Sunday, January 25, 2009

A “Giggle Job” at Williams-Sonoma Kept Me Sane

Ignore the date, above. The following is an article from my "archives." A version of this essay appeared in my book, The Stay-at-Home Survival Guide.

By Melissa Stanton

The company I worked for when my first child was born allowed parents (both mothers and fathers) to take up to a year of unpaid leave to care for a new child. It's a wonderful benefit, for people who can afford to take it. After much agonizing about finances and my career viability, I decided that I would, to care of my newborn son. But as every mother knows, not going to work doesn't mean not working. And very soon into my leave I realized that while going to a job everyday is hard, it's not as hard as having a baby attached to you everyday—all day—when you're on the phone, when you're sitting, when you're standing, when you're walking, when you're eating, when you're going to the bathroom. I started to miss my job simply because it allowed me to do all those things alone.

Several of my friends were on maternity leave when I was. We shared the same lament: We like to work, and for various reasons (ranging from economic to psychological) we need to work, but with new babies to care for, we just weren't up to working at a job that had any real responsibilities or hours, or required any sort of a commute. High on our list of fantasy jobs: Working at a nice store in our town.

It turned out that my child-bearing and stir-craziness were well-timed, for two months after I gave birth, Williams-Sonoma, the elegant kitchenware chain, opened a store one mile from my home. In November they started hiring temporary help for the holidays. My son was four months old by then, and I was becoming desperate for some semblance of independence. I decided that for my mental well-being (my sanity!) I needed to work at Williams-Sonoma.

I knew the manager, so I asked her if she would consider letting me work extremely part-time. She hired me for one weekday evening and one weekend day a week. My salary: $6.50 an hour.

As a holiday sales associate my uniform was Williams-Sonoma's signature apron, which I wore over pants and a turtleneck, so dressing for work was simple. I got to wander around the store's stockroom (imagine a fabulous, well-stocked pantry) and stand behind the checkout counter. It was like playing store. I found it fun. And I relished the fact that for at least eight hours a week for six full weeks I was able to leave my house without my child in tow. At Williams-Sonoma I got to talk to adults, spend hours in a festive place, sample good food, do my Christmas shopping--and shop vicariously through customers who needed my help spending their money. Best of all, I had a job that truly stayed at the office. I daydreamed about not going back to my magazine job in the city, which required a three-hour roundtrip commute every day, so I could work minutes from home at Williams-Sonoma.

My mom friends were envious. The stay-at-homes wished their husbands, like mine, would take care of the baby (or kids) so they could go to work for fun. The mothers with demanding full-time jobs outside the home fantasized about, as one friend put it, being able to have a "widget job." (i.e. A non-managerial job that starts and ends at set times and doesn't require bringing home work every night.) While I thought of the job as my "sanity job," another friend, a stay-at-home mother of two who joined me in pursuing a temporary retail career, dubbed her Williams-Sonoma gig her "giggle job."

Either name would fit. After all, she and I (and it turns out some other part-timers) were working for fun (giggles) in order to escape from our daily lives. We were not working for the money. In fact, considering what many of us spent "saving" money with our 40 percent employee discount, we were paying Williams-Sonoma to let us work there. I knew I was lucky not to be dependent on the job for my livelihood, or even for extra cash. If that were the case, working day after day on my feet on retail's frontlines, especially during the holidays, would not be all fun, relaxing and giggle-inducing. Separate from providing me with a refuge, part of the fun of the job for me was probably that it was new, temporary, and optional.

But I did have fun. I enjoyed restocking and arranging merchandise on the store's shelves. I got a kick out of selecting the perfect sized box or bag for a customer's purchase. I loved the challenge of the cash register: Would the shopper be paying by cash, credit card, check, gift certificate? Would they want the item shipped? Were they making a return? Each type of transaction required a different procedure. The variety kept me energized. While I was exhausted after a day at the store, it wasn't the same draining type of exhaustion I felt after a full, non-stop day with my baby. Being away from him for even those few hours recharged me, and helped me better enjoy my time with him. (It also allowed my husband time alone with our child, and gave him a taste of the good and the bad that comes with being the primary caregiver.) But when the holidays were over, so was the job. I was sad to leave.

I went back to my full-time magazine job and long commute two days before my son’s first birthday. When the holiday season approached that year, I thought about signing up for another temporary stint at the store, but in fairness to my son and my husband, and myself, I didn't. Still, I did tell the manager to call me if the store got real busy and she needed extra help. She never called, which was probably for the best. The point of working at Williams-Sonoma for me was to keep sane, not make me insane.

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