I debated whether I should go back to work after having my first baby, and this uncertainty caught me by surprise. On paper, I should have returned. Financially, we’d have been in the green, even after paying for childcare, and I was leaving a lot of future earnings on the table.
In terms of career, I was just hitting my stride, finding my true niche in my profession and getting excited about it. Personally, I’ve never fawned over babies. I’d rather speak to adults than play with kids. Logically, I asked myself why I spent all that time and money earning my Bachelors and Masters degrees if I wasn’t going to use them and risked never using them again. Principally, I questioned whether I could set a good example for my children by willingly “leaning out” of the workforce and being financially dependent on my husband.
Despite all of these valid reasons for going back to work, I decided to stay home. There was an X factor that outweighed my list of pros and cons. It exists, in a unique form, for every family puzzling how to successfully support themselves financially and emotionally. Even when we don’t have much of a choice at all, that X factor is there, hanging over us, nudging us to wonder if the grass is greener on the other side.
For me, the X factor was stress. I didn’t want more of it than absolutely necessary, and I knew that juggling a demanding job and my new family life would be perpetually challenging. I wanted to feel like I was enough — that I had enough energy and time to be the mother, spouse and professional that I wanted to be, and I knew I’d struggle to meet my own expectations. So I decided not to try.
Instead, I went all in on family life. This doesn’t mean I traded in my feminist flag for Donna Reed pearls. I’ve yet to embrace the old-fashioned stereotypes of a housewife, although, I have embraced a few of the modern ones, like writing about it and wearing yoga pants. What staying home really means for me is that I’ve got a simplified set of priorities compared to working parents. Where I focus my time ends up adding tremendous value to our family’s life.
I wouldn’t say that I made the right choice in staying home, though. Particularly in the U.S., where governmental and workplace family policies are far behind those of other developed nations, family decisions that require considerations of money, personal satisfaction, and the well-being of others, don’t lend themselves to perfect solutions. Sometimes the grass really is greener on the other side, but usually only in patches.
Once, I remember methodically digging through our garbage can, opening yucky dirty diapers and snapping photos of their contents to send to the pediatrician. I thought to myself, “How did it come to this? I used to mingle in a luxurious London flat, casually sipping wine that had come from a Saudi prince’s personal Italian vineyard.
Now, my biggest worry is whether the color of this runny poop is normal. The realization of how significantly my life had changed hit me as strongly as the stench from the garbage can. No matter how carefully we’ve thought through our choices (if we had one), it’s natural to wonder what life would be like had we gone another way. The best we can do, though, is pick the path that we need to walk, given what we know and feel at the time.
When people say to me now, “I don’t know how you do it. I couldn’t stay home full-time with my kids.” I accept the compliment and understand the implied confession: I don’t want to do what you do. I often feel compelled to explain why I chose to stay home, to prove that I’m still smart and accomplished in spite of my choice, but that’s an unnecessarily deprecating way of looking at myself and my life.
I’m one of the lucky ones who got to follow my X factor to a life that works quite well for me and my entire family. When people say they couldn’t do what I do, I should stop smiling and shrugging in modesty. I should be confident in my choice, in my life, and tell them what I really think: I don’t want to do what you do.