The Stay-at-Home Mom: Don't Call Her a 'Homemaker'

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Another title better suits my own stay-at-home mom—one that reflects her major preoccupation, and an ethos that changed American parenting

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My mother has long been a leader in risk management.

Her resume says she quit the workforce in 1980, shortly before I was born, and went back on the job market circa 2001, when a large company hired her to work in its risk management department. But she'd actually been putting in long hours and excelling in the field all along. The year I was born, for example, she drove a Ford Mustang. As soon as her research confirmed a safer option, however, it was replaced by a Volvo sedan my parents could barely afford at the time. I suppose a lot of young couples rethink their automobile choices once they have children.

For my mother, it was one safety initiative among many. In Costa Mesa, CA, where we grew up, a fleeting question about the quality of the local aquifer meant that my sister and I drank mountain spring water from five-gallon glass bottles (plastic posed its own remote health risks). Sent to Catholic elementary school, I was hedged against the six-year-old boy's proclivity for losing things by a mother who sewed my name into sweaters and wrote my last name on every individual colored marker in a set of thirty-six.

In the space of a single generation, people whose fathers drove them around sans seat belts in cars filled with cigarette smoke came to regard those so recently normal habits as objectively abusive.

Long before the clergy scandal, I was discouraged from being an altar boy—I wasn't going to be left alone with any male adult stranger, priest or not. And given my preference for ham sandwiches with mayonnaise, I wasn't sent off for the day with a brown paper lunch sack. Only an insulated nylon bag with a cold pack inside would adequately insure against spoilage-induced food poisoning.

Despite the steadfastness of these efforts, I hadn't fully appreciated their scope until recently. My mom may have worked overtime to protect her kids even from the danger of school supply stealing classmates. But she never let on that she was unusual in her risk management style. Nor did she let it interfere with a normal childhood: I played sports and went on long bike rides and partook in class field trips and became adept at ocean boogie boarding (though only after years of swimming lessons).

Where did she get it?

My great-grandmother was a worrier.

My grandmother still is, and was certainly a protective parent for her era. But something changed in America as the Baby Boomers had kids. In the space of a single generation, people whose fathers drove them around sans seat belts in cars filled with cigarette smoke came to regard those so recently normal habits as objectively abusive—and went about buying their kids bicycle helmets, Nerf products, and wrist guards to go with their roller blades. Every backyard pool was given a gate with a childproof latch. Diving boards were decommissioned. And PABA-free suntan lotions with SPF inflation were slathered on the kids before they jumped in.

My mother's particular fears often overlapped with whatever was gripping the culture. I remember her anxiously having the cottage-cheese ceilings in our first house tested to see if they contained asbestos. My little sister recalls an occasion when my mom, having just read about a gang shooting, instructed her to refrain from gesturing with her hands while sitting in the passenger seat of the family car lest her conversation be mistaken for a taunt by a passing Crip or Blood.

I'm awed by the sustained effort and stamina required to implement so much risk-aversion over so many years. Lest you think it ended when I turned 18, I invite you to contrast the methods my mother and I employ on our respective trips to Costco. I wander the aisles and grab what desire dictates in no particular order. Loose my mother in the same store, however, and a sophisticated plan refined over many years is put deliberately into motion. Each fruit is selected via a distinct methodology. All items are placed strategically in pre-selected parts of the cart to ensure everything fits. The boxes that holds the avocados are hoarded because experience has taught that they fit best in her minivan's cargo bay.

Most important is her insistence on getting the meat and fish absolutely last, packing all the cold goods together at the register, putting them into the car so they're accessible first, and driving straight home with the air conditioning on full blast so that not a single unnecessary minute passes between Costco refrigerator case and home refrigerator.

You've probably gathered that my family sometimes kids its head risk manager. It isn't that we don't appreciate her efforts—my dad, my sister and I all know we're damned lucky. But packing toothpaste tubes in two Ziploc baggies to prevent any possibility of a mess in one's luggage? Or locking the front door so zealously in our uber-safe Orange County neighborhood that my dad has many times been locked out in the minute it takes him to roll the trash bins to the curb?

The precautions can get rather onerous given the small risks involved. If the price of not transferring breakfast cereal from the box into an air-tight container for storage is eating slightly stale Corn Flakes once or twice a year when the supply lasts longer than expected, I am willing to pay it. My mother is not. And given the options available to families when preferences come into conflict, occasional good-natured laughter about one another's eccentricities is the best approach.

If I've stacked these examples too heavily against my poor mom, it's only because I've known all along what I'd have to share last. When I was 17, amid the late nights of finals week at a high school where I took too many AP classes, I finished studying, got a couple hours sleep, and drove off to an early morning athletic practice. En route, I fell asleep on the 405 Freeway, and when it turned, I didn't. My car hit a light pole, flipped end-over-end, skidded on its roof into a drainage ditch, and caught on fire.

The police officer, the ambulance driver and everyone who heard that I crawled away with nothing more serious than cuts and scrapes had the same reaction: I was damn lucky to be driving that hand-me-down Volvo. But it wasn't luck. It was years of physical and mental energy given on behalf of my safety—and vindication for the far-sighted plan of an absurdly thorough risk-manager.

Image: Courtesy of Flickr user s_jelan

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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