Dear readers, I am embarking on an epic challenge. Today. This minute. I am going to attempt to answer the question that has been puzzling men and women alike for decades: What on earth do stay-at-home-moms do all day?
In all honesty, this question can be answered a thousand different ways. Some SAHMs have one kid and work from home while their sweet angel sleeps 15 hours per day; some have four kids, four nannies and a live-in housekeeper; some have nine children, all homeschooled, and life is loud and chaotic every minute of every day. No two SAHMs are exactly alike. But as for me, I dare say that I fairly-well represent the average SAHM, sitting smack-dab on the very top of the bell curve.
I have two kids. One boy, one girl. One first-grader, one preschooler. We homeschool part-time and co-op part time. We have a middle-class income, live in a middle-class neighborhood, and live a fairly middle-class lifestyle. We have an average 2000-square-foot home on a half-acre lot in the suburbs of the third-largest city in Tennessee. My husband drives a mid-size SUV and I have a mini-van. We use Groupons. Seriously, we’re about as average as you can get. Which is why I feel qualified to write this article and answer this age-old question with near-pristine accuracy.
To begin with, let me start by saying that no two five-minute time periods in a SAHM’s day are exactly alike, so when I say I’m going to explain my “typical” day, I’m going to be painting with pretty broad strokes. An average day will consist of a laundry list of possibilities, which is why, when people try to map it out in timeline form (7:15 – eat breakfast, 7:28 – clean up breakfast off the floor and off the dog), it doesn’t fairly depict what a day in the life of a SAHM (or dad, for that matter) actually looks like. So I’m going to be taking a different angle. Get comfy, kids. Here we go.
The first part of my day is generally the same as it is for most moms. I get up in the morning after anywhere from 0-8 hours of sleep, fix breakfast, get showered and dressed, start a load of laundry, empty the dishwasher and get the kids ready for the day. What happens beyond that is the seemingly unsolved mystery. So let me break it down for you into six general categories.
#1: I entertain my children. Let’s get this item on the table first and foremost b/c I get the feeling that this is the bulk of what people THINK we do all day. Yes, it’s true, we play board games and paint pictures and read books and watch movies. We go to the zoo, the park, the pool, the library, the splash pad, and the children’s museum. We have play dates and ride the trolley around town and eat ice cream at 10:00 in the morning. We drive to the mountains and have picnics in fields of wildflowers and frolic in rolling meadows and jump into chalk drawings and race in merry-go-round horse derbies. This is indeed one of the perks of being a SAHM. Usually it is pretty fun, and I generally enjoy this aspect of my job very much.
We SAHMs take our children on outings because we want them to experience the world around them and have fun doing it. But we also take our children on outings because keeping children cooped up in a house 24/7 with no social outlet or room to run around and play and let out their boundless energy is the quickest ticket to the insane asylum that I can think of. And while it seems to the outside viewer that all we’re doing is “playing,” we’re actually simultaneously running a three-ring circus. We leave the house packed with an arsenal of little-people necessities, including (but not limited to): lunch, snacks, drinks, changes of clothes, diapers, wipes, pacifiers, nursing covers, Band-aids, First-Aid kits and Knuffle Bunnies. We flawlessly manage children, strollers, diaper bags, backpacks, lunch coolers, sunscreen, cash, membership cards, directions, parking garages, naptime schedules and weather conditions. We’re office managers, administrative assistants, meteorologists and event planners, all rolled into one glorious unpaid position.
People often mistakenly assume that when we’re on outings with our girlfriends and their children that we get to have plenty of “mommy time” as well. My husband used to think this, too. He would come home from work and ask me how my play date earlier that day went with my friends.
“Fine.” I would say.
“Did Rachelle get back from her trip?” he would ask.
“How was it?”
“Good, I think.”
“Didn’t you two talk about it?”
“Well, in between fixing lunch and breaking up fights and me taking my kid potty and her taking her kid potty and bandaging bleeding elbows and breaking up more fights and figuring out whose turn it was on the swing set and getting someone a glass of water and someone else a tissue and circumventing a temper tantrum that someone threw because we wouldn’t get out the Slip-N-Slide on this balmy 65-degree day…yes, we talked about it. I think we had about five minutes-worth of actual conversation the entire time we were together. I know enough to know she had a good time. That’s about it.”
As a side note, mommy conversations should never be confused with the same quality of conversation between two adults when children aren’t around. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, just pick up the phone and call a mom who is home with young children. Get a stopwatch and calculate just exactly how much time you spend actually talking to that mom in the course of a 10-minute conversation. Or more accurately, calculate how much time she spends talking to you. Because really, while you’re talking to her, she’s on the other end of the phone giving the death look to at least one of her children, silently mouthing the words, “Get. Off. The. Top. Of. The. Refrigerator. NOW.” She’s not listening to a word you’re saying. So give that experiment a try, and then we can talk more about this subject at a later date.
Where was I? Oh, yes. So that’s the first thing we do. Let’s move on to number 2, shall we?
#2: I clean things. I clean yogurt off the wall and stepped-on blueberries off the floor. I clean peanut butter off bathroom sinks and orange juice out of hair. The amount of food that can end up not in a child’s mouth is unfathomable to the untrained parent. It’s everywhere. And you can’t slack on this task because certain dried-on foods (oatmeal, for example) basically require a sandblaster to remove them from your hardwood floor. Food clean-up must be dealt with regularly and expeditiously. Or else.
The cleaning list then continues beyond the scope of food. I also clean paint off the dishwasher and magic marker off the ceiling. I take toys out of the refrigerator and put them back where they belong. I sort millions of tiny pieces of Lego, Tinker Toys, doll accessories, board game accessories, crayons, plastic beads, wooden food, and plastic jewelry and return them to their rightful homes roughly twenty times a day. I dust, mop, sweep and scrub toilets on a semi-regular basis. If I’m feeling especially domesticated (which is rare), I vacuum. And generally, while I’m cleaning up one room, the children are making a gargantuan unsupervised mess in another. It’s a job that never, ever ends. A SAHM’s house is only ever clean if and when the children are either out of the house with someone else or unconscious. Otherwise, “clean” is a relative term that each mom learns to manage based on her personality type.
#3: I referee. The sad reality of small children is that they aren’t born knowing how to get along with other people. We get the privilege of teaching them to become socially-competent members of society. So I spend a good chunk of my days managing the injustices of the early childhood world. “It’s my turn on the computer!” “She ate my apple!” “He won’t play ‘puppy’ with me like he PWOMISED!!!” Some days I’m calm and patient, and we talk through our problems and learn how to solve them like rational human beings. I remind them about God’s great love for us and how He desires that we treat one another as better than ourselves, and that we should forgive one another. Other days, though, the incessant screaming is more than my noise-sensitive mommy ears can take and I banish them to their rooms for all eternity. It just depends.
#4: I take my children to the grocery store. This, my friends, is what separates the women from the girls, if you will. This is the the Mommy Olympics. If you can leave a grocery store on time, under budget and with as many kids as you came in with, you deserve a gold medal. A gold medal that no one will ever give you, though, so don’t get your hopes up.
Before we proceed, keep in mind that going to the grocery store with kids on rainy days, days when one or more kids are sick, or on Senior Discount Days are the worst of all rookie mistakes. If you are a new mom, heed my warning now. Staying up until midnight to go to the store alone will help you live longer and have lower blood pressure than if you try any of the above scenarios. Trust me on this one. Now, back to shopping.
Here’s what you have to do:
- Make a list.
- Make sure you buy everything on your list.
- Make sure you buy the RIGHT items on your list (because not just any old kind of organic, expeller-pressed, extra-virgin coconut oil will do, am I right?).
- Keep your kids from running away from you or getting kidnapped.
- Constantly, and in your most patient voice, remind them that breakable glass jars filled with sticky things like honey are for looking but not for touching.
- Find the “teachable moments” so that your children will be intelligent and well-rounded (This is a kumquat, children. What color is it? What does it smell like? What does it feeeeel like? What countries are kumquats grown in? Let’s ask Siri!).
- Push a cart full of groceries and, in my case, roughly 70lbs-worth of children, which are hanging from the front and sides of the cart, through the entire store without knocking over the toilet paper display in the center of the aisle.
- Sing songs and play games to keep them calm and happy during the duration of your shopping trip because otherwise, the looks (and sometimes comments) you get from the non-parent customers might just be the straw that breaks the frazzled camel’s back by the time you’re halfway through the store.
- Be strong and say no to the M&Ms and the Little Debbies and the chocolate chip cookie cereal and the Jell-O and the Matchbox cars strategically placed three feet off the ground at the end cap of every single aisle in the store.
- Do all of this while attempting to keep them from having a total meltdown in the middle of the store, which could happen at any moment for any reason (because children are emotional mine fields). And sweet Jesus help the mama who tries to do this while using coupons.
Once you’ve finished your shopping, you head to the checkout aisle, where you:
- Watch to make sure your groceries ring up correctly AND
- Keep the children from adding candy to the conveyor belt AND
- Let them help take the eggs out of the cart AND
- Say no to the lollipop that the cashier is offering them AND
- Calmly and gently navigate the temper tantrum that ensues from said lollipop denial AND
- Remember your coupons AND
- Count out correct change.
All at the same time. Keep in mind that this is also usually when any child between the ages of three and six has to go potty RIGHT NOW. Once you’ve managed all that, then you have to:
- Get through the parking lot with children holding on to either you or the cart while you push through a sea of cars (half of which are driving in reverse and can’t see your children).
- Get the children in the car.
- Get the groceries in the car.
- Get the cart returned while never taking your eyes off the car (kidnappers, you know).
- Get in the car.
- Drive home.
- Unload the groceries (while the children “help”).
- Sit down and rest for a few minutes.
Okay, that last bullet was a joke. By this point the kids are hungry again and need food. Which brings me to the next item on my list.
#5: I cook. My family doesn’t eat much processed food, so I cook a lot. My kids get the occasional snack out of a package because I only have so much sanity in me, but as far as most of the meals in our house go, they’re all on me. Between preparing meals and cleaning them up, I easily spend a minimum of three hours per day in the kitchen. Minimum. And on any given moment of any given day, at least one child will be disgusted by the same meal that was her “favorite food ever” just the day before. Children’s likes and dislikes when it comes to food are a constantly-moving target, so I spend a hearty portion of my day managing food-related temper tantrums and trying to avoid power struggles.
The best part of this aspect of my job is wading through the advice on how to handle food-related issues with children. If I don’t handle it this way, my children will grow up malnourished because they will only eat peanut butter and banana sandwiches and pickles for the rest of their lives. If I don’t handle it that way, then my children will grow up and rebel against everything I’ve ever taught them and will be either morbidly obese or anorexic, and it will be all my fault. There’s a lot riding on whether or not I should make the kid eat the plate of eggs in front of him or just fix him a sandwich, and the stress of it all is something nobody tells you about before you have kids.
But I digress.
The basic act of feeding children is almost a full-time job in itself. People with newborn babies often ask me, “When do they stop eating every two hours?” I tell them, “Not until they’re at least 18.” Children’s bodies are constantly growing, so moms are constantly feeding and constantly cleaning up the aftermath of each meal and snack (see Item #2). If you’re a new SAHM, get used to the idea of being a 24-hour food factory. UNLESS, of course, you have the kind of kid that never eats anything. Ever. This type of child is just as common as the former; however, I have exactly zero experience in this arena, so I can’t help you. Just know that I know you’re out there, dear mama, and your plight is huge. Support groups are available. Help is just a phone call away.
#6: I teach. In the midst of the cooking and the cleaning and the shopping and the playing and the surviving, every moment of my day holds the opportunity for teaching. I teach my children to walk. To talk. To talk correctly. To sleep. To use the potty. To bathe. To bathe correctly. To not hit each other. To use their inside voices. To not scream at mommy. To write their letters and numbers. To read. To pray. To ride a bicycle. To color inside the lines. To color outside the lines. To sweep the floor. To take out the trash. To do laundry. To clean up after themselves. To swim. To brush their teeth. To get along with people. To see themselves as God sees them. To be humble. To be generous. To be gracious. To be trustworthy.
I teach them about why the sky is blue and who George Washington was. I teach them that, even though The Wiggles are cool, John Denver and Rich Mullins are way cooler. I teach them that living life is better than watching it on TV. I teach them that dirt is made to dig in. I teach them that their daddy is the best man on the planet. I teach them to love books. I teach them, not that they can be anything they want to be, but to discover who it is that God made them to be. I teach them that mommies make a lot of mistakes. I teach them to ask for forgiveness. I teach them that life is best lived with eyes wide open. I teach and I teach and I teach…and I teach some more. And when I’m not teaching, I’m answering any one of the 875 questions they ask on a daily basis. Oh, wait. That’s still teaching. Never mind.
I teach and I teach and I teach, all the while hoping that they will retain. Worried that I’m not doing enough, or that I’m doing it wrong. Feeling like their entire physical, emotional, cognitive and spiritual well-being has been entrusted to me and it doesn’t really take that much to destroy any or all of those things. That’s when I teach them about God’s goodness and His grace and His mercy and His compassion and His sovereignty and His trustworthiness. And I teach them what it looks like to surrender everything into His care.
In all honesty, this list could go on just about forever. I still haven’t even covered the “Getting Kids In And Out Of The Car” issue, which literally takes up hours of a SAHM’s life, especially in the winter. But I think I’ve fairly-well covered the basics. Without question, this job has a lot of down sides. I don’t get much adult interaction, I don’t get much time off, I never get lunch breaks, I take my work with me on vacations, I don’t always get sick days when I need them, I don’t receive raises or accolades, and my job requirements are constantly changing without warning. But it’s also just about the most incredible, rewarding, inspiring thing a person can do.
I’ve heard that staying home with my kids is a waste of my college education. I’ve heard that I’m not living up to my intellectual potential. I’ve heard that I’m giving in to the defeminization of women and kowtowing to the masculine domination of society.
I say call it whatever you’d like. I’m spending my days with the most important people in my life, the most treasured gifts I could ever be given. And while most days my clothes are covered in sidewalk chalk dust and my hair is disheveled and my make-up is smeared and my house looks like a bomb went off in it, I take great pride in the work I do and will continue to be ever so grateful for the seeds I’m planting in the rich, fertile soil of my young children’s hearts and minds. It is a sweet, precious gift from The Maker himself to be a mother, and even though many days I can understand why some species eat their young, I can honestly say that I wouldn’t trade my work for anything under the sun.
What do YOU do all day?