In the early 1990s, I gave up a career in broadcast journalism to be a stay-at-home mom. I remember the day I left the television station in central Florida—the mixture of feelings, the excitement over the upcoming birth of my son, the relief of not going to work at 10 at night (I was a writer for the morning news show), the sadness of leaving my colleagues, but most poignantly the nagging sense of doubt. It was a cloud that hung over me on that spring day with a blue sky stretching overhead. I felt small, insignificant, and I hadn’t even left the parking lot.
Would I be able to pick up where I left off? Would I ever reclaim the success I had worked so hard to attain? If so, how? Like Lisa Endlich Heffernan, who recently wrote “9 things I wish I’d known before I became a stay-at-home mom” at Vox, my decision to stay at home ran counter to everything I was raised to believe about a woman’s place in the modern world.
My parents pushed me to compete with the boys, to achieve, and to conquer the world. Yet I gave all that up to stay at home with my children. I wanted to be the one who put them down for naps in the afternoon, searched for Goldbug among the pages of Busytown, cut up their hotdogs and sliced their apples for lunch, trained them to use the toilet, dried their tears when they fell, held them when they were sick—morning, noon, or night—corrected them when they did something wrong, and spread my arms wide as I read “Guess How Much I Love You,” grinning as they squealed, “All the way to the moon and back!”
I know parents who work full time can do many of these things, but I wanted to do them at any time during the day. I wanted to do it all, not out of a sense of pride, but out of love. I wanted to be with my children, and I wanted them to be with me.
Yes, Staying Home Has Trade-Offs
That decision, however, came at a cost. Many women (and men) don’t make that choice, and it’s not my place to judge them. I agree with Heffernan when she says, “The decision to stay home or stay at work is based on a deeply personal confluence of factors. I don’t believe that one woman can suggest what is best for another.”
What we can do is share perspectives on our choices. Heffernan lists nine things she wished she’d known when she decided to give up her career. Most are regrets. This is understandable because there are costs to staying home. There are sacrifices. But these are either material or focused on the self—my success, my financial security, my sense of self-worth, my need for the respect of others.
Most women can relate to what Heffernan has written. I certainly can. But there is so much more to the picture of staying at home, and women need to be reminded of that picture. Too often, they take their eyes off of the positive, and they focus on the negative. They lose sight of why they chose to stay home in the first place.
When I look back on the many years spent with my children, I wish I’d known all the good things I would experience—then I wouldn’t have had those lingering doubts, the envious glances cast at women who were moving ahead of me in the workforce, the sheer exhaustion from raising young children, and the frustrations about money. For the longest time, I couldn’t even look at friends’ Facebook photos because we couldn’t afford to take a family vacation.
Ask Yourself: What Is Most Important in Life?
One of the most crystallizing moments of the cost of staying at home came when I decided to get a job after years of being out of the workforce. My kids were older, and it was time to re-enter the professional world. After sending out applications for over a year, I got an interview with a bank. They were looking for someone who would work in the security department to scan the Internet for threatening activity. I dressed up as well as I could, and with my nerves frayed, I went to the interview.
I took the elevator to the third floor, where I stepped into a wide-open room that reminded me of the Google ads, with large windows, couches, a snack table, and dart boards on the walls. Mostly, the people were young, in their 20s and early 30s. At the age of 45, I felt ancient. The man I interviewed with could have been my son. He also looked exactly like Elijah Wood. I kept thinking during the interview, “I’m talking to Frodo and I feel about as old as Gandalf—without any of his powers.” My confidence was sapped, drained from years of cooking dinners, attending soccer tournaments, helping with homework, and caring for sick children. The professional world had become alien to me.
I didn’t get the job. No surprise. But I learned a lesson. After I left the interview, I sat in my car and sobbed, mascara running down my face, my hair sticking to my cheeks. I was a failure. I felt empty, worthless, and hopeless. I cried all the way home as the grief morphed into anger. By the time I got home, I was a mess. I pushed open the front door and tossed my things onto the dining room table. My son was in the kitchen and asked what was wrong. I told him I’d just gotten rejected by a hobbit. (I knew even then that I didn’t get the job.) He smiled and put his arms around me. “It’s okay, mom, I still love you.”
While that didn’t fix everything, it was a reminder of why I had stayed home. It also pushed me to change my thinking about my life and my choices—that what is most important is, not my professional success and the accolades that comes with it, but the people in my life, my family—who I am as a woman and a mom, not what I do or produce in the professional world. While important, that is secondary.
Heffernan has written the things she wish she’d known before choosing to stay at home. Here are things I wish I’d known, not just in the beginning but all through the many years when I wallowed in self-pity over the sacrifices I’d made.
1. I will know my children in an intimate way that will enrich my life.
To know someone, you need to spend time with him. Children too often become a duty to perform and not people we get to know. By staying at home, I was able to be with my kids as they grew and changed from day to day. I got to know them in every stage. I never had to play catch-up because I was there by their side, as they discovered themselves and the world around them. My life has been made better by knowing them intimately. It hasn’t always been easy, as conflicts arise in relationships. But the “knowing” is there, and intimacy creates a comfort and ease one rarely finds outside the home. I’ve learned to cherish it, as friends have come and gone, and people I thought I knew turned out to be quite different. I have my family and my children—I always will—and I find peace in knowing them well, and that they know me.
I have also learned more about myself by getting to know my children. My daughter, who is very much like me, has been a mirror, revealing how I sometimes think too much with the emotional side of my brain. Together, we have been able to make the journey to develop “wise minds.” We both fail—often. But because I know her—and she knows me—we’re able to support each other and grow from our mistakes. My son, who has struggled with the social anxiety of autism, has taught me more about showing others grace and love than any other human being I’ve ever met. He reminds me that there is beauty in this messy world. I’m a better person for knowing my children. They are better people for knowing me.
2. I will get respect from my family and others, based not on what I produce and accomplish, but on who I am and my relationship with them.
One of the greatest complaints from people who stay at home is that they don’t get respect—respect that is automatically given to people who have full-time jobs. That’s true. It can’t be denied. But that’s only part of the picture. You might not get respect from some people, but you will get respect from the people who matter.
By staying at home, I’ve earned the respect of my children and my husband. Ultimately, my children don’t need a successful career woman in their lives. They need a mom who knows and loves them. They know this and value it because we have raised them to appreciate motherhood and fatherhood. When my husband shows me respect for my choice to stay home, he reinforces the same in my children. The same goes for him, as I show him respect as their father.
If someone doesn’t respect my choice to stay at home, his or her opinion is irrelevant. All that matters is the people who know me and respect my choices. When my children thank me for being there for them and when my husband looks at me with admiration and respect for the sacrifices I’ve made, that’s all that matters. That is enough, and it is deeply meaningful because it is rooted in love.
This can be difficult when parents who raised their daughters to conquer the world are disappointed when they give up careers to stay home. The guilt parents can heap on their grown children is enormous, and it’s hard to distance yourself from it. But it must be done. If a parent doesn’t respect his or her daughter because she has chosen to stay at home with her children, that parent’s respect is not worth having. It is misplaced, as the parent is more concerned about material accomplishments than the un-measurable successes that come from raising children. A stay-at-home mom doesn’t need to be burdened by the loss of bragging rights for her parents (as well-intentioned as they might be in wanting “the best” for their daughters).
3. I will have peace in my life because I’m not torn between a job and home.
Most women have come to admit that very few “can do and have it all.” Working full time and trying to parent is hard. You’re constantly torn and frustrated. Some women have more help than others—through extended family and husbands who are more involved at home. But many don’t. They’re emotionally and physically exhausted, and they feel guilty when they have to leave a sick child at home or can’t attend a school event. Women who have to work and can’t stay home have learned to deal with this reality, but they are often the first to admit that they wished they didn’t have to make this choice. They’re torn. Many wish they had more peace in their lives and could just stay home.
Staying at home doesn’t mean you don’t do anything except things that revolve around your children. By making the choice to leave my career, I was able to write a book and get it published. I wouldn’t have been able to do that if I had been working full time and trying to raise a family. By staying at home, I was free to spend time, not only caring for my children, but pursuing personal interests outside the pressures of a job. I wouldn’t have had that opportunity if I had remained in the workplace.
4. I will have the opportunity to develop a new kind of expertise.
Moms and dads who stay at home are experts. They’re experts on their children. This is probably one advantage to staying at home that those who work full time can’t easily share. It’s difficult to become an expert on your child when you are gone most of the time. When other people are feeding, dressing, driving, coaching, and educating your children, they are the experts, not you. You can catch up a little in the evenings and weekends—if you make the time. But it is difficult to actually be an expert on your children when you aren’t fully engaged in their lives.
Developing parenting and home management skills is satisfying in ways I never expected. While much is unique to my home and my family, there are general skills I’ve learned that I can pass on to others. Older woman have much they can give to younger women who are raising children. They have a lifetime of wisdom to pass on about how to manage staying at home and tending to their family’s needs. This wisdom—this expertise—is of great worth. When I start to bemoan loss of skills or opportunities in the workplace, I remind myself of how much I have learned, the skills I have developed as a mom and wife, and the great benefit that has been to me, my family, and others.
5. This is the only job in which you are irreplaceable.
Let’s be honest. There aren’t many jobs on this planet that someone else can’t do. In fact, one of the lessons in the corporate world is, “Everyone is expendable. Never forget it.” The goal is to make yourself so valuable that you can’t be let go, but that is really a myth. You can always be let go. Someone is always behind you, ready and willing to kick you to the curb. Given this fact, there is always an edgy sense of insecurity in all jobs. Will I fail and get fired? Will someone better than me come along and replace me? Will the company fold and I lose my job? Am I doing enough to impress the boss? Is there ever real “job security”?
The great thing about staying at home is you have the best job security in the world. No one can replace you. A nanny can only do so much. A teacher isn’t a replacement parent. Neither is a coach. The fact is, there is only one mom and one dad. And you can mess up in many ways, but you will always be the parent of your children. You can’t change that. They can’t change that.
6. I will develop friendships with incredible people.
Heffernan writes that she missed being around different types of people in the workplace. While what she says can certainly be true, again, she is focusing on the negative and also failing to see other possibilities. Diversity is not only dependant on a professional environment. Churches can be a real mix of different types of people (and they’re certainly a mix of men and women). I would say that my professional experience was rather homogenous. The greatest mixture I’ve found is through nonprofessional involvements—service groups, political associations, reading groups, and sports clubs. There is a diversity of people around you if you look for it, and you don’t have to be in an office to find it. I would have never met some women and men if I’d been busy at my job instead of getting involved in my community along with my children. Life can be as homogenized as you make it. Not only that, even if people look the same on the surface, everyone is unique, each with a story and history that is all their own.
7. I will be able drink at noon.
There is freedom of scheduling that you simply don’t have when working full time. Staying at home—especially for people who homeschool their kids—means they can go to the museum when they want, take a trip to the coast or the mountains during the week, go shopping whenever they want, make doctor’s appointments at any time, make snowballs with your kids on snow days, or, yes, have a drink at noon. There is freedom to staying at home. That means relaxation. You are not chained to the demands of a work schedule and deadlines. The needs of children can’t be predicted and therefore can’t be plotted on the calendar (until they reach school age). I don’t think I looked at a watch or a calendar for years. It didn’t matter so much. I was free from those constraints—a freedom I would have never had if I’d remained working full time.
8. I will find deep satisfaction investing in relationships that last and not material accomplishments that can easily be lost.
I recently had a conversation with two of my cousins, who both gave up high-powered careers to raise their children and homeschool them. One of them was a vice president in an accounting firm and had made more money than her husband. Her choice to stay at home was huge, professionally and financially. I asked her why she did it, and after many years of being at home, did she regret it?
“No, I don’t regret it at all,” she said. “I used to invest in things, in the success of a company, and in my own success. But those things could change on a dime. I could lose my job, or the business could fold. Now I invest in people, in relationships—in my children—and by investing in them, I invest in the future, not only the future of my family, but of society.” Both my cousins—and many other women I’ve spoken to—find great satisfaction in investing in their family. Investing in work can be satisfying, as well. But it is not the same as investing in your children, in raising up boys and girls to be strong, good, and loving men and women.
When I am old and gray, it won’t be accolades I reach for in the twilight of my years. It will be the hands of my children. As I grow older, the memories that touch me most are not the successes I’ve had and the applause of strangers. It’s the tender moments with my family. Listening with my son to slugs crunch leaves on a balmy summer evening. Holding my daughter, who fights with me more than any other, as she cries because her boyfriend broke her heart. Painting with my other daughter, watching her eyes light up as I show her how to blend watercolors to make a sunset. Helping my son and daughter study for a Science Olympiad competition and cheering madly when they get the gold medal at the state competition. Praying with my children at night, nestled with them in bed as the snow falls outside the window, blanketing the world in a quiet white. These are what I think of. These are the beauties of parenting. These are what I think of when I’m tempted with regret or envy or guilt over not doing more for myself. These are my gentle reminders of a life well lived.
9. Everything has its price.
I take this one directly from Heffernan: “The price of being a stay-at-home mom is not easy to evaluate until after you have paid it.” She concludes that the price is high, especially since the parenting years don’t really last that long. “Leaving the workforce entirely is a solution with enduring consequences to a problem that turns out to be temporary.”
This last statement gives some insight into why Heffernan’s post, while honest and realistic, tends to be so negative. She sees staying at home as a solution to a “problem.” It might be helpful if she didn’t see caring for children as a problem to be solved. But, sadly, many women do. It is unsurprising, then, that they are riddled with regrets. The only way to overcome those regrets is to change your perspective. Caring for children isn’t a problem to be solved, but a responsibility to uphold and a privilege to enjoy. Children are not tasks to be performed. They are people to be loved. Children are not items to be checked off, but individuals to be nurtured with tenderness, patience, and care.
Does this loving and nurturing come at a cost? Absolutely. But it also comes with great and lasting benefits, not only to yourself, but to your children. This is a point to be remembered when raising children: It’s not all about you! It’s not about what you get out of it. It’s not about your success. It’s not about your self-esteem. It’s not about your material achievements. It’s about serving, loving, and doing for others. It’s about storing up treasures that can never fade. And you know what? When you focus on others and truly love them more than yourself, you get those very things you thought you’d lost—confidence, security, respect, and peace. No regrets.