One month before giving birth, I left my part-time job to stay home full-time. Though “stay-at-home mom” best names how I spend most of my time, working-hours and otherwise, I have yet to adopt this term for myself. I have total admiration for other stay-at-home moms, yet I am hesitant to self-identify as such because of all the baggage that comes with it.
When I tell people that I am “at home full time with the kiddos” (obviously a clunkier way of saying the same thing), I usually get one of two kinds of reactions. The first is high praise for making the “best decision to prioritize my family.”
Whoever is speaking to me always has good intentions, but I often cringe at the underlying assumption of their response. Is it always the best decision for a mother to stay home full-time? What about sharing this role with the father or other family or community members? What about families who cannot afford to not have the mother work? Have all the professionally-employed women I know made the wrong choice and failed to prioritize their family?
The second reaction I often get is an uncomfortable and awkward response that points to the potential problems of leaving the professional world. Nobody has ever said directly that they disapprove of my decision to stay at home. I have, however, seen a look of slight panic come over conversation partners’ faces when I tell them I take care of my children full-time. Stating my professional status as a non-professional has brought conversations to a stand-still more than once, and I have heard more than one at-home-full-time mom friend say the same has happened to her.
Why is that? Why is staying at home so often seen as opting out of normal life? Why is a person’s social identity so thoroughly tied up in professional work? Do I have to work outside the home in order to be empowered, strong, intelligent, or worthy? Or do I only have to do that in order for others to perceive me to be this way?
I may be more sensitive to these dynamics because the same narratives raged within me as I discerned leaving my job. I have a master’s degree, and I have received lots of personal satisfaction and professional affirmation at work. As a teenager and young woman, I imagined my life in terms of a professional occupation. I was open to having children, and I assumed I would have children if I got married, but that was a subplot in the bigger story of my future.
I was surprised at how difficult it was for me to make that decision a year and a half ago about staying home — though as I look back on it now, I am not surprised at all. In conversations with my female friends, married and unmarried, with and without children, I hear each of us struggling to navigate social pressures around our identities as women. The messages we hear about what a woman can, can’t, should, and shouldn’t do are loud, noisy, and often unhelpful. The impassioned tirades across the sociopolitical spectrum about women’s roles often create more heat than light; they often create noise where we need space for reflection, self-knowledge, and understanding.
In my own discernment, I read many articles, blogs, and Facebook posts about what women in our day and age need to do. These did not help me see what I needed to do, to discover what was best for me and my family.
What did help me was faithful friends who listened to me process my feelings and reflect back what they heard. What spoke volumes to me was not noisy messages, but the quiet, powerful witness of women who strive to live their lives with authenticity and faith. I realized I wanted to live that way, guided by something more than an ideology. Through these conversations, and with patience and prayer, I saw a way being made for me that spoke to something true within me.
So here I am: a stay-at-home mom, doing the hardest work I have ever done, and filled with gratitude to be doing it.