As the mother of an almost two-year old, I have had the blessing and yes, the curse of staying at home with my son. You may think it outrageous to say it is a curse, but give me a moment to explain. As a mother, I adore the time I get to spend with my son day in and day out. We go to the library, grocery shopping, and to the park, and engage in all sort of learning development activities to fill our days. But at the end of that very same day, I am still a woman with professional and personal aspirations. While the want to be the best mother I can be is a constant, I am also overwhelmed by the guilt and reality that one facet of my life is on hold. I am not the only one sitting on the fence. There are many more moms faced with the same harsh reality.
No one will admit it blatantly, but somehow within the realm of professional circles, becoming a mother is cause for a social demotion. To say you decided to take a break from your career to be a stay-at-home mom can be a conversation stopper in some walks of society. Looking back, this may have been what I have been struggling with all along. Women across the globe, but more predominantly in the United States, where maternity leave is not as highly prioritized as a social benefit as it is in most European countries, get inducted into the Mommy Wars, my shorthand for the cultural and emotional battlefield we arrive in the minute we look into our child’s eyes. It is a war fought on many fronts, inside your head, at baseball practice or in PTAs in the wary flow between working and stay-at-home moms, in the car when you drop off your child for yet another long day at day care, at play groups, at work and in your own bedroom. It entails many different social, moral and financial issues, yet it often comes down to a personal question: How does this child fit into my life, or should my life now fit around this child?
Everybody told me a child would change my life after becoming a mother, and I believed them. I knew my son would change my body, my marriage, my work habits, my finances, all in unsettling and profoundly emotional ways. I anticipated a roller coaster, and that's what I got and more. It’s funny: you can expect a storm, but until you feel its torrents firsthand, you really have no idea. Or that was my case.
Over the past six months I have engaged my mommy friends, most stay-at-home moms, others like me, working part-time or freelance gigs, and wondered what was the answer to the long-standing question tormenting so many women out there: what is best, staying at home with the kids or returning to work?
There is no right or wrong answer in my opinion but rather a list of determining factors that may affect a woman’s decision.
- Often moms need to go back to work after maternity leave because they are the breadwinner and have little choice in the manner.
- In the U.S. alone, childcare costs have sky rocketed, making affordable day care a lost commodity. Living close to family can help alleviate some financial pain, but that can also dictate where you reside and what professional opportunities are available there.
- Many mothers find meaning and fulfillment in what they do on both sides of the coin, whether at work or in the home.
- And sometimes you find the spouse or partner’s career is all-encompassing, beckoning the other to make a sacrifice for the greater good, providing one steady presence in the children’s life.
Considering the options, even when the decision has been made there is still apprehension on whether or not it was right. Society takes the feud far too seriously and only looks at the staunch outliers that believe their decision is best and don’t understand how heavy-loaded the question really is for those fighting the internal strife. It is all a myth that these two roles are “fixed” and that they are locked in a grudge, but tension does exist. It is a mucky quandary that deserves discussing rather than leaving women to their own devices, brooding over in their minds what makes sense and judging one another for lack of transparency on the subject.
I digress. How do we come to accept making a decision when society is unconsciously putting pressure on mothers to do it all? In a nation that fusses continuously about the welfare of its children is just one example of the double-edged sword we’re staring at. We say we value motherhood, but when we are honest, we in fact value jobs with power, prestige, and a salary that equates success. We structure the workplace to give women authority, prestige, and perks they would never get outside the office, and then we expect them to say they'd prefer to be at home with the kids. We advocate for gender equality and encourage men and women to swap roles, that greater involvement by men would answer some of the childcare issues, but the unwritten workplace rulebook punishes fathers who take parental leave, and stay-at-home dads are often viewed as “weird.” Research supports the cognitive benefits to children of mothers staying at home while their children are very young, yet the way out of this "childcare crisis" political leaders herald mostly deals with creating more government-subsidized and corporate daycare openings, propelling women to get back to business.
Feminists say they value sisterhood, but behind the scenes, stay-at-home mothers often criticize, whether publicly or in their personal musings, office-going moms for neglecting their kids, and working mothers often ridicule their at-home counterparts for getting some sort of “free ride” in life. Society wants mothers on welfare to put in their 9-5, but when they do go to work, all they can afford are dirty, crowded nurseries for their children, or nothing at all. Meanwhile, upper-middle-class moms who pursue their career are somehow blamed if their child gets hurt or has an accident while in another’s care.
Given this kind of dissonance, it's not surprising that we are always looking for hidden agendas and never letting mothers find the peace they so desire.
Times have changed. One study from the PEW Research Center done in 2018 documented that since the late 1970s millions of women left the workforce for some period of time and eventually returned. Now only about 28% of women, a number that has stayed consistent since 1989, take extended leave from their profession to raise their family. Sociology professor at Harvard University Dr. Alexandra Killewald says statistically “it takes another decade before they recover the same rate of full-time employment that they were before the kid was born”—a fact that weighs heavy on the mind.
The pressure to stay on-track professionally often trumps the desire to be that constant in the family unit.
What are we left with? An unanswered question. At the end of the day, motherhood in general terms is an intense and all-consuming job. Whether at work or standing at the kitchen sink, one day runs into the next and time flies by. Allowing ourselves to get caught up in this stigma only serves to fractionalize a mother’s role, rearing the next generation to be the best they can be, a model citizen and an asset to that society.
Raise the white flag, and let’s encourage acceptance over judgement. Every mother has the right to her own decision, and we should leave it at that.