Four years ago when I traded in my briefcase for the breast pump, I was bursting with enthusiasm for my new role as a devoted, doting mother hen. I imagined myself as a homemaker diva, baking complex cupcakes while clapping pat-a-cake with rosy-cheeked cherubs.
Three small children later, my novice excitement has been trampled on the battlefield. Although I love my muchkins to pieces, staying home full-time is hard, exhausting work. And to make things even worse, there’s Facebook.
Not that I visit Facebook much anymore, because to be honest, it makes me feel like five-day-old leftovers. When I was in my 20s, staying at home with children is not what I thought I would be doing 10 years after graduating from Harvard Law School. In fact, I remember once telling a friend that I could never bear to be locked away as a housewife in suburbia. And yet, here I am, living in the burbs and spending my days frolicking with three adorable and oblivious bambinos.
Am I loving it? I am loving them, though staying home is no picnic in the park. Every day it involves a lot of spit, sweat and tears. Is this why I have a law degree?
Meanwhile, Facebook informs me that the majority of my old classmates are enjoying lives of professional blissdom as established university professors, directors, partners, and other people of power and importance. Their photos show women with manicures and perfect hair at cocktail parties, laughing over sashimi or steak tartare at working lunches in swanky restaurants, giving lectures at conferences, and hobnobbing with the cream of society. Some of them are high-powered career supermoms, who alternate descriptions of their exciting working world escapades with photos of fantastic family vacations, Pinterest-worthy home decoration projects, and even homemade meals that rival the kitchen of Rachel Ray.
Ah yes, photos like these are just what I need after a day in the trenches. Facebook has made me realize that my days are nothing like those of my friends; rather, my days now resemble those of their nannies. In fact, even the nannies have more in common with my working friends than with me, because they too are pulling in a salary. It seems no one is crazy enough to care for small children without at least getting paid for it.
No one that is, except me. Okay, there are other stay-at-home mothers out there, and I do happen to know a few, but if you were to take an X-ray of my whole neighbourhood in the middle of the day, there would be only a handful of skeletons around. And lest you are wondering, let me assure you that my neighbourhood is not a ritzy upper-class gated community but rather an ordinary middle-class sprawl: my husband is not an Ivy League sugar boy and we choose to live on his income.
It feels lonely at times, which I expected, and I was more or less ready for that. But I didn’t anticipate the Facebook effect. Seeing my friends succeeding and advancing in the working world has made me reflect on the opportunity cost for professional women of staying home with children.
Work that brings income also brings standing in society. Whether a hair stylist or an accountant, a bus driver or a bureaucrat, anyone that earns a wage is given a place at the table and a certain recognition of his or her importance in the common national enterprise. We also often use our paid work to create an identity for ourselves; our job becomes our brand, our niche in the world. One new mother recently told me that she wants to return to work because being a nurse “is who I am”.
Which makes me wonder, now that I am without power suits or income, who am I to the world? The first year of staying home was the honeymoon period when I felt I had the best of both worlds: still a lawyer, but also a Mom. But year two onwards, as my law degree started getting dusty and my working identity faded, I began to feel almost invisible to the world.
Indeed, many people seem to agree that I’ve become invisible, and they also think I am wasting my education and my time. Earlier this year, an article in The Guardian actually argued that women with Ivy League degrees have a “duty” to remain in the workforce. I have encountered similar reactions over the last four years, including one person who suggested that Ivy Leagues should not admit women who plan to be full-time mothers, and another acquaintance who said to my husband, upon finding out that I am a Harvard-educated lawyer who is a stay-at-home mom, “that’s too bad, she could be doing so much good.”
Should I be “leaning in” a la Sheryl Sandberg? There is no doubt that many women in my position are wrestling with this issue. A recent article in the New York Times profiles several highly-educated professional women who opted to stay home with children and eventually sought to return to the workplace. Last summer, Princeton Professor Anne-Marie Slaughter also made huge waves with an article in The Atlantic where she discussed how she herself also chose to leave a prestigious position in Washington in order to be there for her son. The debate has been raging ever since, and Professor Slaughter has weighed in several times, as have many others.
I admit that despite my initial conviction four years ago, I have considered going back to work. The trouble is, my children need their mother, and I can’t seem to find a suitable replacement. Having run into sundry nannies during our various outings, I know that nannies are social workers by another name. I have watched them in museums, in parks and at activities with their charges. They do their jobs, they walk the children through the motions of what needs to get done: I’ve seen them take lots of photos for the parents. But there’s always a certain lack of genuine involvement, initiative and joy, a certain professional and interpersonal distance.
Same thing with daycare, I just can’t do it: I know too much to make that decision in peace. The bottom line is that I have been on the corporate ladder, and I have also worked for great nonprofits – and while in the working world I was always replaceable, I am not replaceable to my children. No mommy-substitute can suffice; I need to share the rough road of everyday life with my children, because that is how we build our closeness.
Every day I continue to see how my full-time presence makes a significant difference to their happiness and comfort, and how it stabilizes our family life. My children are enjoying an idyllic childhood secure in their mother’s arms. We are not a rushed family, we have time to enjoy the world and each other. I really don’t know how we would cope if my husband and I were both coming home together tired after a long work day, with neither of us having seen our children all day.
Despite the opportunity cost, I would not have it any other way. Society may not value it, and I am not having steak tartare anytime soon, but I am there for my babies every day to teach them, guide them, and nurture them, to witness and enjoy the little adventures and challenges of their precious, fast-changing lives. Being there is a gift! So now I really need to stop my complaining. As my husband so wisely informs me, “you’re not missing anything – the workplace is highly overrated.” He’s right of course.
But who knows what the future holds? As my children grow older and need less of my time, I might just dip a foot or two into the salaried world. If I do, I can’t imagine returning to the structured life of an office job or the demanding hours of a lawyer’s life. I would rather start a small business from home, or perhaps grow my first love, writing.
Being a mother has taught me above all about one word: sacrifice. My life is no longer only about me, in fact it is not even mainly about me. When I went to Harvard Law School and got my law degree, I considered my most important contribution in life to be my professional legal work. But now, and henceforth until their adulthood, my most important contribution will be to raise the children that God has entrusted to our family.
Sheryl Sandberg may scoff at my choices, but I know that I have made the right decision. I hope that in breaking from the expected career path, I can inspire others to recognize that the work of a mother is so valuable and worthy that no one, not even a Harvard grad, has to choose career over family.
Lea Singh writes from Canada.