Now that my kids are back to in-person school for the first time in forever, I am officially a stay-at-home mom with no kids at home for 7 hours a day. What do I do now? And more importantly, after having my identity solely wrapped up in being a mom for so long, who am I now?
I’m 39, and this is the first time that I have really stopped to think about what I want the next phase of my life to look like instead of just getting swept along.
There are tons of stay-at-home moms in the suburb where I live, but I don’t know anyone who continued to stay home and not work (for pay) once their kids started school. Am I allowed to do that?
When I had my son, I thought staying home with him was the obvious choice. My job was fine, but it was just a job, not a career. My husband’s salary had just crossed over into being enough to support us all. And mostly, I just wanted to be with my baby. I thought, he’ll only be little once, and work will always be there whenever I’m ready for it.
It turns out returning to work after 11 years isn’t as straightforward as leaving was. I can’t just walk back into an office. Since opting out of paid work for the duration of my 30s, all my skills (proficient in Microsoft Office, internship at Disney in 2005) have become outdated. Do I take out a loan to go back to school so I can go back to work just to pay back the loan?
Meanwhile, my husband’s annual pay has doubled. I feel like I have basically the same odds of winning the lottery as I do of ever catching up to his earnings at this point. Going back for entry-level pay doesn’t make a lot of financial sense even though the kids are in school because we still have to pay for childcare for the 16 weeks a year they’re not in school plus all the random holidays and teacher work days and early release days. Not to mention that cobbling that together sounds like a nightmare.
There was this article a while back arguing that junior high and high school is when our kids might need us to be available the most as they navigate all kinds of new stuff in their lives. Maybe there’s something to that. Maybe adolescence isn’t when parents should spend the least amount of time with their children.
Look, I’m glad I stayed home. It’s what I wanted to do. But I definitely didn’t understand the choice I was making. I missed all those years of career growth. I cut my potential off at the knees. Do I have value as a person if I don’t have an income? Capitalism would say no.
My husband’s paid work makes my life possible, but my unpaid work makes his life possible too. I do a lot of things. The invisible work of women is real. But when people ask you what you do, that’s not the answer they want. There’s just a feeling in the air that no one thinks being a stay-at-home mom of school-aged children is an acceptable choice. Other people manage to get a million behind-the-scenes tasks done and go to work somehow.
But just because we could figure it out if I got a 9–5, does that mean it’s what I should do? Is it my obligation to go out and get a random job just so I can say I have a job? We’ve been living on one income for a long time. We aren’t wealthy, but as part of the (disappearing) middle class, we’re as comfortable as we need to be.
Since it isn’t financially urgent that I go out and get whatever job I can land out of necessity, what is it that still makes me feel like I should? Maybe I’m worried I’m a bad feminist if I don’t show my kids what’s possible for a woman to do. Maybe it’s that a man as a financial plan is risky as hell. The divorce rate in America is 40–50% after all.
Universal healthcare, universal basic income, and affordable quality childcare would make parenting in general much safer financially, but that’s not the problem I’m trying to solve today.
I think part of my sense of unease around continuing to stay home is that there is a big push in our culture around productivity. We’re supposed to work as much as possible to earn as much as possible to buy as much as possible. But beyond a certain threshold of having your needs met, more money doesn’t bring more happiness. I don’t need more stuff. Hustle culture is garbage. I don’t want to join your MLM and be a #girlboss.
I suspect that if I return to a cubicle now, along with my entry-level salary, I’ll also start with a base-level two weeks of vacation per year. Instead of traveling next year like I want to, I know I’d have to use my PTO hanging out at home with my kids when they inevitably have to quarantine because of Covid exposure at school.
Seeking flexibility to keep spending lots of time with my kids and to have time off to travel really limits my work options. One common response I get to this is that I should get a job at one of the kids’ schools or start an in-home daycare. To which I always think, Why would I want to do that? I love my own kids, but I don’t feel that way about other people’s kids. At all. Thank goodness for the people who do want to work with other people’s kids, but that is not my special gift.
While lots of money would be nice, and flexibility is essential, I’d also like work to be fulfilling. If I don’t enjoy the work I do 40+ hours a week, what is the point of it for purely discretionary income? Shouldn’t the goal be to feel content rather than just seeing how much I can accumulate before I die?
Some people have suggested volunteering instead of working, but I feel like I want to push back on that a bit. Volunteering in itself is not bad. That’s definitely not the argument I’m making. But also, no one tells men that their next phase of life should be volunteer work because men expect to get paid for their labor.
Along the same lines, I’m pretty good at photography, and sometimes I kick around the idea of doing family portraits. Acquaintances often get excited by this and say things like, “Yeah you could charge like $50 per session.” OMG. $50 per session isn’t even minimum wage when you factor in equipment expenses and all the work photographers have to do outside of actually clicking the shutter. I think there’s some sexism in this one too. If it’s a job mostly women do, we’re expected to do it because we love it, not for profit. How dare we expect to be compensated?
Seriously, I’m not just bored and looking for something to do. I’m not looking for work to be a social outlet. I can keep myself entertained. If I can’t make decent money from photography, I’ll take pictures of my own kids as a hobby. Why can’t we just have hobbies anymore? Why does everything have to be monetized and have the fun sucked out of it?
Who am I trying to prove myself to here? Do I just want it to look like there’s a fair distribution of labor in my marriage to people on the outside? People work hard so they can have the resources to do what they want to do. I already have a camera, a laptop, and a library card. What more do I really need? What’s my incentive to seek paid work at this specific time in my specific situation? After all the years of 24/7 nonstop mom-ing, can I just let it be easier for a little while?
And yet, I used to make A’s. I was gifted. I was supposed to be somebody. So maybe I am the person I’m trying to prove something to.
Please know that I am fully aware this is a lucky position to be in, to have options. But the truth is, it’s overwhelming to take an honest look at myself and figure out what I want the next 10 years to look like. To think about the shoulds and then ask if I really can just do what I want to do for a while.
Tell me. What is the magical unicorn of high-paying, meaningful, flexible work? Trick question: it doesn’t exist. So instead can I get some solidarity that owning your choices feels complicated?
This post was previously published on medium.com.
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