This fall, millions of stay-at-home moms will escort their youngest children off to their first day of kindergarten. They’ll take photographs, shed a tear or two…then immediately go home and update their resumes.
When a mother’s youngest child starts elementary school, it signals the end of one era and the beginning of another. For seven or eight hours a day - 35 to 40 hours every week - her children are in the care of their teachers and school administrators.
For women who are considering going back to work after putting their careers on hold in order to tend to the needs of their infants and toddlers full-time, it’s a time fraught with myriad emotions: grief, fear, self-doubt, liberation, anticipation, excitement. Whether she’s choosing to return to work or her financial situation requires it, it’s a pivotal time in a mother’s life, with far-reaching implications for her and her family. She is at an impasse and must choose which path to take - to work or not to work - without knowing the terrain or where it will lead her.
I stood at this impasse last fall when my third and youngest child started kindergarten and a chapter of my life ended. Except, instead of choosing to return to work, I chose to leave my job after nearly 12 years as a working mom.
Like most working moms, I wrestled with being a working parent almost from the moment my first child was conceived. Although a second income wasn’t required to put food on the table, my husband and I had just purchased our first home and our lifestyle and financial goals necessitated our being a dual income family. My job was flexible enough that I could be available to my kids when I needed to be, and around the time my firstborn turned one, I downgraded to part-time status, getting a full-time job done in just four days so that I could be home on Fridays. My work was meaningful to me. A professional fundraiser for a non-profit hospital, I was raising seven-figures per year in charitable donations and helping provide high-quality medical care for people in my community, regardless of their ability to pay for it.
I acquired many useful skills from my job as a fundraiser (and in my sales job before that), but the most useful of those skills was not how to ask people for money; it was how to successfully juggle a career and a family. From the moment my alarm went off at 5:40 a.m. to the second my head hit the pillow at 11 p.m., I was a rocket-fueled Ringmaster, accomplishing a high volume of tasks with startling efficiency, and moving seamlessly between my roles as a wife, mom, friend, daughter, employee, and volunteer. My life and my family’s life was a well-oiled machine, running smoothly, steadily, beautifully through the days and weeks. I attribute all of this to the fact that I was a working parent. If you want something done, ask a working mom to do it.
Besides being raised in a well-ordered household, there were other benefits for my children, too. For one thing, my kids had three parents - not two: me, my husband, and our beloved nanny, Camila, who started working for us after my first child was born. She adored my children and was a firm disciplinarian; a fabulous combination of traits. She was fun and she “parented” them without the high expectations and hangups of a parent highly invested in a successful outcome. (Guilty!)
Camila wasn’t the only loving, reliable adult lending a hand. My best friend (also a working parent), the kids’ grandparents, and other close family friends could all be called upon for help in a pinch. The fact that I was working required us to cultivate a dependable network of friends and family members - the proverbial Village - who could assist with rides, babysitting, or anything else that came up.
Also, two incomes meant we could afford expensive summer camps, after-school enrichment activities, ski vacations, and fancy trips; all things my kids enjoy.
The fact that I got tremendous personal satisfaction and psychic income from my work was the icing on the cake. I believed wholeheartedly that I was better mother with a job than I would have been as a stay-at-home mom without a job.
But life is not static and things began to change.
In 2015, my husband and I completed a major remodel of our home. Spending eight months managing a construction project on top of everything else had been stressful, so when the project finally ended, I was relieved to be more focused and less divided at work. But a funny thing happened: rather than being more successful at work, I became less so. Somewhere over the course of the previous year, the passion I’d once had for my work had withered. Activities that had once energized me became draining and burdensome. I had pockets of inspiration - weeks or months of great productivity - but they were hard to come by, with increasingly longer gaps of boredom in between. I wasn’t growing or acquiring new skills. I was morphing into someone I didn’t want to be: Another passionless American collecting a paycheck.
At the time, my youngest child was in preschool and with kindergarten looming in the near future, I started to miss my kids. A lot. My oldest child was nine and the years had gone by in a blur. If I didn’t have photographs to remind me of how we’d spent them, I wasn’t sure how many memories I’d retained from those years. While my kids were toddlers and preschoolers, I’d made peace with my decision to work, having seen the benefits for all of us first hand, but I had missed a lot and I was beginning to worry that I’d missed it in vain. Now that my kids were getting older, I couldn’t help feeling like my window of opportunity to make a meaningful impact on their lives was closing. Time seemed to be accelerating just when I needed it to slow down.
In the midst of this period of confusion and ennui, my mom died suddenly and unexpectedly from a heart attack. Her passing threw what mattered - and what didn’t matter - into stark relief. She was 72 years old; only thirty two years older than me. If the same fate lay ahead for me, it meant I was already on the back nine. Suddenly, leaving my children every day to work at a job that no longer brought joy, satisfaction, or meaning to my life became unbearable.
Even still, I wasn’t sure I was ready to leave my job. Although my declining passion for work had begun a year prior, there was still the possibility that my grief over my mom’s passing was amplifying my state of dissatisfaction. Perhaps this was a phase that would pass if I could be patient. Or, more promisingly, perhaps I could shift my role and responsibilities at work and tap into a new, refreshing source of inspiration. After all, it’s no small thing to lose a paycheck (not to mention fantastic medical and dental insurance, and a steadily growing retirement fund.)
Mercifully, something happened which tipped the scales dramatically: our beloved nanny found a new job. With my youngest child in kindergarten, we could no longer give Camila the hours she needed to maintain her income and she had found a new job working for two lovely professionals and their newborn baby. We couldn’t have dreamed up a better situation for her, and while we were devastated to lose her, she was happy and we were glad to know she’d be with a nice family.
One month, a dozen sleepless nights, four therapy sessions, and countless long conversations with my husband later, I gave notice and resigned from my job.
I couldn’t have chosen a more ideal time in my kids’ lives to be home with them. At 11, nine, and six, my kids are in what I call “The Sweet Spot”: Young enough to want me around, but old enough to be somewhat independent and self-reliant. They’re no longer freeloaders, they’re little people, with opinions and ideas, who contribute to household chores and family conversations, and I’m enjoying their company.
In the short time I’ve been home with them, I feel bonded to them in a way I haven’t felt since they were infants. Our rhythms are syncopated: when their energy is mellow and quiet, mine tends to be, too, and when they’re bubbling over with stories from their day or enthusiasm for a particular event or new discovery, I am full-charged and eager to enter into their worlds and engage with them there. I invite their friends over to our house to play, let them make slime, build forts, and be the messy, loud, disheveled little people they are.
Occasionally, I take them to do something special after school, but for the most part, our afternoons together are mundane. I have to prod them repeatedly to do their chores and finish their homework. I drive them to and fro their sports activities and attempt to put decent, home cooked meals together a couple nights each week. Our time together is not what I would have considered “quality time” as a working mom - we’re not cuddling or making crafts or having long, meaningful conversations. But I’ve begun to suspect that the increased quantity of time - just being with them materially and physically - is as meaningful to them as how we spend our time together.
I have more freedom to take my kids places, too. Over the summer, while my husband was working, I took the kids on a number of fun and interesting trips. Having the ability to choose when to leave, how long to stay, and not being tied to my phone, checking email the entire trip was a luxury I’ve never experienced before.
Still, there are definitely drawbacks.
For starters, the morning goes by astonishingly fast. About a year ago, I started my blog, marrying all my passions - photography, writing, fashion, beauty, and interior design - into a single hobby with the potential to grow into a nice little business. When I left my job, I was sure I’d be able to increase my publishing rate to three or four times each week, having ample time to blog while my kids were in school. But while the quality of the posts may have improved, the frequency of posting has not. I write while they’re at home, but it’s usually a disaster, so I’m happy if I publish something once a week. As hard as it is to believe, there simply isn’t enough time.
Another drawback (which will surprise no one) is that all the mindless, insipid domestic chores I once shared with my nanny and my husband, now fall to me. During the first two weeks I was home, I caught myself turning out drawers, wondering where my kids’ sports uniforms were, only to realize, they had been in the hamper since the weekend, festering under a mound of sweaty, dirty clothes, waiting to be washed.
Cooking dinner each night, too, was (and remains) a responsibility I frequently forget is mine. There have been countless afternoons when my children have inquired, “What’s for dinner?” at five o’clock, only to be quickly ushered into the car for a frenzied trip to the market or served a frozen pizza thirty minutes later. (My family ate more frozen pizzas and burritos in my first month as a stay-at-home mom than they have in a lifetime.) My kids’ afternoon sports schedules don’t accommodate spontaneous meal preparations, either, and on more than one occasion, I’ve had to stop cooking in the middle of preparations to drive one child or another off to practice.
I’m also a lot less efficient and reliable than I was as a working mom. I used to silently deride the stay-at-home moms who never returned an email or a text, and who constantly missed appointments or deadlines. I’d think to myself, “Your only job is to take care of your kids. You have oodles of spare time on your hands while they’re in school. Why is it so hard for you to respond to an email?” To my horror, I realized I’d become one of them. I missed my appointment to read out loud to my son’s kindergarten class, was a no-show to the parent-teacher conference, and showed up and hour late to chaperone a field trip because I’d missed the email announcing the earlier departure time. My once-strong track record of reliability and my reputation as a mother with her act together is now at risk and needing attention.
There are deeper, more cogent and interior drawbacks to retiring from a fast-paced life as a working mom of three too. For the first eight weeks after leaving my job, I awoke every night - inexplicably - to insanely itchy feet and palms. On good nights, I could slather some soothing anti-itch cream on and be back in dreamland within 15 minutes. But sometimes I’d itch for over an hour and finally have to toss back a dose of children’s Benadryl just to get back to sleep. My doctor was not surprised. She explained that our bodies react to drastic lifestyle changes in strange ways, sometimes even mimicking the symptoms of an autoimmune disease. “You’re withdrawing from a 12-year adrenaline high,“ she said. Her prescription was to try inducing controlled stress into my day - a challenging sudoku puzzle or a few short sprints up and down my street in the afternoons - while my body adjusted to my new, less-intense lifestyle.
Also, much of my time is spent either with my kids or by myself, which can be lonely. I love and need time alone, but I need the companionship of other grown-ups, too, and often don’t get enough of it. I miss having frequent, stimulating conversation with other adults. In the summer months, especially, spending hours and hours with three or more kids and no other adults was downright mind-numbing at times.
The grass is not greener over here on the stay-at-home mom pasture. The challenges I’m tackling are different than the ones I tackled as a working mom, but there are just as many of them. And while I have no regrets about leaving a job I didn’t enjoy, I sometimes wonder if my family and I are better off when I’m working outside the home. The notion of optimal work-life balance may be a myth. Having been both a working mom and a stay-at-home mom, I’m not convinced there’s a perfect scenario out there for mere mortals like me.
Two things I am sure about, however, are this: Gratitude and a positive attitude make everything better, and this chapter of my life will come to an end, eventually. This is a season of our lives that will not last. I may return to work or my family’s needs may change. Whatever the reason, the only thing that is certain is that things will change. My children are healthy, my husband and I are healthy, and we are surrounded by loving family and friends. If ever I was in the palm of a divine and benevolent hand, it’s now. So I will enjoy it and be glad.