I just received an email from a college friend who’s much like me in many ways—same literary bent, same extroverted tendencies, same youngish kids—and unlike me in others—preppier, attended law school, works full time—that flattered and frightened me in equal measure. Its question, in essence: would she be happy if she decided to leave her job right now to focus on, as we say these days, “staying home” with her children?
I was honored to be asked my opinion on such an important decision. It made me feel wise and valuable, especially when she pointed out she was asking me because I, too, have multiple degrees and because I seem to be happy with my choice to become a full-time, stay at home mother. Simply being asked about it helps validate that choice, I admit; and if I’m really being honest, I’m thrilled when any talented, ambitious woman also chooses to be a SAHM because, well, it makes me feel a bit more secure in my own decision. It feels like a virtuous circle, as embarrassing as that is to confess. If she does it, then I am not alone or misguided.
It’s also a scary question, because the only thing I know for certain is how different the answer is for every parent. The variables are many: the career being mommy-tracked, the family finances, the spouse’s attitude, and on and on. My friend was really asking whether she was about to make a terrible mistake. What she wanted from me (and the others she must also have surveyed) was a magical cocktail of reassurance and a pragmatic reckoning of the losses such a choice would entail. For an educated, professional woman, stay-at-home motherhood is stepping off the edge of the map into the great unknown: Hic sunt dracones, as early cartographers wrote. Dragons be here. Only it’s worse than the unknown, as we grapple with the stereotypes of housewives, homemakers and domestic engineers of our past.
When I started on this career as a SAHM—and let’s call it what it is, a job like any other, but for the lack of a paycheck—I believed I was doing it for my children’s sake, or for the good of our family as a whole. Before you have a baby, and even once you have that infant in your arms, you imagine the bond between you is as essential and nurturing as the milk they drink to survive, but I know many children of working parents who are as attached to their parents as my daughters are to me. One might even argue that this form of attachment, with healthy doses of separation and reunion, is a better kind of relationship than the stifling one that grows between a parent and child who don’t know how to separate.
So it took a few years, but it became clear that I chose to stay home with my daughters because, well, I wanted to. And--let's be crystal clear on this--because I could. Early on, in a new mothers’ group, I made a throw-away comment about feeling guilty I wasn’t working, and a fellow mother on maternity leave from her law job almost took my head off: “Jesus! I wish I could stay home. Please.” I was thoroughly embarrassed, though grateful to her for pointing out what I’d stupidly overlooked. (I believe this is where the campus phrase I've just learned, “Check your privilege,” applies.) That moment was the beginning of my understanding how much I wanted to be a mother who was “at home.” But it’s not a path for everyone.
These are the qualities that make me a good stay-at-home-mother: I am a natural extrovert, and a terrible delegator. I am ambitious for neither fame nor fortune, and I’m often contented by quite ordinary things—in fact, I am even sometimes elated by them. I have high standards and I like to do things my way. I hate having other people in my home without me, and am deeply uncomfortable with “help,” as servants have euphemistically been renamed. I like setting my own schedule, and I don’t chafe at grocery shopping or cooking or taking out the garbage. I am physically affectionate and I need lots of hugs and kisses to sustain me. I adore my friends and sometimes feel I’d shrivel up if I couldn’t see them. I live, almost to a fault, in the moment. I have a spouse who has a fulfilling, meaningful career that can also support four of us in a way that is, by the standards of anywhere other than New York City, extraordinarily fortunate. In my increasingly affluent neighborhood we’re simply middle class, but I’m ok with that.
Despite all this, I still engage in almost constant reassessments and rationalizations. Last week at my semi-annual haircut a woman came in with a pretty young girl, about eight years old. The woman explained that the girl had her heart set on a haircut to match her own, a chic pixie cut. I was only half listening until the salon owner asked: “Are you her mother?” and the woman said no. That got my attention. After checking that the mom was on board, if not actually present, the stylist set to work chopping off the girl’s shoulder-length dark hair. It was the kind of haircut that was going to change her entire appearance, and it was going to look great on her. Like all mothers, I covertly appraised the babysitter, who was wonderful; when the girl was having trouble keeping her head down, the sitter crouched by her feet and made silly faces to keep her engaged. Honestly, I had trouble picturing myself or any of my friends doing that for our own kids.
But I couldn’t stop thinking about the mother who was missing this precious moment. Also, not to belabor the point: the girl was getting a haircut to match her babysitter’s. Perhaps the mother is a surgeon who was saving someone’s life at that precise moment. Or maybe she was a financier flying back from closing a huge deal that would ensure her children’s financial security for life. But no matter what it was that kept her away, I couldn’t help sitting there feeling glad I wouldn’t miss a life-altering moment like that in my daughters’ lives—not for a few more years, anyway. It's at such moments that I'm clear my choice is the ultimate luxury.
I shared this story with my friend who’s contemplating stepping away from her job, and it made me feel great, no doubt because it justified my own feelings and decisions. Her response brought me up short: “I know what the rewards will be,” she said, “But I need to know about the challenges.”
So here’s the brutal truth: you won’t know whether the choice you make is the right one. Maybe ever. If you are the type who needs external approval, know you won’t ever get it. It’s possible your kids will not only fail to be grateful for your decision but actively resent it. You may fall short as a role model for your kids, you may be miserable and lonely, you may find that being with your kids shortens your patience rather than extending it. Despite the zillions of studies and op-eds on the topic, staying home with your kids guarantees neither their happiness nor their future success: stay-at-home parents also end up with kids who are ungrateful or mean or drug addicts.
There is no right answer. What there is: a moment in time and a calculation of rewards and losses as they appear to you in that moment. Is what you know you’ll gain more or less important than what you fear losing? That’s the best and only advice I can offer, along with the admonishment that if you’re fortunate enough to have a decision to make, make the right one for you. Don’t decide based on anyone else’s idea of who you are or should be. And please keep asking.
What I cooked this week: