Before I had kids, everything pointed to me being a working mom. The women's movement was in full bloom. My own mom had worked, managing my father's law practice, and my three sisters and I were encouraged to pursue careers. I was married at 21, and my husband and I agreed to wait until we bought a house to start a family. My public relations job was fun. So why, just before I turned 30 and my first baby was born, did I decide to stay home and back-burner my career?
The reasons varied from philosophical to practical. Professional parents from the moment the pregnancy test proved positive, my husband and I started reading books by gurus T. Berry Brazelton and Penelope Leach, and became convinced a baby needed both quality and quantity time. That wasn’t happening if I hired a nanny and commuted to a job five days a week. I’d worked since age 16 and rationalized I could always get a job, but childhood is a one-time offer. I dreamed of creating a loving, calm home, with walks to the library and the park.
My husband had a demanding job and we agreed that he’d be the breadwinner and I’d manage mission control at home, giving us family time, not errands, on the weekends.
We settled into that routine and celebrated the birth of a second son. We paid a price financially: no dinners out, no college fund, no fly-drive vacations. Instead, hand-me-down furniture, summer vacations with my in-laws, and a 1950s kitchen with speckled red Formica. The kitchen wasn’t the only thing in red; our budget was too. Yes, it did bother me when I saw friends and my own sisters with fulfilling careers, fancy vacations and renovated homes. I was a little envious as I watched my neighbor the flight attendant in her sharp uniform head off to Paris and the executive moms suited up for the city. But I bonded with the two other stay-at-home moms on the block and spent afternoons watching our kids ride Big Wheels. On weekends, we enjoyed family time instead of racing around trying to catch up. We made memories that my sons often talk about today.
My career? My dream was to become Brenda Starr, newspaper reporter, and a month before my first son was born I completed my master’s degree in journalism. But Brenda Starr is a full-time job — and that’s not what I wanted. As my kids got older, I realized that "staying home" didn’t mean I had to stay in the house every minute. So I started teaching one journalism course every semester, working just a couple of hours a week. Between transportation and the babysitter, I lost money on the deal. But it allowed me to keep a finger in the professional world while being a stay-at-home mom.
I did feel at times — from friends, the media — that I had made a politically incorrect choice. The inevitable question when I met new people back in those years was "And what do you do?" My "I'm a stay-at-home mom" often resulted in a blank look or another question: "When are you going back to work?"
I did return to more demanding work when my kids were in high school. It may not have been the high-powered career I might have had otherwise, but I earned a significant enough paycheck to renovate my kitchen and to help pay for my children's college. I fully expect that I will work full time into my 70s, partly to make up for lost wages and partly because I like my job.
I have no regrets. One recent morning while out walking, I saw a somewhat harried 30-something mom loading her two young sons and their equipment into her van for summer baseball camp. I remembered those days; I know they held their fair share of frustration, exhaustion and drudgery, but only the sweetness remains.
"Enjoy them," I told her. "It goes much too fast."
Mary Quigley is the author of the popular blog Mothering21.com about life with grown kids.
"I Was a Working Mom." A mother looks back on her decision to pursue a high-powered career when her children were young.