As we live in the midst of so much change, there is one particular shift in our lives that has been particularly difficult for me. We have moved to Virginia, and now we are just weeks away from welcoming our first daughter and seeing Andrew off on his first day as a full-time college professor. We are currently in the midst of unpacking boxes and exploring an entirely new neighborhood and city, desperate to establish some sort of familiarity with the area before bringing Felicity home from the hospital. The full reality of our new situation hasn’t entirely hit us, though I’ve already been dealing with the aftermath of another change in our lives: becoming a stay-at-home mom.
I’ll be the first to admit that it’s very hard to hide initial reactions. They’re gut responses, and often entirely inadvertent. They precede thought, and generally by the time we can consciously make any effort to control our reaction, our instinctual facial expressions have already betrayed us. That being said, I have a tremendous appreciation for those men and women who attempt to redeem themselves once they have regained control of their facial muscles. It tells me that even if we don’t necessarily agree on matters, you respect my opinion and, when it comes to parenting, you recognize that there’s not just one way to be a good mother.
American mothers have a reputation for being too hard on ourselves. We often feel guilty for the choices that we make, and we tend to dwell on that guilt as it slowly eats away our confidence as mothers. When we choose to do something differently than other mothers, we often second-guess ourselves, judge other parents, judge ourselves, and wonder if we are ruining our children. There are so many ways to care for an infant, but we are often tempted to assume that one way must be better than another, when in reality we are all just trying to do the best that we can.
This is true for so many elements of motherhood. Whether we are deciding between nursing or formula, disposable or cloth diapers, store-bought cereals, homemade baby foods, or baby-led weaning, sleep training or co-sleeping, or whether we will stay at home with our children, telecommute, or utilize a full-time daycare service, we feel the pressure to make the “right” choice. Sometimes those decisions are made for us (and even then we sometimes feel guilty), and sometimes we have the power to make those decisions ourselves (and we still feel guilty). I’ve only known a handful of parents who seemed really at peace and confident in their decisions regarding their children, and even then, I still have to wonder how deep that peace and confidence go.
I have struggled with some of the decisions that I have made with John, and now again with Felicity. I abandoned any efforts at nursing just three weeks after John was born. I switched to Gerber purees after just a month of pureeing my own baby food at home (except bananas- I kept pureeing bananas because I just couldn’t stomach the smell of the store-bought variety, and John loved it too much to just remove it from his diet). I was committed to avoiding the pacifier prior to John’s birth, gave him his first binky at just two days old, and then took it away forever at just 4.5 months. I have felt guilty about each of those decisions at some point or another, though I am still absolutely sure that I would never go back to nursing or pureeing all baby foods, even if such options were feasible for me.
That has been the story of motherhood for me. I make decisions that I know are good for me, for my child, for our family, and despite some doubt, I have never regretted any decision that I have made. Switching to formula finally allowed me to bond with my son. Purchasing purees provided more time with my family, with my son, and with my husband (and for myself). I flip-flopped with the pacifier, but it did help John’s sleep during that notoriously difficult newborn phase, even though it eventually became a problem. Parents have been known to have strong opinions about each of these choices, but I strongly feel that we made the right decisions for us.
This latest parenting decision has not been any different. I firmly believe that it was the right decision for us, though I have felt guilty on occasion (or been made to feel guilty by others). This time however, I do not feel as if I’m letting John and Felicity down; I occasionally feel that I have let myself down. My decision to become a stay-at-home mom was the result of years of debating. As an engaged woman, I really wanted to do it all. I wanted to show the world that you could be a great mom and a great worker, without having to compromise anything.
With the birth of John, I softened a bit, and while I continued to work full-time, I understood that compromises and sacrifices needed to be made. I really couldn’t do it all, and I certainly couldn’t do it perfectly. Going to work meant sacrificing hours and sometimes entire days with my son, and working from home often meant maintaining the baseline where I would have liked to see some growth and development in my catechetical programs. And inevitably, I found myself grasping every moment of independent play, snack time, and naps so that I could get more work done. I tried really hard to keep my work from preventing me from being there for my son, but I still missed a handful of milestones because I was at work or too immersed in my work at home to notice (though I imagine SAHMs with multiple children also miss milestones because while they’re potty-training one, the other is in the living room taking her first steps, so this phenomenon is not exclusive to working mothers). I hated feeling as though I was missing out, but more than anything, it was the hours away from my son that really got to me.
Our situation was not ideal. Andrew and I both needed to work, but even with our combined incomes, it would have been incredibly difficult to afford daycare services. As a result, we developed a system that allowed us to both work full-time (or in Andrew’s case, to work part-time, teach part-time, and finish his degree). When one of us wasn’t working, the other was. Consequently, we had minimal time to ourselves as a couple, and probably even less time together as a family. While we certainly managed, I would never claim that we were really flourishing. We made our situation work, but it certainly wasn’t perfect for anyone.
Once Andrew had accepted his position at Christendom College and secured his continued employment part-time at the National Shrine (telecommuting), we knew that it was no longer necessary for both of us to work. I did not need to find another job. I was excited to begin my life as a stay-at-home mother, but it wasn’t long before I began to sense that many people had very strong opinions about my decision.
Most people fell into one of two categories. There were those who were thrilled by my decision, many of whom even went so far as to suggest that I was being a “good mother” (was I a bad mother before?). These were often SAHMs (stay-at-home moms- yeah, I’ve learned the lingo) themselves, or the spouses of SAHMs. Some were acquaintances, while others were relative, or even complete, strangers. There was definitely a sense that I had joined some exclusive club, having joined the ranks of those elite mothers who believe that mothers should always be ready to sacrifice their own needs in favor of their children’s. That being said, there were also plenty of mothers who were not so rigid in their thinking- they were just thrilled that I got to do what I wanted, and thrilled to know another mother who wanted the same thing that they did- to stay at home with their children. But it still kind of felt like a club (though in the defense of SAHMs, I also always felt like I was part of the working mothers club- I think we’re all just desperate to have mom friends).
Then there were those who clearly disapproved of my decision. They seemed to do so for one of two reasons: either they thought that I was a disgrace to feminism, or they thought I was doing a disservice to the Church with my decision to resign from my position as a youth minister and DRE. It was odd to find disapproval from two such opposite-minded camps: liberal feminists on the one hand and moderate and conservative Christians on the other, but on this matter at least, they seemed to agree.
In my day-to-day travels, I would occasionally have reason to explain what I did for work: while purchasing copious amounts of snack packs and Capri Suns from the supermarket (I run a Vacation Bible School program), eating ice cream with ten teenagers in the mall (I’m their youth minister, and this is our spring social gathering), or wearing a clearly religious t-shirt at the mall (youth minister again). Sometimes, the conversation would lead me to admit that my days in my position were numbered, since my husband had a new job, we were relocating, and I had chosen to remain at home with our children. On a few occasions, I have been given a disapproving look, though on one occasion, I was accused of setting the feminist movement back by fifty years.
These super-liberal feminists are rare though. Most people just seem to assume that I’m making a sacrifice to stay at home with my children, compromising my own desires to work. I have never looked at my choice in this light; staying at home has always been my decision, one that I made because I wanted that life. I was not forced into it. I chose it. I loved my job, and I loved my students, but if I was given the choice between working and staying at home with my children, I would choose the latter every time.
I have always considered myself lucky- I loved my job. Sure, there have always been some elements that could be frustrating, and there were plenty of times when I wished I could stay at home rather than going to work, but I never woke up in the morning dreading work (even if I wasn’t super enthusiastic about waking up at 4am for the March for Life). I have known plenty of people who were not so lucky. I’ve known a handful of people who truly hated their jobs, and many more who would change their job if given the opportunity. I have always loved my job, but it has never defined me per se. Maybe that’s why I’ve never felt like I was sacrificing a part of myself to stay at home. Sure, leaving St. Ignatius has required sacrifices- like leaving behind the students that feel like my own children, or losing the opportunity to attend religious conferences like Steubenville- but I have never felt like I was sacrificing a part of myself, the “worker” part of my personhood.
I am also fortunate in the sense that leaving my paid position as the Director of Religious Education and youth minister does not mean that I need to stop my “work.” If any part of my job was really part of my personhood, it was my love of teaching the faith and ministering to young people, but I don’t need to be paid to do either of those things. Already, I have made arrangements to teach CCD on weekends at our new parish, and after adjusting somewhat to my life as a mother of two children, I hope to help with the parish’s youth group as well. My work doesn’t suddenly become less meaningful because it’s not paid; if anything, it becomes more meaningful because it’s clear that I do it not because it’s just my job, but because it’s my passion.
But I think this also gets to the foundation of why some conservative Christians seem to oppose my decision to become a SAHM (though their disapproval is not nearly as wholehearted or conspicuous). Oftentimes, the conversation goes like this:
Christian: Oh, you work for the church? That’s wonderful! We need more young people like you setting a good example for the next generation. Thank you so much for all your hard work and passion. It’s so wonderful to see youth ministry programs alive and well.
Me: Yes, I think it’s so important to set a good example for teens, especially considering how difficult those four years of high school can be.
Christian: So what will you do once your new baby arrives? (Seeing that I’m clearly pregnant)
Me: I’m actually going to be staying at home with my children once she’s born.
At that point, the same facial expressions flit across the other’s face in rapid succession, and generally in the same order: shock, disapproval, embarrassment, and then a smile that clearly required some effort. And I get it: most people do not expect that response, so of course it comes as a surprise.
They’re not expecting my answer, so they’re initially shocked. Considering what they’ve just said to me, they naturally experience some sense of disapproval, since they’re disappointed that I’m not doing the very thing we just discussed. Then, because they’re good people, they have the sense to be embarrassed about their reaction, and so finally, they regain their composure and quickly paste a smile on their faces. But caught in such an awkward predicament, more often than not, the conversation ends there. It seems that many people are just not sure what to say once they find out that I’ve quit my ministry job in order to stay at home with my children.
These people might not know what to say, but I certainly have some thoughts on the matter. For one, I can continue to be a good role model for Christian teens, even if I do not play an active role in their lives. They do not need to know my name, my husband’s name, my children’s names, or anything personal about me (besides what they can clearly see just by observing me) to look to me as a role model. I can be a role model when I bring my children to church on Sundays, and throughout the week. I can be a role model on the playground, when John is being particularly challenging. I can be a role model in my capacity as a CCD teacher. I can be a role model in the local Starbucks or Target superstore, as I push my stroller or the shopping cart around and sip my Double Chocolate Chip Frappuccino. I do not need to be a youth minister to be a role model to today’s Christian teens. In fact, now I can show them that you do not need to work for the church to be a good Christian. You can be a good Christian in any career, or without any career. My job didn’t make me a good Christian; my life did.
I am still adjusting to my life as a stay-at-home mom, and to be perfectly honest, I don’t think the reality of my decision has fully set in yet. I still feel like I’m just on a long vacation, and that at some point in the future, I’ll need to go back to work. But with each passing day, I am reminded again and again of my decision. Whether I am at the doctor’s office updating my mailing address on a form that also requires that I list my occupation as “stay at home mother” or I am spending John’s afternoon nap reading or writing rather than lesson planning or answering emails, there are constant small reminders of my decision, and I am constantly being reminded of how glad I am to have chosen to stay at home with my little ones.
Mary Help of Christians, pray for us!