Before having children, I was a dedicated, passionate primary school teacher. I felt an enormous sense of responsibility and commitment to my students. Between my own conscientiousness and the demands of the job, though, I realised that teaching wasn’t a sustainable career for me. I was constantly spread too thin, exhausted to my bones, without the energy to enjoy my students or the tiny pieces I had left of my personal life. No number of productivity hacks made the job any more manageable, so, after nearly eight years, I threw my hands up in defeat. I had to grieve the loss of what had been a dearly-held hope that teaching would be a meaningful contribution I would make throughout my life.
What helped me to let go was knowing that teaching was my Plan B. Plan A had always been to be a mum and, not long after resigning from teaching, I happily learned that I was pregnant. Having felt over-stretched and unable to meet many of the individual needs of my students, nothing filled my heart more than the prospect of having just one child (maybe, in future, two) to care for and of being in a position to meet many more of their needs so that they could thrive.
THE DREADED QUESTION – “SO, WHAT DO YOU DO?”
While I still had a pre-schooler at home, I felt little tension between my choice to stay home with my boys and society’s expectations. But, since my youngest started school in March this year, that has shifted. The inevitable question upon meeting new people – “so, what do you do?” – fills me with dread. I do loads. But I don’t think anyone wants to hear about the miles of washing I hang, the numerous emails I send to administer our lives or the multiple trips I make to the supermarket (I always forget something!). Sometimes I mention the volunteer teaching I do at my sons’ school or the work I do to help run my husband’s business or the essays like this one that I write about parenting. But none of these things earn me money or power either so usually don’t get taken seriously by others. Without a job title and an organisation of some sort to attach myself to, I am quickly written off and the focus of conversation soon returns to the person with an income and a position.
I usually find myself feeling embarrassed and inadequate in such situations and it shows in the way I speak about “what I do”. I gloss over information about myself and say little that conveys the sense of contribution and growth I actually experience as a stay at home parent. In an era in which people are expected to hustle & keep constantly busy and in which our value is measured by our wealth & influence, I feel decidedly insignificant. The truth is, though, that I have never been ambitious. My deepest satisfaction has always been in the intimacy of personal relationships and the experience of a spiritual connection with life – both of which I get through parenting.
I imagine I would be met with blank stares if I shared that with new acquaintances inquiring about what I do.
Feeling undervalued by others was a complication of choosing to be a stay-at-home mum that I expected but I find myself sensitive to other insecurities too.
I feel guilty that my family has the financial option for me to stay at home and focus on that which is most important to me while some other parents work two jobs just to feed, clothe and shelter their families, getting little time to spend together.
I hear the voices of women from the past who fought for me to have the freedom of options determinedly warning me “never depend on a man for your money” (which, let’s face it, I do). Am I letting them down?
I wonder about the example I’m setting for my boys around women, roles and work.
And, one that caught me by surprise – the feeling that, with all this time on my hands, I should at least be keeping a pristine house, making meals from scratch and keeping myself in particularly good shape. (For the record, none of these things happen).
WHY I WANT TO BE A STAY-AT-HOME PARENT
Recently, I had a day of chores and plans ahead of me but my son woke up sick and needed to stay home from school. I felt so grateful that I had the flexibility to clear my day & care for him and that my husband & I didn’t have to negotiate over whose work day would be least affected by staying home. I thought of the many families for whom having a sick child would place significant stress on everyone.
As a stay at home parent, I am a buffer for my family. I absorb pressures that otherwise everyone would endure. I pick up extras from the supermarket while my boys are at school so they don’t have be dragged along when they are tired at the end of the day. I can be home for the electrician’s visit so my husband can focus on his business. I can deliver my husband’s drill to him on the other side of town when he forgets to take it to a job with him (true story – and I’ll admit to being a bit grumpy about it.). Because I am home, I have the capacity to deal with these unexpected things so that my family doesn’t have to.
As I’ve been writing this, I have also remembered making a bucket list of sorts in my early twenties. The list is long gone and I don’t remember anything on it, except for one item – “Be a fully present mother”. Being a stay at home parent has enabled me to reach closer and closer to this desire. Having spent the day administering the family and our business, usually fitting in some exercise or meditation, I feel ready to give my full attention to my boys when I pick them up from school. I’m not trying to juggle chores or self-care at the same time as parenting. I don’t have a perfect division between these things but I feel increasingly able to “do one thing at a time”, as the Zen masters suggest we do, and, as a result, to show up more fully for everything, especially for my family.
IN SUMMARY: LIFE BY DESIGN
It was only last week that I realised, “Oh, I’m living my dream, my Plan A! Why am I squandering it by entertaining my ego’s concerns about being perceived as lazy and insignificant?” Maybe I’m old-fashioned and uncool but I’m also sane and engaged with life in a way I never have been before, which is truly the greatest gift to myself and my family. I am living in accordance with my highest priorities and desires.
I am not for a moment suggesting that staying at home is the best choice for everyone. What I am advocating for is knowing what works for ourselves and our families and deliberately designing a life based on that, rather than restricting ourselves to convention and standard measures of success. I know that, as my family and I inevitably change, the time may come when being a stay-at-home parent may no longer fit but I am finally going to give myself permission to enjoy it while I can.
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