Though I have never called myself a “stay-at-home mom”, I have been the primary caregiver for the kids since my first baby was born. It was a choice that I am grateful to have made. I say grateful, not because it’s been all easy and joyful. I’m grateful to have made the choice because I was inundated with a lot of voices from family, society, and even friends that challenged whether it was the right decision for me… but I listened to no voice but my own. I acted on intuition, I exercised agency, and I made a major “adulting” decision. I’m grateful that it was my choice.
We keep seeing countless articles on the Great Resignation, and the swaths of women who have left the workforce. This is especially highlighted in Motherly's 2022 State of Motherhood survey which showed that 26% of millennial and Gen Z mothers cite childcare issues as the number one reason they left or quit their jobs in the last year and of those women still in the workforce, their feelings about combining a career and motherhood have become even more pessimistic: 23% of mothers say they don’t think it’s possible to combine them (up from 17% in 2021).
Washington DC is abuzz with policy campaigns to try make life feasible for “working mothers” like affordable childcare and paid leave for all. It is exciting that there is so much public discourse, but it is equally infuriating that we have to even have it. If there’s a leaky pipe in a U.S. Capitol building, we fix it without debate. But when there’s an exodus of millions of women from the workforce, we have to fight like hell to even be heard. There are incredible women in the “fight” and we need to support and amplify each other. (I’ve listed a few notable names and groups in the footer.)
Related: Actually, motherhood is political
There are myriad structural reasons why so many mothers have left their jobs during the pandemic (e.g., no child care), but I wonder how many have simply made the choice I made many years prior. Did the pandemic simply give people time and space to tap into what we really want? Did some parents decide that they actually wanted to be at home with their kids without other “work” obligations tugging at them?
Preconditions for choice
It’s impossible to talk about my “choice” to be full-time caregiver to my children without underlining the preconditions for having such an option available to me. These preconditions essentially amount to multiple layers of financial security.
First, I had the financial means to live safely and securely. For me, that came by way of a committed spouse and co-parent who had a steady, reliable income. I felt the financial security to feed, house, and care for me and my children over the long haul. Without this security, my choice would have been impossible or irresponsible.
Second, I had reasonable confidence that if I wanted or needed to at any point, I could find a job. In effect, this was my second, back-up safety net. If, for whatever reason, I could no longer rely on my husband’s income, or our financial needs grew, I knew I had the credentials, connections, and the ability to bring in meaningful income to support us.
This isn’t merely a footnote to acknowledge my privilege. Too often, parents who make this choice shy away from speaking about it because for many families, very basic financial security is out of reach, largely due to systemic injustices. But glossing over the details of the choice citing “privilege” just makes it feel more unattainable.
It also paints a very limiting picture of a “stay-at-home” parent. In our minds, they fall into two general categories: one who has deep financial resources, through generational wealth or a spouse’s income, such that their loss of personal income doesn’t impact their standard of living, or one whose income potential is too low to make it economically feasible to afford childcare. I think there is a lot in between these two scenarios that deserves more attention.
I’m a mother. I spend my days caring for my kids.
I want to make a case for “staying home” with the kids. It’s a deeply personal decision, and it’s definitely not for everyone. But I think there are reasons that this could be a meaningful choice for some who may not have allowed themselves to seriously consider it. I’m now 8 years, 4 babies, and 1 global pandemic in. Here are some thoughts:
- It’s not a life sentence. It doesn’t define you, now or ever. Your babies won’t stay babies, your kids grow and become more independent, and your family’s needs may change. You still have agency to change.
- There are indescribably fulfilling moments you get to experience throughout the days: witnessing developmental milestones unfold, smelling the top of their head as you rock them to sleep, hearing their first giggles, being there for the cuddles when they feel sick or just feel very lovey.
- You can relive a lot of your childhood and remind yourself of what lights you up. Childhood can be magical, especially as a close bystander.
- Beyond a certain level of comfort and security, earning more money to spend doesn’t bring more joy. We have made thoughtful choices for our family so that we can have both security and joy, without adding unnecessary stress. Whenever I feel the pang of FOMO, whenever I think about the consistent paychecks I left behind, I bring myself back to this truth. Having everything we actually need feels just right.
- When uninterrupted nights are rare, it’s better to doze through story time than an important client meeting.
- With kids, sh*t always happens. Whether it’s acute injuries, illnesses, or unexpected special needs with longer term implications, there is a practical reality that things just don’t go as planned. And personally, the easiest way for me to manage such uncertainty is to build myself in as the game plan.
- If you have your own culture and/or language that isn’t well represented in your broader community, it’s valuable to have more time with your kids while they’re young — to pass on something essential to their identity and lineage. My kids are able to experience their Korean-ness more because I’m at home.
- Being mom and being at home can feel very 1950s housewife, but it certainly doesn’t have to be. Caring for our kids during the traditional workday doesn’t mean we don’t have equality and true partnership when it comes to other aspects of our family life.
- Being the primary caregiver doesn’t mean you have to play with your kids. I have a pretty strong view on this and I’m glad others agree. I’m typing this as two kids play picnic outside, one naps upstairs, and one does a solo rendition of Surface Pressure in the living room.
- And finally, we deserve to make a choice that fills us up… even if it doesn’t cash in on our credentials, even if the kids would thrive without us at home, and even if it doesn’t fill up our bank accounts.
As a feminist raising two daughters and two sons, I often question if I’m simply perpetuating gender norms. But I have to remember that being feminist doesn’t mean always doing the opposite of what was expected of us; it means having agency to do what’s right for me.
Just as there were some important preconditions for my choice to “stay at home” with the kids in lieu of a traditional career, I have some thoughts on what I believe should ideally come after… but let’s save that for another week.
For now, check out these incredible groups and individuals who are in the fight to fight for policy change:
- Reshma Saujani just put out a new book called Pay Up: The Future of Women and Work and it’s out now. There are so many aspects of her story that I relate to—especially about being the good immigrant overachiever, experiencing big law in New York, and checking our own biases about mothers and work.
- Eve Rodsky, also a former attorney, literally wrote the book on achieving equality in the home: Fair Play. And she has another book out called Find Your Unicorn Space (this Substack is the definition of my unicorn space!).
- Mother Honestly, founded by Blessing Adesiyan, is helping women and their families flourish at home and at work.
- Chamber of Mothers is bringing together many voices to collectively champion mothers’ rights. Their current goal is to secure federal paid leave for all.
A version of this story originally appeared in How I'm Building This Life.