Learning to Be a Housewife

This sabbatical is an experiment:  What happens if I change my identity from “real estate developer” to “mother”?  From the first moment I changed hats, I noticed changes in myself and how others treat me.

On the second day of my sabbatical, I picked up my son from school.  One of the administrators said to me, “Oh, look at you!  You’re dressed differently!”  When I explained that I wasn’t wearing my normal business casual attire because I had just started a sabbatical, she replied, “Oh, you’re just a mom now!”  It was my first data point.  I didn’t write it down, but I’ve never forgotten it.

Over the course of my experiment, I’ve noted the different responses I’ve gotten from men and women when they learn I’ve taken a sabbatical.  Women have three responses.  The first is, “Good for you!  I know how much you were struggling to juggle everything.  I’m happy for you.”  The second is, “I wish I could do that!  You’re so lucky.”  This is the most difficult response to handle because it momentarily overwhelms me with guilt and shame.  Typically it takes me an hour to recover.  The third response is, “That’s too bad.  After all those degrees and all that schooling, are you worried about whether you will respect yourself and whether others will respect you?”  Luckily this one is the rarest of the three.  When I get this response, I retreat into my shell like a frightened turtle.

Men also have three responses.  The first is, “That’s great.  My wife stayed home with our kids, and it was the best thing for our family.”  The second is, “I’m not surprised.  I always wondered how long you’d last.”  The third is, “Oh, really?”  Those guys are just wondering what the score is on the game.

Do you want to know what I’ve learned so far?  I’ve learned not to judge others.  I’ve learned that it takes years, a wealth of shared experiences, and trust to really know another person.  And I’m reminded of that adage about walking a mile in someone’s shoes.

On the day I changed my identity from “real estate developer” to “just a mom”, I didn’t change a bit.  I just changed how I spend my time.  Up to that point, a large part of my identity had been tied to my occupation.  But my occupation never fully captured who I was or how I wanted others to perceive me.  Something very interesting happens when you strip away the title.  You feel a little naked, a little exposed, a little vulnerable.  Try your own experiment.  Try completing the “Occupation” line on a form with something that has nothing to do with your work.  See what happens.

A few months ago, I received an email from a friend, with this quotation from a book:

“If every woman made the same decision, how would my children learn that sometimes motherhood looks like going to work to put food on the table or stay sane or share your gifts or because you want to work and you’ve earned that right.  And that other times motherhood looks like staying home for all of the exact same reasons.  As far as I can tell, no matter what decision a woman makes, she’s offering an invaluable gift to my daughters [and sons] and me.  So I’d like to thank all of you.  Because I’m not necessarily trying to raise an executive or a mommy.  I’m trying to raise a woman.  And there are as many different right ways to be a woman as there are women.”

If we want to lift women up, if we want to raise them higher, let’s stop judging them.  Let’s start reaching out to each other.  Let’s start talking.  Talking leads to understanding, and when we understand one another – I mean, really understand the complexities we all face – the dominoes start to fall: empathy, connection, collaboration, empowerment, action, and change.

So what’s the key to becoming a housewife?  The key is to know you’re the same person as you always were.  The key is to know yourself, or get to know yourself.  The key is to abandon judgement.  The key is to know who you are, and lean into it.


5 thoughts on “Learning to Be a Housewife

  1. Cindi

    First of all, I didn’t know this was your blog! I thought you were sharing inspirational writing you found in a blog you followed, and inspirational it is. We have had great conversations about this. I remember how I felt after leaving my career. I struggled with being only known as Steve’s wife. I always felt I had to let people know I “used” to be an architect. 10 years later, I am sometimes left feeling like I still need to validate myself. I tried getting back into it between kids and realized, for me, being “just” a mom was the more important, most validating career I could ever have. I realized I was lucky to be a woman who knew the incredible talent and unwavering ability it takes to nurture. And how could “feel” this like few men do. Thank you for this post. It reminds all of us women that no matter our decisions, they always depend on the needs of our family. For some women, having a career is what they need to be the best mom. And our children are watching every minute.

  2. abirge2013 Post author

    Cindi, thanks so much writing a reply! I’m so happy you liked the post — and happy to know someone read it! As you know, this is one of my favorite topics. I never tire of talking to women about the choices they make (or can’t) and the consequences of those choices (or lack thereof). This is an interesting time for women. I really appreciate Sheryl Sandburg’s message: do what you love, and “lean in” to it. Sounds like that’s exactly what you’re doing. Good for you! I’m trying to put myself on the same path and follow in your foot steps!

  3. Susan

    I want to write an eloquent response to this but all I can think is, “Bravo!” This is one of my favorite and most thought about subjects as well. And, by the way, the reason its so difficult to fill in the “occupation” line when you are “just” a mom is because there isn’t enough room to put “family manager, counselor, chef, accountant, teacher, caretaker, travel planner, shuttle driver, etc . . .”

  4. Brad

    Ali, this was excellent! The first response of “Good for you!” is the only one that you should heed. The second and third responses are only expressions of self-doubt the person speaking has about themselves.

    Keep writing and being whoever you want to be!

  5. Grant Hale

    I’m a feminist. I’m a stay at home dad. Thanks for this post. Talk about feeling vulnerable (“On the day I changed my identity from “real estate developer” to “just a mom”, I didn’t change a bit. I just changed how I spend my time. Up to that point, a large part of my identity had been tied to my occupation. But my occupation never fully captured who I was or how I wanted others to perceive me. Something very interesting happens when you strip away the title. You feel a little naked, a little exposed, a little vulnerable.”) I felt exactly that at the Hubbard’s party on Saturday when Al was going around announcing what everyone did for their career, and he had no clue when he got to me that I had quit my job to raise our daughter. But once the shock wore off after I corrected him and announced on my own that I no longer work, I felt confident and comfortable with my new title/identity. It’s such a strange, dynamic, interesting world we live in, for both men and women, isn’t it?


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