I never thought I would be a stay-at-home mom. Not because I didn’t think I’d be good at it, or didn’t like the idea of it, but because I never really thought about it. I just assumed I’d be successful in my career, and that equation didn’t involve wiping butts and refereeing fights over who gets the pink cup. I knew I wanted to have kids, but I guess it didn’t occur to me that by having them, I’d be forced to make a tough choice. You’d think that the tough choice would be to have the kids, but the tougher choice is to what to do about your career once you have them.
I went to (arguably) the best journalism school in the country and was minoring in biology. After my junior year I got married. During my senior year my husband got an opportunity to intern at the United Nations in Vienna, Austria. We jumped at that opportunity, and I also got an internship at the UN in public affairs. When we returned I interned at a PR firm and then worked diligently to get a job in Monsanto’s public affairs department. I loved it. I was working with brilliant people, surrounded by science I believed in and I was good at it. I’m certain I could have made a really good career there.
My husband got offered a job in a different city. For some reason, we thought that was a good time to have a baby. We’d been married five years and I was probably going to have to quit my job anyway when we moved. While my husband fully valued my career and my love for my job, it was a matter of numbers. Working in PR, I could never make what he could make. So we got pregnant, he took the job, I had the baby, I quit my job, and we moved. In one sweeping motion I became a stay-at-home mom.
Everyone was cheering for me: my family, my friends, my colleagues. Good for you! You’re doing the best for your baby! And I never really looked back. It seemed like the best thing at the time. I even remember thinking, no job could possibly be as important as raising kids. We both knew that I would return to work. I was only 26 when June was born. In fact, my husband started pushing for us to have our second baby right away. He’s an eternal engineer: he reasoned that the longer we waited between babies, the longer it would be until I could return to work. So let’s do this, have number two so you can go back. And I was game for that. Staying at home was not all rainbows and butterflies. It was damn hard, and I couldn’t really say I loved it. Worth it? Yes. Mind-numbing and at times lonely and isolating? Yes.
Now I’m six years into it. My youngest is starting preschool three days a week next year. Yes, it’s time to go back and I am so ready! I can’t wait to use my brain again, bring home a real paycheck, have important stuff to do, talk to adults all day, eat lunch with people who don’t cry over the orientation of their chair. So I started looking, casually. You know, “I’m not going to just take any job, I have time to be picky.” Turns out, no. I don’t have the luxury to be picky. I assumed I could get a job easily despite the fact that I haven’t truly worked in six years. I thought I was being smart because I kept my toe in the water – I contracted for Monsanto on and off the whole time. I didn’t expect to be able to advance to the next career level, but I did expect to be able to get a job similar in experience to the one I left. So far, no dice. I’ve cast out a number of applications for jobs that I’m fully qualified for. I’ve had one interview for a job that I am probably over-qualified for. I can’t say for sure, but I’m fairly certain I didn’t get it because I’m a stay-at-home mom. One of the questions they asked me was why I wanted to return to work.
Am I not the same level of qualified that I was when I left the workplace? Do I not still have all the same skills I had, plus many new and valuable skills? I started reading up on SAHM’s returning to work and was floored to discover many women have extreme difficulty. They take jobs that are a step down and a pay cut. And they have to claw their way back in.
Shit, no one told me that when I decided to stay home. Granted, the recession tossed a wrench in the equation. I’m now competing with people who are unemployed, don’t have a six year gap in their resume and have all day to commit to job hunting and making themselves marketable. I’m just looking for a part-time job that will actually use my skills. Or even a full-time one.
I’m actually now a little afraid to keep looking. If I’m not actively looking, I can pretend that I haven’t made the decision to go back and I don’t have to face the rejection. I have a good friend who used to be a teacher before she decided to stay home. She tried to go back to work two school years ago and couldn’t get anything. The rejection prevented her from applying last school year. Now she’s trying again and running into a brick wall. That’s really hard on an already fragile sense of self-worth; doing laundry and making grilled cheese doesn’t exactly make her feel like she’s getting her time, energy and money’s worth out of her two masters degrees.
I can’t tell you the number of women I know recently who have started selling stuff (like make-up and candles) or who have gotten their real-estate license so they can go back to work. I refuse to do that. I already went to college and had a good career! I want back into that career, not into something I could have done straight out of high school.
Where was this advice when I decided to leave the workplace? Why didn’t anyone pull me aside and say: hey, what you’re doing is awesome, but just keep in mind it will be really hard to go back to work. Not because you’ll feel guilty, but because there is a stigma associated with stay-at-home moms. There is an assumption that now you value family over work and you might leave again if you can’t hack it or if they need you at home. There is an un-spoken concern that in your years of breastfeeding and diaper changing you’ve lost your ability to get real tasks done. You’re really good at multi-tasking at home, but can you put together a press release? Can you interview a scientist without bringing up your kindergartner? Are you going to leave early for soccer practice? Will you embarrass us with your mom jeans?
If someone told me that would I have still stayed home? I’m not sure. I’m proud of the decision I made, hard as it was. Staying home was the right thing for our family, and I’m glad I did it – it’s important and truly fun and rewarding at times. But I never anticipated wanting to go back to work and not being able to find a job. It’s one thing to be a stay-at-home mom because you chose to, but it’s another thing entirely to still be doing it because you can’t get out.
It’s too bad we don’t live in Sweden where parents can take up to 480 days leave with 80 percent of their salary. For now, I’ll just have to keep wiping butts and sending out resumes.
PS: I’m having serious issues figuring out how to make images look the way I want them to on WordPress, so until I figure it out, you’ll have to just read a bunch of text without pretty pictures. Sorry!