The Stay-at-Work Mom

When I left for work this morning, there were four men taking care of the home front: my cleaner (a decorated former Israeli paratrooper); my visiting father (a mathematician, businessman and Holocaust survivor); my 2-year-old son; and my stay-at-home husband. A friend told me that people talk about me behind my back. They envy me for finding a true balance between work and life, and for finding a New Age Man who agreed to stay at home when I took a job which meant he had to give up his. They consider us a model for the modern family.

But things are not as simple as they look. Work is a sacrament for my father. He grew up in a poor Hungarian village and his family’s tailoring business was burned down when he was young. He was told that if he studied hard he might become a teacher and earn a living that couldn’t be destroyed in one night. If he studied harder, perhaps he would be admitted to the Rabbinical Seminary and avoid the draft. There were 50 places in the Seminary for Hungary’s 800,000 Jews. He studied hard, but it was no salvation; he was deported to a concentration camp.

After the war, the survivors of my father’s family rebuilt their business in Hungary, but when they became successful the Communists confiscated it. Then, in the revolution of 1956, they were forced to flee Hungary for Australia, leaving everything they owned behind. After each of these destructions, the family dug itself up from the rubble and devastation with single- minded brute labor Work gave them money for food and a place to sleep. The discipline of labor provided a rhythm and purpose, healing their spirits. There was very little choice in the life of a European Jew, but you could always choose to work harder, thus rising above the degradation. Arbeit macht Frei!” (“Work makes you free”) my father instructed me. “What a shame the Germans stole the expression!”

My sister and I grew up on the fruits of my father’s labor, and were schooled in its inflexible ways. The minimum standard for him—and for us (including my Australian-born mother)—was perfection. There were no allowances made for the fact that we were living in the New World, where there was room for everyone to make a living. No one was confiscating our property or denying us jobs because we were Jewish. So despite the fact that our household became prosperous, our father’s demon grew up strong inside us. I always assumed I would have to fight to earn my bread. There was no glory in work, but it was made very clear that if I didn’t do it, I wouldn’t survive.

I scrounged my first job in New York during a recession, and lived in perpetual fear of being on the next list of corporate layoffs. I started dating Aaron, my husband-to-be, who had spent the previous 10 years in rabbinical seminaries. He had recently become the spiritual leader of a congregation that prided itself on never paying a salary. His parents maintained that the position would “lead to other things.” But among the millions of words my husband and I spoke before our engagement, we never discussed his earning prospects. Perhaps because I knew that I would always work.

In the spring after we married, I became increasingly nervous about losing my job and insisted that my husband start doing something economically productive. So he decided to study social work (because he “enjoyed working with people”), but being back in school threw him into cycles of misery. He felt guilty because he had been drilled since infancy that studying Jewish law was the only activity that had any value for Jewish men; he resented me for thrusting him into this spiritual abyss by insisting he get a job; and he was frustrated because the education itself was not giving him real helping skills. “The clients they give me are hopeless!” He would cry. “I’m wasting my life away here!”

Aaron’s attitude, of course, made me crazy. Where I come from, if you don’t earn your bread, you are a parasite. But where he came from, if you didn’t study sacred texts all your waking hours, you lost your place in the world-to-come. As we battled across this unbridgeable divide, I became pregnant. The recession was lifting, and, with Aaron at school and unable to support a family, I found a new job that could support the three of us, solving (though imperfectly) our marital impasse. My father’s work demon emerged in full splendor My boss was erratic and demanding, and I felt I had to prove myself to him before the baby arrived. I wrote and researched, assured my boss of his greatness and cowered under his abuses. Deeply ashamed of my manifest fertility, I drove myself beyond reason and was in a state of complete exhaustion by the time the baby came.

To my utter surprise, when the baby arrived, she bewitched me. The thought of abandoning her to go back to work left me in tears every day of my five-month maternity leave. But there was no one offering us free room and board, so I found a nanny, returned to my desk, and pumped breast milk. At this point, my husband was in class or at clinic every night, so I, after working like a fiend all day, had to rush home to relieve the nanny. I felt like a single mother The main memory I have of this time is sitting on the kitchen floor, grabbing some still-frozen vegetable from the oven, my daughter ripping at my blouse, hungry for milk.

After my leave, my horrible boss left and I instantly became more valuable to the firm. One day a headhunter called to offer me a better job, and when I told my supervisor, he gave me a promotion and a 50 percent pay raise on the spot.

“They’ll get back every cent—with your blood,” my father warned.

“Nonsense!” I said. “No one is treated better because they are severely underpaid.”

Meanwhile, Aaron’s response to my good fortune was to become depressed. “Since your raise is bigger than my whole salary,” he cried, “what is the point of my working?” I rolled my eyes in disbelief I retorted, “Beginnings of careers are always difficult and maybe one day you will work your way up and be able to support me.” I wanted him to start investing in his career.

By day I wrote memos, answered client calls, and pumped breast milk. By night I nursed. My daughter slept in bed with me because I couldn’t possibly get up to feed her. Besides, it was our time together. On one of those nights after the baby woke me for the hundredth time, I said to myself in my delirium, “Now which account is this time chargeable to?” Such were my demented reckonings.

We moved; I became pregnant again and was up for another promotion. Once again I drove myself half to death so as to reach my target revenues before the baby came. When I came home from work late at night, all I could do was lie comatose in my daughter’s bed while she played around me. My husband was still working long evening hours for ridiculously low pay; I was still rushing home to relieve the nanny.

Ten weeks before the baby was due, our nanny had to leave. Our darling, divine nanny, she was our home. She adored my daughter, kept the apartment from falling apart, and nurtured us all. I felt bereft and abandoned.

I booked my daughter into the emergency day care near my work, and lugged her up and down the myriad steps of the New York subway daily to get her there. She hated day care and I hated leaving her there. It was corporate style, with no windows and a rotating staff who consistently delivered the company’s trademarked brand of rudeness.

I had our second baby, was promoted again, and stayed on the accelerating treadmill. Every day of maternity leave I checked my e-mail and voice mail, quite reasonably terrified that the business I had worked so hard to build would evaporate while I was away. My husband tried to convince me to return to work part time.

“Are you out of your mind?” I said. “Part-timers are part human. I’m not a *part-anything’ person. It’s either all or nothing for me.”

During my leave, the firm I worked for merged into another, larger one. I panicked: what would happen to my carefully coddled business? After working in my own little corner for so many years, what would it be like to be swallowed by a large established group? There wasn’t much time to speculate. Aaron’s salary still wouldn’t cover much more than the gas bill, so I plunged back into work, pumping breast milk once again. Another supervisor left, and instead of going part time I asked for a gigantic raise. After weeks of wrangling, I got most of what I wanted, but the negotiations wrecked me. Aaron began to feel that his working was becoming an absurdity.

Suddenly, I was the point person in a huge company for a key product. When I was in the office, the phone rang incessantly. Clients from all over the world invited me to visit, and often I agreed. Sometimes I would bring the family, and sometimes just the breast pump. I recruited women to help me in the business, knowing first-hand what an undervalued resource they are. I had been the first pregnant woman ever in my department when I joined the firm; now there were meetings I ran where I was the only woman who was not pregnant!

The pressure was enormous. I had grown from junior assistant to firm expert, all while gestating, birthing, and nursing my children. Now there were revenue goals, budgets, and obligations to my staff. I hoped that if I did all this well, I would find favor with my post-merger bosses. At home, I still nursed both my children, dealt with touchy nannies, cooked, cleaned and kept the peace.

In the middle of the journey of my life I came to myself in a dark wood where the straight way was lost.

—Dante’s Inferno Canto I

I was collapsing. No exercise, no proper meals, no reading, no shopping, no movies, no nothing except work, home, work, home. I hardly saw the light of day. I was angry. How the hell had I ended up here? I had turned into a wrung-out rag, cleaning up everyone’s mess. I desperately wanted to stop

working. I had reached every goal possible at my level in the office. There was nothing more to learn except how to multiply what I had done by infinity. At home, I was so endlessly tired that I enjoyed nothing, and used all my energy to stop myself from blowing up at the kids. My wonderful kids. I wanted to spend my time with them. All my time.

“Aaron, I’m finished.” I said to my husband. “Now it’s you’re turn. Go out and get a real job, one that earns enough money to pay for more than the gas bill. No, I don’t want to talk about it. Just go and do it.”

“It’s not so easy…” my husband started.

“You think what I do is easy?” I spat back. “I do everything here: bring in the check, hire the nanny, relieve the nanny, make the meals, fix the toilets. What is it exactly you do? A real man earns a real living. Why on earth do you have to work so hard if you can’t even pay the rent?”

My fury consumed me. Arbeit macht Frei was a bitter deception. Work was not giving me choices; it was making me a slave. Aaron was not going to be able to save me, either He had made his pact with the devil already, by throwing out spiritual pursuits and going into social work. What else could he do for me? He just didn’t have the cunning, the smarts, the salesmanship that you need to earn a decent living in New York. Now he was losing me to insanity. In his situation, with that kind of pressure, my father would have done whatever it took. But there was no demon inside Aaron telling him Arbeit liber Alles. He thought it was silly that I drove myself into the ground; why didn’t I just go part-time? I realized he wasn’t going to find a job to support us before I went under.

Then, out of the blue, someone called and offered me an appointment with the U.S. Government in Washington D.C. The job was the highest position in my field and promised all the stimulation of my old job without any of the pressure. The problem was, I didn’t want a grand title, I wanted the job of stay-at-home-mother. With all my fancy experience, no one could offer me that. We hemmed and hawed for a while. This opportunity wouldn’t liberate me, but my husband could stop working and we would be nanny-free. Washington is a livable, affordable, and beautiful city. We found a community waiting to welcome us. People had manners and they cared. The government people called again and again asking me to join. We took the plunge.

So here I am, working wife with stay-at-home men, several of them. It’s O.K., I suppose. My job is bearable. I have started exercising, and stopped nursing. Though I still ache for my children when I’m at work and have only enough time for a long goodnight routine with them when I come home, at least I’m not falling apart while I orchestrate it. What’s more, I plucked up the courage to ask for a four-day workweek and the earth did not open up beneath me. That first Friday off, I thought I’d chanced into the Next World.

What’s more, my husband turns out to be a wonderful house spouse. Between him and our paratrooper-turned house cleaner, the children are happy and our home isn’t falling down. Aaron does the laundry—a key duty—and loads the dishwasher. He’s even started paying attention to things like meals. He takes pride in his role, and gets upset if I rock the boat by offering junk food instead of dinner or letting the kids stay up late. Like most house spouses, his role doesn’t exactly satisfy him, though. There’s no one to talk to, and he feels he’s not making a meaningful Contribution to Humanity, not leaving a Legacy.

“Sweetheart,” I say calmly now, “The day your Legacy or Contribution brings in the bread, I’ll leave my job. That’s a promise.”

C. Devora Hammer is an Australian born writer who currently works in Washington. She writes a column for the Australian newspaper The AJT and has also written for a number of U.S. publications and anthologies.