Friday, February 3, 2012

The Stay-at-Home Mom Dilemma

I am one of those people for whom age is difficult.  I am not fond of counting birthdays.

Turning 30 didn't bother me.  I was married, we owned a home, I was the stay at home mom to two healthy little girls and my husband had a good job and provided well for us.  At that time, my friends and same-generation family members were still getting their lives together: single, still living at home or in apartments, in grad school or trying to find a career.  At thirty I felt like I had it all together: the house, the husband, the kids.

Growing up all I wanted was to be a mom and a wife, like my mom and her friends and our neighbors.  I didn't know any "career women" and if we came into contact with one, the women I knew would make comments about how she probably didn't take good care of her kids: those were the kids who walked around with unzipped jackets, came to school without eating breakfast, their mom never baked for bake sales and gasp! served TV dinners to their family.  I did not want to be that kind of mom or wife.  My mom took being a mom seriously.  She read us Bible stories, took us to the library, made tons of crafts, kept the house clean, was PTO President and volunteered at church.  Our jackets were zipped, she made us breakfast, she chaired the bake sales and served well balanced dinners.  Our home was a haven, a place to relax and rejuvenate.  It was safe and lovely.  As a little girl, I wanted babies and a home; I wanted to create a safe haven for my family; I wanted to make my husband nice dinners and pick up his socks and do his laundry.

In high school and college, I was not the kind of girl that always had a boyfriend.  We could say that I was fine being on my own, and I was; but I was also really shy with boys.  I never knew if I would ever find that husband and have those babies that I pined for, keeping lists of baby names that I liked and files of layettes and cribs clipped from catalogs.  So, I threw myself into school.  It was the 90s, I had been (and still am) a big huge fan of Sassy magazine.  I took women's studies classes and decided that I didn't need a man; in fact, having a man was a detriment.  I needed to be self-sufficient.  I wouldn't rely on any man.  I thought I would like to be a social worker and work with children in the foster system, but then I had an experience that convinced me that I was not emotionally cut out for that.  So I decided I would be a therapist and listen to people's problems and help them to change their behavior, but then I realized a) the kinds of problems that people had I wasn't sure I wanted to listen to; b) I would have to intern in situations that I wasn't comfortable in; c) I don't have that patience and d) I had several experiences where I realized that people knew they had issues and said they wanted to change, but in reality they just didn't stick with the changes for whatever reason.  After talking it over with my advisor, I discovered that this is somewhat the rule instead of the exception (not that EVERYONE is like that, but for every 10 people that change their negative behavior there are 20 who only change temporarily for whatever reason).  So, I set out to find another career goal.  I was fascinated by why people want to change but can't; then this lead to an interest in why seemingly smart, normal, stable people join brain-washing cults and commit mass murders.  I put myself on track to get a master's degree, perhaps a PhD and become a professor and apply for research grants to study subcultures.  I envisioned myself in a dusty house with stacks of books and cats, just poring through research and publication deadlines.

Then I met Jason.

I distinctly remember having a conversation with him where I said that I didn't want to be rich or famous, I just wanted to be comfortable.  I just wanted to be a normal, average person.  I am sure there are some people out there who are thinking: she's cRaZy--she doesn't want to be rich and famous!  No, I don't.  I never did.  It seems like it would be an annoyance what with the papparrazzi and all (Dr. JJ and Jason and I have a joke about that ;-)  I remember Jason saying he just wanted a stable life-which, coming from his family, was not something he had growing up - he wanted to own a home, have children, money in the bank, know where his next meal was coming from and have a life free from the dysfunction he had grown up with.

Our friends used to joke that we wanted the white picket fence.  We did.  The kids, the dog, the house. Comforting dinners, family game nights, family movie nights.  We dreamed of making homemade pizzas with our kids and having them put the toppings on; we dreamed of leisurely weekend breakfasts.   Warmth, safety, chaos, no dysfunction, no drama.

In those early days, Jason used to say we were building our foundation.  We spent weekends hiking, dreaming of the day when we would hike with our children.  We spent summers camping, dreaming of camping with our children.  We would take his younger brother to museums and roller skating, dreaming of the day when it was our children that we were taking.  We would cook dinners and bake cookies and buy unfinished furniture to finish together.

Suddenly the dream of a house and family, my original girlhood dream seemed attainable and when I graduated college (really just adding up my credits and realizing I had enough to graduate), I went looking for a job so we could save for a down payment on our white picket fence house.  I didn't think about grad school or the GRE.  Being a professor seemed second place to being a mom.  Studying cults seemed risky and dangerous and I had too much going for me to take those risks.

I worked as a recruiter (which I hated) and as a pre-school teacher (which I loved).  We married at 24, bought our first home at 25 and had our first child at 27.  And until I was 35, that seemed enough.  I was quite happy with my life, my home, my husband and children.

It was around the time that I turned 35 that it seemed as though our friends and peers had found their place in their careers, were advancing in their careers and I started to feel..left behind.  It was the first time that I really understood the sacrifice a woman makes when she decides to be a stay at home mom.  It was the first time I felt looked down upon for putting my family first.  It was the first time I felt "less than".  People in my family criticized my choice to be a stay at home and it hurt.  It seemed that everyone around me considered advancement in your career to be doing something great with your life and snickered when they said, "What have you done lately?  Fold any good clothes?"  I resented this.  I was angry.  I was hurt.

Then, I decided that I wanted to work.  P was in school full time and there was no reason why I couldn't get a job.  I decided that I couldn't balance working full time and being a mom (I give A LOT of credit to women who can!).  I got a job at our local public library.  After a few months, I started looking into getting a master's degree in Library Science.  Fortunately, we live very close to a university that offers this program.  It would cost me close to 40K and at the time I was making this decision and indeed even now, budget cuts were the norm, libraries were being closed or staff cut...I thought long and hard about dipping into our family savings and/or taking out loans and putting us in debt for a degree that may or may not help me get a job.  Once we started homeschooling, I really had too much on my plate to consider going back to school on top of working, managing a household and homeschooling.

There are times when I feel judged for not having a career.    I feel like someone changed the rules on me.  Maybe it was all of the episodes of The Waltons and Little House on the Prairie I watched that made me feel that blue collar work was noble and caring for a family was honorable.  Maybe it was growing up in a suburban development where all of the moms stayed home and traded recipes and had Tupperware parties that made me dream about that life for myself...that made me think that kind of life was something to strive for.  Maybe I wasn't prepared for a world in which women are looked down upon for staying home with children and people say you need at least one master's degree to be successful.

One of my biggest desires for my children is that they will do what is right for them and not be pressured to do what everyone else is doing.  Sometimes I really thing that is a very old-fashioned idea. But I don't see how you can ever be happy when you are always comparing yourself to others, living up to their ideals and making your decisions based on what is right for someone else.  I pray that society starts to revere people who think for themselves as opposed to judging them as "different", where different=bad.  I fall short in this area.  I do revere people who are different, but I also worry about what other people think of me.  I have let other people define who I am far too much in my life.  I have let other people's opinion of me cause a deep wound inside me.  My husband can tell me that these people are shallow and not worth my time, but it still hurts.  I am trying to move beyond do what is right for me and my family and to not compare myself/my life to others.

As I sit here typing this at 11:30 in the morning and my girls sit at the dining room table poring over supermarket circulars that came in the mail, I can not think of anywhere I would rather be.  They have given themselves a budget and are trying to decide how to spend that money and buy food for their family.  I hear them talking about cooking chicken and ribs, mentioning that you need protein, discussing the cost of vegetables at different stores, planning meals, saying that they will buy yogurt and not cupcakes because cookies and cupcakes are not healthy snacks... this is not an assignment that I gave them, but based on the calculations I see them making I am thinking we can call this math for today.  They are teaching themselves to budget and are demonstrating their knowledge of nutrition.  We have yet to start school today because these girls have been at this for a while...

I feel as though there is no where else I would rather be right now.  I want to be with these girls, I want to be learning beside them.  I want to be the one they come to with questions about hard topics.  I want to know that they can survive in this world.

There is a part of me that wonders if I am preparing them for a world in which people claim you need at least one master's degree to be successful.  My prayer is that our economy turns around and people begin to see the work of carpenters and plumbers and electricians as noble and honorable.  My prayer is that more women will be able to stay home and will see being a stay at home mom as a viable life choice (there is a part of me that wonders what unemployment would be like if more women chose to and could afford to stay home with their children).  My prayer is that my girls will be prepared for the career world and being a stay at home mom and that the world and economy will be such that they can afford to make either choice, the choice that is best for them.  I pray that if they choose to work it is not because their spouse can not make enough money to support their family, but it is because they genuinely want to work.  I pray that my girls will have the strength to make the decisions that are best for them and not let anyone make them feel bad about those choices.

"No one can make you feel inferior 
without your consent."
~ Eleanor Roosevelt