On a recent car trip, my daughter asked a thought-provoking question. (What better location, with no opportunity to make eye contact?) She wanted to know, honestly, if I regretted staying home with her and her siblings. She asked if I felt that I missed out on things, if I regretted giving up a career.
I answered, honestly, “No.” Though being a full-time mom was not in my plans when I was young, it was one of the best decisions I made in my life. I continued, “Yes, I loved my job, but at the same time, I hated my life.” My thoughts continued to spill out: The brutal schedule (day care drop off, work, day care pickup, dinner, bedtime, just to start it all over the next day) wore on me and I felt like I was not a very good mom. While playing pretend and changing diapers (so many diapers) was also a drain, it didn’t leave me feeling empty or unfulfilled. Besides, if I had kept working, there is no way I would have had four kids, maybe not even three, so my life would have been much less interesting. (And she would not have been born.)
When I was growing up, I didn’t want to have kids. Unlike some of my peers who dreamed of nurturing other humans as a nurse, a teacher or a mom, I wanted to be an astronaut, a writer and for many years, a veterinarian. Then I fell in love with a man who painted a very nice picture of a traditional family, and I switched course. We had a child, and after a year and a half, I started an editorial job. The schedule was hectic, but we made it work. When our second was born, I made the decision to stay home. Financially it didn’t make sense to work, and I dreaded the thought of missing all the “firsts”.
When I shared this news with family and friends, they all thought I had made a mistake. They worried I would regret it and I would grow to resent my husband and kids. They repeatedly pointed out I loved my job (true) and said I would be bored being home all the time. I dismissed their concerns and over time came to the realization that this “Mom thing” was what I truly was called to do. Being a full-time parent was the most challenging, yet most rewarding, thing I could ever choose to do in my life.
As the conversation with my daughter continued, I realized it wasn’t really about me. Though she was interested in my answer (and reassured me that she wouldn’t take it personally if I said I regretted leaving my career), this conversation went deeper. As a young adult, she was sorting out her own feelings, thinking about her future life. Like so many people her age, she was feeling pressure to determine what to be “when she grows up”.
This caught me off guard and made me think, long after this conversation. Getting a college degree was expected, both of me and of my children. But we rarely talked about what comes next. We tend to talk to teens and young adults about career goals, not family goals. In many cases, having a family is assumed, but it doesn’t come up in the life plan. You don’t often hear one aspire to be a parent. Perhaps that’s what some secretly want, but few are courageous enough to admit it.
We talk with our children about how important it is to find a job that will enable them to earn enough to support themselves and potentially a family in the future, but parenting is still seen as a side gig. I wondered, does this focus on career make me a hypocrite or discount what I have spent most of my adult life doing?
I am a firm believer that no education is wasted. That being said, I had my moments of doubt when, as a young mom, I faced student loan debt and the rising prices (and shrinking packages) of diapers. My degree felt worthless when my friends talked about their careers and the latest bestselling novel they were reading while my recent reads included Dr. Seuss and tales of hungry caterpillars. I felt like an outsider and had twinges of envy, but even then, I didn’t regret my choice.
I thought I’d go back to work when my youngest entered kindergarten, like many of my friends did, but my oldest was then entering high school and I quickly realized how very important it was for me to be available in those after-school hours. I saw older teens making bad, life-altering decisions. Today’s middle and high school experiences are more demanding and stressful than what I experienced. I put off the idea of a career, and didn’t once regret my choice.
While many can parent and work at the same time (and do it well), no one does it alone. Someone has to take care of the children. But somehow, choosing to be a stay-at-home parent isn’t considered a job, at least not one to aspire to. Why is that? What does that say about our society? Perhaps it’s time to include parenting as a viable option for what “comes next”.
We have made it acceptable for anyone to be a parent, but not to aspire to be one. We prepare our children for all sorts of tasks. They gain specialized knowledge in any field one can imagine, but not only do we do nothing to prepare the next generation to be parents, we don’t even encourage them.
I hope my children believe me when I say I will support them if they choose to be stay-at-home parents (and that includes my son). Of course we need jobs to pay the bills and we each have a responsibility to make a contribution to society, but parenting is not a lesser choice. Though the decision to be a stay-at-home parent did impact my career and my lifetime earnings, for me, the alternative was less valuable.
Do I regret it? Not for a minute.