Opt out if you can, but the world won’t wait for you, even if you once made $500,000 a year. For the rest of us, staying at home with our kids while they’re young can be just as fulfilling as maintaining a promising career, as long as we measure success in more than dollars.
There, I said it.
But it’s one thing to type it out, and another to encounter that question in real life. I watched it happen to a friend:
“What do you do?” someone asked.
“I stay home with my kids,” she replied.
End of story. The conversation moved on to something else, because there’s nothing interesting there, right?
Over the 8 years that I’ve been a mother, I’ve undergone a long, slow evolution from “working mom” to “stay at home mom.” If someone asks me “What do you do?” my answer has been “I work in reality television,” then “I’m an editor for a major news website,” then “I’m a freelance writer.”
Frankly, I haven’t yet been able to say “I’m a stay at home mom” because of what that phrase means to people. Just a mom. I don’t want to be “just” anything. Someone who is “just a mom” is ridiculed as having an otherwise empty life. She’s dumb, she lives off the beneficence of her husband, she has it easy, she sits around all day or has plenty of time to dote on her special snowflake children, keep her house spotlessly clean, work out, and have lunch with her friends.
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Or maybe that’s what it once meant to me, and I don’t want to think that of myself.
So I’m a freelance writer. I work enough that it’s true, at least. The whole point of that job choice, though, is that it allows me to be here at home, at my house, with my children.
I made the choice when faced with the possibility that my kids would be in after-school care until 6 PM every weekday, making it unlikely that they would ever get to attend catechism and make their First Communions, or join a sports team and go to practice, or take karate classes at the rec center, or experience so many things that happen after school on weekdays. The prospect of that life made me physically ill. I cried. I worried. And then I told my husband what I wanted to do.
Ever since then he has been concerned about the hit to our family’s income that my “opting out” of full-time, career-ladder-climbing work would and did bring. But I don’t mind it so much. I want to be the one who is with my kids after school. The financial sacrifice has been worth it so far. My husband feels the pressure – as a university professor, he started teaching summer classes and participates in a grant-funded student advisory program. In turn, I feel the need to save money in many ways. I feel obligated to do more than 50% of the housework not because we are landing in traditional gender roles but because I simply have more time.
When school starts again in just two weeks, both of our kids will be in school from 8AM to 2PM, making it the perfect time for me to go back to at least part-time work. I have a nagging sense of responsibility that tells me I need to use that time to make more money. On the other shoulder is a nagging sense of diminishing confidence that tells me I’ll have a hard time finding suitable work. I work on the internet. I took a break, and any break that lasts longer than 30 seconds can be deadly to a career in an industry that operates at supersonic speed.
So I embrace the “stay at home mom” responsibility like a life raft, a title that gives me a purpose, because without kids I would just be “unemployed.”
Mine is exactly the hurdle faced by the women in Judith Warner’s article for this Sunday’s NY Times Magazine: “The Opt-Out Generation Wants Back In,” except in my case I face it without the Ph.D’s, a once six-figure salary, or a douchebag ex-husband. Apart from its misleading title and focus on women of great accomplishment and privilege, which leaves out most other American families, the article pokes at what I consider the one great danger of being a stay at home mom: what do you do when it’s time to go back to work and nobody cares?
I haven’t quite faced that possibility just yet. Finances are not dire. I can crunch the numbers, sell some stuff on eBay, eat rice and beans for months, or God forbid, sacrifice some creature comfort. But we have it a lot better than many people. I chose to stay at home with my kids. A crushing number of families in America do not have that choice. Divorced parents. Single parents. Couples who have so many kids that daycare is more expensive than one of their salaries, so the best option is to have one be at home.
Every family simply has to do what works for them, until it doesn’t. I’ve seen childcare contingency plans of startling complexity designed to allow moms to work full time and also be very present in their children’s lives. Last year I was part of an intricate carpool situation that involved no less than six adults dropping off, picking up, feeding, and chaperoning their kids starting from breakfast and ending sometimes with dinner and often including soccer practice or dance class or emergency coverage on a sick day.
All of those other moms worked full time outside the home. They went through a calculus of daily schedule equations to make sure their kids were always in the care of a trusted adult while they each held demanding jobs. (Sometimes a husband dipped his toe into the mix to fill a gap, but the onus for the complicated setup, interestingly, was on the moms.)
Sometimes I envied them for the escape from their homes and families and into alternate lives of meaningful work where they were seen as whole people with contributions to offer the world. They seemed to truly have it all – putting in a full work day and then sailing up to my house with a gaggle of children in the car, smiles on their faces and intact outfits, makeup, and hair, while I had spent my day alone in my office in yoga pants and I may or may not have brushed my hair by then. They all seemed to have plenty of money, too, while we lived our modest lives, luxuries reserved for when I get a plum assignment or a sponsored post.
I have friends who continued working when I tapered off. They are incredibly accomplished and well-respected in their fields. They have children too, and they are good parents. They seem to have everything, while I only have half. I also have friends who are straight up “just moms” – women who opted out of careers to stay home with their children and they don’t take paying work at all. I identify more with the latter camp. I think it is better that we don’t have to constantly rush out the door. I find it preferable to be there for the kids’ school highlights. I am happy that I can do their homework with them, volunteer in their classes, get to know their peers. But who can put that on her resume?
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It might be several more years before I’m ready to opt back in. By then my peers will have fatter retirement accounts, promotions, nice cars, and their kids will be fine, too. I’ll only have some smug self-satisfaction to show for it, and maybe some Pinterest-worthy birthday party centerpieces behind me. Oh who am I kidding? All the time in the world won’t make that happen.
But that’s okay with me. It really is. Yes, I miss the ego boost of having a “real” job and the ease of having more money. But I would so much more rather have this than that. By the sole act of making a choice, I chose NOT to have those other things. There is no way to have everything I want at the same time.
That’s the danger of media articles pitting the “stay at home mom” stereotype against that of the “working mom.” They always make it sound like one life is better than the other. But we both make sacrifices, whether we made the choice willingly or not.
It’s interesting to read the articles, especially this one, because it’s what prompted this otherwise-out-of-the-blue post. But look past the author’s hand-twisting about feminism or the workplace. Don’t take it as a harbinger of doom. Make your own choice, if you have one. And if you don’t, take heart. Who is that writer to make you feel bad about your life?
Do I worry that I won’t be able to re-enter the workforce smoothly? Hell yes I do. This choice is a great leap of faith, trusting that everything will work out okay. But I’ve paid attention, I’ve kept my head in the game, and I am not too proud to work retail if I have to. (I am, however, too proud to wait tables ever again in my whole life, Amen, thank you Jesus.)
More importantly for me, I’ve been there for my kids. That was the whole point, and what I set out to do. It’s a damn fine accomplishment, one that may be important only to me and my family, but what else is there? What works for me doesn’t have to work for you. What worked, or didn’t work, for those sad ladies in Warner’s article with their number-crunching husbands and their divorces, shouldn’t work for you.
Remember that every mother has her own story. My story, hopefully, will be one that continues with good, kind, happy children who grow to be responsible, happy men. It will include a strong and loving marriage, meaningful and lucrative work, and healthy ties to my family and friends.
During this chapter, my number one job is indeed “stay at home mom.” I might not tell you that if you ask me in person, though, because I still take assignments and pitch stories. I certainly wouldn’t want it to get out that I’m “just a mom.”
Update: I wrote this post in 2013. It’s 2016 now, and soon I’ll need to go back to work. Read about how that’s going, here.