One of the toughest decisions I ever made addressed these questions: should I be a stay-at-home mom? Or should I continue on my current career trajectory? And then there are the even trickier questions: will I be hurting my kids with my decision? Will I be harming myself? What if I miss out?
Some people seem to have this all figured out from the day they are born (currently my own daughter wants to be a mommy when she grows up ❤️❤️❤️). But sometimes even now, I wonder what if I had done things differently? There isn’t an easy or right answer to the “should I be a stay-at-home mom” question.
A while back when I was blogging as a hobby, I fleshed out how I worked through the decision. The blog has changed quite a lot in five years, but I occasionally get a message from a reader who has dug through the embarrassing archives and discovered what I called the “Why I Stay at Home” series. And they really like it. I’m flattered, really.
So, I thought I’d polish it up a bit and repost. Hopefully, if you’re wrestling with those tough questions, you’ll gain a little insight from the 28-year-old Gina’s brain (so young and fresh, *sniff*). I took out the outright weird and grammatically incorrect content, but otherwise it’s pretty raw. Originally it was a four-part series, but now it’s in one post. Because I can. Set it aside for your leisure time, if you so desire. Enjoy!
Should I Be a Stay-At-Home Mom?
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NBC’s 30 Rock is one of my favorite comedies. You have to pay attention, or otherwise you miss half of the fast-paced jokes. One line that stuck with me from Season Four was Kenneth the page complaining in his hillbilly voice, “I feel about as useless as a mom’s college degree.”
I laughed…but then I had to wonder…
It was one of the many times that have caused me to ask myself, “What the heck am I doing???” This is my attempt to explain my reasoning, to myself and anyone else who is curious or contemplating the same dilemma: should I be a stay-at-home mom? Here are five questions to consider.
1. Can You Balance Two Roles?
If you have known me for a long time, you probably would have never guessed that my primary occupation at this stage in my life would be mom and housewife. When I was a child, I envisioned becoming an architect, a meteorologist, a teacher or a journalist. I was never one of those dreamers who fantasized about fairy-tale wedding, babies, and Barbie dream houses come to life. In school and in my extended family I was “The Smart One.” I performed well, got scholarships and attended a competitive public research university. I wasn’t entirely sure what I was going to do after graduation, but marriage and kids definitely weren’t in the near enough future that I was thinking about them much.
The first encounter that forced me to seriously consider my role in life was unexpected: my research in college.
I was an International Studies major with an interest in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet bloc. To make a long story short, women’s roles in this region have had a conflicted history in the past 100 years or so. As the 20th century progressed, most of them went to work, whereas traditionally their place was in the home. Communist leaflets and other literature applauded them for being great workers for the cause of the nation. For comparison, think of Rosie the Riveter and similar images that glorified the working American woman during World War II. At the same time, motherhood and caring for the nuclear family was highly honored in propaganda literature. Mothers of seven or more were even awarded a medal for pumping out more Communist citizens. Scholars have called these conflicting messages the “double burden”—the expectation for all women to be excellent mothers and excellent workers at the same time.
Still with me? Back to the present era: one day I was telling my mom about this fascinating double burden dilemma that Soviet women faced. I couldn’t imagine how they dealt with it—they must have often felt inadequate and exhausted. She just laughed. “Sounds like America to me.”
This troubled me. I had never thought about it. But I have thought about it—a lot—since I did this research. American women don’t see the same state-sponsored propaganda, but we do see subtle messages all the time (hello social media!). The feminist movement has promoted female equality in the workplace, the removal of glass ceilings and so forth. At the same time, the “American dream” image of the nuclear family and 1950’s-style home life still runs strong in our veins.
When my husband Marc and I started talking about having kids, I had a hard time envisioning working in an office full-time and being a mom. I knew that I would feel guilty about neglecting one or both of those duties. I wanted to fully commit myself to either one or the other. While some women seem to manage both responsibilities well and feel good about it, I knew I wouldn’t. So I started looking into alternatives.
Most of the moms I know who work full time have some amount of guilt for not having more time with their kids. It’s really tough. I do believe that you can be a great mom and have a successful career, but you have to have really good boundaries with your time and energy, as well as a firm grasp on grace to make it work. Otherwise you risk falling into an endless cycle of guilt.
2. What Delights You?
I’ve been reading a book lately called Living the Sabbath by Norman Wirzba. It’s complicated so I won’t explain it all here, but in it Wirzba discusses the concept of true “delight.” He differentiates delight from pleasure and amusement; delight has a relational component. For example, I delight in my son James when he sings me the ABCs or colors a picture, while I am amused with and take pleasure in watching American Idol. (Dated much?)
We delight in the things or people we are directly involved with, such as a great meal we prepare or with our best friends’ personal victories. There may be amusement and pleasure associated with delight, but something that is amusing or pleasurable isn’t necessarily delightful. These aren’t strict dictionary definitions, but I find this interpretation to be very insightful. Here is an example of the way God delights:
The LORD your God is with you,
he is mighty to save.
He will take great delight in you,
he will quiet you with his love,
he will rejoice over you with singing.
(Zephaniah 3:17, NIV)
Moms wrestling with the “should I be a stay-at-home mom” question might want to ask: What do I truly delight in?
I worked fulltime when my firstborn was a baby. I was able to work a lot from home with assistance from a babysitter, but even then I missed out on things. One memory that sticks with me is the day he first started to crawl. He was at the babysitter’s house all day. When I brought him home and took him out of his carseat, I was astonished to see him immediately start moving. Marc and I were so impressed because he seemed like an old pro. But when I talked to his babysitter about it later so she would be prepared for his next visit, she said that he had been crawling all day! She hadn’t told me because she assumed I had already known.
I was sad that I had missed an opportunity to delight with my son in this big milestone. I know this particular incident probably didn’t affect him at all—but it affected me! What else did I miss that I didn’t even know about?
At that point in time we’d already made the decision to move across the country to be closer to family, increase Marc’s earning potential and decrease our cost of living. During the time since we made the move almost two years ago (as of 2012), my primary occupation has been motherhood, although I still freelance write in my spare time.
I am so grateful, because I know not every mom has the opportunity to do this. And I’ve had so many delightful moments. Now James is almost three—did I take a long blink or something? And my baby Jonathan is hardly a baby anymore. Sometimes I swear they get up from their naps and their clothes no longer fit. (Random aside from 2017 Gina: I just can’t even.)
For the last two months I’ve been keeping a gratitude journal inspired by One Thousand Gifts. Here are some of the delightful moments I’ve recorded:
- The way baby Jonathan feels in my arms
- Matching footie pajamas on the boys
- James’ wide-eyed fascination with learning
- Little hands
- The way babies’ knees bend
- Kisses with my boys
- Baby laughter
- James saying, “Guess what? I love you.”
- Jonathan saying, “Hiiiiii!”
- Jonathan toddling
- Sledding with my kids
- James smiling at me when I wake up
- Messes left from play
- James making Jonathan laugh
- Jonathan waving his arms when he’s excited
I love delighting in my kids. I think they like being delighted in too.
As I look back now on many other delightful memories, it confirms that, for us, I made the best decision. I know that not everyone has the same options, but I will say this: if you have the opportunity to spend more time enjoying your kids, take it. As they say, babies don’t keep.
3. Will Leaving the Workforce Sacrifice Personal Fulfillment?
Before I start, I’d like to confess that I’m a little nervous about writing this section. My fear is that if you’re a working mom or someone close to a working mom, you’ll assume that I’m on a self-righteous high horse, condemning all working mothers and making them feel like awful people.
For the record, it is not so.
To all of you moms working outside of the home: I admire you so much—some of you are my best friends. You work extremely hard, you raise wonderful children and you deserve honor and praise. Some of you do it by choice and others by necessity. Either way, I am supportive of you.
Now then, what am I talking about here? Nothing more than my personal journey. To come to the place I’m at now, I’ve wrestled with a lot of difficult questions and made many small decisions along the way.
And now, the very scary question: will I sacrifice my own personal fulfillment in a career if I choose to stay be a stay at home mom?
The way I look at it, I spent 20 years of my life going to school to prepare for a career (yep, 20 years, counting kindergarten through grad school). While I wasn’t exactly sure what my occupation would be (I’ve bounced between church ministry, mental health services, nonprofit program management and writing), I wanted to do something meaningful. I wanted to look back at the end of my life and say that I contributed something good to humanity. And my career was a very tangible vehicle through which I could do that.
I loved my job when I got pregnant with my first child. LOOOOVED it—seriously, my dream job. I went to grad school to help me in this kind of position. I was the program director at a faith-based nonprofit start-up in Alaska. I worked with great people, advocated for causes I believed in and had a very flexible work schedule. I continued working there full time even after James was born, putting in many of my hours from home with help from a babysitter.
Why did I leave? Perhaps to your astonishment given the topic of this post, the primary reason wasn’t because I wanted to focus more of my attention on James. At the time we had lived in Alaska for almost four years, but none of our relatives lived there. Traveling was getting more difficult and expensive, and we wanted our kids to grow up around at least some of the family. Marc also wasn’t seeing a very inspiring future in his job and had an opportunity to step into the family business back in Illinois. So, weighing all the factors, we decided to leave my dream job and some dear friends behind so we could raise our family in the Midwest.
Would I have stayed at the job if we had decided to stay in Alaska? Actually, I’m not sure. I hate hypothetical questions. Circumstances often shape our beliefs and decisions. Had the circumstances been different, I may have made different decisions. But we live in reality, not in hypothetical limbo, so I’ll focus on what actually happened rather than what could have happened.
In their hearts humans plan their course, but the LORD establishes their steps. (Proverbs 16:9, NIV)
I was three months pregnant with baby #2 when we drove across the country (I definitely don’t recommend doing that—my mom literally asked if I was insane). When we arrived, I found myself spending all day every day with a one-year-old, growing more pregnant, living in the basement of my gracious in-laws. So to pass the time…I browsed the classifieds for jobs???? What was I thinking?
The decision to be a stay-at-home mom was a process, not one “ah ha!” moment. When we arrived, it was the first time in my life I hadn’t been working or in school. If you’ve been skimming thus far, pay attention to this part: while I liked the idea in theory about staying at home full time, I feared what I would be missing. I’m not really a “kids person” by nature, and I felt like I had a lot of valuable professional skills and intelligence to offer. Would I regret not offering my skills and talents to the professional world? I wasn’t ready to let a traditional career go, even though I possessed a growing conviction and desire to be home. I tried to get the best of both worlds and searched for part-time work.
Fortunately (providentially, really), the chances of a pregnant woman finding part-time work—during a major recession—that paid well enough to justify putting two kids in daycare were extremely slim.
Note: you might be surprised by what you enjoy.
The longer I stayed at home with James, the more I enjoyed it. I didn’t miss working…at all. I got into a daily routine and completed tasks with the same mentality I had used in previous jobs. James and I went out into the community and connected with other moms, my “coworkers.” He and I also went on prayer walks together and spent a lot of time hanging around his grandparents and great-grandparents, soaking up their wisdom. I participated with and delighted in him as he learned to talk. We eagerly awaited for Daddy to come home so we could spend quality time eating and playing together. My unfounded fears of being a boring, purposeless homebody evaporated.
And in the end, almost unintentionally, I found some intellectual stimulation that used my talents and brought in a little extra income. I started writing online articles during James’ nap times. Copywriting wasn’t exactly in my field, but I picked it up quickly. And here we are. I will say this though: writing is definitely a secondary occupation, not a focused career like I once envisioned. I might keep it up for a long time; I might not. And that is fine with me. (2017 aside: I’ve kept it up.)
The moral of the story: through all this job-hopping, having babies and traversing the country, I’ve learned to stop compartmentalizing my purpose in life.
I will find fulfillment and purpose in whatever I do as long as I’m loving and honoring God and the people he’s put in my path. And so in this season in my life, I have chosen to pour my whole heart into serving my family. I’m not missing out on anything worth more than them.
Take delight in the LORD and he will give you the desires of your heart. (Psalm 34:7, NIV)
4. Are You Thinking In Terms of Seasons?
I’ve heard this advice multiple times: different stages in your life are like seasons. The season with kids at home is relatively short. Let’s assume that for me, this period lasts for roughly 20–25 years, depending on if/when we have more. If I live to be between about 80 and 100 years old (with family history I have a decent shot of landing somewhere in there), that means that I’ll only have children at home for about 25 percent of my life span. Granted, I don’t remember much of the very beginning of that lifespan and I may be senile by the end of it—but still—my kids are only going to be kids for small chunk of time when I look at the big picture.
Some might argue that I’m missing out if I don’t pursue my career while in my prime. True, I suppose I won’t leave myself with enough time to become a Fortune 500 CEO (my lifelong dream…or not).
A friend of mine with two boys just watched her oldest son graduate from high school. I look at her and I think, she is not old! She just started working a “real” job recently (as if raising kids for the last 18 years wasn’t one). She’s got plenty of career ahead of her. I asked her if she regrets staying home, or homeschooling. No, of course not! She says she is so grateful to have had all of that time with her kids. It just slipped away so fast.
In fact, I’ve been asking a lot of seasoned mothers who stayed at home if they regretted what they did. Universal NO. And most of them have gone back to work later and done just fine. Some leave the workforce for a few years before their kids go to school while others leave it for a couple of decades.
I don’t know when I’ll go back to work, if ever. Who knows, maybe I’ll be able to develop my writing career further as my kids get older. Even if I wait until I’m fifty to get a “real” job, that still leaves a good fifteen years of working if I retire normally.
My oldest, James, is approaching his third birthday. While he’s not exactly filling out college applications yet, I can hardly believe I have this little person who is going to be a man before I know it. Even my baby Jonathan isn’t really a baby anymore – he walks, talks and pretty much thinks he’s a big person anyway. (Again, from future Gina: stop, young Gina. Just stop.)
So I’m going to enjoy this season while I can.
There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.
(Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, NIV)
5. Can You Afford It?
In my original series I didn’t even talk about the costs associated with leaving the workforce, but I think they’re an important part of that decision so I’ll mention them…briefly. Some factors to consider when you’re crunching numbers include:
- Loss of income
- Loss of future income/benefits/investments/career growth
- Earning potential of your spouse
- Cost of childcare
- The value of your time (professionally and with your family)
- Costs of raising a child (does anybody really know???)
- Cost of living and desired lifestyle
- Potential for part-time or at-home work
My head hurts, you guys. I don’t think anyone can really truly count the cost of staying vs. leaving a career times the exponential costs of raising a child divided by the unknown plus the square root of your 401K. (I really should have been a financial analyst).
There are some things you just can’t put a number on. And that’s why, whatever you decide, you should step out on faith and just do your best to make it work.
Dear friend, if you are wondering, “Should I be a stay-at-home mom?” I know it’s tough. I didn’t explore all of the potential questions that come up. You might not come to the same decision I did. It’s okay. I marvel at all the different ways that families work. This isn’t always an “either-or” question. Currently I might more accurately label myself as a “work-at-home mom,” which is a whole other can of worms.
My advice to you: pray. Pray for wisdom. Pray for clarity. Pray through your various options, dig into your heart and make a faithful decision.