Photo: Courtesy of Andrea Ewer
When my firstborn was six months old, and my maternity leave was only half over, I went back to work—not because I wanted to, but because my career as an elementary school teacher was on the line. I had spent three years chasing teaching’s golden trophy, a permanent contract, and if I didn’t get back in the classroom I’d find myself back at the bottom of the ladder. So I purchased a breast pump and lined the freezer with little bags of milk, went shopping for dress pants that concealed my post-baby bump, and hired a nanny. Her name was Ainsley, and she was perfect.
She was a trained teacher herself, with short blonde hair and a sweet smile. She absolutely adored my son and he quickly grew attached to her. They would go for long walks in the sunshine and spend the afternoon swinging at the park by the school where I taught. I would peer through the window of my classroom to catch a glimpse of them playing, wondering how long he had napped, if he had liked the sweet potato and apple puree I had made for him, hoping he was happy and not missing me too much. Coming home exhausted at the end of the day, I always noticed something new in him—another word she’d taught him to say, a silly face he’d make. And there was that one day I saw her using a wooden block tower to teach him delayed gratification. Who even was this little boy?!
My heart was torn. I wanted to be the one teaching my son lessons in patience, I wanted to be the one to witness his first sounds and words and steps. But becoming a teacher had been a lifelong dream, a dream that had been ignited way back in Mr. Davis’ fourth grade classroom, when I was a shy little redhead who always finished her work early and he would pass me a red pen and a stack of my classmates’ papers to correct. I held that pen with such earnestness and joy, and as the ink scratched across the page in big, bold checkmarks and x’s I knew this was exactly what I wanted to do. When I finally graduated and entered my very own classroom of bright-eyed five-year-olds, teaching was all I could think about. I arrived early and stayed late; my students loved me and I loved them. I had found my passion.
But having my son changed everything. When I told the other moms at school that I was struggling with the transition back to work, one woman’s response was “Honey, you’ve just gotta rip off that Band-aid.” Well, rip it off I had, but it seemed to be taking a long time to heal. My heart was at home with my son, and every day I left it there, as I walked the few minutes up the road to school. Depression started to creep in and I woke in the morning with heavy eyes and a sense of dread looming over me. My detailed lesson plans became shorter and shorter until they were merely a few words scribbled hurriedly across the page ten minutes before the morning bell rang. One day, to my horror, the principal walked into my classroom while I had the students huddled around my feet for story time, and as I watched him flip through my pathetic excuse for a plan book the blood drained from my face. I wasn’t surprised when he called me into his office after school that day. “Your lessons are…lacking. I know you’re a mother now, and your home life is busy, but…”
Sitting in his swivel chair on the other side of that big desk, he went into a long spiel about the importance of hard work, how he learned to make sacrifices in his life and how his ambition enabled him to get where he was today.
These were things I used to believe in, things I used to be good at. I had been an A+ student. I went to university on a full scholarship and graduated with honours. I wasn’t this person who got called to the principal’s office for slacking.
I knew I had dropped the ball. I just couldn’t believe someone else had noticed.
I slunk lower and lower into my chair as he spoke, trying to hold back tears, feeling my face burn hot with shame.
This is not where I want to be, I thought. But I stayed, because I was trying to build a career. Because this was the path I had made for myself all those years ago. Because what would happen if I didn’t? It would take two more years and the birth of my second son to see that there was another possibility. I finally traded my red pen for two rambunctious toddlers, but I had grounded my identity in that pen for so long that it took a while to figure out who I was all over again.
Recently, a new dad referred to being a stay-at-home mom as a “noble decision.” We had been talking about success and ambition and the incredible things some people are able to achieve in their lifetimes. I blush a little when he says this, but wonder, Is this actually what he thinks or is he just being nice? He’s probably the smartest person I know, currently completing a dissertation for his PhD, and it’s hard not to feel a little inadequate in his presence. I think he was sincere, but it also felt like it came with an ellipsis at the end, an overarching “but.” It’s a noble decision but it’s not what I admire in people. It’s a noble decision but it’s not what I would do. It’s a noble decision but it’s not the best one.
Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but I'm used to feeling shame around being a stay-at-home mom. It’s a feeling I’ve battled for the six years that I’ve been home with my two boys, a voice in my head telling me that I’m not living up to my potential, that I’m less of a woman because I don’t have a career. The other day as my friend and I walked our kids to school, both of us stay-at-home moms sporting our uniform of leggings and sneakers, another mother ran past us in a chic business suit, high heels clicking on the pavement. My friend turned to me and said, “I feel like she’s about to have a very different day than me.” We both laughed, but these moments also give me a slight pang of self-doubt. Am I doing enough? Am I enough?
I’m lucky to have lots of great women around me who also made this “noble” decision to stay home after having kids, so there has been a lot of camaraderie and no shortage of playdates. But instead of getting easier, it’s only getting more difficult. As our kids grow older and less dependent on us, I’ve had friends slowly trickle back into the land of work and money. And I’m still at home feeling anything but noble.
My husband once said of my time at home, "It's like you're basically retired." He has always been very supportive but he's also as blunt as they come. What he meant by this, which he later clarified, was that I’m free from financial pressure, which is true. We have decided not to live beyond our means and are able to make things work on a single income, an option I feel very fortunate to have. But, when you're already struggling with your self-worth, comments like these can feel like a stab to the heart. What I heard him say was, "You're doing nothing with your life, you've given up." Which sent me into a shame spiral that I reacted to with anger—and let's just say that every stereotype about a redhead's fiery temper was true at that moment.
I know this shame can attack any mother, whatever her decision. The working mom hears the voice of guilt in her ear when she drops her child off at daycare. Why are you letting someone else raise your child? The stay-at-home mom hears it when she waves her husband good-bye every morning. Why don’t you get a real job instead of doing what a babysitter could do?
But I think, deep down, we all know that climbing the corporate ladder can’t be the only path to success. Still, we often treat those who do it as if they have more value because they shatter glass ceilings and do news-worthy things. Being a stay-at-home mom has been a lesson in humility, in being okay with becoming invisible to the world so that I can do something that is important to me. It has helped me to slow down and start to savour the beauty in the smallest of things, like sipping my coffee at the kitchen window in the morning, watching the sun creep into the orange sky, or laughing at my husband and sons wrestling on the couch. My time at home has trained me in the difficult practice of being present right where I am, in both the joy and the boredom. I am more awake to my life, and more myself now than I’ve ever been.
The definition of success has changed a lot for me over these years. Right now, having the strength to decide for myself what type of woman I want to be means a lot more than what’s on my résumé. But shedding the pressure to become the woman I think others want me to be is a tricky task, and I’m constantly working to untangle the mess of perceived expectations that swirl around my head in order to focus on what I actually want for myself and my family.
When my second maternity leave was coming to an end (the full 12 months this time), I received a piece of mail that, had it been a few years earlier, would have been a reason to crack open a bottle of champagne. It was a letter from the school board telling me that I had earned enough teaching days to qualify for a probationary contract, which meant that at the end of the year I would be offered a permanent position. There it was, the golden trophy, the thing that I had been chasing after all this time. And it was finally within my reach.
But then I glanced over at my almost one-year-old, bouncing in his jumper, and his three-year-old brother, flipping through a stack of picture books on the living room floor, and that piece of paper didn’t mean so much anymore. I was happy with my life. Being a stay-at-home mom comes with its frustrations, that’s for sure, and there are days I wished I was somewhere, anywhere else. And yet, I knew this was the job I wanted most of all. As I tossed the envelope into the recycling bin, a smile spread across my face, and I turned to the boys and asked, “Who wants to go swing at the playground?”