What’s a Mom to Do?

Recently I received a shaky call from my lifelong friend Kate, 42, who walked me through a disturbing conversation between herself and her eight-year-old daughter. After a heated back-and-forth about whether or not the child actually had brushed her hair as instructed, the little one stood straight, put her hand on her hip and explained: “Mom. I lead a very active lifestyle. All you ever do is walk around and do the dishes. Of course your hair is never a mess.”

My friend, whom I met when she was not much older than her virtual-clone of a child, was uncharacteristically speechless.

But to me — a woman with no children, only dogs to offer comment on the state of my kitchen or my hair — she cautiously confided: “I mean, if that’s what my kids think of me, what does the rest of the world think?”

I reminded her that there are still plenty of people over the age of eight who remember her as leading a lifestyle equally as active as her children’s: working 18 hours days on the first Clinton campaign, then as public relations director for the local chapter of Second Harvest, an anti-hunger awareness organization, serving as the family’s main breadwinner while her husband was in medical school. Volunteering tirelessly and passionately for Planned Parenthood with two little ones of her own, until the birth of her third child transitioned this dynamo of a woman into a dish-doing walkabout with perfect hair.

But what of the child’s assessment?  After the dishes and the walking, how does the average stay-at-home-mom (SAHM) fill her days without longing or regret?

Souper Mom

Just after her second child was born, Cynthia Shea, 40, former owner of the popular Hampden restaurant Soup’s On, began to think about entering the world of full-time momming. But as the owner of her own successful business that required her physical presence daily, it just could not happen right away. She admits that the pressure was intense and that she was always on a very tight schedule: “While I was trying to do it all, one extra red light would make me feel like my whole day was shot to hell. I just felt like I wasn’t doing my best at doing either.”  Finally, after a year of trying to make it all work, she decided to shut down her business and go into the arena of the SAHM.

On the day I sat down to talk about the transition into her new lifestyle, it wasn’t at a table-clothed kitchen table, but in the place where most SAHMs spend the much of their day: in her car.  Between school and afterschool activities, plus household-related errands, it’s not uncommon for the average SAHM to spend more time in her car every day than the average pre-mom woman spends on, say, Facebook.

When we picked up Cynthia’s four-year-old from preschool, the little girl explained to me that it was Yellow Day at her school, proudly displaying her yellow T-shirt emblazoned with a cartoon monkey.  Cynthia slyly leaned over to explain, “That’s actually my son’s shirt. It was the only yellow shirt in the whole house.“ Just as it always has been, necessity is the mother of invention — and this time she’s of the stay-at-home variety.

Spending the Day without Spending Away

As for how Cynthia fills her day, she has learned to embrace and celebrate the wonderful world of what Cynthia calls the Fun and the Free.  “When you have a whole afternoon to spend entertaining children, it’s very easy to spend $40 or more just to keep everyone occupied and happy,” she explains. Without extra funds from a second income, it becomes quickly apparent that happiness may be free, but most places open during the day are not. Her faves are, in no particular order, the BMA, the Walters, the ASPCA, and the library.

Pushing It

Even though the primary focus of an SAHM is on her kids, there is a principle that Cynthia—like the many others you see everyday—keeps pretty sacred: when traveling with a small child, put your own oxygen mask on first. For Cynthia this means getting exercise and fresh air every day. I followed her on a lengthy walk up and down harrowing hills in her Roland Park neighborhood on one of her daily constitutionals. And while this ability to exercise her rights to Vitamin D may sound like a luxury that many would welcome, there is one qualifier: Each time she heads out, it’s behind a double-wide stroller filled with two kids.

Reinventing the Real

And then there’s the SAHM who went the other way.  Baltimore mom Jill Smokler, 34, started her blog, Scary Mommy, as a “baby book for my children and hope that, someday, they appreciate it more than resent it.”  The funny, frank, and sometimes gritty site features not only witty and insightful posts into the Real World of Motherhood, but also an anonymous Confessional, where moms can download their private stresses and indulgences free of judgment. The site took off and now boasts an average 750,000 page views a month. This past May, Jill partnered with Target for an exclusive “social media fashion experiment.” She was given a month’s worth of clothes from Target, and Target Facebook fans (4.5 million) chose and voted on outfits. The project was advertised on sites such as Oprah.com, In Style, People, and Real Simple and has been called “the most revolutionary social media campaign ever.” Oh, and she has a book coming out next year — on Mother’s Day, of course.

Points Well-Made, Points Well-Taken

When I checked back in with Kate to tell her that I was writing an article trying to discern exactly what an SAHM does all day with her time, she gave a thoughtful pause (she was naturally in her car waiting to pick up the middle child from gymnastics after helping the eldest with homework and then putting the youngest to bed), and said, “I fill my day just like anyone fills her day. It’s like filling your closet. Even if it’s not exactly what you want to wear every day, you’re always grateful to have a closet full of clothes. And that’s how I feel about these days with my kids — grateful.”


Don’t worry Cynshea fans! She’s still available for catering jobs, something she welcomes and adores as a way of balancing her two passions: her family and cooking (in that particular order).

3 replies on “The Truth about SAHMs (Stay-at-Home Moms)”

  1. I have been a SAHM for about 5 years. I spend an average of 6 hours a day in my car. I think the question “What do you do all day?” should be regarded as the epitome of rudeness. Would you ask a woman how much she weighs or how old she is? “What do you do all day?” is in the same category.

  2. We’re all working parents, aren’t we? The pay is just a little different for stay-at-home moms and dads. I recognize it’s a privilege to be able to stay at home, but a big part of the decision was when we calculated the numbers and found that my full-time job did not provide enough income to cover the expenses of quality child-care for the 4 months of time when my 2 children would be out of school (i.e., summer/winter/spring breaks, inevitable sick days, and other days off). Those of you who pay day-care know the cost for the first 2 years of your child’s life is at least double. It was the logical decision for us. At my age (40+), many of my contemporaries have established careers with well-deserved incomes and titles to match. I know future job interviews will require a little more salesmanship and self-promotion to compete for more entry-level positions with 20-30 somethings (who all seem to have master’s degrees these days!). If anyone out there would like to help fund my continuing education, please let me know! Now that both children are in school full-time, I hope all those hours volunteering for arts, education, and social services groups will be valued in addition to my former professional work experiences. Best of luck to all of us, as we try to raise our children the best we can. Modern-day parent fantasy: frequent-driver mileage points for all the extracurricular events or classes (sports, music, art, etc.)!

  3. I have been on both sides of the fence–as both a SAHM and a full-time working (outside the home) mom. So, I can relate to both. But I have to be brutally honest–Why are SAHM’s spending so much time in their cars chauffeuring kids around? I think the research is pretty clear now that kids don’t need, and can even be harmed, by participating in all of these extra-curricular activities. Is this really the best use of everyone’s time? I do sometimes wonder if SAHMs feel that they have to have this long this of places to shuttle their kids around to, in order to justify staying at home. If you want to stay home, stay home, but it shouldn’t be so that you can drive all over kingdom come. The time might be better spent developing neighborhood social networks so that kids can learn how to just play in the neighborhood and have fun.

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