Adulthood is amazing in its capacity to throw you something completely new long after you think you’ve gotten it all figured out. Until young adulthood, your life is centered on a structure of evaluation and achievement: school, sports, or an activity that culminated in a show or recital by year’s end. For some, this stretches out into your early or even late twenties thanks to college or graduate school. Next, of course, is the working world and its attendant value judgments: performance evaluations, raises, structured praise. But what happens when you suddenly, unexpectedly step off the achievement train?
Many people, mostly women, will stop working temporarily or permanently to care for their children. While I’m not saying that stay-at-home moms never have to defend themselves, nor am I arguing that our culture doesn’t have some messed up opinions about the value of childcare, there is an inherent cultural value to the care of the younger generation. There is the perception that staying home with one or more kids, especially young ones, keeps you busy.
But what if it’s not a choice? What if there aren’t any children to take care of? What if stepping off the achievement track refers to getting laid off? Unemployment is a situation that’s not empowering, that reeks of failure from the start. I know because I found myself in this position this summer, and have only just gotten partial relieve in the form of a part-time job. (Fortunately, my husband’s job was still going strong so our family was able to stay afloat.)
So after 25 years (counting from the day I walked into preschool) I had to figure out how to feel good about myself with almost no one there as my evaluator. I didn’t instantly see myself as “person in charge of household tasks,” but it pretty quickly became clear that this was the role I was going to take on. It’s one thing to have a messy house when your time at home is broken up into a few rushed hours before running out the door in the morning or crawling into bed at night. But when you’re home all day every day, the dirty floor or the dishes in the sink start to drive you nuts. Not to mention that getting most of the chores done during the day meant that my spouse and I were able to just relax together once he was home.
What I found after a few months of my new life of cleaning up, running errands, and job searching, was that household tasks actually provide a sense of accomplishment, and the accompanying ego boost, much quicker than job searching does. Looking for a job is pretty demoralizing, because you can spend several hours chugging away (sending emails, “networking,” applying for jobs, doing research) and have nothing to show for it at the end of the day. Did I get a job today? No. Meanwhile, an empty laundry basket, a full refrigerator and a clean apartment made me feel good about my day.
So good, in fact, that for a few weeks I pretty much stopped the job search in favor of being”¦whatever it was I had become. And I was good at it. I got to do a lot more cooking and baking. I had time and energy to exercise daily. I developed scheduled and systems to my chores, which was a breakthrough after so many years of haphazard cleaning and organizing. Figuring out how to run my house smoothly actually made me feel good, and it did so without any kind of structured reward or praise.
Soon enough, though, I had to get serious about the job search again. Money was tight, and despite thriving in my new situation I missed the social and mental stimulation of a non-household job. So, thankfully, this new part-time job came along, and so far it’s going great. I’m still figuring out how to recalibrate my systems and schedules with my new reality, but I think it’s going to work out well. I’m sure I haven’t seen the last of self-motivated House Hattie, as I’ve got a long life ahead of me and there will probably be other work hiatuses to come. I just hope I remember that sometimes the only one I need to impress is myself.