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Jennifer Ball Headshot

Mama, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Housewives

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A few nights ago, I stepped knee-deep into a pile of Mommy Wars. Thankfully, it was a wholly internal incident, so the only witness to my slip into the eternal debate between working moms and stay-at-home moms was me.

But still... it was unsettling. You know me, right? I'M SWITZERLAND. I'm a very Kumbaya kinda lady. If what you're doing isn't hurting anyone, keep right on doing it and I'm not gonna judge. That's what I thought about myself, until the other night.

Cut to the CAbi party I attended Tuesday evening. We will wait until a later date to discuss the fact that I am way too fat and way too poor to even BE at a CAbi party, OK? For now, let's just focus on the fact that I was there. Along with a few of my really good friends, some I've known since I was a fresh, young stay-at-home mom.

So, we watched the presentation, ooohed and aaaahed over the clothing. Honestly, it's cute stuff, and if I had a few less chins and few thousand more dollars, I'd be all over it. Instead, I focused on the huge bowl of Greek pasta salad and the red wine. Because, it was free. And delicious.

Then the chatting started. Some of us hadn't seen each other for a while, so the gabbing was catch-up talk. Where are your kids going to school, how's your hubby, and that one question that starts coming up when mommies of a certain age get together:

"And what are you doing these days?"

Which is code for: Are you working at all or are you still "just" a stay-at-home mom?

Now, as I have stated before, I'm not one to judge a woman by what she does all day. Or so I thought. Because when I overheard one mom, who happens to have two adult children (her youngest is my oldest's age, 19), reply to that question by saying, "I'm still just a slave to my family!", I felt something so foreign and cold and icky... no, it wasn't my ex-husband rubbing up against me...

It was judgment. I heard her say this, and something in me bristled. And a shrew-like voice in my head actually said these words:


(To clarify: I didn't say this out loud. Thank God.)

Almost immediately, I felt bad. I felt shameful and regretful and worst of all, I felt mean.

See, I like this woman. She's a great person who has raised great kids. And if her job of raising her family continues on despite the fact that her kids are, for all intents and purposes, raised, whose business is it? She is lucky to have that choice, to have the (yes I'll say it) LUXURY of not having to work outside the home. And that doesn't make her any more of a woman or any less of a woman than you or I.

I think what bothered me most about my knee-jerk reaction to her seemingly innocent statement was the sheer indignation I felt. It was only there for a moment, true... but the fact that it was there for even THAT long bothered me.

So much for my Kumbaya Lady status, huh?

Maybe one of the reasons it stirred such emotions in me is the fact that I once WAS her. I was the woman who was told by my husband, "You'll never have to work." Hell, even after our divorce, when things were still amicable and we still spoke and he still paid child support, we sat across from each other at a little sports bar and he said to me, "I don't understand why you got a job. You don't need to work."

Maybe another reason was due to the whole Opt In/Out discussion that's happening all over the freaking place. I read these stories with a somewhat jaundiced eye, seeing as I'm part a demographic which isn't discussed much at all... those of us who never had anything from which to Opt in or Out of at all.

Women like me didn't make an agonizing choice between a high-paying, satisfying career and motherhood. Women like me, we basically went from friends to parenthood without batting a well-mascaraed eyelash. Some of us have degrees, some of us never finished college. Some of us never started. We had small jobs, jobs that paid the rent and bought us cute Coach bags and paid for a few rounds of beers at the local tavern a couple nights a week. We had enough money for a new Lancome lipstick and highlights in our hair, and we were happy with that because we had boyfriends who paid for everything else.

These boyfriends became our husbands and then the fathers of our children. And most of us were told, like I was, that working wasn't something we had to worry our pretty little heads about. My ex and I used to lay in bed, after the kids had finally conked out and after the comfortable married sex happened, and we'd talk about The Future. We discussed remodels and vacation homes and golf and how crazy it would be when those four snoozing kids became teenagers. We talked about college and cars and sometimes we even talked about what would come after all of that... retirement and Florida or Arizona and even more golf.

What we never talked about was what would happen if he decided to leave us. What would happen to me, and our children, if he decided that the co-worker he had started screwing in parking lots after Happy Hour was his soul mate.

We never got around to having that discussion. And I think that might be what triggered such big feelings in me at the party that night.

I try to not dwell on the less-than-positive aspects of my life. There are slips, now and again, because I am only human and because even the crappiest parts of my life make me who I am. I think I do a good job of living in the here and now, and not thinking about all of the should-have-beens and the could-have-beens, although there are times when it happens.

Like when I'm sitting in a room full of chatty women, eating pasta salad and listening to a stay-at-home mom talk about her life. That's when I see things a little differently, with a little more emotion.

That's when I want to stand up, toss my fork aside and proselytize to these women, to all women who were and are like I once was: comfortable and safe and complacent in their roles as stay-at-home moms. I want to shake them and sit down with them and make sure they have a Plan B. And a Plan C, D, E and yes, even a Plan F. I want them to look at me, and my life, and the shit I've slogged through and see that you can Opt in or Opt out or Opt sideways and somehow still find yourself struggling just to make it from paycheck to paycheck.

I know that the majority of these women are going to be just fine. They lucked out, they chose wisely and ended up with solid men. Men who really do take care of them and who love them and their kids and want to stay with them until death truly doth part. But I know that there are some who aren't going to be just fine. Some will end up like me. I had great alimony and even better child support, and a five-year plan that would have left me with a house that was paid off and plenty of time to think about finishing my education. And then, after about a year and half, it all stopped. My ex left his high-paying job and therefore, left me almost penniless. I lost my house, my credit and for a while... my confidence and dignity and hope. It didn't have to be that way. It never should have been that way.

I want to make sure that what happened to me doesn't happen to my daughter. And the daughters of my friends.

I was sitting on my best friend's couch the other day. One minute we were laughing about something trivial and the next minute I surprised both of us by bursting into tears. I know, I know... me crying isn't a surprise. This time, though, it was.

I had just spent the morning sending out emails to the hockey association my youngest son plays in. Last year, they graciously allowed him to play via a scholarship. Only the details of the scholarship were never really ironed out, which was as much my responsibility as theirs. I was so desperate to have my sweet boy play, play this damned expensive sport that is so out of reach for poor kids. This sport that he loves. One of the player's moms was the Team Manager, and it's her job to take care of the financial end of things. Which meant she had to deal with my broke ass.

There was some confusion as to how many of William's expenses were covered, and how much there was leftover for me to pay. This woman, who I consider to be a good friend, ended up covering our last piddly expenses out of her own pocket. Verklempt? Yes, I was, along with grateful. She sent an email asking if I would be able to pay her back, which I of course said YES to. The kicker was, and I had to explain this to her, if I wrote her a check she'd have to wait until Friday to cash it.

"I only have $35.00 in my checking account right now," I typed. "So, it's in both of our best interests if you wait until Friday to deposit it." I think I added something lighthearted or semi-funny in an attempt to soften the pathos, but sweet baby Jesus. It was that moment where I felt myself just kind of break. Hence, the weeping on my friend's couch.

The reason I'm in this situation, this bleak financial one, isn't my ex-husband's fault. Oh, there is no question about it, he made certain choices that helped me get here, but ultimately, the blame for all of it: for the desperation, the worry, the scrambling, all of it... lies squarely on my shoulders.

I should have had a career. Or should have learned a trade, or honed a talent. I should have had a Plan B of my own before I settled into my short-lived role as a housewife and a stay-at-home mom. I should have finished that last year and half of college, if for no other reason than now I'd be able to check the box that says "college" instead of the one that says "some college." I should have been able to respond to my then-husband's statement "You don't have to work," with, "Yeah, but if I ever do have to work, I'll be OK."

I also find myself with one surprising feeling here... a weird sort of respect for that woman my ex used to have those secret parking lot liaisons with. The day he moved out of our family home, he moved in with her. And she immediately took to finishing her degree, while she had him there to pay the bills. She may be a home wrecker, but the girl isn't dumb. I'll give her that, along with my ex-husband. And my retirement.

But I digress. I did have a point when I started this post, and it was this:

No matter what you do in life, whether you aspire to career greatness or whether you embrace motherhood and housekeeping with open arms, or whether you find yourself doing both of these things at the same time, do it well. Do it with everything you have, with all your heart and with great gusto. But do it wisely.

Don't ever make the same mistake I did and put your life in someone else's hands. And always, always, ALWAYS have a Plan B.

Tell your daughters and your granddaughters and all the other girls in your life this: It's OK to fall in love and have babies and be the homemaker. It's also OK to go to law school or business school or medical school or to beauty school or trade school. In fact, it's more than OK if you want to do BOTH. Better than OK... it's the smart thing to do. Tell our girls that they really can have it all, but ALL on their terms.

I never, ever want my daughter to write an email pleading with someone to hold off on cashing a check because she only has $35 dollars to her name. I never want her to look at her own children and have to say "No, I'm sorry, we can't afford that," over and over again. I want her to find herself and her passions, whether it's at a four-year college or at a community college or at a school that's sandwiched between a Chipotle and a Starbucks at a strip mall. I want her to have something, ANYTHING she can fall back on if she finds herself falling at any point in her life. I want my girl to have a Plan B. No matter how amazing and lovely her Plan A ends up being.

As for me? I'll be OK. I need to finish my schooling, which is something I should have started doing the second my husband left me. I have eleventy-million excuses why I didn't: I was scared, my kids were traumatized, blah blah blah. One thing I have learned, even without a degree, is that you're never too old to start anew.

Today, I got an official full-time job. The first full-time job I've had since my first sweet baby was born over 19 years ago. It's a real job, with vacation time and sick days and health insurance. Just writing this brings tears of joy to my eyes, tears of pride and relief. I'm not going to be making much money, I might even have to figure out a way to supplement my new income.

But dammit, it's a job. It's all mine, and I did it myself.

I finally found my Plan B.

This post originally appeared on Jennifer's blog, The Happy Hausfrau