In Praise of the Warm and Willing Body
When people ask me what I do, I don’t know exactly how to answer. At face value, I’m a stay-at-home mother of four kids. I spend a large chunk of my day running after a preschooler, paying bills, doing laundry, cleaning, organizing, cooking, and making a last-minute run to Target for some school project that is due the next day. But as somebody who’s sensitive to being pigeon-holed as “only a mom,” I always want to clarify that I do other things, too. I blog for Exponent, for example, and serve on the board of Exponent II. I am the co-director of the Mormon Women’s Oral History Project, which means I spend a chunk of my time interviewing, transcribing, editing, and coordinating with volunteers. I serve as the literacy specialist in my ward. I’m starting graduate school in the fall. I help at my kids’ school, read books, listen to podcasts, and expertly decimate any stash of cookies in my pantry. So yeah, I’m a stay-at-home mom. But when I write it all out like that, it’s pretty clear that the answer to “what do you do?” is: I do a lot.
I am paid cash money for exactly zero of these things. In fact, for many of them (grad school, for example), I pay money to do them. I recognize that this is an enormous luxury – I am among the privileged few who have a spouse who earns enough that I’m able to stay home and dabble in lots of different things that interest me. But while I wear several unpaid/volunteer hats, I would argue that most women have at least one or two, regardless of whether they’re in the workforce and are paid for other endeavors. And I don’t think that I’m necessarily outside the norm in not working full-time among my American LDS peers: studies have shown that only 25% of LDS women in the US work full-time outside the home, as compared to 39% nationally.
I am rather sensitive to the fact that women are often expected to work for free or not expect compensation for their work. According to a study from ActionAid, even women who have paid employment end up doing more work than their male counterparts. They found that “a young woman entering the job market today can expect to work for the equivalent of an average of four years more than her male peers over her lifetime, as she is balancing both paid and unpaid care work. This amounts to the equivalent of an extra one month’s work for every woman, every year of a woman’s life.” And that doesn’t even take into account the fact that women are paid less for the work that they do get paid for! And yet! While I do think it’s borderline criminal that women are expected to do so much emotional, social, physical, and intellectual labor for free, I want to pay homage to the simple act of showing up and getting stuff done.
I left full-time employment almost ten years ago. When I did, I had the expectation that I would raise my family, and maybe return to get a graduate degree or paid employment some time in the future. I had somehow gotten it in my mind that you could have little kids, or you could work or go to school: there wasn’t a both/and option. I had married the man of my dreams, I knew I wanted to have children, and so about 9 months after my first child was born, I quit work and focused in on my son. And I got bored… quickly. I had never been so simultaneously busy and bored at the same time. There were diapers to change and baths to draw and meals to make, but I felt like my brain was melting away. I craved conversations with other adults who used words with more than one syllable. I really struggled with whether I needed to devote my entire identity and focus to my son, or whether I could have more than one dimension to my life as a mother (spoiler alert: I decided on the latter).
We had moved to a new state, and I was somehow invited to a fairly serious and semi-exclusive book club. I jumped at the invite – never mind that I hadn’t read a book since college several years before. I told myself that I would read these books and, like the others, would bring questions and notes to the discussions. I started listening to podcasts and my mind was opened to all sorts of new ideas and theories that I hadn’t really thought about. My mind started churning, and I found myself writing my thoughts out on a personal blog and discussing them with friends. When I wrote something faith-related and felt it was too church-y for my friends, I took a deep breath and submitted it as a guest post to the Exponent blog. And it was published! I couldn’t believe it! Later, after a few more posts, I was asked to come on as a permablogger. Feeling completely inadequate (I’m not a fancy writer! I don’t know anything about feminist theory! I’m just a mom!), I said I’d love to! A few months later, I was asked to be the editor for one of the regular features in the magazine. Not knowing a thing about editing a magazine column, I jumped at the opportunity! Around the same time, I had heard about the Mormon Women’s Oral History Project and had done some interviews for it with some friends. Later, I heard that the woman running it was leaving on a mission and that the project would be shuttered if they didn’t have somebody to take it over. My friend asked me if I wanted to take it over with her. Again, not knowing anything about what the job would entail, I enthusiastically signed on, simply eager to help the project continue.
The theme running through all of these events in my life is this: I didn’t feel qualified nor ready. I didn’t even know exactly what I was getting into. But I knew that I would grow and learn, and that I would try. A quote from the wise philosopher (ok, actress and comedienne) Amy Poehler has been running through my head for the last decade:
Because what else are we going to do? Say no? Say no to an opportunity that may be slightly out of our comfort zone? Quiet our voice because we are worried it is not perfect? I believe great people do things before they are ready. They do things before they know they can do it. Doing what you’re afraid of, getting out of your comfort zone, taking risks like that- that’s what life is. You might be really good. You might find out something about yourself that’s really special and if you’re not good, who cares? You tried something. Now you know something about yourself.
I have learned so much from the projects I’ve taken on over the last decade. I’ve honed my writing skills, my interpersonal skills, and my management skills. When I went to compose my resume for grad school, it wasn’t completely empty; in fact, it looked pretty dang impressive, considering that I hadn’t been in the paid workforce in ten years. I have succeeded at several of the things that I’ve tried, and I’ve also failed at several of the things I’ve tried. I’ve learned a lot about myself, my strengths, my weaknesses, and I feel more prepared and poised to jump back into the workforce than I would have if I had been too scared to try all of these new things. And yeah, it obviously would have been nice to be paid for all of these growing opportunities. But even though I haven’t been compensated in dollar bills, I have gained enormous value in self-confidence, marketable skills, and a growing network of women who I see as role models and mentors.
I want to encourage my fellow LDS sisters to be brave – embrace the wisdom offered by our wise sister-in-arms, Amy Poehler! Do things before you’re ready. Get out of your comfort zone. Show up. Write that article (or that book!). Enter that competition. Join that association. Try the new thing. Offer to help out. I know so many women who devote their time, talents, and energy to something simply because they find value in what they’re doing, even if it’s not economic value. I always say that I may not be perfect for the job, but I am a warm and willing body. And you know what? Sometimes being a warm and willing body is more than enough. Brave and willing women get stuff done.