When the magic elf takes a day off

The Inner Struggle of Magic Elf versus Self


Recently, I was asked by two professional women “Where are your kids during the day when you are working?”

“Two of the three are in elementary school and one is in full-time preschool.”

“But what happens after preschool? I mean, do you get home in time to get her from preschool?”

“No, she is in aftercare.”

“Oh, I would need to stay home with my kids until they are in school full-time. I wouldn’t want someone else to always be watching them.”

They each concur and say, “I don’t know how you do that…” Insert tone of disapproval and eyes gazing away in discomfort since I am clearly a monster for subjecting my three year old to this fate. (My husband has never had a conversation like this, by the way, nor can he imagine having one…topic for another blog).

The funniest thing is, I used to say that before I had kids! I used to say “What’s the point in having kids if you aren’t going to enjoy them?  When I have kids, I won’t be one of those women whose kids are in daycare all day.” Well said! Spoken like a person who has never had a child! I really laugh inside remembering these words.

Does anyone ever consider that women may not have an option to stay home? It is wonderful for those who have the privilege of making that decision, but for most women, their salary maybe necessary to live in a better school district or to buy healthier food. What about single mothers? Do we expect those women to stay home and perhaps, in some situations, on food stamps or do we make exceptions in our judgement as they don’t have another person to rely on?

Perhaps a woman finds her work fulfilling and sees it as contributing to society – a value that children need.  Should she likes staying home more? Will that make her more virtuous as a woman? Do we need to consider what we are role-modeling to our children – both boys and girls?

When I was growing up, my mom liked to work (and it was also necessary for financial reasons).  She made home-cooked, nutritious, meals every night for dinner, delicious lunches for school, kept the house immaculately clean, sewed & knitted my clothes, and spent so much time with me that I actually rejoiced when my baby sister was born so that attention would be shifted elsewhere. (It was not until adulthood I noticed the critical issues of time to relax and relationship with spouse were sacrificed.)  It appeared I could have children and run a household well.

However, that was not my dream.  Until I met my husband, it was to practice refugee medicine in third world countries, travel, never marry or have kids. That ended the first week of medical school…again, enter to-be husband.  My plans contorted to this new development but I could not imagine giving up that vital “medical” part of myself.  Was the “right” thing for me to give up those plans so my children could be raised “the right way?” (What, by the way, is that?) And why don’t we expect Dads to stay home? Is this stereotype ever going to cease to exist? Because reversing it would just be reverse discrimination.

For stay at home moms, watching your children develop on a daily basis could be the most rewarding thing.  A few of my best friends have done this beautifully and with great joy. They are the ones that make meals and desserts that put Martha Stewart to shame. Their arts and crafts could be televised. And I do envy the fact that they never have to worry about how their child will get home from preschool or camp.

Unfortunately, I tried to do it for four months and found out it was not for me.  My oldest daughter was 16 months at the time and I was pregnant with our second child.  Surprisingly, exhaustion got in the way of elaborate meals, as did the ever-present suicidal tendencies of my toddler.  She was too little for the arts and crafts or much of anything interesting to this adult. Making sure she did not eat playdough in amounts leading to intestinal obstruction was the highlight of our days. I was bored out of my mind.  And although I hate to admit it, the aspect I hated the most was the lack of appreciation for what I was doing. It was the “magic elf” phenomenon – the house was always clean, food was always on the table, laundry was folded but no one questioned how much work it took to accomplish this. I suppose this is my own personal personality flaw, but it is really nice to be acknowledged for completing the daily mundane tasks necessary to run a household.  Instead, my husband came home and relaxed, because he had been working all day and was tired. (When I went back to work full-time almost eight years after completing my residency, he actually said “I’m proud of you for finally getting a grown-up job.” So there you have it – what men really think about women who stay home/work part-time.)

Children and husbands know when the mama is not happy. Both relationships suffer. I concluded: Why be a martyr? Is what you are doing what you want to be doing or is it what you think is expected of you?  Do you want your kids to notice that stay-at-homedom is not the highlight of your life? Because they won’t be able to tell the difference about where your dissatisfaction stems from : “serfdom” or motherhood. And there is no way in hell I want my girls to think even for a second that I don’t love being their mother more then anything. Just not to the exclusion of being who the whole of me is. Resenting your spouse for getting to pee privately multiple times per day is not good for the kissy-kissy part of your relationship either.

Back to work I went after the birth of Maddie, and yes it was hard. That is how I ended up working part time. But no matter how hard the logistics of chores and childcare were, it was nothing compared to being a magic elf. Who knew it can be lonely with only small children around you all day? There are so many surprises that deromanticize parenting once you are a parent.  There is no way of writing them all down and there is no way to really, empathetically understand them until you experience it yourself.  It is not fun. Having said that, parenting is a joy that makes your heart explode. (No fun, all joy…pretty sure a book just came out to that effect).

So, when we judge each other it seems the message we are sending is : you should stay home with your children or not have children at all. And women are smart so they should be in the workforce.  If we run with this argument of smart women going to work and not having kids, the consequence could be the end of humanity.  Hmmm…

Why not support each others’ endeavors, realize it is difficult both ways. Know that the system has flaws that make this balance a huge challenge. Having kids is hard. PERIOD. Let’s recognize there is value in different approaches and that the “right” way is as personal as personal beliefs about God or magic elves.

11 thoughts on “The Inner Struggle of Magic Elf versus Self

  1. Julia Romanow says:

    Really LOVE this Ladies!!

  2. I think empathy helps in just about every aspect of life. If you work, put yourself in the stay-at-home mom’s shoes (the real deal, not the idealized version). If you stay home, think about what it’s like to work and juggle kids, too. Be kind and support each other along the way. This motherhood thing is HARD.

    Thanks for writing this, Anna!

  3. Yes! The bottom line is what you said so well:

    “Why not support each others’ endeavors, realize it is difficult both ways. Know that the system has flaws that make this balance a huge challenge…”

    Let’s cut ourselves, and each other, some slack.

  4. Having done it all…. stay at home, work full time, work part time, I TOTALLY agree with this! It ‘s been my experience that you have to believe what you’re doing is the most important thing you can do and allow yourself to deal as you can with the TOTAL lack of appreciation from so many regarding the awesome person you become on the journey! I also believe that Moms are sooo much smarter than anyone else…. the adversity (think cooking supper with a huge headache, missing your child’s first (fill in the blank) molds and teaches us so much! Congrats to all the super women out there….”working or stay at home”.

  5. I have been on the receiving end of those judgmental comments. I wish we could just get to the place where we recognize every woman, family and situation is different and we are all just trying to make the best the decisions possible. Someday ….

  6. There are many ways to be a “good enough” mom. Let’s support each other so we have the strength and energy to do the best we can. Our role in life is not to judge others but to “Always do your best.” (The Four Agreements). Best to each of you.

  7. You put it really well, Anna — I love your post and totally relate. Yes, we need far less judgment and far more acceptance and support. As you say, motherhood is challenging, period.

    Today’s work environments are also challenging. And the more we (as parents) speak up/push for changes that suit our individual needs, the more likely the workplace will shift. I’ve seen many women drop out of the workforce not because they want to stay home but because their work environment just didn’t jive with family life. There are certainly exceptions, but our work culture in the U.S. isn’t so family-friendly. Ugh.

  8. CC Fowler says:

    So very well said Anna. Having been in the same shoes I can only commend you for your approach. Do what is best for you and only you and the family.

  9. Thank you for the comments and support! I hope we will all continue this conversation on a larger scale. Perhaps for our daughters’ and sons’ generation, it will inspire meaningful system change.

  10. Great post. Even though I work as a full time lawyer, I am still expected to be the magic elf at home. When things start to slide, my husband makes comments, to which I respond that he can certainly go do it himself. That ends the conversation, but I still feel guilty because I am letting things slide at home.

  11. Like the previous posters, I agree with your post entirely. I’ve also heard the “I’d never leave my child to be raised by strangers” comments. I find comments like these highly offensive. I would never leave my child with a stranger. I would, however, leave her with a provider I’ve interviewed and gotten to know, who has the right credentials. When you find the right child care provider(s), they become family to your children. I think the negative comments about childcare often stem from a mother’s own insecurity about her “job” or role within the family.

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