscle to bear on an effort to remedy what started out as an administrative snafu regarding enrollent (i.e. how many students we're getting paid for, as opposed to how many we're actually educating -- the numbers don't match up, and not in our favor), but which has turned into a huge, hairy political nightmare in the midst of a mayoral campaign and a school district budget crisis.

so, that's what i *do,* outside of raising my kids, cleaning my house, doing laundry, shopping for groceries, planning and cooking meals -- all the homemaking, stay-at-home-mom stuff that i l*o*v*e. i estimate i spend between 20 and 25 hours a week on my "outside the home" work. and when it started getting to those levels, i started responding to the "what do you do?" question a little differently. instead of just saying "i'm a mom and a homemaker," i'd say that plus "and i do a lot of volunteer work outside the home." but funny thing, no one ever really asked me about my "volunteer work," and i always got the idea that people thought i was, you know, going on a field trip now and again with my daughter's class.

so i decided recently to respond to the question "what do you do" by telling people what i do, just like every other working mom would. by describing my work, especially with the school, work which has really become my passion. the thing i'm learning, though, is that work outside the home -- no matter how important it is, and no matter how many hours you spend on it -- doesn't really count if you're not paid for it.

for example, on sunday i had a rich, full day -- after church (which for me starts at 9:00 getting ready for church school, and ends around 12:15 when the service is over), i helped julie prepare a lunch for the children's choir, which she directs, before they began a dress rehearsal of their cantata on christmas eve. i then went to a two and a half hour meeting of the reorganization task force, where we hashed out a plan for the church's structure in the coming year, to be presented at the congregational meeting in january. i then rushed to a house party a friend of mine was hosting for a mayoral candidate i support (personally, although doing so too publicly has become a liability for the school, because unfortunately he doesn't currently wield much power, and is probably going to lose...). at this house party, glass of wine in hand, i was introduced to a woman who serves as the treasurer of the local chapter of the national organization of women.

and she asked the ubiquitous question, "and what do you do?"

i replied, "i'm the chair of the board of a k-8, environmentally themed charter school in XYZ neighborhood." she looked at me quizically, and inquired a bit about what i do. i began to talk about some of my work, and she just looked more and more confused.

"but, is this a paying position?" she interrupted, clearly confused about how i could be paid for chairing the board of a charter school (i can't), and equally clearly unable to understand how that could be my "work," what i "do," if i'm not paid.

"no," i sighed, "i'm not paid for that work. i'm home with my children right now, but that's the work i do in the world." inevitably, as everyone does, she launched into the completely patronizing speech, which she no more believes than anyone else who uses it in response to "i stay home with my kids," about how that's just such important work, the *most* important work, really.

that, i have learned, is the signal that you have been dismissed. that is the point at the cocktail party when you are about to be abandonded for greener pastures. and it appears to be true even if, in fact, you are running one of the few highly successful charter schools in the entire city of philadelphia. because if you are not getting paid for it, it just doesn't count.

go figure.

so, has any one else found themselves in this position? how do you handle it?


At December 18, 2006 10:29 PM, Blogger Sara Skates said...

sheepers creepers. Well, no, for whatever reason (there are lots, as always) the only stay-home time I have had was on an extended leave when Toby arrived, and I wasn't in any shape to do much volunteer work at that time, or even really get out of the house often. I can IMAGINE how irritating it must be though. Ack re the school numbers thing. But I for one LOVE all that you do and admire your ability and conviction to live life crucially. I get so caught up in a miriad of things to do and sometimes I have to rein myself back in and cull off what's not so important. I love how intentionally linked your life is - home and school and inner and outer and and and...

At December 19, 2006 3:59 PM, Anonymous Beth A. said...

I've worked outside of the home only one year out of the past five, so I've dealt with that a lot. Sadly, I still haven't quite figured out how to handle it. I also don't know how to handle the fact that people always always ask my husband what he does first, and then get to me as an afterthought if they get to me at all. This has gotten even worse since my daughter was born, since obviously I'm a mommy now and nothing else matter, right?

I'm not sure there's ultimately a solution beyond convincing society to value both women's work and unpaid work (which so often intersect). My temporary fix is to either talk up my part-time home business or talk about my hopes for the future, emphasizing that being home isn't entirely my choice ("I had to quit my last job because it didn't cover the cost of daycare, but I'm hoping to find something soon now that K is a toddler" or "I'm hoping to go back to grad school"). I hate having to talk down the choice to be at home (even though it wasn't really a choice for me), but it seems to be the only way to get people to see past my child to me.

I haven't figured out how to get people to stop ignoring me in favor of my husband, but I'm considering signal flares. :)

At January 04, 2007 1:17 PM, Blogger Lilian said...

Wow, this is surely very very tough! I mean, it's not that hard for me because nobody is ever paid to write a Ph.D. dissertation and people know it's hard work, but the kind of work you do outside the home is certainly work even if it's not paid. And you shouldn't be dismissed just on that account. None of us should!


Post a Comment

<< Home