Like many working parents, I spent the months before my baby’s birth agonizing over what I would do for childcare. There was no doubt in my mind—or my bank account—that I would return to the office when my maternity leave ended after only seven short weeks. (Sadly, as an American, that is a generous amount of time since many women in the United States return to work in less than half of that.) But I still worried about finding a childcare situation where my son would feel safe and loved and be shown the tenderness and attention I knew he would need to grow and learn.
After he was born, we scrambled to find a nanny. When he was less than two months old, I dropped him off—with tears in my eyes—for his first full day without me.
Over the next few years, my son achieved all of his big milestones—crawling, walking and talking—under the kind and watchful eye of his loving nanny. At two, when his baby brother arrived, he moved on to full-time preschool. Since then, my son’s days at preschool have been packed with fun and learning. He has made new friends and begun to understand that other children and families live differently than we do.
Stay-at-home vs. working moms: Can't we share without being attacked?Now that he is four, my big boy is full of questions. One evening, as I spooned macaroni and cheese onto my little one’s high chair tray, my son shared something he’d learned that day that he clearly found both fascinating and a little unbelievable. “Mommy,” he began, “did you know that some mommies stay home with their children all day long? They don’t have offices or work clothes or meetings, and they play with their babies from when they wake up until when they go to bed.” He looked upward into my eyes, clearly waiting for my response to his revelation that stay-at-home mothers exist. “Yes, I did know that buddy,” I said in the most neutral tone I could muster, surprised by the sadness and defensiveness that this revelation instantly sparked in me. “Where did you hear about those mommies?”
He explained that a teacher at his school was pregnant and that she was going to stop coming to school and stay at home after her baby was born. “She said that raising babies is the most important work,” he said. Ouch.
During nearly five years as a working mother, I’ve been on the receiving end of all sorts of backhanded compliments about “how I manage” and my son’s “resilience.” I’ve also been told by strangers at the grocery store, mothers in online groups and even other working mothers that my sons would be better off, in one way or another, if I were at home with them instead of at work each day. These comments tend to make me feel both frustrated (that women are still so often seen as default caregivers) and mad (that another person would assume they know better than me what’s best for my family). My son’s realization and the implied question, “If other mothers stay home with their children, why don’t you stay with us?” was the first time that this sort of comment made me sad.
As I carefully considered how I should respond to my son, I ran through the ideas I felt I needed to convey: that women and men are equally qualified to care for children and to work outside the home, that people work for all sorts of different reasons, that no one has the right to judge another family’s decision and that, while I love my sons with a depth and passion I didn’t know was possible before I became a parent, I would never choose to be a stay-at-home mom.
I also ran through all the judgemental thoughts I knew I had to be sure not to convey, even though (I’m ashamed to say) they’ve all crossed my mind at various times of my working-parent life: that working mothers do all that stay-at-home mothers do and manage to have jobs, that choosing to stay at home is a waste of a college or university education, and that forgoing a career in favour of all-day diapers is a disservice not only to women themselves but also to their children, who miss out on the opportunity to see their mothers thrive in different environments.
Growing up, I hardly knew any stay-at-home mothers. Save for the mom who volunteered in my elementary-school class from time to time, the women in my life all spent their days at work while I spent my time at school or daycare. Because I knew no differently, being a stay-at-home mother myself never occurred to me as I thought about what motherhood might look like for me.
It surprised me then that, despite my passion for my work, as soon as I brought my firstborn son home from the hospital, I began to envy the stay-at-home-mothers I knew nothing about. Though I wasn’t close with anyone who chose to stay home with their children, I often observed the women in my son’s Saturday-morning music class who stayed home with their babies and neighbours who left the workforce once their little ones arrived with curiosity and a little bit of jealousy. As I talked with these women, I wondered, What would life be like if I chose to spend my days at home instead of at an office? When I felt lonely and isolated by my utter lack of free time, I was envious of the friendships they seemed to develop so easily with one another. When I was up until 4:30 a.m., cooling my son’s hot forehead with a washcloth and rocking him as he fussed through his first fever, and then had to slip out of bed without him noticing to get ready for work at six o’clock, I was jealous of their ability to stay snuggled up with a sick baby, resting and comforting them as they needed. When I was forced to lug hundreds of ounces of breastmilk through the airport and back across the country after a work trip, I was resentful of their ability to nurse on demand without ever having to hook themselves up to a cold, hard, plastic pump. When the resentment crept in, unkind ideas about what it is to be a stay-at-home mother were likely to follow.
My son, still young now, doesn’t know any stay-at-home mothers (other than the teacher who is planning on staying home). I work. My sisters work. My mother works. The mothers of all of my boy’s friends and classmates work, too. With a lack of exposure to mothers who have chosen to stay home, I knew I had to be sure not to paint a negative picture of women who had made different choices than me in a misguided effort to explain my own choices.
“Raising babies is very important work,” I began, “and I feel so lucky to get to raise you and your brother. In our family, we believe that moms and dads should work hard at home and at jobs. We also believe that sending a child to preschool is a very important part of raising children.” My son nodded. “But wouldn’t it be fun if we were together all the time?” he questioned. “It would be nice, buddy,” I said. “It really would.”
And I believe it, too. I’m sure that if I was a stay-at-home mother, I’d have wonderful fun with my kids. But I’d also be missing out on so much else that I find valuable, and my sons, too, would be missing out on things I find valuable in their childhoods. That’s the thing about motherhood and, really, life in general: When you make one choice, you forgo so many others. I don’t know any parents—either those who work or those who stay at home—who don’t simultaneously wish for more time with their kids, more time alone, more time to pursue their individual passions and more time to read quietly to a little one snuggled sweetly in their arms.
As my son continued to eat his supper, he kept on talking. Before I’d had a chance to tell him everything I wanted him to know about why I work and why some other mothers don’t, he moved on to talking about playing cats with his friends on the playground, building boxes in the school woodworking shop and asking if we would have time to ride our bikes before bedtime. We finished our supper, went for a family bike ride and wrote a letter to his cousin before bed. When the sun began to set, I snuggled my boy into his pyjamas, told him a few stories and kissed him gently on his forehead as he sighed toward sleep. And then, the next morning, like I always have and always will, I woke up, got ready and went to work.