I recently read an article about stay-at-home mothers over the age of 50 who went back and “did something” with their lives once their children were grown. The article featured a mom who had given up her medical school training to stay home with her children, and then when she turned 50 and they were adults, realized she really wanted to fulfill her dream of becoming a doctor. Another mom stayed home to raise her children and after turning 50 became a highly regarded jazz singer. I say more power to them.
As a stay-at-home mom with two adult children, ages 25 and 21, I assume I’m supposed to feel inspired by this article. I think I’m supposed to want to go out and rekindle all of my deferred dreams or find new ones to pursue. Maybe I should go back to school to get my master’s degree. Maybe I should pick an entirely new career. This is what our society expects, isn’t it? We’re made to feel that we should always be doing something that advances or enriches our careers because without them, who are we, right?
But what if I don’t want to? What if raising my children to become productive, happy, healthy adults was my career? What if, aside from the part-time writing I enjoy doing, well, I’m just done? Now that my kids are grown and living their own lives and I’m over 50, what if my mission is accomplished and I’m just retired?
Being an accidental stay-at-home mother was the best career choice I could have ever made. It started when my older daughter was 3 years old and my younger was just a newborn. I hated my job as the managing editor of a small press that published books for librarians to help them stay abreast of their profession, and I was jealous of my friends who were stay-at-home moms. I wanted to be like them and spend my days with my kids ― going to the park or bringing them to the library for children’s story hour and teaching them all of the things they’d need to know to become good, kind, successful people. So I discussed it with my husband, and we agreed that we could afford one year of me staying home with the kids, and then I’d have to go back to work.
And I honestly did think I would go back. I had never thought of myself as a stay-at-home mom. I’d always assumed I would work and raise my kids, but after a year I realized how much I loved being at home and wanted more time with my daughters. Money was very, very tight, but my husband and I made it work and I ended up getting the dream job I’d always wanted ... but never knew I wanted.
“What if raising my children to become productive, happy, healthy adults was my career? What if, aside from the part-time writing I enjoy doing, well, I’m just done?”
I loved that I got to see all of my daughters’ firsts ― first steps, first words and first playdates. I loved picking up my girls from preschool and hearing them excitedly tell me about their days, show me their artwork and enthusiastically (sometimes) helped me make dinner. I loved having them in the kitchen with me while I baked bread nearly every night, their tiny feet on a chair next to me as we pounded at the dough together. I was shocked to discover that spending my days teaching them about the world was more fulfilling than any job I’d had before.
I loved the years my kids were in elementary school the most, when I got to watch my girls grow and develop and learn to read and make friends. I became very actively involved at their school and sat on an academic committee of parents and teachers, which I eventually headed up. I was part of the parent-teacher organization for every year I had a child in the school, and then I became PTO president. I was involved with nearly every one of their school’s social or planning committees or I ran them. I was “class mom” every year. I loved how everyone wanted what was best for the children and that we all worked hard to achieve that together.
One of my favorite things was the mother-daughter book club that I ran with a teacher. Not only was it a wonderful way for me and my fifth grader to connect, but it also helped me get through some very tough times as a parent, when one or the other of my girls was struggling and I was struggling to help them not struggle.
Middle school, of course, was a little dicier because the hormones had started flying, but my girls had friends and activities and were mostly doing well. Then came high school with all of its ups and downs ― difficult classes, the pressure to do well for college, pressure to choose extracurriculars to put on the all-important college applications, long SAT preparation classes that went on for hours and ended at 10 p.m. There were mean girls to contend with and pain and tears to dry. Sometimes things were so low ― a daughter crying for hours over something, or a daughter waking up dreading the school day, or me trying to convince them over and over that things were going to be OK ― that I couldn’t imagine how we would get out of whatever we were facing, but we did.
There were things I hated about my career at home, too. My second daughter wouldn’t take a bottle, which meant we were glued to each other for a year straight (I like a little space now and then!). My older daughter had the kindergarten teacher from hell, and to this day I still regret not insisting that my daughter be moved out of that classroom. The PTO was often a strange place where mothers jockeyed for “power” positions, and they were not always nice to me when I served as the PTO president. And sometimes, it seemed like my daughters’ teen years would go on forever as they navigated their way through complicated feelings and relationships, all while getting to know and understand themselves as individuals.
But no career is perfect, and I have far too many great memories to fixate on the bad ones for very long. I loved watching two human beings grow up before my eyes and become productive citizens. When they graduated high school, I felt like they ― and I ― had accomplished something really good. When my older daughter graduated from college, I was not only so, so proud of her, but also proud of us ― what we had done together. My younger daughter will graduate college in the spring, and I’m sure I will feel the same way.
Still, I haven’t always felt secure in my role as a stay-at-home mom. It often feels like this country rests on the idea that everyone needs a career (specifically, one outside of the home) and, what’s more, that everyone needs a career that is more important than anything else they do in life.
We often see it on TV in fictionalized stories of power-hungry lawyers or doctors juggling their work with kids or on talk shows when hosts discuss their children while making it seem like they haven’t had to sacrifice anything to have their fast-track careers. I feel like I’m supposed to think, ”That could be me ― that should be me ― why isn’t it? Why did I leave my career? How can I restart it? What did I give up? Why couldn’t I have it all?”
And maybe some women do feel that way. But for lots of stay-at-home moms, being at home with our kids was ― and is ― enough.
So now that my kids are grown and I’m not making any moves to dive back into the career I had before becoming a stay-at-home mom ― or searching for a new one ― what am I doing? I do what many people do when they retire: I write articles like this one as well as novels, and I love it. I have a friend I go to the movies with every time something comes out that we don’t think our husbands will like. I have lunch with friends from time to time. I read a lot. I’m always available to my extended family to help them with whatever they need. I do volunteer work.
In a few years, I hope to be helping with grandchildren, to still be writing, and to be enjoying my friends and family as much as I do now.
“I want to see more women who are proud of what they have accomplished and don’t feel they have to explain or excuse why they didn’t work outside the home because what they did was enough. It was more than enough: it was wonderful and literally life changing in so many ways.”
I understand that I’m in a very privileged position. Despite how tight money was ― and still is ― for our family without two incomes, I realize that many other moms wouldn’t even be able to make the choice that I made because they need to work to support their families. In many ways, being a stay-at-home mom ― at least for me ― was and is a luxury that so many other parents will never know.
And I also certainly don’t mean to bash moms who work outside of the home. Lots of my friends worked while our kids were growing up, and now that the kids are all out of the house, they’re able to fully concentrate on their careers or concentrate on them in new ways: putting in more hours, going from part time to full time, making more money, having more disposable income than I’ll ever see, achieving other new kinds of success. That’s great ... for them.
But I’m a stay-at-home mom over 50 who isn’t really interested in any of that. I’m happy with where life has led me, even though I couldn’t have imagined it would turn out this way when I first became a mother 25 years ago. I have two happy, healthy adult daughters, and I write on the side as I choose to. I am fortunate that although money can be tight, my husband and I are not struggling on one income as so many do. I don’t need ― or want ― another career, even though many people may not consider my career as a stay-at-home mom to be a “real” or worthy one.
Ultimately, I want the media to show more of us. I would love to see more mothers who had careers as mothers ― successful careers that led to raising successful kids who became successful adults. I want to see mothers who were fulfilled by being people-raisers ― mothers who, now with full-grown kids, get to step back and say, “Wow, my career was satisfying and worthwhile and productive.” I want to see more women who are proud of what they have accomplished and don’t feel they have to explain or excuse why they didn’t work outside the home, because what they did was enough. It was more than enough: It was wonderful and literally life-changing in so many ways.
Women like me count as much as the mothers who have careers outside the home or who went back to their careers after their kids were grown or who started new ones. We just chose to have different dreams and to live those dreams knowing they would fulfill us just as other people’s careers fulfill them. We don’t need anything new or sparkly or different. We’re done. And we’re happy with where ― and who ― we are.
Judy Mollen Walters is the author of six women’s novels, with the latest, The In-Between-Place, published in March 2019. She has also written essays that have been featured in The Washington Post, theweek, SheKnows, and many other publications. She resides in New Jersey with her husband and her daughters, when they come home to visit.