Monday, January 19, 2009

Mom Writer's Literary Magazine Interview with Melissa Stanton

Mom Writer's Literary Magazine, COVER FEATURE, Winter 2008/2009

Melissa Stanton: Sometimes It’s OK to Not Love Being a Stay-at-Home Mom
by Kris Underwood
"It definitely doesn't mean we're bad mothers."

Stay-at-home-moms. The “Mommy Wars.” Sentimental mommy-lit. The role of the stay-at-home mom has been somewhat looked down upon and criticized by media, society and other women, begging the old question: What do you do all day? It is often seen as “not a real job,” when in fact, it is very real, just not in the traditional view of the paid workforce.

The Stay-at-Home Survival Guide by Melissa Stanton speaks
volumes without being preachy, overtly tongue-in-cheek or feeding the “Mommy Wars.” Instead, there is an element of support throughout the book that is relative to all aspects of motherhood, whether you are SAHM (stay-at-home mom), WAHM (work-at-home mom), or a mother re-entering the workforce.

Formerly a senior editor at People and LIFE magazines, Melissa
made the decision to stay home and care for her three kids. It was a process of readjustment, reassessment and adaptation – such are the constants of motherhood. In regard to what she hopes women
will take away from the book, she says this: “If there’s one thing I hope women will learn from this book, it’s that it’s OK to sometimes not love being a stay-at-home mom. It doesn’t mean we don’t love our children. It doesn’t mean we’d make a different choice if we had a do-over. It definitely doesn’t mean we’re bad mothers. Few people like their job every minute of the day. The same goes for the job of being a stay-at-home mom.”

MWLM: How was the transition from being a senior editor at People magazine to a stay-at-home mom for you personally?

MS: At first, I felt a huge sense of relief at having finally made the decision to stay home with my son. In many ways,
those initial few weeks were like a vacation. It got tougher when I began to realize that my identity and social contacts had been turned upside down. My employed mom friends and I didn’t relate to each other as we once had, and the stay-at-home women I spent time with in those early days didn’t have the experience of leaving a high-level career or job they really enjoyed. It took a while for me to meet women who, like me, had mixed feelings about not being in the workforce. It took time to make new friends based on a stay-at-home mom kinship. However, it was those friendships that helped me survive my career-to-home transition and my many in-the-trenches days once I became pregnant with twins and was a literally housebound-stay-at-home mom. Still, despite my support network, I did and sometimes still do feel as if I’ve disappeared. When my husband’s job required us to move out-of-state, I became further isolated. I did no paid work for four years. Fortunately, the book, my renewed freelancing and new relationships have helped me reemerge.

MWLM: How did the choice to stay home come about?

MS: When my son was born, I took a one-year unpaid leave from my editing job at LIFE magazine. When I returned to work I negotiated a four-day week, albeit with a pay cut. Within a few months I was offered and accepted the job at People. While I got to keep my four-day week, I worked late at the office and/or logged in again from home. The
commute between my Manhattan office and New Jersey home took at least three hours a day. I saw my son, who was cared for by a nanny, for barely an hour a day.

When the dot.com boom crashed, my husband was laid off by his Wall
Street-area employer. He accepted a job in Baltimore, which is where he would live during the week, coming home only on weekends. Because Tuesday, September 11, 2001, was going to be his last day at work before leaving for Baltimore, he decided to go in late. Because he did, his World Trade Center-bound train was diverted to a different station. When the towers fell he had to run from the cloud of debris.

Due to my son starting preschool, I had taken the week off from work. Five of the 10 students in my child’s class had parents who would have been in or near the towers had they not stayed home or gone in late due to the preschool start. The experience made me reassess my life. I was about to become a weekday single mother, with a now even worse commute (due to the post-9/11 train problems). I would have to juggle a heavy workload due to both the season and recent layoffs at the magazine. I knew I’d need to sneak out of the office by 6 p.m. in order to relieve my nanny, and I’d have to log back in to work after putting my son to bed. A year earlier a fellow employed mom had left my company in order, she said, to have a family-friendlier career. When I reacted to her news by saying I was too afraid to quit my job, she explained that she was no longer letting her fear of the future get in the way of her present. I decided to follow her lead and do the same by living and working in a different way.

MWLM: How do you “survive” being a stay at home mom?

MS: A very committed stay-at-home mom who homeschools her children congratulated me for writing a book that “encourages women to embrace stay-at-home motherhood.” I corrected her that my book is not about “embracing” stay-at-home motherhood. I hadn’t embraced stay-at-home motherhood; I had survived and adapted to it. For me, the key was having and making mom friends, and participating in activities beyond caring for my house and kids. (I volunteered a lot, at high levels, to keep my mind active, use my professional skills and meet people.) I also started to look at stay-at-home motherhood as a job, not purely a lifestyle.

In the beginning, I felt bad for quitting
my job. I felt insecure and guilty about being financially dependent. I felt I was a failure for not being able to “have it all.” Then I realized that my past career and earnings are part of what has made it possible for my family to have the life we do, and I realized that my husband has the career and family he wanted because I put aside my ambitions and became the primary caregiver of our children and manager of our home. I work to support a family just as much as he does.

Another survival technique was to make clear that since my husband’s workday has an end, mine as a stay-at-home
mom of preschoolers needed to have an end as well. As a result, when my husband arrived home at around 7 p.m., he took over being in charge of the kids. After dinner, I’d go off and handle the e-mails and bills and paperwork that come with managing a family of five. I also “survived” by realizing that my stay-at-home mom career, which my family and I have been fortunate to have, would comprise just a few years out of what I hope will be a long life full of new experiences and opportunities.

MWLM: Who has influenced you as a mother?

MS: As a mother, I’ve been influenced by the experiences of the women who came before me in my family. In many ways, I feel I’ve learned mostly from their hardships. I’ve gained insight into how not to lose myself to my husband and kids, and about the importance of maintaining friendships and protecting my financial security.

MWLM: Where did the idea for The Stay-at-Home Survival Guide come from? Inspirations?


MS: After I emerged from a five year fog in which I quit my job, became pregnant with twins, was on bed rest while
caring for a toddler, managed a commuter marriage, was a weekday single mother of three, and then packed up and moved twice, I encountered a blitz of books lambasting women for “opting out” of the workforce to raise children.

These books included Get to Work by Linda Hirshman, The Feminine Mistake by Leslie Bennetts, To Hell with All That
by Caitlin Flanagan, and Mommy Wars, an anthology edited by Leslie Morgan Steiner. Among the assertions made: educated women who leave the workforce to be moms undermine all women; stay-at-home mothers are delusional about their finances and want to be cared for by men; at-home moms aspire to and are fully satisfied by domesticity. That wasn’t me, nor was it most of the stay-at-home moms I knew. While the authors make many valid points about the precarious status of women and the financial risks of stay-at-home motherhood, the tone of each book was largely condescending to women who were home full-time with kids. The other books I encountered about stay-at-home motherhood seemed to be either overly sentimental (“Being a mommy is the most fulfilling job I could ever have in my life”) or filled with slapstick (“The baby puked on me again”).

I felt stay-at-home mothers needed a book in which they could be heard and supported.
I sent a proposal called The
MotherHood: What It’s Really Like to Leave a Career and Become a Stay-at-Home Mom to at least two dozen agents and publishing houses. I was rejected by each one. Several said my writing and credentials were great, but they didn’t want to do a “stay-at-home mommy book.” If I had a “strong platform,” such as one aggressively arguing that mothers should stay home, I could develop a Mommy Wars grenade worthy of attention. But I don’t believe all mothers should stay home. Discouraged, I gave up on the book. Then, in March 2007, by an incredible stroke of dumb luck, Laura Mazer, an editor at Seal Press, a feminist imprint of Perseus Books, championed the idea of creating a book for stay-at-home moms. Laura had once been a stay-at-home mom. Her colleague, Brooke Warner, then the acquisitions editor, had been receptive to my book proposal when it landed on her desk as an unsolicited submission the previous fall. Despite her enthusiasm, Seal rejected the proposal. When Brooke contacted me a month later with a page of notes from Laura, she asked me to redo my pitch by giving the book more of a “how-to” spin. The Stay-at-Home Survival Guide title was Laura’s idea. My revised proposal was unanimously accepted by Seal’s board.

MWLM: How do you balance work and motherhood?

MS: When I was writing the book, I spent my days caring for my 4-year-old twins. I mostly worked at night, typically from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m., often later. Since I couldn’t have extended phone conversations during the day because of the kids, nor could the moms I was interviewing, we communicated by e-mail and I used the Internet for research. This academic year, my three children are all in full-day school. I now run errands and work from home while they’re gone. I stop at 3 p.m. for the bus pick-up and restart at 9 p.m. I am more efficient and productive in my work now than I ever was when I had a “real” job, which involved a commute, lunch outings and office distractions. (On the downside, I’m totally freelance and barely earn what I did my first years out of college!)

MWLM: History has been made this election year in several respects, but more specifically: an African-American man
on the Democratic ticket for president and a woman on the Republican ticket for vice president. Do you think the candidates addressed issues important to women, mothers and families? What do you think of all the media attention Sarah Palin received about her mothering experience? Do you think it’s relevant to the job? How do you think the scrutiny she got affects the chances of other women running for office?

MS: In a macro view, I think having Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin as the lead candidates in the race
for the White House means aspiring to the presidency is no longer the sole purview of white men. I don’t think Hillary Clinton’s candidacy was felled so much by sexism as it was by Obama’s appeal, the missteps of her campaign and concern about Bill Clinton’s past and present behavior, and future role. Many people, including those like me who think Hillary Clinton is more than qualified to be president of the United States, worried about reviving the partisan ghosts of the past.

While the barrier of a woman or non-white man being a serious contender for the While House has been broken, the barrier of being an open advocate for women’s rights and the needs of families was not similarly breeched. Senators Obama and Clinton perhaps feared that aggressively speaking out for women’s pay equity, better work-family policies, maternal health and reproductive rights—all of which they support—would label them as being too liberal. As a social conservative, Sarah Palin doesn’t appear to be a champion of those issues.

I personally feel that Sarah Palin’s selection was a cynical choice by John McCain to woo women and, more so, the
religious right. However, Palin’s ascent will hopefully quiet social conservatives’ assertions that women with children belong at home rather than in the workforce. And since Palin has an unwed, pregnant teenage daughter, the religious “right” will hopefully tone down some of its moral values rhetoric against “the left.” We can hope that, going forward, voters who supported Palin will also support (or keep quiet about) other women with small children who want to be both mothers and active participants in the world beyond their front doors.

If there’s any double-standard, I think it’s a partisan one. It’s interesting to me that when the Clintons first came on the
national scene in the early 1990s, Hillary was tarred for being a career woman, political operative and working mom. However, Dick Cheney’s wife, Lynne, has pursued a similar path, and as Second Lady was employed by the American Enterprise Institute think-tank, yet no one questioned the appropriateness of her career or political involvement. Early in the 2008 race Michelle Obama was criticized for being an ambitious career woman who was leaving her kids behind to join her husband on the campaign trail. She had to explain that their girls are cared for by her mother, and that she would leave home for only short periods of time. While Hillary Clinton was criticized for her superior tone and assertiveness during the presidential campaign, Sarah Palin earned praise for her similarly aggressive style.

The media was accused of being partisan or sexist for asking the
V.P. nominee, a mother of five with a new baby, about her amazing juggling act. One reason the question hasn’t been asked of men is that most every man who has run for high office has had older children or a stay-at-home wife who cares for his kids. Palin’s spouse wasn’t presented as a stay-at-home dad. I think the “what about the kids?” question should be asked of candidates and celebrities who tout their family credentials without addressing the realities of how they do it all. We live in a country where two incomes are often needed to get by. We gain useful knowledge by learning how successful individuals and families balance work and family (or don’t).

MWLM: You’re working on another book, a follow up to The Stay-at-Home Survival Guide. Can you tell us more about this? Can we expect anything else in the near future?

MS: Several of my readers have encouraged me to produce a similar, intelligent yet conversational “guide” along the
lines of The Stay-at-Home Mom’s Survival Guide to Rejoining the Paid Workforce. (That’s a working title.) One of the biggest anxieties stay-at-home moms have is whether or not they’ll be able to reenter the workforce when or if they need or want to. Women are unsure about how to explain their absences from the workforce. They worry about convincing dubious employers that their brains and professional skills didn’t disappear because they took time to care for children. At the moment, I’m doing research and preparing a proposal for publishers. If any former stay-at-home moms want to share their “comeback” experiences, please write to me at mel@lifesupportformoms.com

Kris Underwood is an editor at Mom Writer’s Literary Magazine and has had poetry appear in several publications
including MotherVerse, mamazine.com and Poetry Midwest. Other writing is featured at MotherVerse blog: Mothering Out Loud and Moms Speak Up. She writes simply because it helps keep her sane among the chaos. For more information, please visit her personal blog, Writing In The Mountains (krisunderwood.blogspot.com.)
 

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