Firstly, let me clarify what this post is not. This is not a post in which I judge working mothers. Five weeks after my son was born I went back to work full-time until after he turned one. Daniel needed to finish school so I needed to bring home the bacon. I don’t think that made me a bad mother, nor do I think that other moms who need to or choose to work outside the home are bad mothers. However, this is a post in which I explain why staying home was the right choice for me. This is a post in which I challenge our culture’s views on the value of motherhood.
My husband had just finished his thesis and graduated and our son was almost 18 months old when I applied to and was accepted into a graduate program at Unnamed University in Unnamed Department with stipend and a tuition waver. I was really excited about the opportunity. I had been pretty miserable being away from my son, Benjamin, 9-10 hours everyday at work and I thought that my program would allow me more time with him since I could do much of my studying at home. I was also motivated to begin grad school because a) I loved what I was going to get to study and b) I felt like I needed to use my academic skills (I graduated from a very prestigious undergraduate program) and move toward a career path. Because that’s what you do if you’re a well-educated, intelligent woman, right? You have a career! You make an impressive salary! You definitely don’t just stay home, right?
So, I began my program during the summer session. My classes were inspiring. I loved the course material. I was getting good feedback from my professors. But…I just wasn’t happy. When I was in class or in the library I missed Benjamin so much and I wished I were home with him. When I was home with Benjamin I felt anxious and preoccupied: “I really should be studying right now! I wish he would go to sleep so I can finish my readings! I need to go back to the library!” I couldn’t just relax and enjoy the precious hours with my boy. I started to think more seriously about my program and what exactly I was going to do with my degree. After all, our current economy isn’t kind to teaching positions in the humanities. When I graduated, how would I get a job? Would I have to move? (We had just moved back to our hometown for my program and were blissfully spoiled by having two sets of grandparents in town.) What about having more babies? Wouldn’t it be impossibly hard to get tenure while mothering more than one child? And if I wait to have more babies until after getting tenure…my fertile days might be over. And perhaps most importantly: do I really need a prestigious career in order to be happy?
Toward the end of the semester, I met with the Director of the program and explained that I was seriously considering leaving the program to raise my son and just work part-time. The director voiced his concern that I was throwing away a great opportunity: great program, full-tuition waver, stipend, not the sort of thing you just walk away from. “You can be a mother and an academic,” he claimed. He described a female faculty member in another department who had 3 children and yet had a successful career. (I later discovered that the female professor’s husband stayed home full-time to raise their children.) Anyhow, he said he would give my number to the only female faculty member in our department who had children (she had one child) so she could explain just how to do it all.
When she called me, she described her life a little bit. I was admittedly shocked to hear that she commuted to Florida from…..Pennsylvania. Every week, leaving her son with her husband for the week and going home for the weekend. It’s not that I think that makes her a horrible mother. Different things work for different families and jobs in the humanities are hard to come by. But, for me, it would be a miserable way to live my life.
I voiced some of my struggles with being a mother in grad school such as feeling constantly torn between two worlds. “What you need to learn,” she explained, “is how to compartmentalize your life. When I get on that plane I am Dr. X, then when I get home I can be mom again.” I tried to explain that learning to compartmentalize my life didn’t appeal to me very much, what I was trying to do was integrate my life. Live it as a whole. Not have to sever various aspects of myself into this or that context.
Then she told me all the dreadful things that would happen if I left the program to stay home: “You will become intellectually stagnant.” (I’ll forget how to think? Is that what happens to everyone who doesn’t have an advanced degree?) “You will only have friends who talk about diapers and you’ll be bored out of your mind.” (Um….who do you think I hang out with? And how insulting is that to SAHMs?) “You will wake up in 10 years and realize you don’t know who you are.” (You are your career, she seemed to say. If you’re merely a mother, when your kids go to school, you are no one.) But to me that mindset seemed very odd because my identity must be found in Christ, anything else will be ultimately unsatisfying. If my identity was wrapped around being a respected professor, it would be just as misplaced, if not more, as if my identity was founded on my role as a mother alone.
Anyhow, I tried to explain to her that I just didn’t feel like I was being the mother I desired to be while I was trying to succeed in the graduate program.
“Oh, you’re just experiencing guilt because of cultural norms of motherhood.” (“I am?” I thought. “Aren’t almost all American mothers working mothers? Isn’t staying at home the exception, not the rule? Isn’t the pressure I’m feeling concentrated around having a successful career to define me instead of the unimpressive role of merely being a mother?”)
“You have no reason to feel guilty. Your son doesn’t need you with him every minute.”
“It’s not that I feel guilty, necessarily.” I explained. “When my son isn’t with me he’s with his dad or his grandmother having a wonderful time. He’s happy and coping very well when I leave for class or to study. But I am miserable. I MISS him.”
“Well, your son will be around forever. But this is your one chance to do this program and have this opportunity.”
This statement seemed completely upside down to me. “But…my son won’t be almost two forever. He’ll only be almost two RIGHT NOW. And…I wasn’t aware that medieval studies was going anywhere…”
“You son is almost two? At that age they just want attention. It really doesn’t matter at all whether they get that attention from you or from someone else.” And then there was the real kicker: “At that age, a dog could take care of your child.”
“A dog could….what?!” I refrained from saying, “You are out of your ever-loving mind! You have successfully convinced me to stay home with my kids because your entire perspective on motherhood is absurd!” But I didn’t say that. I think I mostly just stood with my mouth open, too shocked to speak a real sentence. Because of course, I knew she didn’t mean that literally a dog could raise my kid. No, indeed. What she meant was far more offensive than that. She meant that the day-in-day-out tasks of motherhood are such meaningless drudgery that an intelligent, well-educated woman with potential to succeed in a prestigious career should never lower herself to merely raise children. Such work requires neither intelligence, creativity, engaging challenges, nor the unique attention and love that only I, as their mother, can give my babies in the daily tasks of mothering them. Staying home with my babies has no real value. There would be no paycheck, no performance reviews. Diaper changes and feedings and kissing boo boos and tucking them in at night: those things can be done by someone else, while I reach my true potential and gain respect in my field.
I was appalled. The thing is, the professor wasn’t a bad person. She wasn’t trying to insult me. She was trying to help me. She felt sorry for me. (Poor young mother! She got landed with this kid at 23 and now she’s having to give up her dreams and throw her life away!) But I think her perspective was misguided.
At this point in the conversation, I tried to respectfully explain that I thought I had made up my mind as to what I would do and I would let them know as soon as possible so that they could give the funding going to my tuition waver and stipend to someone else. Because I had made up my mind. I had made up my mind to be there with my kids. To embrace the daily grind of motherhood. To discover it’s not drudgery at all, but something meaningful and beautiful, using every ounce of my intelligence and creativity to do it well, challenging me at every turn. This work of motherhood is my vocation, my privilege, and my joy.
It’s been almost two years since I quit grad school. During that time, I’ve had another precious baby and never regretted my decision once. Not for one second. Because I can’t imagine that life could get any better than this.