When I read the job description I couldn't believe my eyes. I wouldn't have to slog into work in the rain, sleet and snow anymore. Instead I could stay home with my darling newborn, cuddling, taking long naps and watching wonderful old movies all snug as bugs on our sofa. I could be a Stay-At-Home Mom, a SAHM. "Stay At Home" - it even sounds cozy. I signed up immediately. I am no dummy and any job that gets me out of wearing panty hose is a job I want. Besides it comes with a cute little kid, right?
If you are already a SAHM (or dad), my depiction of stay-at-home parenthood probably has you either: a) writhing around on your floor laughing at my quaint notions of life as a mommy (taking care, of course, not to jab yourself with any of the many toys strewn about, or to roll in the pile of spit-up you've been meaning to sop up all morning); or b) quickly stuffing baby into his activity saucer so your hands are free to fire off an irate email to me, outlining the countless hours of work you put into parenting.
Relax. I admit it. There was no job description, and no promise of long, lazy days and easily acquired maternal bliss. But if there had been, knowing what I know now, I would certainly take issue with the author. How can I take long naps when I have to horde every second of baby-free time for essentials like showering? How can I lay on the couch popping bon bons when my postpartum thunder thighs are staring back at me every day? How can I enjoy a movie when my sleep-deprived brain can't remember how to work the VCR, never mind follow a plotline? And why do I look like I've aged 10 years when I've only been doing this for six months?
Ah, welcome to the land of stay-at-home motherhood. By now you've probably figured out the big secret: staying at home with baby isn't as easy as one might think. If you didn't realize this until just recently, don't feel bad. It took me 32 years and the birth of my first child to finally understand that all those years my mother "didn't work" while raising five kids, she actually put in the man-hour equivalent of at least three full-time jobs. Jobs defined by hard, manual labor - without the aid of disposable diapers, microwave ovens or even that mesmerizing Baby Faces video, mind you.
Granted, we have more conveniences today (and a lot more demands, but that's another story), but being a mom is still a full-time job. I mention this not to put you off from having kids (although if you're reading this that horse has probably already left the barn, so to speak) but merely to point out that if you choose to be a SAHM, you will work ... hard. It's just that you won't have to do it in an office; you won't be subject to performance reviews - at least until your child is a teenager; and, most importantly, you will not have to part with your darling baby for eight hours each day. The downside: you probably won't ever get a raise; you will be up to your elbows in bodily fluids of one sort or another on a daily basis; and you will have to adjust to a world in which "all" you have to show for your hard work is a happy, healthy baby - which everyone expects you to have anyhow.
A Sense of Accomplishment
It was the "happy-healthy-baby-as-my-one-and-only-accomplishment" part that hit me by surprise. For 10 years, I slaved away on project after project, each of which ended in a final product that would leave me fulfilled. Now, my main job left me with a project whose accomplishments were not so easily measured. When I got pregnant I truly wanted to devote myself full-time to being a mother. I did not want to work at my old job until my baby was at least six months old. What happened? Well, somewhere after those first weeks of blissful madness I began to feel frustrated. Every night my husband would come home, still nicely dressed and without a trace of baby spit-up on him. And there I would be, often still in my pajamas, trying gamely - but, sadly, failing - to keep my hair secured in the half-hearted ponytail I placed it in 15 hours earlier, with a load of half-folded laundry strewn across the couch. Most likely I would be in front of the fridge trying desperately to figure out how to turn the contents of my crisper (withered carrot, brownish tomato, ancient shriveled mushroom) into the vegetable portion of the evening meal. And I would feel, well, useless. I would not have gone grocery shopping, I would not have cleaned the house and I would not have written the 57 thank-you notes that I should have written. And somehow I would STILL be exhausted. In short, I would feel as if I had accomplished nothing all day.
Don't get me wrong, I loved the three months that I spent with my son without the distraction of "work." I wouldn't in a million years give up that time. Watching him figure out his new world was nothing short of amazing. And intellectually I realize that caring for and loving a child is about the most useful thing a human being can do. Still, I couldn't help but miss the feeling of accomplishment that comes with completing a project. My project - even though it was the most important project of my life - wouldn't be completed for a good 18 years, which meant I'd have to find something else to finish in the meantime. I'd have to go back to work, at least part-time.
Heading Back to Work
As a freelance journalist who spent my immediate pre-pregnancy days working from home for myself, going back to work didn't mean going back to an office in the traditional sense. Still, it meant going back to deadlines and commitments and hours away from my son. And while it may sound perfect, splitting my time between work and my son is far from easy. I miss him while I work and I have had to change my work habits to make sure I get everything done in the allotted hours (my days of procrastinating and making up for it by pulling an all- nighter are long over). But I am lucky enough to have the best of both worlds — with the income from my part-time work and a sense of satisfaction at completing my work projects, plus all the joys of raising my son.
Of course, that's just my experience. What does this mean for you as you try to decide to stay home or go back to work? Probably nothing. Your experience may be nothing like mine, or it may be eerily similar. Every mom approaches her work life differently and every family has different needs and challenges. For many women, staying at home is simply not an option. Even so, I cannot resist a few words of advice for anyone mulling over what to do:
- Don't make a final decision until after you've tried it. Let's face it, few women have the luxury of ditching "work" forever, without having to make some serious compromises. And how can you possibly know what to expect until you've tried it yourself. How you handle your employer depends on your relationship, but I'd advise keeping all of your options open until after your baby is born. Use your maternity leave to figure out whether you want to go back. Even if you absolutely know for a fact that you will have to return to work full-time when your maternity leave is up, you may find that the job you had is no longer a good fit for your family life and a change might be in order.
- Talk to other moms who've been through the drill. Since you're not making a decision until after your baby is born, you've got plenty of time to do a little research. Of course everyone's experience depends on their own circumstances, but listening to what others did might give you some ideas about how to handle your own situation.
- Be realistic about what it takes. Whether you stay at home or go back to work, your choice will have benefits and consequences. Find out as much about each situation as you can beforehand and make this decision with your eyes wide open.
- Enjoy the time you have with baby. Whether you've already decided to go back to work or you're still deciding, be sure to enjoy the time you have at home with your newborn. Even if you're eager to return to "work," you will probably feel at least a little sad at the prospect of losing unlimited access to your baby. And since baby is only baby for a short time (in the grand scheme of things), it's important to load up on memories for later.
- Give yourself time to adjust. If you do decide to go back to work, don't expect your new work self to be exactly the same as your old work self. Your old work self probably never worried about whether her six-month-old baby was gumming germy toys at daycare or diving headfirst off the changing table while you're not there to keep an eye on him. And I'll bet your old working self never had to race out of the office in the middle of the day to rescue a sick infant. The new you has new responsibilities and challenges — she's going to take a while to get the hang of this working mom thing.
- Remember your accomplishments. If you're a SAHM and you're feeling like you don't get anything done during the day, try keeping track for 24 hours — every diaper change, burping session (baby's, not yours), bottle warming, play time — of everything you do. You'll probably be surprised at how many little tasks go into caring for a baby.
- Help your spouse remember your accomplishments. I don't know if my husband ever came home from work, looked at me and thought "Jeez, she does nothing all day," but there are certainly days when I thought that's what I'd think if I were in his shoes. Talk to your spouse about what you do and how much it takes. Better yet, get your spouse to watch the baby for a weekend morning (by himself). A couple of hours alone with baby and he'll have a better idea of why you're not waxing the kitchen floor or cooking five-course meals anymore.
Get Out, or Get In
If you're staying at home, getting out and interacting with other adults may be your biggest challenge. Find a play group or sign up for some sort of class — a mommy-and-baby music class, or swim lessons, which you can start when your baby is as young as 3 months — anything that will put you in touch with other adults. If you're going back to work, try to squeeze in a little time for just you and baby. Maybe it means waking up early to nurse and cuddle baby. Or maybe it's setting aside a half hour each night to read a book and rock together. Whatever it is, try to make it a daily ritual, and it will be soothing for you and baby alike.
Christina Breda Antoniades is a freelance writer and mother of 9-month-old Vasili. She has written extensively for Discovery.com including the Travel Channel Online and Discovery Health Online. In her nine months as a new mommy, Christina has come to learn the joys and pains of parenthood.