Recently I was chatting with a friend about our shared stay-at-home mom woes: sick kids, sleepless nights, temper tantrums . . . you know the drill. "My mom told one of her friends that I absolutely love being a stay-at-home mom," my friend told me. "And I was like, 'I do?'" We laughed because it's the great paradox of both of our lives: there are many days that staying home with our small children seems like an absurd decision for two college-educated women to make, many days where a 4:30 p.m. glass of wine seems not like a reward but a necessity, many days when one intentionally spilled sippy cup or fight about whether underwear is optional might be the thing that puts one of us in the loony bin. Yet, neither of us would have it any other way.
The conversation is one of many I've had with friends (and, even more often, in my own head) that centers on a single theme: why am I a stay-at-home mom? It a deceptively difficult question to answer, for me at least. Before my children, I had a career in journalism that I actually loved (obviously, it's something I still dabble in or you wouldn't be reading this). I earned an undergraduate and graduate degree in my chosen field and toiled through quite a few less-than-perfect jobs to get there, but once I did, my career felt like a perfect fit.
I had my first child a few weeks before my 32nd birthday, and I was at a stage in my professional life where I was finally able to choose what I did and did not want to do, where I felt completely confident in my talents and worth. I was even (finally) making a livable salary. But despite a long track record of ambition, I always knew that I would eventually be at home with my kids. Long before I ever laid eyes on my daughter, I felt in my gut that going back to work full-time after she was born would be the wrong decision for me. (Like, literally, my stomach started cramping during my first and only phone call to a day care.)
I took an informal survey of my stay-at-home mom friends and acquaintances from all stages of my life, and it seems I wasn't alone in having a definite feeling about what kind of mom I was supposed to be. Some friends said they felt impelled to stay home because their own mothers either had or had not been home with them; others were prematurely aware of how quickly their own children's youths would pass by and said they felt a keen sense of wanting to be there for as much of that short time as possible. But, every time I asked if quitting work to stay at home was a hard decision, I got the same answer: no. It was something they knew they wanted to do.
Similarly, I've heard from many of my working-mom friends that they absolutely knew they wanted to go back to work after they had kids. Some have said it was because their moms either did or did not work when they were growing up; others cite a true passion for their jobs. Often I've heard working-mom friends say they just knew they weren't cut out for being at home all the time. Just like their stay-at-home mom counterparts, it was essentially a gut feeling, and they went with it.
Of course, I know there are many moms who would love to be home with their kids but can't afford to be, just as there are many moms who would love to work but can't find good employment. But as one of the lucky ones, a mom who was able to choose whether I wanted to be home or go back to work, I'm done with second guessing. There's something freeing about thinking about my choice simply as a personal preference, one that was either encoded in my DNA or took root in my psyche long, long before my daughter showed up, not one that's universally right or wrong, only no one knows which option is the wrong one. Just as some women want to be doctors, while others want to be artists, what kind of mom you want to be is an individual decision with no bad answer. The only wrong choice is to go against what you feel in your gut.