Stay-at-home Parenting in the DIY Generation

When I talk about homeschooling with peers who are parents, or those who are planning their families, there are a couple things that come up a lot. Mostly these two issues: First, economics — how do you support a household on one income, to afford one parent at home? And second, the issue of ambition and career — do people want to be a stay-at-home parents in the first place?

There are big differences in the economic realities that my husband and I reside in today as compared to my parents at our age.  My parents met in college, where my mom was pursuing a diversified major to become an elementary school teacher, and my dad had graduated with a major in biology and was earning his teaching credential. My dad taught biology in public high school for over 30 years as his career, and although my mom earned a decent salary as an editor in educational publishing before they had their first child, she was a full-time mom and only a very part-time freelance writer thereafter.

It’s amazing to me that my parents made it work to buy a house, raise three kids, and travel every summer and spring break almost entirely on the single income of a public school teacher! Still, despite the relatively humble salary, health care costs were never a fear with Dad’s benefits, and the income and retirement security that he enjoyed were always grounding for our family.

In comparison, my husband and I met at art school and are both self-employed. We love our work, and we work a lot, then not so much, then a lot again. We have lived in two very expensive but culturally vibrant cities over the past ten years, in Oakland, CA, and Brooklyn, NY. We currently buy our own health insurance, for a pretty penny, and our net earnings fluctuate each year.

My father, as the family breadwinner, found his work to be mostly fulfilling and meaningful over the years. But for him, being a teacher was still a job in a way that’s different from how my husband and I feel about our creative work. For me, being an artist is an important identity, just as being a builder and designer is for my husband.

I opened this blog by stating that, for my mom, teaching my sisters and I at home was an ambitious, creative, and intellectually nourishing job. I never felt that she was giving anything up to be a stay-at-home mom. Would I feel the same?

me, mom & Mindy with flowers

Truthfully, I feel guilty asking. After all, I wanted to be a mom before it occurred to me to be an artist, or that that was a career. Besides, I love the domestic bliss of cooking with my husband, styling our apartment, or playing with our two cats. I even like folding laundry! In a lot of ways, I’m more a housewife-type than my mom was.  She was never the domestic-goddess, Martha Stewart, homemaker sort. Dad did most of the dinner prep, for example, before my sisters and I took over when we were teens. In fact, my mom actually kind of hates cooking!  Even back in the old journal she notes the annoyance of being attached to the kitchen:

kitchen rules, journal notes

Mom decides on some new kitchen rules: journal notes from Sept 10, 1987

* → The problem I am having is that all 3 kids want to eat little bits of food all around the clock. (Camille doesn’t eat often, but she doesn’t eat at all during “mealtime” & then wants food later.)

I guess when all 3 are well I’ll set up some new rules:

Breakfast 7:00-8:30 

at 8:30 KITCHEN IS CLOSED – EXCEPT FOR BEVERAGES

[Snack 10:00-10:30] Lunch 11:30-1:30

at 1:30 KITCHEN CLOSED – EXCEPT FOR BEVERAGES

[Snack 2:30-3:30]

 I hope it works!

Of course, continuous snacking would probably be annoying to even the most foodie-mom, but it was definitely a down-side for my mom.

Where does homeschooling fit, now, for my generation, in our moment of cultural obsession with DIY-domesticity? Homeschooling has always been popular with the back-to-the-land movement. Has the urban DYI, sustainable, local movement also seen a return to the stay-at-home mom? Households with one parent at home do seem to be back in vogue for my generation, at least as a value if not a practice. But how do we understand that desire with our current take on feminism, or the market forces that made a single income household a middle-class rarity?

Still, I wonder if the trend toward freelancing and start-ups, telecommuting and multiple part-time jobs offer my generation another entry point to having a parent at home?

I will say, whatever my husband and I decide is right when we have kids, we have the tremendous luck of a supportive family network, and that’s a blessing my mother had as well. My grandparents were present and wonderful, along with our extended family.  And because my dad was a public school teacher, he had summers off, holidays, and got home on most work days well in time to cook dinner!

me, dad and mindy

Here’s an excerpt from my mom’s journal that mentions my dad, Jim, being part of our afternoon at home:

* → Outdoor Play

I don’t know what they’re playing, but I have heard the word protoceratops!

Now they have involved me in their play: me & Jim are paleontologists, & they are our children, & they have found a bed of fossils. They are hammering at the dirt with croquet mallets & collecting pieces of rock (fossils) in a container. Mindy is so excited by this game!… Mindy comes in with 2 rocks: “Teeth!”

I ask, “Is the dinosaur a meat eater or a plant eater?”  Mindy holds up a rounded rock & says “Plant eater,” then holds up sharp rock & says “and a meat eater!”

I think at first glance our family structure may have looked old-fashioned in some ways, with my mom tending the kids at home, and my dad being the provider. But in reality, my parents had a lot of very progressive dynamics in their partnership that created a wonderful working balance.

Today, when I talk to friends with kids about education and their choices, the thing that’s obvious is that there’s no one good solution. There are so many things at play, and even different chapters for every family.  But perhaps an equally interesting takeaway on the issues that do come up when I talk to peers about homeschooling is what doesn’t come up. Homeschooling as an educational strategy seems to have mostly proven itself to people my age. The conversation is maybe less about if the kid will learn more in school, or at home. Of course what’s best for the kid is a huge concern! But I’m just commenting on how much of the conversation is about if the parents themselves are into it — if they want to be homeschooling parents or not, and how they would make it work.

In other words, the conversation my mom was having about homeschooling at my age was more focused on how to teach us outside of school, and if we would succeed and function in society with that education. Whereas, today, we’re on to other questions about homeschooling.

In closing, Emily Matchar’s article Is Michael Pollan a sexist pig? in Salon is a must-read for anyone who wants to reflect on feminism today in the context of our DIY-foodie movement’s messaging on domesticity. Homeschooling also makes a cameo in the middle of this fantastic article!  Read it.