Twelve years ago, when my second son was born, I quit my job as a journalist to "do the mom thing," as I so ineloquently put it. The only unsettling part of the transition, oddly enough, was that I had no simple way of defining myself when people asked what I did.
The question I faced back then remains as puzzling to me today: What do you call a woman who has quit her paying job to take on the non-paying full-time job of raising her children? After spending so many years with boys, I now know roughly 40 ways to refer to male genitalia, but I can't think of a single decent alternative for "housewife" or "stay-at-home mom."
Nonetheless, I had to call myself something, because people in civilized society have an annoying habit of asking politely, "What do you do?" My initial reaction was, "I don't know what you'd call it exactly, but I only average six hours of sleep a night." When too many people responded with pat smiles, I decided to explain myself.
First I'd establish my credibility as a person who could speak in full sentences (albeit the run-on kind) by telling the person what I had done in the paying world before quitting to take care of our two boys, because with one kid it was still manageable, but with two it was harder and you know we waited a long time to have kids and so I do want to spend this time with them since we are lucky enough to afford it and my father keeps telling me you can never get this time back and my mother says it goes so fast and, and, and . . . You get the picture. Even I was numbingly bored by the earnestness of this answer.
Yet I realized the urgency of finding a zippy, one-word answer to this haunting question when I was reviewing income tax forms that our accountant had prepared. In the box marked "Occupation" for me, he had put "Housewife." I called him immediately.
"What is this 'housewife' business?" I asked him. "I'm not a housewife."
"Technically you are now," he said calmly. "That's what it's called on tax forms."
I have to admit that my pride got in the way. I felt as if I'd been demoted. An image came to mind of "Leave It to Beaver's" June Cleaver cooking dinner in a dress and pearls. I really liked that show as a kid, and even though I have cooked dinner in similar attire (or maybe just some very nice pants and pearls), I'm not a housewife. My job duties may be similar to June's (although I think I have more), but the word is definitely outdated.
My biggest problem with the term "housewife" is that it has no reference whatsoever to the work that is being performed. If we were to further this combining of location and marital status to formulate a job title, then my spouse should probably be called an office-husband; my girlfriend becomes a cubicle bachelorette; and one of my brothers is now a surface-street husband, which is better than what he used to be: a toxic-dumpsite divorce.
Of course, many women now prefer the even more cumbersome title of "stay-at-home mom." Show me a mom who actually stays at home with her children and I'll show you a mom with a 105-degree fever. You can still go to the grocery store if it registers 104. "Errand-runner-with-children" is probably a more accurate title. Or at least "stay-in-car mom."
However, if you are going to adopt the "stay-at-home mom" title, why not simply call yourself a "home mom"? What is the grammatical point of putting that "stay-at" part into the title, especially when you're seldom at home anyway? After all, you never hear of a "sit-in-bus driver" or a "stuck-in-office worker."
Another option is "full-time mom," but I find that title to be insulting to women with children who work at jobs outside the home. Every mom is a full-time mom, no matter where they spend their daytime hours.
Finally, of course, I could have written "Unemployed," but that really chafed when I thought of how very much employed I was during the course of a day spent with boys, boys, boys.
So what was I going to call myself? I had to think of something, because when you have children, you fill out forms on an average of once a week. As a matter of fact, children exit the womb with forms stuck to their limbs for you to fill out. These forms always ask for "Mother's Occupation." There was no way I was going to write "housewife" or "stay-at-home mom," so I began inventing new job titles for myself. What I learned is how few people actually read them.
My first--and admittedly unimaginative--attempt at relabeling was to write "Chief cook and bottle washer." (It took a lot of effort to shrink my handwriting so this title would fit. Most forms accommodate a title no longer than "housewife.") Then I began plowing through titles that sounded official at first glance: family manager, family director, family president. Eventually I was emboldened enough to write "Matriarch."
When that didn't raise an eyebrow, I became even more brazen. I called myself "Super Woman" and "Boss of Everything" and even--yes!--"Martyr/Saint." (I know, that's terrible. You should see the titles I've rejected over the years, including "Most Noble One.")
But in the long-range view--like the thousand-year view--most forms aren't that serious. I learned that it really doesn't matter what you call yourself as long as your form is accompanied by a check. My kids still got into their park basketball leagues and their summer camps, and I still get offers in the mail for credit cards.
Nevertheless, the question remains, and I watch younger women take their turn at coming up with an answer. It seems we're fairly overdue in tackling this misnomer, especially since so many other occupations have had namelifts over the years. If secretaries are now called "assistants," and stewardesses are upgraded to "flight attendants," and trash men are regarded as "sanitation engineers," shouldn't housewives be called . . . what?
I don't know. After 12 years of trying to come up with an answer, I've still got writer's block on this one.