Sometimes people ask me what it’s like to be a stay-at-home mom. I usually say the same thing. “I don’t stay home with my kids. I go to Target almost every day.”
It’s not really funny, I know, but it deflects a conversation that can be surprisingly awkward. You see, I love being home with my girls, now 4 and 5. I’m just not such a fan of telling people that’s what I do.
This is new for me.
A part of it is I miss telling people about my cool job as a reporter at The Washington Post, which is what I did until about a year ago. This is D.C., where nothing about you is more important than your job, or at least that’s what people always say. And being a full-time mom doesn’t exactly up my Q score.
These conversations are fraught because I want people to know I’m not giving up my identity as a strong, smart woman. Cue the eye roll.
Before I made the decision to quit, some people were quite direct with me. More than one woman at work pulled me aside and told me, essentially, not to do it.
And I did wrestle with whether I was selling out the feminists of my mother’s generation — and mine.
The Target line doesn’t always work.
Occasionally someone at a party abruptly ends a conversation with me after asking “What do you do?” And some working parents, no doubt also feeling the creeping possibility of awkwardness, give me what feels like faux praise: “Oh, I could never do what you do. I don’t have the patience.”
But also, can I really explain why I’m staying at home? The whole involved, difficult, ultimately exhausting and fulfilling truth?
My decision to leave work was personal.
As a news reporter, I was always running in 10 directions, even before kids. After kids it was 20.
I cobbled together a delicate system to make things work. You working moms know the drill: Fit 10 hours of work into eight hours, and secretly spend two of those hours doing something kid-related; come home harried and then try to find the reserves to play with the kids, make dinner, give the kids a bath and put them to bed, and secretly spend some of that time tying up lose ends at work. Then clean the kitchen and pass out from exhaustion as your husband walks in the door. Mumble to him that he is on his own for dinner. If you both have the energy, argue for a few minutes about the familial division of labor.
Repeat. Day after day.
Then one day it occurred to me: I wasn’t happy and I didn’t have an end game. I was too frayed to find any joy. Pulled in too many directions to enjoy any one of them. Apologizing to my kids for taking a call during dinner yet again, then apologizing to my editor for hanging up on him to stop a hair-pulling incident. (My kids figured out how to get me off the phone quickly.)
And then there was my daughter’s third birthday dinner. I spent more time in the restaurant lobby on the phone talking to my editor than at the table. I walked out of the restaurant and decided this seemingly small moment, for me, was a big moment. I was starting to lose myself in all of it. I needed change.
My husband and had I talked about getting more help around the house. Turned out I didn’t want more paid help around the house. I wanted to spend more time with my kids. I wanted to have more focus and energy when I was with them. Maybe this is one of the problems of having kids in my mid-30s, mid-career.
We figured out that if we didn’t have nanny costs we could live on one salary, and my husband was supportive of that. I felt a rush of excitement and good fortune. I am well aware this is not an option for many people.
When I told my editors they were kind and wonderful, as they always had been. I’d wanted to do this for a while but I was afraid, fearful of what my days would look like and how I would see myself.
It was scary. What am I if I’m not a journalist?
I’m a full-time stay at home mom. I’m trying it out. I still write some as a freelancer. I had a period of deprogramming when I trained myself to take a breath instead of blow a gasket when the person in front of me in the grocery store needed a price check on a item.
After all, I had to transition from writing about murder and sex assaults to sitting on the floor and doing sand art with my kids.
Being with my kids makes me feel good about the world. I know it’s corny. Maybe that’s why I don’t like talking about it much.