Three years ago I was fired from my job. In and of itself, that was probably a good thing. I knew it was going to happen because I was failing to get the results my employers expected to see. I hated going to work every day and it showed. But it was a terrifying moment that I didn’t know how to prepare for.
I was four months pregnant with our fourth child. I brought in about 40% of our income the year prior, although I earned 60% of our income the year before that. Obviously, I needed to keep working, but my options were limited.
And to be honest, I had already done this once before. I was a single mom when my first daughter was born. I took whatever job I could get while I was pregnant, but I didn’t qualify for any maternity leave, so I had to find a new one after the baby was born. I juggled a baby with job interviews. I left my newborn with the sitter so I could work 13-hour shifts. I went to bed exhausted every night and still couldn’t afford my rent.
Things were completely different this time around, but getting fired while I was pregnant for the second time triggered the closest thing to post-traumatic stress disorder I hope I ever experience.
I threw myself into the freelance writing work that had been a part-time hustle since college. While I couldn’t earn enough to compete with my old salary, I did earn more money than the unemployment benefit offered. Plus, we didn’t have to pay for afterschool care. We wouldn’t have to worry about daycare for the one on the way. I was there to make dinner at night and do laundry during the day. Before the time my severance package expired, my husband and I agreed that the best thing I could do right now was to work from home.
Accidentally Embracing Traditional Gender Roles
When I came home, we adopted what I will refer to as “more traditional gender roles.” This isn’t a reflection of our beliefs in any way, shape, or form. In fact, it’s the opposite of how we always agreed we would structure our home and our family.
It’s always been important to me to earn an income. That used to be a major part of how I defined myself. My husband and I have always shared parenting responsibilities because we both brought children into the relationship. We certainly don’t think men and women have specific “lanes” to stay in. Rather our more traditional roles are a product of a series of obvious decisions.
No matter which way you slice it, our income took a hit. If I was going to devote more time to taking care of things at home, then my husband could devote more time to work. With less pressure on him to rush home and help get dinner on the table, he could stay a little longer each day.
When we both left home for work, it was a hardship if my husband’s job sent him out of town. Suddenly, it seemed like a great way for him to pick up premium overtime pay from time to time. I found new ways to save money and our budget eventually started to feel balanced again.
My husband’s work performance improved and another company noticed. He was offered a better paying job with room to grow. It meant learning new skills, working longer hours, and spending more time on the road. He had sort of topped out at his current job, so he was very attracted to the thought of advancement. It was an easy decision for him to take the job.
But that meant he had even less time to help me run the house and look after our kids. He drove two hours to work in the morning, worked for ten hours, and drove two hours back home. He spent two or three hours at home every night studying: marking prints, planning out the work, watching training videos. Then he ate, showered, and slept.
That left me with everything else. When the baby cries at night, I get out of bed. I made my own schedule, so there was no reason I HAD to start at 9 am. Now that my husband was making more money, I could work a little less and make sure the dishes got done. When kids stay home from school sick, I’m there to mother them. When the dog needs surgery, I can schedule the appointment. When the dog’s stitches start doing really gross things, I can drop everything and rush her to the vet. I can clean, pay the bills, pick kids up from thousands of afterschool activities, manage doctor’s appointments, remember the recycling schedule. We’ve had an insane number of snow days this year and I know it’s been a hardship for lots of families in my town. But not for us, because I’m here to keep everything running smoothly.
Suprise! Two things happened that should have been obvious from the start. Number 1, the more my husband focuses on his career, the bigger the paycheck he brings home. Number 2, the more I focus on keeping our lives comfortable, the less time I have to work.
I was killing myself trying to do everything and still earn an income. My stress level was through the roof as I spent more time every day doing things to lower the stress of the rest of my family. As my husband’s income went up, it was harder and harder for me to justify the stress of my own income. I stopped looking for new clients and my work trickled down to a drip. Now, it’s stalled completely and I haven’t sent an invoice since January.
It’s A Trap
Now we are here, and financially we are in great shape. It’s actually a bit stunning to see the results that we’ve had. If I think back to our lives three years ago, it’s easy to see that things are better.
We have more money now, which is obviously huge.
My kids don’t have to go to daycare. I got to experience every moment with my last baby, which I will always be endlessly grateful for.
My husband is less stressed at home, although I can’t say he’s less stressed at work. It’s not like the house is clean and spotless, but he very rarely has to figure out what’s for dinner or wash dishes to set the table.
I’m less stressed, as long as I don’t have to worry about bringing in an income. I can manage all the things I manage, as long as my husband can manage to pay for it all.
And there’s the trap. The more peaceful it feels at home, the less stress we are all carrying around, the more impossible it feels that I can ever work outside of the home again.
Going Back To Work?
If I want to start working again, I would have to do less cleaning, less preparing, less planning. That means an increase in stress for everyone in the house. As the mom, that stress ultimately falls on my shoulders one way or another. If I wanted to take a job outside of the home, I would have to arrange a baby sitter or find daycare. First of all, there’s a huge waitlist for daycare for 2 years olds in my town. Second of all, just because we have more money right now doesn’t mean that we can afford daycare.
So in my view, I’ve got three years until the little one can be sent off to kindergarten and I can have some time back to focus on my career. Any other solution is going to be uncomfortable for my whole family. When I weigh that discomfort against the pride I feel in earning a paycheck, it seems like a selfish decision. Moms are generally not good at making selfish decisions, I think.
Exploring My Identity As A SAHM
I’m not bragging when I say that growing up, I was the smart and driven child of my family. My mother firmly believed it was her gender that held her back in life and not the parade of poor choices she made. I was told that my life would be different. I was going to get a high-profile job and I was never going to have to depend on any man to take care of me. I wasn’t going to be one of these women that sit around all day waiting for her husband to come home from work.
I’m a feminist who believes that every person ought to be given the same opportunities to create the kind of life they want to lead. But I’ve also always secretly thought that women who aspired to be stay-at-home moms were kind of pathetic. Like, get a goal already.
Growing as a person means being prepared to eat your words, and boy am I doing that now. Being a stay at home mom is, in turn, but never simultaneously: the most fulfilling, difficult, thankless, and emotionally exhausting job in the world. It’s a challenge but it also feels like I’m living life the way I’m supposed to be, finally.
But I can’t escape the guilt and the nagging suspicion that I’m completely failing. I should have gone to law school. I should have a shelf of novels published by now. I should, at the very least, not be spending so much time thinking about my husband’s paycheck.
I know I should have as much right to be comfortable in my own decisions as any man or woman should have. But I struggle to give myself permission. I’d still rather describe myself as a work-at-home mom than a stay-at-home mom, even though I haven’t had billable hours for months.
I know that I’m a stronger and more capable woman because of the work I’m doing at home. I know it’s making me a better person, challenging me, and playing a critical role in the happiness of my family.
But there’s one more metric that I need to be happy, and as long as I am not working I will never have a way to achieve it.
I Don’t Want To Do It, But I Need To Have The Option
I love him very much and I never plan to do it. But I can’t be satisfied as long as leaving my husband is not an option.
As it stands, I’d be pretty much ruined if I left my husband. I would have all of the same barriers to work, but without the income to support my lifestyle and the privilege to choose not to work. The hardest time in my life was being an unemployed single mom, and my marriage would have to particularly horrible for me to ever consider doing that again.
The good news is, my marriage is fantastic! So why should it matter that we depend on each other? My husband depends on me just as much as I depend on him. He brings me the income to support my lifestyle, but my lifestyle supports his ability to earn an income. I can’t do it without him, but he can’t do it without me.
It’s true, I have little cause to be concerned about getting divorced. But I was not raised around a lot of happy, successful marriages. I was raised around a lot of divorced women who had to rebuild their whole lives from scratch. I’ve known a lot of women who were brave enough to kick their husbands to the curb and strong enough to bootstrap it. But I’ve also known a lot of women who were willing to put up with abuse, neglect, and a lot of mistreatment because the financial aspect of leaving their husband was too unbearable.
I love my husband. He’s a good man who treats me well. There is little chance that he will suddenly turn into a monster that I have to flee from. I am prepared to work very hard to keep our marriage strong and happy because it’s well worth it. It’s irrational to think I’ll need a quick escape.
But most marriages end in divorce, and I’m a logical woman. I just don’t think I can be satisfied until I get back to that point in my life where I’m earning an independent income. I want to stay happily married because I love my life with him. But I want it to be a choice that has nothing to do with money, ever.
My struggle with identity as a stay at home mom is so much more complex than this. There’s the isolation, my lack of a support network, my anxiety. There are days of absolute freedom and flexibility that I wouldn’t trade for anything. There are so many beautiful moments in life that you miss when you are a slave to the time clock. But I’ve said enough for one day. Thanks for listening, and please feel invited to share your own experiences with finding your identity between family and work.