I always believed that I would be a ‘stay-at-home’ mom. I had grown up with one and felt that I had hugely benefitted from this and that it was, in fact, how families worked. Of course, at the time, I had accepted it as my right to have my mother at home, and had not considered that it could be any other way or that she would have wanted it any other way. Her job was to look after me and that was just how it should be.
When I eventually had children, however, this was not how life played out. Staying at home was not an option. I was okay with this, as the concept of being a ‘working mom’ was far more common, and I was in the good company of other ‘working moms’. We shared the pain and guilt of leaving our beautiful children in the care of other family members, creches, nannies and au pairs. We shared the experiences of sleepless nights followed by active days with traces of milk on our jackets or grubby handprints on our knees, followed by the next sleepless night. The guilt of leaving work on time without having finished my tasks, was swapped the next morning, with the guilt of leaving a miserable child in someone else’s care. Repeat.
I missed school outings when school outings were important. I missed school Mother’s Day celebrations because they were in the middle of the working day. These were different to the Father’s Day celebrations, which were before school started so that Dad could still get to work on time. As frustrating as it was, I understood the fact that there were many mothers who would be more likely to be able to attend a midday event. From time to time, I made it to my children’s events and I felt virtuous in my drive to hold down a career and be a fabulous mom.
I would look with envy, and possibly a little malice, at the moms who did not endure this conflict. In my view, not only were they graced with peace of mind, but they also had friends with whom they could go for coffee. At the time, I believed that they had it so easy.
I have since changed my mind. With a shift in circumstances, I became an ‘at-home-mom’ as my children entered their tween and teen years. It was a revelation.
What I have come to understand is that going off to work could, in fact, be considered the easy option. It had its benefits. For one thing, I was paid for my time and contribution, which gave me a sense of self and my own space to achieve and be someone who was called something other than ‘Mom’. It gave me a placing at the dinner table or social gathering that enabled me to answer the question ‘’what do you do?” without mumbling “nothing”or “I am just…”. I had a title that indicated that I may have had something of interest to say. As an ‘at-home-mom’, no one implied that I had nothing of interest to say, I just felt that I didn’t.
This was part of what made the “so what do you do?” question somewhat more tricky to answer. I struggled to hold onto my sense of self and self-worth. I wondered if I did actually have anything interesting to share, given that lifting, shopping and cleaning had been the top three achievements for the day. I had learnt that microwaves and toilets were not self-cleaning, which was a surprise to me, and was probably linked to the fact that I had had full-time help for most of my years of being a parent and pursuing a career. I did not think this newfound knowledge and skillset would be of any interest to anyone.
As an ‘at-home-parent’, I also learnt that my time was even less “my own”, and my achievements were not typically newsworthy. What was also strange, was that my free time never really felt legitimate or well-earned. Using the half hour between tasks to do something for me, such as writing a book (which gave me another object to which I could attach my constant sense of guilt), was not really free, because it was always just the time in between doing other things for other people.
On the other hand, and as per my earlier perspective, I was able to form close friendships and have coffee with these newfound friends. I also did not carry the guilt of not being ever-present for my children as their needs and growth required, because I was able to be present. It certainly felt good for my presence to be taken for granted, enough for my children not to need my constant attention when I was there. It became more comfortable to co-exist and it was amazing how quickly we all adjusted to the change. When I held a job with working hours, every day, my son would ask me if I could pick him up from school, and of course, I couldn’t. Then, I stopped working, and I could fetch him every day. We soon forgot how painful the daily separations had been.
The experience of shifting roles was eye-opening and gave me a newfound respect and admiration for those who choose to, or have to, stay out of formal employment without direct payment for the work that they do. It is not an easy choice and the personal sacrifices are often just as difficult as the sacrifices made by going out to work, if not more so. While being at home has many upsides, it is definitely not the easy option. I suspect that even those ‘at-home-parents’ who can afford full-time help in their home will struggle with the balance between time and value for effort.
As much as I had held a view of women who did not go out to work, I also had a view of how ‘easy’ it was for men. I envied their ability to stay at work till all hours, in order to complete a project, because they had someone at home being the primary care giver. I envied their ability to go on a business trip without a second thought. Again, while this may be an advantage for some parents, that does not mean it is an advantage for all, and the pressure of having to provide because people depend on you, irrespective of whether you enjoy your work or not, can be incredibly stressful. It also seems that, even if partners have agreed roles, the role that includes providing the primary financial contribution is more valued. This can hold true irrespective of our gender. Given the traditional role that men have had to play, particularly that of provider, this shift in power (whether subtle or overt) could be even more difficult, as people are not yet used to men being the primary carer.. Often, losing power is more difficult than fighting for it.
Evidently, there is no easy answer and what may work for one person does not work for the next. Being a parent and doing paid work outside of the home has great advantages, but can also be emotionally and physically draining. Equally, being dedicated to the role of ‘parent’ or ‘home-carer’ or both may have great advantages, but can also be physically and emotionally draining.
Of course, there are those who are completely comfortable and secure in their choices and have a healthy sense of self worth on their respective paths, and I applaud them. That is what I continue to work toward; not someone else’s life, but peace with my own.
The lesson in this shift in life has been so valuable, as what I had believed to be true of those I judged or envied, was not what I experienced when my circumstances changed to make me one of those whom I had judged or envied. As we are learning through social media, happy pictures can only really be evidence of happy moments, as the moments, hours, days or months between pictures are not captured and the emotions displayed may not be the ones felt at the time. We have all learnt to smile when we actually feel like our hearts will break.
When looking at other people, groups or broader communities, the picture we see and the stories we tell ourselves about how easy or hard it is for others, may or may not be accurate. Circumstance has its own merits and failings and the more we are able to accept those of our own circumstances, the better.