Eighteen years ago, I was decorating the world’s most perfect nursery. We knew our first baby would be a girl, so the room was awash in pink. Each item—from the cribside lamp to the diaper caddy—was an agonizing decision. I spent months stitching a homemade quilt with matching bumper pads. (Who was that person!?)
Over her crib, I stenciled this phrase from a famous children’s book:
I’ll love you forever,
I’ll like you for always,
As long as I’m living,
My baby you’ll be.
I can’t count how many times I read that book to my daughter before bed. There were nights she would ask me to read it and I would cringe—particularly after a long day—hoping she would choose something shorter and less repetitive. Then one evening I read it to her for the last time and I didn’t even know it. That’s the fleeting, cruel thing about parenthood: You focus so much on the firsts that the lasts quietly slip past you and you don’t realize those precious moments will never return.
Eighteen years after I painted those words on her wall, I sat in her very teenaged room in a different house watching her pack for college. We blasted old Hannah Montana tunes (her childhood idol) and argued about how there was no way in hell she would fit 16 pairs of shoes in her dorm closet. As we taped up each box, the reality of her leaving began to sink in. And the hole in my heart started to burn.
There is nothing unique or special about my preparing to send off my firstborn to college. Thousands of moms are doing it right now and feeling the same emotions that I am. But for stay-at-home moms like me, who gave up careers instead to raise children in a culture that devalued and demeaned that choice, it is an opportunity for reflection. Did I make the right choice? Would she have turned out any differently had I worked full-time? Did my choice teach her to subjugate her own future dreams and independence for her husband and children? Where would I be now professionally and financially had I continued working?
And the answer to these question is pretty simple: Who the hell knows? And, to quote a famous politician, “What difference at this point does it make?”
Because the nuances and stolen moments of motherhood are what most of us are thinking about now. We aren’t looking at an imaginary spreadsheet in our head, trying to calculate a profit-and-loss statement on being a stay-at-home mom. We aren’t wondering why society didn’t better prepare us for the “demands” of motherhood. We are remembering afternoon snuggles, and impromptu dance parties in the kitchen before dinner, and sandcastles and cartwheels and football on the beach. The times they would cling to us before getting on the bus or joyfully call out “Mommy!” when we would pick them up from preschool; something that never happens again once they hit about third grade. Halloween costumes and Christmas dresses. The sweet smell of their head when they were asleep.
But the reason why women of my generation—GenXers who were warned that motherhood was a lowly endeavor and that we must have a big corporate job in order to be fulfilled personally and emotionally—chose to stay home is a source of bitterness for the academic class.
In a timely article over the weekend, a New York Times columnist lamented the fact that more women aren’t working. Claire Cain Miller blamed the stubborn trend on the usual suspects: Costly child care, useless husbands, inadequate public policy. Puzzled by women wanting to care for their babies rather than remain in the workforce, researchers in her piece faulted changing societal “norms” rather than unchanging “maternal instinct.”
Miller insists that motherhood is more demanding now than in previous generations (a claim that would have made my World War II-generation grandmothers chortle.) She cites a research paper evaluating women in my demographic group—born between 1965 and 1975 and in their 30s in the 2000s when they started families—that found even though few women planned to stay home before they had children, many changed their minds after their first baby was born:
One key to understanding why women have diverged from their plans is that their beliefs about gender roles change after their first baby. The surveys ask questions like whether work inhibits a woman’s ability to be a good mother and whether both parents should contribute financially to a family. Women tend to give more traditional answers after becoming mothers.
Do people actually get paid for this?
But what really frustrated the author and researchers is that college-educated moms were the most likely to have what she called “anti-work beliefs” post-baby. Miller attributes that to a sinister financial motive:
Dual-earning couples may feel the best choice is for one member, usually the mother, to step back from work so the other parent can maximize the family’s earnings. To try to set their children on the best path amid increased competition for college admission, parents, especially college-educated ones, invest significantly more time than they used to in child care.
I was one of those women who never planned to be a full-time mom. When I was a teenager, I would drive by a local preschool each day where cars would be lined up outside. “I will never do that,” I would scoff back in the mid-1980s.
Twenty years later, there I was: Waiting in line with other moms to pick up my daughter from preschool. It wasn’t a financial decision or a career move; in fact, there wasn’t a whole lot of thinking or analyzing over it at all. I wasn’t swayed by societal norms or persuaded to make a cultural statement. I wanted to take care of my family. No matter what professional aspirations I had, I knew the one place I was not replaceable was at home.
Yes, I probably missed making a lot of money the past 18 years. I probably missed plenty of career opportunities. But I did not miss a thing with my daughter. And as I watch my forever-baby get ready to leave me, I feel pretty fulfilled about that.
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Photo Credit: Julie Kelly