Last night during the post bedtime shuffle I do between the kitchen and O’s bedroom before she falls asleep (bringing more milk, changing a diaper, telling her this time I mean it, she better close her eyes and go to sleep) I read “The Opt-Out Generation Wants Back In” by Judith Warner. It’s one of those articles that is kind of interesting and kind of irritating, which is how I feel about most working mom vs stay-at-home mom discussions.
Discussions I have with close friends about this topic aren’t irritating at all. They’re cathartic and thoughtful and often enlightening. But public conversations about working or staying at home, especially those waged in the comments section of articles, can be highly irritating.
My feelings about the entire subject of staying at home vs working out of the home can be quickly summed up: There is no right answer. Every woman and every family situation is different. There are pros and cons to both, and both choices have consequences.
Ms. Warner’s article points out the obvious consequence of staying at home for a decade or more: you will probably not be able to step right back into the workforce exactly where you left off.
While this reminder might be a reason to panic, it can also be a good thing. I know plenty of women who want to work outside of the home again at some point but have no desire to go back to exactly what they were doing pre-baby. An extended leave, whether it’s for a year or ten, can reset your career path in a really positive way.
The challenge is figuring out what that new thing is during one of the most exhausting and emotionally challenging periods of your life.
One of the husbands in the article, who’s wife volunteered for an organization while also staying at home with their 3 kids, commented about what he called his wife’s journey of “self-discovery.”
“Being the kind of person I am, Type A, wound, always going after something, I wonder what I could have done, having 12 years to sort of think about what I want to do. I sometimes think, Wow, I could have been an astronaut in 12 years, or I could have been something different that I’d really enjoy and that I never was afforded the financial opportunity or the time or the resources to enjoy. Maybe call it jealousy. Maybe envy. What could I have been in 12 years of self-discovery? I’ll go out on a limb and say: ‘I’d like to try it. It looks pretty good to me.’
This man is so clueless about what it’s like to stay at home full-time with kids (and no nanny) that it both pains me and makes me laugh. Really? In between changing shitty diapers and catching vomit in our hands and cleaning the house and shuttling kids to and from appointments and activities and making dinner and soothing and teaching and disciplining and everything else that goes into raising human beings there’s also time to become an astronaut?
Being a stay-at-home mom is not like attending a university for an advanced degree or like going to a secluded artists’ colony in the woods. Children undeniably open our hearts and minds and enable parents to tap into a creative and emotional side that is life changing, but on most days, kids take more than they give. The daily tasks involved in childrearing are often mind-numbingly tedious.
Mr. Mattox is a parent, he should know that. But still, he doesn’t understand why, after 12 years at home taking care of 3 kids, his wife doesn’t have an amazing new career lined up that’s both financially and emotionally rewarding.
Why? Because being a stay-at-home parent is not about you, it’s about your kids. There are precious few moments during the day when a mom can focus on her own self-development. It’s all about making sure the kids are fed, clothed, safe, healthy and happy. The time spent alone is rarely spent in a meditative state, pondering a personal self-journey.
It was clear in the article that this husband did his share of housework and kid-shuttling and care while his wife was doing volunteer work. If he was so unhappy with his own career then why did he resent those hours spent in the mini-van or in the kitchen? Wasn’t that a perfect time for him to explore his own needs and desires and go on a personal journey of self-discovery?
What’s that you say, Mr. Mattox? You couldn’t think above the din of your kids squabbling or concentrate on anything because they were constantly interrupting you? You didn’t feel especially creative or ambitious while pushing a shopping cart around a grocery store? While sorting laundry, no new career ideas just popped into your head?
I work part-time from home, three days a week. I love being home with my daughter and I also love the days when she’s at preschool for 8 hours and I’m working. It’s an ideal schedule, one I work very hard at to sustain. I feel like I have a foot in both worlds, part stay-at-home mother and part working mother.
Without exception, the days when I feel most creative and mentally alert and ambitious about my career are the days when I’m working. This is because those days are about me. Even though I have tasks to complete and clients to deal with, I also have time alone in my quiet office to think my own thoughts and pursue ideas.
This is not to say that stay-at-home moms aren’t ambitious or career-minded. It is only to say that I think it would be really, really hard to discover and pursue a new career while simultaneously being a full-time stay at home mom.
Being home all day with a child is amazing and fulfilling in many, many ways and I would not trade it for anything. But being with O is all-consuming. On the days when I’m with her, I don’t have the mental space needed for real and focused career development or soul searching. I am not on a journey of personal self-discovery when I’m with my daughter. I’m on a journey of discovery with her, showing her the world and guiding her as she discovers her own interests and talents.
I am also focused on the job of running my household. Stay-at-home moms are busy! On the days when I work and O is at preschool, I’m relieved that the house stays in the same condition all day long. It might not get cleaner while I’m at work, but it doesn’t get dirtier. When you’re at home with kids, the house just keeps getting dirtier all day long, despite your best efforts to keep up with the chaos. When I’m home all day and not working, dinner is no easier to get on the table. I’ve already spent a good part of the day fixing snacks and lunch and now you want another full meal?
Stay-at-home moms are busy with the full-time job of making sure their family’s life doesn’t implode. Who can blame them for not having their next step in life, beyond their kids, all figured out?
But what is the answer for women who have taken time off to be with their kids but also want to, or need to, re-enter the workforce at some point?
A work environment that’s friendlier to parents would be an obvious and much-needed improvement. If Mr. Mattox’s wife could’ve found a job as flexible as her volunteer work, she probably would’ve re-entered the workforce instead of giving her time without pay. I have the schedule I do because I’m a freelancer with no benefits and a very unpredictable yearly salary.
I think it’s also important to find a little time each week away from your kids and out of your house. Volunteer, or take a class or just sit quietly and think at the library. Continue to pursue and cultivate your hobbies and interests instead of abandoning them; these interests can often spark ideas for a new career. Expand your conversations with other stay-at-home moms beyond kid stuff – I am constantly amazed and inspired by the women in my neighborhood moms’ club.
Most importantly, don’t waste the years you have at home with your kids worrying about re-entry into the workforce like this article encourages women to do. Enjoy your kids. Enjoy your time. Be hopeful about the future, not fearful.
And since we’re all so damn busy and don’t have time to cook anyway, today I give you something simple: leftover quinoa turned into a delicious breakfast.