By April Wallace, writer mama
During a late-night scroll through my Facebook feed, I got sucked into reading the comments of a post announcing an acquaintance’s return to work from maternity leave.
“You’re an amazing mom.”
“It’s one of the hardest things for a mom to go back to work.”
“I’m so proud of you. You are a strong, strong woman.”
“There are so many benefits to your baby seeing you as a strong working mom.”
Tons of comments, all in this same spirit, and I didn’t disagree with any of them. This woman, and all the working mothers I know, are absolutely deserving of the sentiment.
What struck me as odd is this: Ever since I left my job and effectively put my career on hold to raise my babies and be there for my stepson, the kinds of comments I get are never remotely in that vein.
They’re usually the opposite.
No one has described me as brave for daring to step off the corporate ladder at the very time that my ascent finally started picking up steam. I was starting to make a name for myself and getting more work that suited me.
Not a one has mentioned empathetically how tough it must be to have no clocking-out moment for my responsibilities.
Instead, I usually hear, “Oh really, you’re at home now? Well, this is the time to start that book you’ve always wanted to write. You have the time.”
Oh do I? Enlighten me.
More often I get the sense, by the way the rest of the conversation goes, that the person equates stay-at-home-mom with a lady of leisure.
That she must be just some spoiled rich lady who takes seriously her appointments to lunch out with her girlfriends, have manicures or various spa treatments, who regularly enjoys sleeping in and can’t be bothered to go to work lest it cut into her time eating bon bons on the chaise lounge.
Little do they know, I haven’t had a manicure since March. I don’t remember the last time I went to a spa. Bringing a baby to a lunch date is complicated, usually messy and loud. And my highest luxury is that one very special time of the week when I can shower by myself.
I almost never call anyone out on this kind of double standard for mothers, because I’ve honestly had those thoughts before I was in this position. Some people are condescending, but I realize others are simply clueless.
I get it, it’s confusing.
“She stays home with her kids…all day? How much time can feeding and bathing a child really take?” You’d be surprised. And don’t forget naps. Those are important and often difficult to come by.
“What does she do when her kids don’t have an immediate need, wouldn’t that get boring?” In my experience, my kids have an immediate need 97 percent of the time, so the remaining 3 percent is usually returning to normal life duties: attempting to clean the house, keep food stocked, get yourself decent, etc.
“Doesn’t she want to make contributions for her family?” Don’t get me started.
Can’t we just agree that no matter what kind of mom you are, all mothering takes strength and bravery?
I feel like I can speak for both sides (working and stay-at-home moms) because I’ve been there. I went back to work after my own maternity leave, and gladly. I had a job I loved with co-workers I respected and missed. I liked the work and was itching to get back to it.
We adjusted to rising earlier, the incredible amount of packing that daycare preparation takes, the longer round-trip commute, the hard goodbyes and the back and forth when problems arose (not to mention the hassle of balancing your professional meetings with those multiple appointments you might have with a breast pump each day…)
How then, could I leave a couple of months later, switching to half-time for a few months, then dwindling to less than that for a few more before pulling the plug altogether?
I didn’t have a daycare nearby that I fully trusted. And my husband’s new job required him to travel every other week. Essentially, my family’s needs were so great that they outweighed my fear of the damage my career might suffer.
Now that I’ve been home for a year now, I have enough experience to feel confident in saying that a lot of those assumptions about stay-at-home moms are unfounded.
Myth: She stays home to get more time for herself.
While I was at work, I most certainly had more time for myself. Each day, I had a long stretch of hours to focus my thoughts beyond my children’s basic needs and onto my projects. I ate lunch at the same time daily and was even able to meet friends out to eat sometimes.
On certain days, I was able to make it to the gym for a workout before the daycare closed. And on weekends, I felt less guilty about handing my baby off to my husband so I could get a regular haircut or an occasional pedicure. I had contributed financially to our household and felt more “even” with him in a sense.
Yes, it was hard to leave my baby behind each day. Of course there were times when I was distracted while ensuring from a distance that he was doing well. It didn’t reduce any of the typical stresses of deadlines in the workplace. But I had the time and space to do it.
Truth: I get less time to myself. These days, my work is round-the-clock.
Even my own basic needs, like eating, sleeping and showering regularly are harder to come by.
My only breaks are every other week in the evenings, when my husband comes home from work and can relieve me long enough for a shower, workout or just a bathroom trip solo. Or when my mother-in-law graciously takes him off my hands for a couple hours so I can go to the gym, nap or just have some time in which no one is constantly touching or needing me.
This kind of mom-guilt makes me less apt to ask for help because staying at home with my kids is a privilege, and our markers of productivity are less clear. It feels harder to justify the need for a break, but not asking for help has real consequences for my family, too.
Myth: She stays home to surround herself with others completely consumed by motherhood.
First, I wouldn’t describe myself as completely consumed by motherhood. I’ve just prioritized my family during a time when they need me the most and I happened to be able to rise to that occasion.
Leaving work was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do, partially because my coworkers are like-minded and great company. I was fearful of losing that community. Joining baby and toddler classes was a little scary for me (laugh if you like) because I was so afraid I wouldn’t fit in. Some days I’m still afraid of that.
Truth: The types of Moms are just as diverse as any other kind of person.
Sure, there are those seemingly perfect mothers with their Instagram accounts full of professional-grade photos only, their Pinterest-perfect parties, who appear to have orchestrated their lives completely around these little human beings and slipped easily into mommy hangout groups, all while dressing impeccably and without a hair out of place or nail unfinished. They’re out there. But there are also moms who still feel fundamentally like the same person, now with a baby in tow (who, granted, just happens to take up a lot of time and energy). People who don’t have it together 100 percent of the time, and are not only OK with that, but are able to laugh about it and don’t feel the need to hide it.
Myth: She stays home to get more pampering time.
If we’re not at work from 8 a.m.-5 p.m., wouldn’t we be more free to shop while it’s not crowded, to book appointments during something other than peak hours? You might think that. More often than not I find myself using up the whole day adjusting to my child’s newest phase or working on the next thing he should learn. Taking him to one activity per day requires a dedication to a sort of schedule not unlike that of a typical office worker—if you want your baby’s sleeping and eating schedule to remain the same, that is.
Truth: Plenty of stay-at-home parents have to be financially conscious.
Having only one income for the family changes things, so many use any cash they might have for the benefit of their little ones. It goes to classes and activities, to save up for birthday parties, Christmas gifts and more. I’ve always been a frugal person, but I find myself acting even more so ever since I started bringing in less money. I like knowing my family’s taken care of first and always seem to find a way to put off many of my needs and wants.
Myth: She stays home because she can’t imagine someone else taking care of her children.
While I’m grateful for the time I have to stay home with my babies, I look forward in a general sense to them being old enough for pre-school. If any one of our personal circumstances were different: whether my husband traveled less or I worked in an area with a greater variety of daycares nearby or my work didn’t have such erratic hours, my babies would very likely spend their days there.
Truth: I stay home because I have the choice. I want to ensure my baby’s well being and give him enriching experiences myself.
Something I always valued in my profession as a journalist was variety, not having each day be the same. I love having the option and the control to provide my baby with a broader range of experience than being at the same place each day. We can go to a different activity or class each day and we can change our plans based on his or our family’s current needs and moods.
Since so few people seem to say this out loud, I’m going to take it upon myself to say it. Not just because I need to hear it, but I’ll bet some other stay-at-home-mamas need to hear it, too:
You too are strong and brave.
- You left a job that provided financially for your family, that you spent years in school or training to do, and that you may have even come to love. You took a chance that could mean a setback or at the very least a delay for your career. You went from something that you were confident in, good at or at least comfortable with, and traded it for something that has no clear “right” or “wrong” and spend your days never really knowing if you’re doing it well.
- You’ve dared to imagine that you have something special to give your family, and you give it all the time. You often trade things at your own expense to make sure your children and your husband have what they need to thrive. That means sacrificing. Whether it’s sleep, your own cleanliness, organization of your thoughts and time to do things that make you happy.
- You’ve traded full days with adult company for conversations conducted in plain speak, sprinkled with stern but kind guidance and Disney songs. And there’s only so much of that that anyone can take.
- You’ve done it without knowing when your next foreseeable break will be. You’ve done it gladly some days and reluctantly other days. But you carry on, and that makes me proud of you.
It’s hard for a mom to go back to work, yes. But it’s also hard for a mom to decide to put her life as she’s known it on hold to face something entirely new, difficult to master and often on her own.
You’re amazing for doing it. And yes, your babies will benefit from watching you too, because they’ll learn from your example that family is worth prioritizing in many ways—whatever way that may be.
April Wallace is a stepmom to one smart, funny teenager, mama to a beautiful and curious baby and wife to a very kind and generous man. She spent the past decade as a news reporter, sometimes lifestyle writer, and recently left her job at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette to be with her baby while he’s still a baby. When she gets a few minutes to herself, April loves to run local trails and read fiction.