Four years ago I left my job and, overnight, became a “stay-at-home mom.” If I ever say these words out loud, my toes curl under. A stay-at-home mom is something I never expected, or aspired, to be. I had grown up thinking that my mother’s generation had blasted a hole through the glass ceiling, and I always thought I would waltz along the path they had cleared to the highest levels of my chosen field. I never really had a clear picture of what it was I wanted to do, but I felt there was no limit to what I could achieve.
Enter parenthood. The daily reality of the two-working-parent family was not one that we could sustain. Stuck in a lousy situation, I made the best choice available. I wish there had been more options to choose from. I struggle with the idea that women are losing ground, and that I have contributed to this in some way. And as the mother of two boys, I worry about the message that I am sending them. Their mother retreated, defeated, back to the home where she belonged.
On a personal level, I know I made the right choice. I think back to a morning at work when I sat through a presentation of the new “corporate values and rewards system.” I was told to think of my job not only as my work, but also as my hobby. I thought of trying to find time in my crammed-full day for the hobbies that I was now expected to learn, such as “loss control” and “plant optimization.” There were only two hobbies at that point that I had not yet given up: family and sleep, though I was running short on the latter.
The night before that meeting, I had been up until midnight studying for an exam on workplace accidents. I was in the running for a promotion, and hoping that somehow a higher salary would make it all worthwhile. I was studying in the kitchen and, between modules, baking. When I left the house the next morning at 5:30 a.m., while my husband and sons were still sleeping, I left them each a plate of banana chocolate chip mini-muffins for breakfast with an apology note. I would be home before they went to bed. Promise.
My attempt to negotiate a part-time job-share failed. I discovered then, and have confirmed since, a prevailing perception among employers: part-time means lack of commitment. A permanent part-time job with a decent salary and benefits is a rare bird indeed, one I am still hoping to spot someday. Most casual part-time jobs, at least in the rural area where I live, pay less than the cost of daycare.
After spending a year as a stay-at-home mom, I set out to find a way to work that would meet a bottom line of my own: meaningful, well-paid work that would allow me time to spend with my family. I have settled on freelance writing. Sometimes this means working before the kids wake up or after they go to bed. Sometimes it means taking calls on the way to music class and emailing during play dates. Sometimes it means folding laundry during conference calls.
But it seems to be working. I do good work, and I’m paid well. It’s a simple exchange. I am well aware of the risks. I walked away from a benefits package that included orthodontics and the promise of a pension. I hope my kids will have straight teeth, and while I’m grateful that I enjoy my work so much, I will likely still be doing it when I’m 80.
The payoff comes in the everyday sanity of our lives. No more muffin baking at midnight. No more apology notes at the breakfast table for children who are too young to read. There is room in my life now — not just for work, but also for family, and for sleep. Room for real hobbies, school field trips and volunteering. I still worry that I am not doing my part to maintain the freedoms my mother’s generation struggled for. But then I wonder if this effort to find balance is the legacy that my own generation — not just of women, but of parents — will be remembered by.
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