“What do you do?” This is a question that is inevitably asked when you first meet someone. I’ll never forget the first time it was asked of me after I quit my job and left my career to stay home with my kids.

I was at an engagement party for my husband’s good friend and we were seated at a table where I didn’t know anyone. The woman sitting next to me was younger, unmarried, and didn’t have children. She asked me, very conversationally, where I worked—and I froze. I felt completely lost about how to respond because for almost 20 years, I’d been employed in some way.

“I don’t have a job right now,” I stammered.

To which she replied, “Wow. That sounds awesome. I wish I didn’t have to work.”  

It all felt so far from the truth that I felt confused about how to continue. I hadn’t stopped working by choice. And I didn’t feel like my days were spent living the life of leisure she was picturing. But I didn’t want to explain my days were spent carting children around, caring for a baby full time, and  keeping my household running smoothly. So, I changed the subject and chatted about other things but I left that evening feeling lost.

I used to define myself with my career, so when I left it, I left a piece of my identity. How do you establish a new identity when your new “job” is raising your own children?

I’ve been working since I was 14. My first job was as a cashier in a local bakery. I used to ride my bike to work and spend my day taking cake orders and selling cookies. It was mostly just a way to pass Saturday mornings and I loved having a little spending money. The bakery eventually closed and I moved on, waitressing in restaurants while I was young, then working in public relations and marketing before finally ending up as a flight attendant. 

When I was hired with the airlines, my job defined me. I was there for almost 12 years and knew the ins and outs of the industry. I had a huge work family I grew to love and, at first, I was able to balance my schedule with anything that came my way. I worked holidays, weekends, and nights, especially in the beginning. 

But my personal life—which included getting married, moving to the suburbs, and having three children—made things even more hectic. There was a point at which my job stopped making sense. I wasn’t making enough money to justify childcare, and being gone for multiple days was too disruptive to our family unit. So, after over a decade in the skies and 20 years in the workforce, I stopped working. There I was . . . officially a stay-at-home mom.

I had trouble embracing this new role.

First, the inevitable “What do you do?” question made me uncomfortable. How did I explain that staying at home was a full-time job in and of itself when so many women were able to balance home with work? At first, I answered the question by saying, “I used to be . . .”  but as time went on, I realized that was no longer how I wanted to steer a conversation. I didn’t want to talk about the past as if the present wasn’t the most important thing to me.

And then, of course, there was the necessity to find fulfillment with something that most days doesn’t even garner a thank you. When I was working, I interacted with 500+ people a day some days; now, I sometimes only talk to four: my husband and three people under the age of seven. We used to have employee appreciation days and quarterly bonuses. Now. there really isn’t a tangible “Job well done, congratulations!” No one throws you a party when you do well in motherhood. It’s just expected, even when it takes a tremendous amount of work.

After a brief period of mourning my old self, I threw myself into my new one.

I became a “yes” person. I said yes to everything I had to say no to before while I was traveling all the time. While I was working, I barely had time to keep my own life straight let alone remember everything going on with my neighbors. Now, I had a little more time so I joined things I couldn’t before. I picked up as much as I could which helped me feel appreciated.

I was present for my kids physically and emotionally. I always felt this was my number one goal, even while working; I just had the luxury of time now. I didn’t need as many carpools or babysitters because I could do it myself. I spent more time with my family physically, which I appreciate as they grow older and I realize how quickly their childhoods are flying by. This is a true gift even if I don’t feel it every day.

I still miss my career some days. But if someone asks me what I do now, I smile and tell them I’m a stay-at-home mom to three crazy kids. I feel lucky to be able to say that. I try to stay focused on the present because the past is behind me. 

No one has all the answers starting out on this path of motherhood, but we figure it out along the way. To the moms looking to make changes, small or large, embrace it. There’s only your family and what works for you. There’s no one size fits all answer to this question of working or staying home. One isn’t easier or better. But being happy where you are will make your journey a success.

You may also like:

It’s OK to Stay Home, Mama

Dear Stay-at-Home Moms, Your Work Doesn’t Go Unnoticed

This is Stay-at-Home Motherhood

Caroline Murray

Caroline is a freelance writer, wife, and mama to two young children and one sweet baby.  She's been featured on ScaryMommy, Her View From Home, TODAY Parents, Filter Free Parents and others.  She loves everything country and tries not to take anything too seriously.  You can see more of her at www.the-othermom.com or like her on Facebook.