I cleaned out my office last week. I packed up picture frames and emptied drawers of snacks, knick- knacks, and business cards I’d no longer need. Years of notebooks, headache cures, caffeine-related accoutrements, and emergency grooming supplies that carried me through five days a week on my 10×10 piece of carpeted real estate. Soon I’d be spending my time in a new position, with a six am start, twenty step commute, and one break a day (if I’m lucky). My new employer is known to be demanding, unreasonable, and extremely needy, but has a giggle that makes my heart tingle, and cuddles that melt stress away into her soft, chubby arms. Come Monday morning I’d be starting my journey as a Stay-At-Home Mom.
Like most women, I struggled to return to work after maternity leave. With my firstborn, after three months of essentially sleep and sensory deprivation and spending every waking moment caring for him, the thought of someone else taking over while I returned to morning commutes and status meetings was heart wrenching. But I did it. I took everyone’s advice to give it some time, to not make any rash decisions while I was emotional, and I went back to work. I worked through his transition into daycare, where he refused to feed and sleep and would come home listless, his bloodshot eyes seeming not to recognize me when I picked him up at the end of each day. I worked through his constant fevers and doctors’ visits and back-to-back rounds of antibiotics. Through six ear infections in four months and a subsequent operation to get tubes inserted. Through sending him back to school never quite at one hundred percent, only to have him catch something new a few days later. Through taking care of him during his sick days and my work days, and having to work past midnight to meet deadlines. Through ignoring his cries on a video monitor to finish a conference call. Through pumping, leaking in meetings, and avoiding awkward eye contact while transporting breast-milk to and from the kitchen fridge. Through multiple nervous breakdowns and office tears. But miraculously, we got through it.
Three years later, I found myself starting the process again when our daughter was born, thinking things would be easier this time around. But things were not better; in fact things were magnified with two kids in the picture. I dropped subtle and not so subtle hints to my husband about quitting my job to stay home, usually ending in a trail of silence when my joking tone started to turn desperate. When the combination of illness, guilt-ridden business trips, and the two kid transition folded us into its giant tsunami of stress, he broke as well. But I had programmed myself so strongly against staying home that when he finally said “let’s do it” – my immediate response was still to say no.
I often think about why, even after the decision was made, it was so hard for me to take the plunge. When everything in our lives pointed to this as the best solution, why was I still fighting it? Truthfully, I felt a sense of failure by admitting that I couldn’t do both, that I couldn’t handle both. There are so many women out there with more kids, more demanding careers, and less of a support system that are able to succeed as working moms, so why couldn’t I? I was slipping at work and struggling at home, yet I kept pushing myself to do more. I had cultivated a view from everything I read and heard, trying to define my successes and failures by my ability to keep going at something that was making me miserable, until I finally realized that none of it mattered. None of the research and cautionary tales mattered. None of the voices telling me to do-it-all and be-it-all and lean in, mattered. They were all anecdotes – a collection of stories and data based on the experiences of different women and different families, so why was I trying to fit myself into a mold made by someone else? There were no guarantees no matter what choice I made.
The financial sacrifices we’d have to make were tangible and easier to rationalize – shopping, eating out, extra vacations all paled in comparison to all those potential missed moments with my kids. The unknowns, however: if I’d be able to rejoin the workforce when I was ready, how this would affect our dynamic as husband and wife, if I was going to fail miserably as a SAHM, if I was going to hate being a SAHM, were all things I had no purview into. I finally had to go by what I did know: this situation was not working, my unhappiness was compounding, and our family was suffering. And more importantly, there were no unknowns that could eclipse being able to take care of my kids in a way that I longed to do for so long – without distraction, during a time when they needed me the most. The only way to truly know what was best for our family was to experience it for myself, even if it meant finding out I wasn’t cut out to stay home. I will probably get stir crazy most days, I will probably miss child-free adult interaction, and I will probably have times where mealtime and tantrums send me over the edge, but they are only little for so long, and I want to remember every second of it – good, bad, and crazy. I have the rest of my life to work, but I will never regret choosing this time with my kids.