So…What Do You Do?

Being a stay-at-home mom. And not apologizing for it.

The author and her daughter. Photo by Lisa Helfert

“So you’re not working today, then.”

It’s 11:30 a.m. on a Monday and I’m wrapping up a trip to Costco. My 9-month-old daughter smiles and babbles away from her perch in the cart. The cashier smiles and speaks to her in a singsong voice. I pause, contemplating how to respond. Politely, I smile in return. “I’m home with her,” I say.

Living in a suburb of Washington, D.C., I am surrounded by people who believe you are only as important as the title you carry. The first thing most ask is: “So, what do you do?”

In such a career-centered culture, my job as a stay-at-home mom doesn’t rank on the list. When I tell them I’m taking time off from teaching to stay home with my daughter, the only follow-up is to ask when I’m going back to work.

My answer is often disingenuous. I say I’ve decided to stay home this year and am figuring out how I feel about next school year. But the truth is I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I already know. I’m staying home. My gut knows it’s the right thing to do. My brain isn’t always on the same page.

When my daughter was born in June of 2018, I knew there was no way I would be ready to return to my elementary school teaching position come the start of the school year. I planned to find a part-time position in the same school district whenever I felt ready to go back. Six months seemed like a good amount of time to be home.

Then she arrived, and just as everyone had warned, time flew by. January came and went. Thoughts of a job search crossed my mind but I never followed through. I quickly realized I liked the idea of going back to work much more than the reality. Because, as unfathomable as it seems to some, I am enjoying being home.

I am not choosing to stay home because I’m sick of working or need a break from the classroom. Teaching wasn’t just what I did; it was who I was. I loved my job and miss the work world I knew.

Nevertheless, I’m choosing to stay home because in these formative years in my daughter’s development, I want to be the one in charge. At this time in her life, I feel strongly that it is my job to support her growth and development each day and watch as she navigates the world around her. A strong sense of fulfillment comes from watching her explore her environment and learn more each and every day.

Despite these strong convictions, I’ve spent the past few months overanalyzing my yearning to stay home—questioning how I am able to feel fulfilled caring for my child when many women I meet are anxious to return to work.

In this era of female empowerment, I doubt my own desires and wonder why I don’t want more. Does it make me less of a role model to my daughter if I don’t rush to return to my career? Am I less ambitious or less intelligent because I am choosing to spend a few years out of the classroom? Is my job as a stay-at-home mom valued by society when most women are bearing the weight of a work schedule and tackling the demands of home?

I recognize that I am fortunate to even have this decision to make. I realize there are many moms who wish they were able to forfeit a salary in exchange for this experience. But I can’t help but feel like I have to defend my decision to myself as well as to society. I want others to understand that my days are full and meaningful, and yet I feel compelled to make it clear that I love my career and do plan to go back. There is also a need to reassure myself that I am making the right choice for my family when my life currently feels a little one-dimensional. I miss the challenges that come with teaching. I miss feeling needed by more than just a toddler. I miss using more than my mom brain.

Despite the doubt that arises throughout the week—how my capacity to contribute to society looks to the outside world—deep down I know this is exactly what I should be doing at this point in my life.

I hear all the time of women finally being able to do it all—to have the career and the parenting experience. But I don’t want it all right now. In this moment I want to throw myself into motherhood. The self-doubt will come and go. But this time with my daughter is too precious to replace.

The other day I was watching her feverishly attempt to find her way up a flight of stairs. After minutes of grunting, hesitative looks in my direction and breaks from exertion, she finally managed to navigate her way up the first two and onto the landing.

Immediately upon doing so, she turned my way, bearing the biggest grin. Her pride was palpable as she let out a loud cackle. Then, she dove my way and nuzzled into my chest. It’s moments like these that reaffirm my choice. There’s no one way of doing this mom thing, but this is the right way for me.

The future is female. It is so encouraging to know that the world my daughter grows up in will be full of more and more opportunities for her. She should have nothing standing in the way of everything she wants to achieve.

As the future continues to grow brighter and more expansive for women, I hope that all mothers feel secure with the choices they make regarding how they raise their kids.

Different is not better. The women who return to work right away should feel empowered and fulfilled; and so should the women who stay home.

Stephanie Phillips lives in Arlington’s Barcroft neighborhood with her husband and daughter (now 14 months old). She taught third grade in Fairfax County Public Schools for six years before making the decision to stay home.

Categories: People
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