Tuesday, August 18, 2009


I was given an opportunity, in a roundabout sort of way, to participate in a Sunstone Symposium panel about Stay-at-Home-Mothers. While I chose not to participate, I’ve been thinking ever since about what I would say, if given a chance, about my decision to be a Stay-Home Mom (SAHM). So, lucky you, I will treat you readers to my thoughts.

I have a close acquaintance who, after being raised very LDS, has left the church. She once tried to describe to me how awkward it is for her to hang around us still-active people. “I can’t shake the feeling of disapproval from you,” she said. “Not because of anything you do or say, but because of what I know about how you think and what you believe. I know that by the very nature of what you so obviously still believe, you think that I have ‘fallen away’ and am making a bad decision.” “Ah, yes,” I responded, “but you forget that it goes both ways. When you are with me, I always know that by the nature of the choice you’ve made, you consider me to be deluded and less advanced than you, because I haven’t yet progressed beyond my upbringing.” She hadn’t thought of that before.

I feel the same way when I talk about my decision to be an SAHM with other women who did not make the same choice. I am afraid of offending; I am afraid of being thought shallow; I am potentially offended, and so are they. Nevertheless, here we go.

When I really analyze how I made this decision, I realize that I didn’t really make this decision in isolation. I made it as a logical progression from another, bigger decision, and that was the decision to marry at all.

I was a rather boy-crazy teenager and I went away to BYU hoping to catch a man as quick as I could. I got engaged rather young and only escaped marrying that (very wrong) guy by the skin of my teeth and after making a fool of myself. By the time I had become mature enough to make a good choice of whom to marry, I wasn’t sure I wanted to marry at all. I loved my independent life. I loved my education; I could imagine myself continuing in academia forever after, probably as the beloved high-school English teacher and favorite aunt who travelled a lot and had very interesting book groups, etc. It sounded pretty good to me.

But I still knew that the church taught that the greatest happiness was to be achieved in a family, raising children. And people I trusted believed that, too. People told me that marriage and family were good things, and brought great joy. It was kind of like jumping off of a diving board for the first time—I couldn’t know what it was like until I did it, but people who had done it said that it was worthwhile. Mine was the choice, then, to believe them—or not.

Once I made the decision to commit to the family lifestyle, the choice to stay home with my kids was very easy. Logically, it made no sense to me to invite children into my home and then pay others to raise them. What was the point? If I was going to have children, they would be mine—influenced by me more than anyone else.

One thing that helped was that I did not enjoy my work at all. It was easy to quit when my first baby was born. I had great fantasies of the joyous time my children and I would have together at home. But I hadn’t counted on post-partum depression, which blindsided me. I was stuck in a basement apartment with no car in the dark winter. My child was colicky and wouldn’t stop crying, ever. My mother was dead and I felt like I had no help. Each day my husband left to go to school, and I was filled with envy, remembering so clearly and romantically how much I had loved school. Why did he get to go pursue his dreams just because he was male and I was stuck at home with this maddening screaming and boredom because I was female?Again, I wouldn’t have considered passing him off to a child-care center. My fantasies involved my HUSBAND staying home instead of me. Perhaps I would have considered letting my mother or mother-in-law babysit while I worked a few hours each day “for sanity” had they been available. But nor more than that, if at all. At this point, though, I needed extra help in remaining firm in my commitment to stay at home, and this firmness came from one thing: I believe in a prophet. I had been taught that I should stay home if I could, and that was enough.

Sometimes I followed the prophet because I believed that doing so eventually leads to the most joy. Other times I did it simply out of a sense of duty. Either way, I did it out of testimony that following the prophet was what was best for me. It was excruciatingly hard a lot of the time.

Which is why I flinch and seethe when I hear women say, “You stay home with your kids? I wish I could do that, but I just can’t. I would go CRAZY.” Or, its corollary, “I’m a better mother because I work.” I flinch because the emotion behind these statements is very familiar to me. When I can get away for an outing, I come home so refreshed and happy to be with my kids. I really understand why women think they are better mothers when they work. (Although I wonder if their children would agree.)

But I’m also offended because behind this statement seems to be an implication sometimes that I am somehow less intellectual, more shallow or simplistic (easily entertained?) than the sophisticated woman who needs her work to feel satisfied. It ignores the possibility that I might also prefer the company of adults and enjoy the challenge of a profession to the challenge of filling the long afternoons with children.

It would be better if being home with my kids were my passion—it really would. And I’m so envious of the women who feel this way (and I don’t look down on them at all, though I often feel they look down on me for not feeling similarly). But it’s not. But I do it anyway because I believe I should.

I grant that there’s a little bit (too much) of a martyr thing going on here, but I don’t think it’s a small thing that I have sacrificed for this. But, as with the true definition of sacrifice, I can’t deny that it has brought its rewards. I would hate having to hear about my child’s first steps or first lost tooth from a care provider. I like being primary in my children’s lives. And though it was very hard, often boring, rarely satisfying in a day-to-day kind of way while my kids were very small, it’s much more enjoyable now, both because they are older and more interesting to me, and because I am getting full-night’s sleeps and many opportunities to be without them, either physically or even just mentally while we’re in the same room.

I believe that my kids are much better off because of the decision I made. I believe that I am better off because of it as well. If someone asked me my advice for them, I would say, “Do it, but make sure that you have a supportive husband who will see to it that you get a little time to yourself every day, and a big chunk of time to yourself at least once a week. Then dive in. Things get much better the older they get.”


Windybrook Spinner said...

Thank you.

janabananagirl said...

I have to say that I am envious of your opportunity to stay at home. I have not yet been blessed with a husband and children, but I decided a long time ago that when that opportunity came my way I would do everything in my power to stay at home. I actually had a male coworker scoff at my decision yesterday. He said his wife works to keep her sanity and to bring in extra money. He was sure that when I'm a SAHM, I will find that I "have to work" too. I hope and pray it will never come to that.

Thank you, thank you, thank you for vocalizing many of my thoughts and feelings on staying home to raise my children.

Laura said...

I love this. Thanks for putting this out there. A nice little chunk of hope.

I am passionate about my choice to be a SAHM--but I'm also very divided. I'm not very good at being a mom and even though I'm getting better at it over time it's been a rough adjustment. Your post served as a good reminder that this is worth doing even when it's hard. Or maybe, actually, BECAUSE it's hard.

I'm curious, though, why you chose not to be on the Sunstone panel. Time issue?

Travelin'Oma said...

I love your honesty and admire your decision. This is a great post, with profound insight.

I am a retired SAHM, after 32 years on the job. I viewed motherhood as my career choice, and just like any working person, there were lots of days I wished I could call in sick.

I used to wish I had a co-worker to notice what I wore, or a boss to appreciate my hours of overtime. I never got a raise or a year-end bonus. And I envied my husband that he got to drive to work alone, without searching for somebody's shoes first.

Looking back, I can't believe how lucky I was to be the major player in my seven kid's every-day lives. And I realize that I had on-the-job training in many areas that have made me a better person.

Being a stay-at-home-mom was the best decision of my life. I did it on faith, but recommend it from experience.

Satsuki said...

That was beautifully written. You expressed EXACTLY many of the feelings that I've had being a SAHM. I am also frequently envious of my husband's career prospects, all while knowing that if I worked full time I would agonize over missing my children's precious, quickly-fleeting childhood. Personally, I stay home not because the prophet says to do so, but because, for me, I think it is the path of least regret. When I am old I think I would regret working full time during these years more than I would regret not having a great career. Other mothers may choose differently, however, and I completely honor and respect their decisions.

The solution I have come to in terms of my own sanity during these diaper-changing-snack-making-laundry-doing years is to work part-time, mostly from home. I choose only projects that I enjoy and feel are important to the world in some (small) way. I work away from home one or two evenings a week (5-10 hours), and do almost all my other work when the kids are in bed or otherwise engaged. It means that my house is usually messy, that I don't spend a lot of time cooking, and that I don't get enough sleep, but it suits our family.

My husband and I have talked about the Proclamation on the Family. Our interpretation is that as long as the children are nurtured, and the finances are sufficient, it really doesn't matter who does what. (We gravitate toward the "help one another as equal partners" phrase.) As it happens, when I work at night, my husband is at home, and when he's at work/school, I'm home. But I also know a lot of families with two working parents who have nannies and very, very happy, well-adjusted children. It's so hard to put all families in one peg-hole and say -this- is best for everyone. I really think that this is a situation where prayer, scripture study, and personal inspiration become deeply important.

And I have to admit, I am one who will openly claim that I am a better mother because I work. Like you, I often wish that I were passionate about raising children. I know some mothers who pour all of their attention and energy into educating and raising their children...and instead of thinking that they are shallow, I really, honestly, deeply admire them. In fact, they tend to make me insecure. They are doing a great job by their children, and will really have something to show for it as their kids get older! For me, personally (and again, this is SUCH a personal decision -- different things work for different families!), I simply get really depressed when I don't have something going on outside of mothering. I wish I didn't. I wish I could find the joy and delight of playing with my children and keeping them healthy and keeping the house. I mean, I do...a little. But when I have nothing of my own going on, I feel like just a vessel, like I am meeting the needs of everyone else except myself. And, you know, I feel like I have a right to seek out fulfillment in life too...and gosh-awful-honestly (I feel like a bad Mormon mother even writing this!), nurturing my children, teaching them, loving them, seeing them grow smart and strong and independent and all those great things still just don't do it for me. I LOVE those things about my life, but they still don't complete me. And I don't think it is wrong to want and pursue more, as long as the needs of the family are met. I guess my message is that I think there are lots of ways to be terrific mothers. We mothers tend to compare ourselves against others and become really defensive about our own life choices. (I do that all the time!) Women have lots of choices these days, and I sure wish we could all just feel secure in our own choices and value and respect those who choose differently. Tricky thing, that is.

Anyway, this ended up longer than I intended. But anyway, you have my respect, and I don't think you are shallow for staying at home, and I know it's really hard, and I hope you find joy and fulfillment in all that you do!

Anonymous said...

I so wish it weren't 1 AM already because I know if I let myself give my full response, it'll be 2 AM before I know it. Here are two short excerpts from the comment that's in my mind:

1) I used to say that I was "lucky" or "fortunate" to be able to stay home with my kids, but I stopped saying that when I decided that I was denigrating the sacrifices involved in my choice, and that I didn't have to protect others from my decision. And no matter how much you love parenting and how much you're a natural at it (and honestly I think it's one of my gifts,) there's nobody who does it without at least some times of intense challenge and even misery. (Yeah so maybe there are some who have very little misery. But I don't know them and I don't want to hear about it.) (I'm just kidding about not wanting to hear about it. Mostly.)

2) Concerning the thing about missing milestones like a kid's first steps, (which would devastate me,) I once read or heard that day care workers who've witnessed a child's first steps will tell the parents, "We think she's just about ready to walk!" so the parents will know to watch for it and think they're seeing it first.

Darlene said...

Thank you, everyone! I'm so happy to see some new names here, also.

Satsuki, you make some important points. I also have had to ponder what the Proclamation means to me and how to define "nurture." Also, Sister Beck's talk about homemaking. I, who like you have had to keep up some non-homemaking work all along in order to preserve sanity (in my case, it is my writing), have a messier house than some and am a lazy cook. But my husband and I have decided that "homemaking" means making the best home possible for my kids. My home is better for them when I am happy and fulfilled, having spent an hour writing instead of scrubbing tubs. Different women make different choices here. The goal is to find the place where your home is the happiest. "Ain't Momma happy, ain't no one happy."

I like your point, Zina, about choosing whether to use the word "lucky" about being able to stay home. I recognize that there are many women (Janabananagirl, for example) who would love the opportunity to stay home. So the fact that I had the choice is really a blessing to me. But you're right that we shouldn't hide the fact that it is also a sacrifice.

Darlene said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
jenlinmin said...

That was wonderful, Darlene. You and I had lots of conversations in this vein in our Berkeley days, and I guess people just don't change much (you or me). I'm sure you've read that story "The Invisible Woman" by Nicole Johnson? I try to think of how each of my children is a beautiful cathedral in the making and how important my influences as architect and mason are to the human beings they are becoming... and it's not just my children. I am one of those over-the-top PTA moms (and that fulfills me and gives me the validation I need) who hopes I am also filling a need in other children who have voids in their lives. Anyway... the next time you are invited to be on a panel at Sunstone, DO IT! There are a lot more women than just your loyal blog readers who could use your words.

Satsuki said...

Darlene, you lived in Berkeley? I heart Berkeley! We've been here 4 years while DH finishes his PhD at UCB. Too bad I missed you -- I read more of your blog (after posting last night), and I think I would have enjoyed knowing you. Anyway, I'll hang around your blog.

Erin Taylor said...

Darlene- I just came across your blog. I agree 100% with you! Staying home isn't my "passion" either. I love reading and sewing and cooking, but NOT housework, laundry, whining kids, etc. Having only 1 child I've been tempted to want to go back to work, but I know the older he gets the more he needs me to be here. My mom worked and I really missed her. I do feel blessed for what I do, despite the difficulty sometimes. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

Laura@livingabigstory said...

This is perfect, perfect, perfect. I feel guilty with my feelings sometimes -- like I should be like those moms who *HEART* being a SAHM. It's hard, and sometimes it's sooo painful.

But I really do believe it's worth it.