There seems to be no shortage recently of articles and posts calling for affordable child care and paid maternity leave. Rightly so. Women are nearly 47 percent of the U.S. civilian workforce. Of the 74.6 million women in the workforce, more than 70 percent are mothers of children under 18 years of age, and the productivity of women accounts for nearly a quarter of the GDP. Families and children deserve better options, and the U.S. economy would benefit from more family-friendly policies.
Yet, with 43 percent of highly qualified women with children leaving their jobs, perhaps how and why to keep women in the workforce isn’t the only pertinent discussion. While no doubt some mothers leave their jobs because of a lack of viable working options, many choose to stay at home because of the innumerable joys and benefits of being a stay-at-home parent.
Still, to read most of what the Internet has to offer on the subject of working moms, one would think that staying at home with kids is all drudgery, financial hardship and career suicide. Maybe few women are willing to discuss the upside of putting their careers on hold to devote themselves to full-time mothering because there is still some stigma attached to being a stay-at-home mom. Maybe it’s because it’s impossible to talk about the perks of being a stay-at-home mom without sounding privileged and insensitive to women who don’t have that option. Maybe women who have left the workforce feel that their voice no longer counts. Whatever the reasons, it’s unfortunate, and it does women and children a disservice when the conversation about work and child care is one-sided. Because when making a decision of this magnitude, more perspectives means more information, and information is power.
The decision that I would stay home when our children were small was one of the most important ones my husband and I ever made. Our youngest is in seventh grade now, and I have been back at work for several years. Yet that decision we made 22 years ago when we had our first baby is still affecting us financially. It has also affected how we order our lives. And it has (in part) shaped our relationship with each other. Most importantly it determined how and with whom our children spent the majority of their waking hours during the foundational years of their lives.
It was also one of the best decisions I ever made. Here’s why.
Our lives were less stressful. Being a stay-at-home mom is incredibly challenging. When you stay at home all day with a pack of little people who expect you to do everything from wipe their bottoms to arrange their social schedules, you tend to get a bit frazzled. But having kids is hectic no matter what. For my family, not adding a full-time job outside the house helped to minimize the craziness. Shopping for groceries, running errands, doing (some of) the housework — none of this was easy with all my kids underfoot. But I am convinced that it was easier than trying to do it after a full day at another job.
I set a good example for my children. Many women consider the decrease in lifetime earnings a factor for the minus column when considering whether to put their career on hold. No doubt it’s an important consideration. But now that my children are older, when I talk to them about my days as a SAHM, I point out that it was a sacrifice. I don’t tell them this to make them feel guilty or beholden, but to encourage them to know their own priorities and to be willing to make sacrifices to do what they think is important. I consciously chose to put my dream of being a stay-at-home mom and my desire to be with my children ahead of financial gain and an earlier retirement. I want my kids to make bold, sometimes risky, choices too — no matter what their dreams are.
I was there. I’ll never forget it. My son, Jack, was about 18 months old, and I was sitting on the grass in our front yard. He was toddling around picking dandelions and looking for bugs when a semi truck drove past on the nearby highway and shifted gears to slow down for the stop ahead. This made a loud, jolting noise that startled Jack. He didn’t cry or run to me. He simply moved closer, just for a moment, and put his tiny hand on my shoulder. He just wanted to touch base. Then he went back to being a busy toddler. In that instant, I knew that I was right where I needed to be, and I was filled with gratitude that I could be there for the countless other times during the days when he just needed to touch base for a moment. When it comes to raising my children, I am not particularly interested in what the research says about stay-at-home parents. I just know that small moments such as this are ones I would not want to have missed.
My decision honored generations of women who went before me. The fact is, the role of stay-at-home moms is often undervalued, not because it isn’t valuable work but because it is not a role traditionally held by men. The idea that women have been freed from the chains of full-time motherhood to pursue more meaningful work is sexism disguised as enlightenment, and it’s an insult to generations of women who dedicated their lives to full-time mothering and homemaking. I never want my children to see SAHMs as less interesting, intelligent or hard-working than other moms. Rather, I want my sons and my daughters to realize that stay-at-home parenting is as valuable and worthwhile as any paying career to which they could aspire.
It was pure joy. Okay, maybe not pure joy. There also were plenty of tantrums and tears (and the kids got fussy sometimes too). But being with my kids all day every day was immensely fulfilling. In fact, despite all the laundry and the dishes, the messes and the chaos, the boredom and the frustration that can go along with full-time parenting, sometimes it felt like a gift. We had the luxury of cuddling up in the middle of day to read a story. We went for long, leisurely walks and came home with pockets full of pretty rocks and bird feathers. We baked cookies and visited grandparents and moved through our days together. And even on my worst days, when I was distracted or impatient, I knew that tomorrow would bring another chance for me to spend the day being a better mother to my children.
The decision stay home was the right one for me and my family. I don’t presume to know what’s best for other women and other families. Some women regret abandoning careers in favor of becoming full-time caregivers. Others struggle with the stress and guilt of trying to balance both. For many women staying home isn’t even an option.
I certainly don’t have the answer, but I do have my story. It isn’t a perfect one. Being a stay-at-home mom was hard and exhausting and financially stupid. It was also fun, fulfilling and challenging, and one of the best decisions I ever made.
Laura Hanby Hudgens is a part-time high school teacher, a freelance writer and a mom of four. She lives with her husband and children on a buffalo farm in the Ozark Hills of Arkansas. Find her on Twitter @charmingfarming.