When I was pregnant, my husband and I made the decision that I would be a stay-at-home mom. At the time, it just seemed like a nice idea. Becoming the domestic wife whose center and only focus was raising kids seemed like a sacrifice I could totally handle. I guess I kind of romanticized the lifestyle.
Soon after the birth of our son, we found out that it was a good thing we made the decision for him to have a stay-at-home parent, but for an entirely different reason:
Bogged down by extreme post-partum depression, I found myself considering going back to work just for an excuse to get away, and I spent a lot of time researching infant daycare, and I found that it was so expensive, that if I went back to my old job (which was the highest I’d ever been paid, and probably the best I could ever hope for with my lack of qualifications), I would be paying out more in childcare than I’d be bringing in. We would have literally lost money if I went to work.
So, I continued to stay home.
Why did I tell you about both of my reasons for being a stay-at-home mother?
Because by now, I’m conditioned to defend that decision.
There have been a handful of close friends and family who supported my decision (even a few who thought it was a great idea), but many people I know–extended family members, church acquaintances, former colleagues–were not so supportive. Even people I barely know put their own two cents in when Kj was a few months old, and they realized for the first time that my leave from working outside of home was not as temporary as they apparently thought. (“So, you’re still on maternity leave?”)
I’ve been asked on a regular basis when I’m going back to work.
I’ve been lectured on the physical activity I’m missing out on by not working, on stunting my child’s social development by being with him too much, and on setting a bad example for my child of laziness.
I’ve been asked ad nauseam that dreaded question: “What do you do all day?”
At several points, I told myself I was done justifying my time to anyone.
Unfortunately, there’s part of me that is always defensive, and cannot ever just let something go. As much as I prefer to pretend that I don’t, I actually do worry what others think of me, so of course, a simple “It’s none of your business” does not suffice, and I feel the need to argue, again and again, the point that I am making a meaningful contribution to my family.
Also unfortunately, there’s part of me that doesn’t believe that. I may say that what I do matters, but I’m never sure of it internally. In addition to wanting a job just so I could have a break, and so I could do something fulfilling for myself, I was also feeling a constant guilt over not contributing to my household financially. I knew I wouldn’t be making any money after paying for daycare, but I still felt that guilt.
In an attempt to remedy the financial guilt, I tried online work.
First, I tried transcription. I made a little money that way, but soon gave up when I realized how hard it was to hear those poor-quality audio files, and then transcribe them perfectly, word-for-word. Even if I ever had a higher quality recording to work with, I’d probably take longer than the average person because of the way my ADHD brain processes sound. (There’s a reason I don’t like to watch TV without captioning.)
Next, I tried freelance writing. I did a little better there. It’s hard to find assignments from clients who are honest about what they’re looking for, or who pay decently, but I was able to at least do better than with transcription, and it felt better than not working at all, so I continued with it, and still do it occasionally.
Online work wasn’t enough. I still felt guilt.
There was guilt over no longer doing the job I had before baby. I used to feel like I contributed meaningfully to society. I used to get paid to help people with disabilities. It was a dream. I used to feel good about myself.
Then there was guilt over my child not getting out enough. Josh and I tried harder and harder over time to give Kj plenty of opportunities to build his social skills, but I still secretly worried he might never catch up with the full-time daycare kids.
Overall, I spent more time than I’d like to admit thinking that a lot of problems would be fixed if I had a job.
But wait! There’s more!
Recently, after seeing a job posting from the company I used to work for, about an opening in a department where I might be able to have hours opposite Josh’s job (and therefore avoid spending all my paychecks on childcare), I got in contact with the supervisor, and scheduled a meeting to talk about me coming back to work.
I was on cloud ninety-nine! Just walking into the building made me feel like my old self, like I had never really left. I went home after the meeting so excited at the idea of having a “real” job again.
That elation lasted a day. The very next day, I started to think harder about how Kj would be affected. It would be a difficult transition for him to have me away so much.
Additionally, there would be less time for teaching him. I spend time every day helping him study vocabulary, reading, numbers and counting, art, and other subjects. It’s fun and stimulating for him, and it’s important to me to give him as much of a head start on his education as I can (like all parents, I want my child to have the option to “do better” than I did).
And what about emotional connection? What would happen if I was working nights and was never around to tuck him into bed again?
And what about Josh? When would I ever see him if we were just taking turns taking care of Kj individually? When would he ever have time to keep working towards his independent business dream, or to even have a hobby?
Suddenly, I realized how much guilt could be associated with being a working mom.
Sadly, I found myself thankful to hear back that there wasn’t enough work currently available for the particular hours I had asked for. I was relieved to not have to make the decision about whether to turn down the job that I had briefly been so ecstatic about.
Although I could just feel good about finally having validation that being a full-time parent was the right decision for my family, I’m also feeling very upset at the knowledge of how much guilt moms feel no matter which choice they make. As children, we were taught that our careers were very individual decisions, and that we can and should be anything we want. As mothers, we’re teaching the same thing to our children, yet no longer able to place our own dreams and professional ambitions in a place of priority. Even when moms choose to work, their work is likely not as much of a priority as they wish it could be, when they have to be always aware of the mom-guilt, always second-guessing, “Am I doing what’s right for my family?” and always aware of the judgement someone in their lives may be putting on them.
I’m sad that mom-guilt over their career choices is a reality for all moms, regardless of what their choice was.
I’m angry that despite all of us having our own guilt to deal with, there are still parents out there judging other parents, which clearly does nothing but add to the guilt. We have enough to worry about without having to know what other parents think of us.
I am now thoroughly convinced that there is no one “right” decision for work-life balance for parents, and I’m wishing more than ever before that moms would stop judging one another for their career choices.