Regardless of where you’re reading this, arrangement-wise, I tackled this piece toward the end of putting issue two together. It’s one of the bigger, thornier, heavier ones for me, a topic that I am consumed with personal questions about and can struggle trying to describe beyond the confines of my own mind. It’s important to say, right off the bat, this isn’t meant to examine the devastating effect the pandemic is having on working mothers and the ability of women to stay in the workforce. That topic is a must-digest for anyone and heartbreaking from every angle, whether regarding single mothers, minimum-wage-working mothers, or highly skilled mothers who might have staggering compensations, yet still struggle to contend with the difficulties this moment in time has presented us with. There should be no doubt in any of our minds that we must find ways to support mothers and families.
Forced-exits aside, it’s the more optimistic career formatting that I’ve been mulling over: The new type of stay-at-home motherhood I’ve found myself and so many women in my orbit drawn to (made possible, in some ways, by the remote work enabled by the pandemic). The desire feels unique to our generation: We aren’t women who graduated college and moved straight into a marital home, pregnant with our first baby a year into marriage. Rather, we nursed professional dreams and ambitions and clambered up a few ladder rungs. Older and wiser, we’ve entered into relationships and parenthood more thoughtfully than would have been possible at age 21. And so now we’re here, wanting to nurture our children and be there to see the day-to-day moments as they mature, yet also not able to easily toss aside the former versions of ourselves.
We became working stay-at-home mothers.
The definition is vague and flexible, accommodating whomever it resonates with. You might have help or not; you might collect a biweekly paycheck or not. It’s anyone who spends part or all of the week being responsible for her children while also carving out time to pursue a to-do list, to study and learn and create. Whether it’s juggling an existing job or figuring it out, the working stay-at-home mother has dreams and ambitions beyond raising happy and healthy children. We know how hard and important that is but are also eager to find a way to keep the “old” versions of ourselves alive.
“I had a deep conversation with my husband where I said, ‘I want to have a job and I want to be home and I want to do this,’ and he looked at me and said, ‘You cannot have it all. It’s impossible,’” Emily Luccarelli, a retail pro who made the decision to leave the corporate world a year ago, explained to me in a phone call that ended up crystalizing my own thoughts in that way special conversations can. “I looked at him very quickly and said, ‘But I want to, and I am determined to figure out how to have it all. It might just look different.’ I felt defeated that I couldn’t be at work and fulfilled by the time I had with my son. A part of me felt like I should feel fulfilled being just with my son, but there was a part of me that was scared I wouldn’t.”
With the support of family and the financial ability to do so, Emily realized her job wasn’t serving her anymore and cut the cord. And while we hope that a hard decision is immediately revealed as the right one by a blissful wave of euphoria, the transition—made trickier by the pandemic—was just as hard.
“I remember feeling lost for some reason, like I had nothing going on. I’d just made the best decision of my life to stay home with my son, something I craved so strongly, but it felt like I had nothing else going on,” she explained. “I thought I’d be home, and it’d feel natural. I knew deep in my heart and soul that I was exactly where I was meant to be, home and raising my son, but there was still a part of me that felt so deeply lost in this new life. I needed to figure out a rhythm to the day in and day out, what that looked like.”
At this point in the conversation we both acknowledged how that feeling is unique to the person and not universal. There are plenty of women who excel and delight in the (amazingly difficult) work of being home with children; it’s neither right nor wrong to love every bit of it—or to look at a long day alone with your baby and feel anxiety.
“There’s this hybrid of an educated, working mother who wants to continue having an identity outside of motherhood, to continue engaging with the working world. It’s happening a lot with women who are saying, ‘I’m not going to do the corporate crunch anymore; I was doing that, and it was making me so unhappy,’” explained Marcella Kelson, the maternal and personal wellness coach I interviewed for issue one and have turned to for help in my own life again and again.
The thing we’ve all been seeing—me, Emily, Marcella, you too, I’m sure—is that women in our cohort are starting to reject work’s possessive claim on our time. The obligations and asks and needs that bleed into the after-hours may not have been noticed as we were building a career and a life, but now that that off-the-clock time is more precious, we reject the notion that we should put work over family. And it’s especially hard to not resent being pulled away if you aren’t over-the-moon passionate about or completely fulfilled by the work.
“There were times when I almost felt bitter when I had to do stuff for work that took me away from things with my family that felt important to me,” Emily shared. “I remember getting home late on Landon's first Halloween and feeling really sad about it. I was mad that my responsibilities required me to be at work, and I didn't want to feel that feeling anymore. I talk to some friends who work full-time that have said, ‘Yes, that’s a part of it, you just have to accept that,’ and I don’t want to have to accept that. It wasn't okay for me that it was just a part of how it had to be.”
“There's nothing worse than being told you can't participate in a part of your child’s life—no job is ever going to be as important as somebody’s child,” echoed Marcella. “When you’re being told you have to behave in a way that prioritizes your job over your child, especially if the job isn’t meaningful or fulfilling in any capacity, it becomes hard to rationalize all the sacrifice you’re making.”
It’s those two F’s—flexibility and fulfillment—that anchor the idea of the working stay-at-home mother. If your job has both in spades, you might be reading with a slight wonder as to what all the fuss is about. Having a child is magical and fulfilling (and challenging and exhausting), and we’re conscious enough to understand it’s all over in the blink of an eye. Of course we want to try to wring out all the magic we can, especially if the thing taking us away isn’t really all that additive.
“It becomes very clear if your job has no meaning or doesn’t fulfill you. There’s no compelling reason to stay if paring back or going without a regular paycheck is a possibility. A job means you have to manage childcare—it’s honestly more work to have a job in this culture,” Marcella said. “It’s very hard staying at home, too, but the logistics of even setting up a situation where you can work are hard.”
Of course, giving up a job and a title and a paycheck—what you “do”—is hard too. Calling it a seismic transition wouldn’t be an overstatement at all since there are two different fault lines cracking: You’re both in a new role of full-time childcare and untethered from the professional purpose and path you likely spent over a decade pursuing (another factor that makes this new version of motherhood different than boomers or earlier generations—as we have our children later in life, we’re becoming mothers who have likely been entrenched in our work for years).
“When somebody leaves the workforce or their idea of what a ‘real’ job is, there’s some processing that needs to be done,” Marcella explained when I asked about how a newly minted working SAHM ought to proceed. “There needs to be a conscious reframing of what that means for the energy that used to be put into your job. Where does all that energy go? If you think you’re going to put it all into your kids and be satisfied...that could be true for some people, but it won’t be for everybody.”
Emily is a perfect example of the latter. Even as she was enjoying all the things she’d wanted when deciding to leave her full-time role, she was still missing the adrenaline and fizzy hit of purpose work provided. She started thinking about the future and how her career might grow or morph or reappear. Then, a realization.
“A month ago I just woke up and realized I was putting so much time into figuring all that out, instead of reminding myself I’m still that person. Those skills I prized—creativity, business savvy—they didn’t go away just because the title went away. I just needed a way to tap into them.” Just like a math equation slowly revealing itself, she saw opportunities to take the things she’d excelled at and enjoyed and translate them to her version of the working stay-at-home mother. An accomplished visual merchandiser, her home came alive during the holidays, and her solo employee, toddler son Landon, loved tasks like finding sticks and leaves that could be built into tablescapes.
“It took me time to realize I’m still that person. I don’t have a title, and I’m not compensated, but that’s the most minimal part to me. It’s about figuring out how I can find joy and the spark of interest that makes me something other than Landon’s mom. That’s so fulfilling and wonderful, but the other things are a big and important part of making me his mom.” She talked about the idea of living as a multi-hyphenate and how regarding yourself as someone who fluidly moves between whatever identifiers fit for you, including plenty that are holdovers from pre-baby days, can help. Her insistence with her husband that she’d find a way to have it all also kept popping up, inspiring me every time. “There’s not a black and white answer. You can have it all, but you have to create it for yourself—you have to create what that means to you,” she said as I nodded on the other end of the phone. “You have to make sacrifices, but when you really think about what sacrifices are, you realize at the end of the day they’re things that aren’t as important as you thought they’d be.”
Our conversation was something I hadn’t been able to stop thinking about when I connected with Marcella a few weeks later. Beyond being someone who tackles these sorts of questions professionally, she’s her own version of a working stay-at-home mother and lives the reality of what that means.
“Imagine leaving your job on a Friday. You wake up on a Monday, and you no longer have that job; all of a sudden you have this child. The energy you need for taking care of them is so different than if you’re working in an office environment. To think that you can just swap them is not realistic,” she explained. “We’re so multidimensional that we think we can swap a job for taking care of kids and that it’ll be easy or a fair trade. I don’t think it’s realistic. There needs to be a lot of thought and digestion and experimenting that come with leaving your job and taking a bigger role at home. Some of the energy you put into work will be consumed with children, but where will that energy come from? Where am I going to get more energy from?”
It’s that search that makes us want to work even if we heart-wrenchingly made the decision that we didn’t want to work. On its face, it sounds illogical: We made the hard decision to give up or change a career in order to stay at home with our children, only to then look for something to take the place of that former obligation. The key, I think, is finding a new version, something more fulfilling and focused on personal interests or passions. When you’re not doing something for the paycheck, you might be surprised at what catches your attention. I’ve seen it both with friends and myself, and it’s why the idea for this article first popped into my brain. We’re wanting to stay home, to consciously raise our children and participate in all those moments that disappear in the blink of an eye, yet aren’t willing to abandon ourselves. Side hustle, freelancing, volunteer work—call it whatever you want, but it’s fulfilling the same need.
“For some people it’s about working in more mission-based jobs or starting your own thing, whatever you enjoy doing that doesn’t have to be a ‘job’ or relate to your kids but is something that’s yours, that’s outside of the childcare responsibilities,” Marcella told me. “It looks different for everybody; for some people it’s landscaping, for some it’s community outreach.” It’s why we might have decided that work and its spreadsheets and emails and conference calls wasn’t worth it, but then are happy to hop back into the same situation for a local nonprofit. We haven’t lost the drive but instead have rearranged priorities that make it very clear: If you’re going to be doing something, it’s got to be worth it.
The other key thing about working stay-at-home mothers is that they know—they demand—that the door stay open. Whether it’s because we still have dreams and ambitions that haven’t been seen to the end yet or know the kids will eventually go to school full-time or just simply relish the idea of bringing home a paycheck in the future, there seems to be a general restlessness with the idea of becoming stagnant. Marcella and Emily, like every friend I’ve talked to, understood immediately.
“Since we’re having children later we’ve had time to form an identity outside of the sole function of taking care of your home and family. It’s not a ‘this or that,’ it’s a ‘this and that,’” Marcella reasoned. “Maybe I want to take a few years off and just enjoy my kids before they go to school—why isn’t that available when that’s so often what happens? Why is it still true that if you leave the workforce for three years getting back is impossible or talked about in a way that feels impossible?”
“The idea that you had to lean in because if you leave work your career isn’t going to be there—that wasn’t okay with me. We just haven’t seen enough women go down that path,” Emily had told me earlier, her words almost an exact preview of what Marcella had to say. “Just because you're taking this time doesn’t mean you don’t have a different chapter in your future. It doesn’t mean this is the end of me having a job and a title and being compensated for a job other than being a mom.”
I ended my call with Emily deeply inspired, both from hearing her perspective and being reminded that out there, someone I had never even met before was having thoughts and feelings and questions that so mirrored the ones rolling around inside my own head. The chapterized way of looking at work (and life) resonated so much with me—an acceptance and understanding that journeys aren’t linear and when you carve out space for something you need at a certain moment, those lines are dynamic, ready to move and flex in the future. Beyond that helpful mental framework, though, the most important thing she left me with was a reminder that I am not wrong, none of us are wrong, in what we want or dream, a sentiment repeated by Marcella.
“I think the greatest thing we can do in terms of service to other women is to not partake in the conversation of feeling guilty or ashamed for what you really want to do. If you can be part of a movement or initiative or change where you fully own your decision it makes it easier for other women to fully own that decision. To me that is the question of leaning in: doing what is authentically you and standing by that so that other women can do the same.”
[This story first appeared in issue no. 2—order the full issue here]