Just around three years ago this month, I became a stay-at-home parent. I had worked in our local library system since 1996, first as a library page (I reshelved books etc), and then as a clerk (that person at the front desk where you check out your books and, ahem, usually pay fines with a huge smile on your face). While I only worked part-time all of those years, I still LOVED my job. I used to say I never had a bad day at work, while with the library. I love reading, I love books, I love talking about books, I loved the people I worked with, and I genuinely enjoyed working with the public. I really did enjoy talking with the patrons (eventually we were supposed to call them 'customers') who came in for their books. For the most part, they were friendly, and if they were regulars, it was very easy to get to know them and care about them, and for them to do the same for you. It was very rewarding, and leaving there, while the right choice, dealt my understanding of Who I Am a huge blow.
You see, it has taken three years for me to get to a place, emotionally and mentally, where I understand that because I chose to have children, my first priority is to make sure THEIR lives are running smoothly. The birth of my second daughter S, and the accompanying diagnosis of Prader-Willi Syndrome, pretty much made my decision to leave my job an imperative. B's schedule is more flexible now, but in December 2007, he was leaving the job he had worked for 13 years, and starting with the retail company at which he still works now - with the crazy hours. There wasn't any way for us both to work AND keep the kids' lives stable. Well, according to B, we could have made it work, but I think it would have involved more stress than it was worth.
Why has it taken three years to accept my choice, and really develop an appreciation of my 'usefulness' to my family? Because, in the working world, the ability to accomplish tasks AND have one's efforts recognized is very, very rewarding - and there is a paycheck. There is tangible, almost instantaneous proof of your efforts. There is, for the most part, order, and organization, and logic, and sanity in the workplace. There is also an end to the day; at 5 p.m. (or whatever), you can walk out the door, be DONE with your "job", and the rest of the day is fully and completely yours to spend however you choose....if, that is, you don't have children.
If you are a stay-at-home-parent (SAHP), however, here are the facts:
1) There is no paycheck. You don't have a 401K or a pension plan (unless you are banking on the idea that your children will someday take care of you, which is a long shot).
2) There is no health-care plan for SAHPs, and even if there were, if your children are very young it is mostly easier to just suffer through your sickness than try and make it to your doctor with your children in tow. Too bad pediatricians can't also treat/prescribe meds for parents, because that is as close as many SAHPs get to a doctor. Also, if your children are old enough and/or very observant, there are just some doctor's appointments during which you really don't want your children in the room. So, what's the alternative? Well, most SAHPs probably just don't go to the doctor.
3) Since your home is also your place-of-work, it is difficult to truly get a vacation from your everyday job. In order to get time for myself, in the months after leaving my paid job, I would have to physically leave the house. Sometimes this was fine, but eventually I learned to use the hours right after my kids went to bed to do things purely for myself. Hanging out in a Starbucks until they closed at 10 p.m., or using up gas driving around the neighborhood, lost their appeal - and I can't drink coffee after about 4 p.m. anyway or I won't sleep. SAHPs are basically "on duty" from the time their children get up, until the time their children go to bed, and this statement is even more true if we are talking about single-parent households, or families where one parent works odd shifts or has a job where they are on the road or travelling for most of the week. I get antsy, when it gets close to my kids' bedtime, to move the bedtime routine along, because I am not "off-duty" until they are both in bed (so, most days, my "shift" is about 7 a.m. to 9 or 10 p.m.). Because of his crazy hours or the amount of time he works, B has a hard time (sometimes) moving the bedtime routine along because sometimes that is the only time all day he sees the kids. I'm anxious to get them into bed - yes, partly for selfish reasons - and he wants to talk with them, be silly, spend time with them. I could say, 'okay, then I'm going upstairs to do my own thing and YOU get them to bed', but that usually backfires because, since S is used to a certain routine (and K likes me there too), the meltdown and a guilt feeling starts and I am usually back downstairs within minutes. Also, B sometimes neglects to actually look at a clock and I often find that it is creeping past their actual bedtime. Because I am with my kids all day, or very integrally involved in their lives, I guess I don't feel the need to be sentimental about their bedtimes. I'm happy to do the routines - that's not something I really had myself, as a child, so I believe the routines are important - but let's not drag this out.
4) Because of the above statements, for SAHPs, vacations with the whole family ARE NOT REALLY VACATIONS. All a family vacation is, for a SAHP, is taking their daily job on the road. Because they are the parent most in-tune with the kids, they will also be the parent to pack for the kids (oh - and themselves - if they have time). Since they are the parent at home and supposedly have so much more time, they are also the person in charge of planning the vacay, booking the hotels/cars/flights, buying the tickets for the attractions, contacting any family to be seen during the trip, arranging for the care of any family pets, deciding what to do about the mail/trash/lawn-mowing, doing the laundry for the entire family, attending to any car maintenance necessary for taking the trip, and all the other various details that come up. (Again, a reminder - SAHPs have no paycheck, no pension plan, no health insurance, and no time to themselves). And, all this has to be done while shuttling the kids here or there, refereeing their fights, making necessary shopping trips...basically, while still being in charge of all the regular day-to-day stuff. While I know that family vacays make for some good memories, I repeat, they often are very, very far from being a true vacation for the SAHP. At this point, my idea of a true vacation would be where someone else got all that stuff ready and made all the arrangements and decisions, all I had to do is pack, and go.
So, the enigma of stay-at-home-parenting? It is an extremely skilled position. It involves serious multi-tasking - many, many hours of your brain having to go in 5 directions at one time, remember hundreds of various details about both today, the future, and things that happened months ago. SAHP-ing has its rewards, but they are for the most part internal rewards for the parent in question. You don't get paid, and so don't have the assurance of saving for your own future needs. You lay awake more nights, worrying about who will care for your kids should something happen to you. Your kids aren't going to truly appreciate your efforts until they are much older and perhaps have children themselves. For me, K may understand my life better at that point; S probably won't have real understanding until, perhaps, she sits down with God, in heaven. As for my husband? I don't think he will ever understand, truly, what I do every day - because he will never be in the same position unless for some reason (God forbid) I am unable to do what I do now. I do find it fulfilling, now, three years after leaving a paid job, to know that my kids lives run pretty smoothly, I can be consistent about making sure the bills are paid, I am better about being frugal, and I can truly be present for my kids because we are able (barely and not always) to afford for me to stay home. I did seriously think about returning to a paying job, once both kids started the school year and were in school for 6 hours; but, the more I thought about it, I'm not sure the small paycheck I would earn would really make up for rocking the relatively calm seas we've achieved. In the eyes of our capitalist society, perhaps the SAHP life vs. loss of wage-earning-years is not a fair trade. Only time will tell.