Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The "Stay At Home Mom" conundrum

You'd think that being a mother in modern times would be a easier. Our generation of women proved we could be anything we wanted to be and many things simultaneously. When we started having babies, it was supposed to be the best educated and best prepared group for motherhood. Yet the guilt, anxiety and exhaustion of trying to fulfill this prophecy made some of our ranks competitive, doubtful and judgy. Lots of discussion started about the "Mommy Wars," pitting women who remain in the workforce against those who stay home. All this rhetoric makes everyone feel defensive and that whatever situation you've got isn't quite good enough.

I'll admit making this decision was not easy for me. For all of my adult life, I worked hard to earn respect and credibility as a highly competent digital media professional. Then all of a sudden, I was on the doorstep of another role I had always aspired to (being a mom). But I had no idea of how being a stay-at-home-mom (or as I like to say "domestic project manager") would fit me or how to reconcile my professional self with being the kind of mom I wanted to be. So I knew I had to get back to basics. While mulling it over, I realized there were just 5 fundamental questions I needed to ask myself.

1. What can we afford financially?
I created a budget in 2007 when we started thinking about a baby and figured out that we could meet our financial responsibilities with one income. Not everyone can do that, I understand. Sometimes it's a matter of living within one's means but for others it takes both salaries to make the mortgage. In this economy most people on the bubble are not eager to jettison the second income. I definitely needed assurance we could do this before I committed to giving up my job. But indeed our life would need to contract and the discretionary spending would have to tighten up considerably. To this day though, I am still feeling my way through our budget and seeing what things really cost. I'll be honest, it's been a challenge to alter the spending behavior of once having had two incomes.

2. What effect will this have on our child?
Before we had Sidney, Ken and I discussed what we liked about our own childhoods and both of us had moms who stayed home in the early years. I vividly remember the comfort I felt when I would be at home with my mom or come home from school & she would be there. Also, she would go on field trips with my classes and would volunteer at the school. I knew that I would want to provide that for our child too.

From everything I have read, the first 3-5 years of a child's life are the most important in setting the stage for confidence, curiosity and a multitude of fledgling skills. Especially since it took great effort to conceive her, I was determined that one of her parents would get the privilege of experiencing these hard-fought milestones.

3. What effect will the decision have on me (my aspirations, my sanity, my desire to be a good mom)?
I wanted a new challenge and I certainly got it. This is the hardest job I've ever done with 10-12 hrs a day including weekends and both physically & mentally demanding. But it has rounded me out as a person. I didn't know I had the compassion, creativity & patience that I do. For me, being a mom at home showed me that.

As for my future in the workforce, I am linked to many of my former colleagues via Facebook, Linked In and keep in touch directly too. While I am most comfortable with high tech, I have also been interested in project management and non-profit work. I look forward to working for a company I believe in when I start again and it could be in any sector as far as I'm concerned. So it's a big question mark what will happen to my career next.

I do miss the constant, daily adult interaction and am amazed at how "small" my world has become. Being interested in technology, things change very fast so I skim a few technical blogs so Ken and I can chat when he gets home about the industry. But I've heard stories about how women who leave the workforce are looked down upon. In terms of my own professional identity, I worked very hard my whole life in school and in the working world to earn the respect of others by delivering results and learning new things. What I hear myself talking about now completely amazes me. Just yesterday I detailed the ingredients of a slow cooker recipe, described Sidney's poop, groused about other mothers at co-op and had a few hours of rambling narrative directed at my daughter about what we were looking at any given moment.

I have joined a few parenting groups, attend foreign language story times and have enrolled us in an infant co-op so that there are things to look forward to & other people to interact with. But most important for Sidney & me, amassing a new community of friends and associates who are focused on raising children.

4. What childcare options do we have?
With the closest immediate family 3 hours away, we would require a non-family member to watch Sidney if I worked. It's very expensive to get good care and naturally competitive with many like-minded parents vying for limited spots. The economy sucks right now but even before, most companies (except some few enlightened ones) really don't accommodate working families. It's short-sighted and forces people to choose job or family.

5. What work options do I have?
It seemed the right timing to ride off into the sunset after my maternity leave. If there was a way to command a completely flexible schedule with minimal part-time hours, I wouldn't mind staying somewhat connected to a workplace but I just don't see it right now. This choice comes across pretty black and white but maybe that's because the American society sees it that way: either you're in the workforce or you're not. Yes, there are people who have situations that are the perfect balance but it's a rare thing.

In my friend Sarah's yearly letter to friends and family, she said this of her pregnancy though I think it could be applied to parenthood in general:
"And your body pulses with a cocktail of new hormones like "relaxin," which while sounding lovely, makes your joints stretch in ways that would impress Gumby. Along with all the physical stretching, though, it's the mind that bends the most. What about my career? My travels? Our ability to feel spontaneous and independent? Pregnancy challenges us to face uncertainty and changes in a life pattern we've come to cherish."

And so my mind is bending to embrace the new priorities as each day passes and Sidney grows up. I feel undeniably fortunate to have this chance to participate and witness it first hand. As Shannon reminded me, though Sidney will not remember much of this time, I will. So I just need to remember that on those rare, tough days when the routine gets a little tedious or the girl is fussy.

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