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Should I Stay or Should I Go? The Making of a Stay-at-Home Mom


When I read the job description I couldn't believe my eyes. I wouldn't have to slog into work in the rain, sleet and snow anymore. Instead I could stay home with my darling newborn, cuddling, taking long naps and watching wonderful old movies all snug as bugs on our sofa. I could be a Stay-At-Home Mom, a SAHM. "Stay At Home" - it even sounds cozy. I signed up immediately. I am no dummy and any job that gets me out of wearing panty hose is a job I want. Besides it comes with a cute little kid, right?

If you are already a SAHM (or dad), my depiction of stay-at-home parenthood probably has you either: a) writhing around on your floor laughing at my quaint notions of life as a mommy (taking care, of course, not to jab yourself with any of the many toys strewn about, or to roll in the pile of spit-up you've been meaning to sop up all morning); or b) quickly stuffing baby into his activity saucer so your hands are free to fire off an irate email to me, outlining the countless hours of work you put into parenting.

The Reality

Relax. I admit it. There was no job description, and no promise of long, lazy days and easily acquired maternal bliss. But if there had been, knowing what I know now, I would certainly take issue with the author. How can I take long naps when I have to horde every second of baby-free time for essentials like showering? How can I lay on the couch popping bon bons when my postpartum thunder thighs are staring back at me every day? How can I enjoy a movie when my sleep-deprived brain can't remember how to work the VCR, never mind follow a plotline? And why do I look like I've aged 10 years when I've only been doing this for six months?

Ah, welcome to the land of stay-at-home motherhood. By now you've probably figured out the big secret: staying at home with baby isn't as easy as one might think. If you didn't realize this until just recently, don't feel bad. It took me 32 years and the birth of my first child to finally understand that all those years my mother "didn't work" while raising five kids, she actually put in the man-hour equivalent of at least three full-time jobs. Jobs defined by hard, manual labor - without the aid of disposable diapers, microwave ovens or even that mesmerizing Baby Faces video, mind you.

Granted, we have more conveniences today (and a lot more demands, but that's another story), but being a mom is still a full-time job. I mention this not to put you off from having kids (although if you're reading this that horse has probably already left the barn, so to speak) but merely to point out that if you choose to be a SAHM, you will work ... hard. It's just that you won't have to do it in an office; you won't be subject to performance reviews - at least until your child is a teenager; and, most importantly, you will not have to part with your darling baby for eight hours each day. The downside: you probably won't ever get a raise; you will be up to your elbows in bodily fluids of one sort or another on a daily basis; and you will have to adjust to a world in which "all" you have to show for your hard work is a happy, healthy baby - which everyone expects you to have anyhow.

A Sense of Accomplishment

It was the "happy-healthy-baby-as-my-one-and-only-accomplishment" part that hit me by surprise. For 10 years, I slaved away on project after project, each of which ended in a final product that would leave me fulfilled. Now, my main job left me with a project whose accomplishments were not so easily measured. When I got pregnant I truly wanted to devote myself full-time to being a mother. I did not want to work at my old job until my baby was at least six months old. What happened? Well, somewhere after those first weeks of blissful madness I began to feel frustrated. Every night my husband would come home, still nicely dressed and without a trace of baby spit-up on him. And there I would be, often still in my pajamas, trying gamely - but, sadly, failing - to keep my hair secured in the half-hearted ponytail I placed it in 15 hours earlier, with a load of half-folded laundry strewn across the couch. Most likely I would be in front of the fridge trying desperately to figure out how to turn the contents of my crisper (withered carrot, brownish tomato, ancient shriveled mushroom) into the vegetable portion of the evening meal. And I would feel, well, useless. I would not have gone grocery shopping, I would not have cleaned the house and I would not have written the 57 thank-you notes that I should have written. And somehow I would STILL be exhausted. In short, I would feel as if I had accomplished nothing all day.

Don't get me wrong, I loved the three months that I spent with my son without the distraction of "work." I wouldn't in a million years give up that time. Watching him figure out his new world was nothing short of amazing. And intellectually I realize that caring for and loving a child is about the most useful thing a human being can do. Still, I couldn't help but miss the feeling of accomplishment that comes with completing a project. My project - even though it was the most important project of my life - wouldn't be completed for a good 18 years, which meant I'd have to find something else to finish in the meantime. I'd have to go back to work, at least part-time.