The short answer is, I am happier than I’ve been in quite a while. I have way more patience for my children when I come home at six o-clock from an office full of adults than I did when I was at home with them all day. My emotional resources are magically magnified by being away from home during the work-day doing something interesting and creative, and I am much better able to deal with the inevitable complications and setbacks of life.
And it is so nice to not be living paycheck to paycheck anymore. Worrying about money all the time and freaking out when we had an unexpected car problem or other non-budgeted expense was not an easy way to live. Life is a little more hectic, and we don’t see quite as much of one another as we did, but for us right now, it is worth the trade-off.
If you’re wondering why all of this is a revelation to me, here’s the reason: I grew up in a home where SAHM-hood was the expected and ideal destination for a girl. My mom quit her job when she was pregnant with her oldest child (me), and for my entire childhood, I don’t remember her ever working, except to give piano lessons for a couple of hours a week. My parents viewed it as a religious imperative for a woman to devote all (or at least the vast majority of) her time and talents to raising her children.
I remember a long conversation with my dad out in the garden one day about how I didn’t think it was fair that I could go to college and study something I loved, but I wasn’t supposed to ever use it in a job I loved. He didn’t really have a response.
Looking back, I’m kind of amazed that I never even questioned the SAHM ideal. But at my house, getting a university degree was for personal enrichment and a backup financial plan, just in case the unthinkable (divorce, death, extended singleness, etc.) deprived me of a husband who could support me. Actually planning to have a career (and taking steps toward that goal) was verboten.
So about a year after my husband and I got married, I got pregnant with our daughter. And a month or so before I was due, I quit my job, as I had always planned I would.
Nine years later, I have a somewhat different take on things. For one thing, I’ve experienced the economic reality of having only one spouse with career options during an economic downturn. It was hard, for us and for so many other people I know.
A few months after we moved to Florida, I had a conversation with a woman who had been a SAHM for the past sixteen or seventeen years. She was desperately trying to find employment to supplement her husband’s income, but couldn’t even get a job at the movie theater sweeping popcorn off the floor, because she didn’t have a college degree. We both agreed that we wished we hadn’t been taught to turn our backs on professional life when we got married and had children.
Fortunately, I’ve developed some valuable skills along the way in marketing, writing, and web development. I feel incredibly lucky that in a still-difficult economy I was able to find a well-paying job that not only utilizes my skills but is a good fit for my personality and work style. Even though I never planned to have a career. But I’ve seen numerous friends, acquaintances, and strangers who have not been so lucky, and I can’t shake the feeling of “there but for the grace of God go I.”
From my experience and the experience of other women I have met and compared stories with, here are a few things I’ve decided I will teach my daughter (and my son!):
- A Bachelor’s degree is NOT a backup financial plan. No matter what your degree is in, trying to get a job years later when you’ve acquired no experience in the meantime is difficult at best. In my case, I’ve developed some great skills and even put them to work on an entrepreneurial, freelance and hobby basis. It just kind of happened, even though I always planned to be and thought of myself as a SAHM. But if I had it to do over again, I would consciously and deliberately develop a career, even if it was part-time.
- The more you get paid per hour, the fewer hours you have to work. After Tony and I got married, I looked around for work in Provo, Utah, where Tony was going to school. It’s a town full of degreed women putting their husbands through school on secretarial jobs, and I was no exception. I had a great boss, and I enjoyed working at a firm specializing in immigration law where I could get to know people from all over the world, but I made $9.00 an hour. I’m sure I could have gotten a higher-paying job if I had done some career planning rather than just getting a BA with no plan whatsoever for a career. And maybe if I had been making more I would have felt it was worth it to continue part-time or from home after I had my baby. I am encouraging both my son and my daughter to plan and educate themselves for a reasonably lucrative career so that whether they work part-time or full-time they can maximize time with their family.
- Balancing work and family is important for women AND men. Women are often encouraged to go into nursing, teaching, or other “flexible” careers that are viewed as compatible with having children. However, flex-time and working at least partially from home are commonplace now in many career fields. There’s a very important caveat, though: the more educated, experienced, and senior you are, the more likely you are to be able to negotiate a flexible arrangement. This goes for men too. Both mothers and fathers are important in the lives of their children, and there is no reason a man needs to settle for a demanding job that barely lets him see his family just because he’s a man. I encourage both my daughter and my son to plan for a future life where they and their spouses work together to find the best way to schedule their work, family time, and other responsibilities. When both spouses have at least the potential to get good jobs, there are so many more options.
- PLAN for a fulfilling career. Maybe you’ll marry, maybe you won’t. Maybe your spouse will be able to single-handedly support your family for the duration of your life, maybe s/he won’t. Maybe you’ll find full-time stay-at-home-parenthood the most fulfilling way of spending your time ever, maybe you won’t. Whatever happens in your personal life (and whenever it happens), you cannot lose if you plan ahead for a good education and an enjoyable career that will give you the money to support yourself and your potential family. You can always quit your job if it makes sense, scale back, or find a better fit in your field. It is so much harder to wait until you really need the money and have to take whatever job is available for someone with little experience and an outdated education. And so sad to realize that if only you had planned better, you could have a well-paying job in a field that interests you rather than minimum wage at two jobs you hate but were the only thing you could find.
Nobody can predict the future, and although I hope my children will have happy, productive, fulfilling lives, no amount of advice I give them will guarantee that. Still, I feel like what I can do for them is to teach them to prepare and plan carefully, keeping open as many options as possible. And tell them that for both girls and boys, a fulfilling professional life is a worthy, attainable, and incredibly important goal.
Final confession: I know you thought it was, but that is actually not a photo of me. Photo credit here.