The lies we tell ourselves and others.

A few weeks ago, we traveled to Chicago for a wedding. The bride and groom were both friends from law school — in fact, I knew them independently of each other before they started dating, which I think made me sort of unique at this particular wedding, and also gave me a really nice perspective on it.  But I digress. This post isn’t about their beautiful, incredibly fun wedding, or about how ecstatically happy they obviously both were.  It’s about a conversation I had at the wedding.

Mr. D. and I were seated at a table with three other couples — one engaged, and two married with kids. As I am (obviously) pregnant, I spent some time talking with the women who are mothers about pregnancy, childbirth (not graphically, it just turns out of them used to live in DC and went to the same OB practice I go to, and delivered at the same hospital as I will), and motherhood with a career.

One of these two women is a lawyer in a small family law firm and the other is a stay-at-home mom, and both are married to lawyers. So of course we talked some about going back to work versus staying at home and the pros and cons of both.  So, for instance, the one who works noted that she works only three days a week and, while she is glad to have the extra time at home with her kids, she also feels like that schedule means she’s not really able to be her best either as a lawyer or as a mom.  I thought that was a really interesting observation, if a little sobering. But that’s fodder for another post.

They both asked if I was planning to go back to work and I said yes. And then I said something that I find myself saying a lot, but that I’m not sure is really true, and that’s what I wanted to write about. I said that I was definitely going back to work because I knew I wasn’t really cut out to be a stay-at-home mom.  I have actually been saying this for years. It’s certainly something I used to believe was true. But the fact is, that’s not really the reason I’m going back to work.

I am going back to work because we cannot afford for me not to.

I’m not saying that, given unlimited resources, I wouldn’t go back to work eventually — I think I definitely would. But I think I’d be likely to give staying at home a try, at least for a few years, while my kids are small. To be honest, I’ve always said I’m not cut out to stay at home because my mom never stayed at home, and she and I have similar temperaments. But the reality is that my mom did stay home with us when we were very little and even when she went back to work, she went back part-time.

Now that I’m actually on the precipice of becoming a mother, and a working mother at that, I am starting to sense that I probably would enjoy staying home for a few years. But in my head, admitting that feels like failure. I have an advanced degree from a good school! I have my dream job! I believe my work is valuable, even necessary, and I love the challenges it presents to me on a regular basis! Admitting, even to myself, that I also think I’d probably love to walk away from all of that for a few years to stay at home feels a lot like admitting that getting that degree and doing that work is unimportant or irrelevant.

I think the reality for me is going to fall somewhere in the middle. I really do think that I’d begin to resent being a stay-at-home mom if I did it forever.  I know I’d at least regret it — I’d miss my work and feeling like I was doing something important for the community. But if I could get past that regret and find interesting volunteer work, for instance, to occupy me, I also think I’d probably really enjoy it.

Of course, all of this is moot, because I have to go back to work, because we cannot afford for me to stay at home. We both have student loan debt. We have car payments to make. We have to have a place to live and food to eat, and we live in a pretty expensive metro area. And I make a good living. We could not live here if I did not work. Again, I really love my work, so that will make it easier for me to go back. But I’d have to go back even if I hated my job.

The question I asked myself after that dinner conversation at that wedding was why I was reluctant to admit that truth. Instead of saying, “Hey, I have to work to provide for my family, so yeah, I’ll be going back,” I said, “Oh, I’m going back because I just don’t think I’m cut out to be a stay-at-home mom.” Why was I unwilling to admit that I might want to stay home but can’t?

I don’t think this is something that I’m alone in experiencing. I think a lot of professional women are reluctant to admit that it’s not just love of their jobs that sends them back to work. (And I do mean “just” — I don’t think this is an all or nothing thing. One can enjoy one’s job even while regretting the necessity of working.) Frankly, I need to get over feeling like a failure for admitting that I’m not racing to get back to work. Finances are no less valid a reason to go back to work than is a burning desire to actually go back to work. Even if I enjoy my work — which I do — I’ll probably still miss my kids, and miss being at home with them, and wish I could do things differently. And that’s OK.

So. I will be going back to work. Partly because I want to, but also because I have to.


6 Responses

  1. Oh, lord, I understand. Leaving work was so hard financially AND emotionally, and I struggled with how to explain it to people. The reality (as it seems to me) is that there is no good answer to give; some moms work, some don’t, and both feel guilty about it at times.

  2. This is such an interesting post. I would think it would usually be the opposite — that women would rather admit that they were going back because it was financially necessary, because then it would seem like they DID want to be a good mom and stay home with their kids. I think so much depends on where you’re coming from and what your own mom did. Do you think you should want to stay home, because it means you’re a good mom and you care about your kids, or do you think you should want to work, because you have this great education and a professional identity?

  3. CM — good questions. For me, I feel like I should want to work. My mom always (at least in my memory) worked. In fact, she worked full time and got her B.A. and then her Master’s while I was a kid, so she really modeled for me the importance of being personally fulfilled by her career/education. And then there’s the whole thing where being a lawyer is a second career for me, one I chose deliberately because I wanted to do something I found fulfilling. So for me, admitting that I might want to stay at home really does feel like a failure — like I’d be letting myself down, and letting my mom down.

    But yeah, I think there are a lot of women who think of it the other way. I would be interested to see how the split works, in terms of what kinds of jobs/professions women on both sides of the issue have, and when/how they chose those jobs/professions.

  4. I also think that it’s the opposite, because so many (unfortunately) other women will make comments about working moms that make you feel ashamed that they don’t WANT to be home with their kids (but often have no choice). Saying “I don’t have a choice” feels like a good shield from those criticisms.

    I stayed home for a year after I had Abby, because I was laid off at around 25 weeks pregnant. I had a career job, stock options, pension etc. and then the company went down. My entire identity was thrown in flux, and with the recession I couldn’t find another job in the same pay range (or even less). So I became a stay-at-home mom. I (since we’re confessing) hated it. I love my daughter and I’m grateful that things like breastfeeding were so much easier because I was at home. But I felt bored and unchallenged (and completely challenged at the same time which is why parenting is a paradox) and like I had no sense of self.

    When I got into the law school close to home it seemed like a miracle, because I could have it both ways. Close family nearby to watch my daughter, school, and eventually a law practice. As soon as I take the bar we’re thinking my husband will stay home (though by then she’ll be about to start school). He can do soccer practice and carpool, because to him that sounds awesome and to me it sounds like torture. I am a better mom for 4 hours a day than I was being a mom 24 hours a day. My babysitter does way more things with Abby, because she doesn’t spend her day cooking, organizing, volunteering etc. like I would have to do to be at home.

    I suppose if you can do it, you should. The experience really helped me figure out what I wanted (and what I was good at), and to learn to be proud of my family even if it doesn’t seem “ideal” to other people. I think maternity leave will give you a good sense of what it’s like, and then maybe if it’s what you really want to can try to get in a position where you can stay home. I am talking way too much so I’m going to stop!

  5. Well, I’m also willing to admit that at least part of the reason I think I might want to stay home is because I simply can’t. I make the “big bank” in our marriage and, though that may change in the future, it means that for now, I have to go back to work. So there may be an aspect of “the grass is so much greener over there, where I could be a SAHM” in all of this rumination.

    I think my bigger point wasn’t that I DO think I am cut out to be a SAHM and was telling a lie when I’d say I wasn’t. It was that, by saying that, I was disregarding that part of me that, of course wants to stay home but knows that she can’t, because she has to provide for her family.

  6. Seeing as how I’m single and haven’t been on a date in 6+ months this isn’t really something I’ve given SERIOUS thought to, but I do babysit a lot and I really don’t think I’d ever be able to be a stay at home mom. My mom did it but I just don’t think I’m cut out for it.
    I am always interested to hear what other young lawyers decide to do though… I know it’s a really tough decision either way.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: