"Things move from order to chaos."
-The Second Law of Thermodynamics
The transition from working a traditional job to a stay-at-home mom is tough on anyone. But for my wife who worked as a nanny before having kids, she had a particularly difficult time. For over twelve years, she mothered other people’s children. She changed diapers and cleaned up toys full time. These may have been long days but at least she had a paycheck and the end of the day to look forward to.
Her first job after college was working full-time for a wealthy family of lawyers. This was before we had met and she’s mentioned this experience to me several times. “The husband was horrible. He turned me into a housekeeper. Every day I had to run the dishwasher even if there were only a couple of things to clean and then empty it before they came home from work. I had to fold all the clothes and towels a specific way and position them in the closet facing the same direction on wood hangers. In the winter, I had to vacuum the ashes out of the fireplace every day. He would yell at me if I didn’t do things exactly the way he wanted. It was the worst job I ever had.” Despite being offered a raise to stay, she quit after working for this family for a year.
My wife has a family of her own now – a toddler son, an infant daughter, a fifty-pound Australian Shepherd, and a little Pomeranian/Chihuahua puppy. She’s been trying to cope with the fact that cleaning the house is a losing battle. I came home from work the other day and all the children ran to greet me, including the furry ones. My wife was sprawled out on the couch and was the least enthused to see me. “Sorry about the house,” she groaned. I surveyed what was left of the living room. It looked like the cave of a pack of wild animals. The floor was littered with toys, granola bar wrappers, and clumps of black dog hair. The coffee table was strewn with the day’s mail, multiple board books, and overturned sippie cups. Sitting next to my wife on the couch was an unopened package of diapers. I put my keys on the kitchen table and noticed several used diapers next to the laptop.
I headed to the bedroom to take my shoes off and get comfortable, I saw a layer of toys on the floor and another layer in our bed, along with some folded laundry and a few snack wrappers. I made enough room on the bed to sit down and took off my socks and, as I threw them in the hamper, I saw the dirty clothes piled up to my waist.
My wife walked into the bedroom. “Honey, I know the house looks bad and I don’t want to hear it,” she said.
“I didn’t say anything.” But I couldn’t help but think back to the obsessive lawyer and his dishwasher and wonder what he did right that maybe I was doing wrong. I decided to say, “I’m sure you’ve had a rough day,” which I thought would be a neutral statement. However, she received a different message – You are not doing your job – and felt the need to defend herself.
“I have had a rough day. The baby’s been crying since she woke up this morning at 6am. She cried anytime I wasn’t holding her. When I picked her up she either thrashed around or hit me. The dogs got into the trash again. All your son ever says is, ‘Can I watch a show?’” She paused for a moment. I thought she might have been done but she was only considering how to go on.
“I know I should straighten up when they take their nap but I’m so tired I just need a break. You get to leave your job and come home. I never get a break. Even when you’re here, they’re still constantly all over me. They start before the sun comes up and don’t stop until bedtime.” She took a breath and put her arm over her forehead and lay on the bed quietly.
I waited a few moments to make sure she was done. When I thought it was safe, I said, “I’m sorry you’ve had a hard day. What can I do to help?”
“I don’t know. Just keep everyone out of the kitchen so I can make dinner.”
She got up and headed to the kitchen. I sat on the edge of the bed for a few moments. I thought about what she said and tried to sympathize. I’d worked a long, hard day but I had something to show for it. I felt bad for her because the house was in such bad shape that I couldn’t even notice what she had done.
I realized the difference between the lawyer’s home and our home was that she was being paid for her work. Keeping their home clean was her job. Mothering my children was not just her job, it was her whole life. It’s futile to think that I could pay her an adequate salary for the tireless work that she does or the endless hours she puts in.
I remember a story my wife told me about another family she had nannied for. She had been taking care of the boy, Jarrett, who at the time was probably three. The two of them had had a perfect day together. They played games and read books all day. He hadn’t had any tantrums and she hadn’t lost her temper at him once. At the end of the day, they were watching a show together when his mom came home from work. My wife and his mom debriefed the day while Jarrett went into the next room. After a minute or so, Jarrett’s mom and my wife looked over and saw that Jarrett was naked from the waste down and lion-taming the family dog with his step stool. My wife said, “So we just looked at each and laughed. Then I grabbed my keys and said, ‘See you later.’”
I would think incidents like this as well as things like diapers and the countless hours without adult engagement as a nanny would have worn her out before she even became a mother. But it hasn’t. She’s so glad to have kids that she rarely complains about that stuff. It’s the clutter that stresses her out. And it’s not because she doesn’t notice or care. That’s what I love about her. She does notice the pile of laundry and the dishes. But she’s just one person who is drastically outnumbered. I may be home only a few hours everyday, but even I see the children pull toys out of their toy bins just to pull them out. They don’t even play with the toys, they just move on to emptying the next bin. I think about the lion-taming incident and consider how my wife took for granted her job as a nanny where at least she could look forward to going home at the end of the day.