Leaving Your Job But Keeping Your Self-Esteem:
Creative New Ways to Find Fulfillment in Your Career in At-Home Mothering
There are many wonderful and well-known reasons for choosing to be an at-home mother. High-quality child care is often unavailable or too expensive. Parents often find that after they deduct child care, additional taxes, and employment-related expenses, the actual income from the second job in a dual-career family is negligible. They almost certainly discover that a full day of outside employment plus necessary household chores leaves them with far less energy for parenting than their children require. And most importantly, they realize that no one else can love and nurture their children in quite the same way. So more and more frequently, women are choosing at-home mothering for their careers--and they and their children reap the rewards. So is at-home mothering a no-fail recipe for happily ever after? Not exactly.
You see, there's something about being out in the workplace that does increase women's self-esteem. Or, more accurately, there are several "somethings" about the world of outside employment that lift our spirits, help us keep track of who we are and how we're doing as individuals, and add zest to our lives. So does this mean that if you've chosen full-time parenting, you are doomed to lose yourself in the needs of your family and eventually become depressed by the lack of those all-important "somethings"? Not at all! What it does mean is that it's important to identify them, and to find adequate substitutes for your current lifestyle.
One of the best things about outside employment is that you're never stuck for an answer when asked, "And what do you do?" You answer, usually with some pride, "Oh, I'm a (lab technician, accountant, waitress, U.S. senator)." But ask the average at-home mother about herself, and you'll usually get one of two responses. Either she'll give a long, detailed list of typical daily tasks ("I'm a chauffeur, activities planner, chef, nurse, teacher, maintenance engineer, interior decorator, and nutritionist"), or she'll stammer a bit before replying "I'm just a mom." The first sounds overly defensive, while the second has that "forgive me for being inadequate" quality of an outright apology. Neither one expresses the sort of self-confidence or pride you'd expect from one who believes hers is a genuinely important occupation. A better answer is, "I'm presently a full-time mother." No apologies. No needless justifications. And no explanations, except to those who express a genuine interest in how you made your decision, how you like being at home, how you manage on one income, etc. Keep in mind that your occupation is what you do, not who you are (incidentally, this was also the case when you worked outside the home, although our society tends to confuse the two). I hope your self-identity, at least in your own head, is something like this. "As an at-home mother, I'm doing a very important job. I also have great legs, love my husband, make a triple-fudge cake that's to die for, and am interested in anthropology, mystery novels, politics, and dogs." If you haven't yet written out a list of characteristics that identify who you are as an person, do so now.
In the employment world, you usually know exactly what your job is. More importantly, you know when it's to be done (9 to 5), how it's to be done (company policy manual), and when it's complete (the report is signed, the last bolt is tightened, you've met your monthly quota). You also know exactly how much you're being compensated, how and by whom your work will be evaluated, and when you will get a vacation or day off. If you're having a bad day, there is an escape when the weekend comes. And you have the freedom to change jobs if one you like better comes along!
Contrast this with the characteristics of at-home mothering. There is no when, you're on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The how is unspecified--should you aim to be like your mother or Martha Stewart? And forget the "completion" part--one of the chief complaints of at-home mothers is that there's never an "all done." You don't get paid, except in sticky kisses and hugs and the occasional, "Thanks, Mom." You feel like you're being evaluated by everyone you know. And on those rare occasions when you do take a day off (usually because your fever exceeds 102 degrees!) you feel guilty. There is no natural escape at the end of even the most trying day--you're still in the same place with the same tasks and the same cranky people. And you don't have the option of job-hopping to another family whose children seem more polite and where the father is ever-so-much-more helpful.
Unless you set it up otherwise! The fact is you can build in structure that gives you some of the same perks you had in your outside job. You can do whatever budgeting and bargaining is necessary for you to feel successful in your job. Budget your time any way that suits you--you can choose to do only two hours of housework a day, or decide that whatever isn't done by dinner will just have to wait until tomorrow. You can call "dibs" on the half-hour after the children go to bed to take a bath, or relax, or write in your journal (of course you'll support your partner in having some "no family duties" time as well). Budget your energy by writing down your priorities and goals, along with the time you choose to allot to each. One enterprising mother who was feeling less than successful made her own "chore chart" and literally checked off tasks as she completed them. This proof of the dozens of jobs she did every day made it easier for her to stop focusing on the few things she wasn't getting done--and helped her to realize that she deserved more support and appreciation than she had been settling for. Bargain with your older children--you'll drive them to the mall if they'll do the vacuuming. Bargain with another mom so that each of you gets time off. Bargain with a friend to trade chores so that you don't have that never-done feeling--one of you watches all the kids while the other cooks dinner for both families (a nice "bonus" is the positive feedback you get from people who aren't used to your cooking!).
When working women are asked what they like best about their jobs, they often answer that it is the regular contact with co-workers. This includes both the formal, job-related aspects of talking shop and having a shared purpose and also the informal aspects of chatting beside the water cooler or at lunch, having someone to appreciate your new hairstyle or suit, or even, unfortunately, plain old gossiping. It seems that women simply thrive on the give-and-take of regular social contact, and their co-workers tend to become real friends. Obviously, for the at-home mother, this regular contact is harder to come by. Harder, but hardly impossible.
Because more and more people are working from home now, it is unlikely that you are the only adult in your neighborhood who is at home during the day. Reach out. Go for walks to scout the availability of congenial company. If you can locate some other at-home mothers, so much the better--they are most likely to understand and share your need for contact. But don't rule out those who have home-based businesses or who are telecommuters, or who are retired. Everyone gets a bit stir-crazy from time to time, and a shared lunch on the patio will be a nice respite for you both.
Find a new group of "co-workers" by joining or starting a support group for at-home mothers. Place "Are you interested?" cards on bulletin boards of churches, grocery stores, the library, and your children's schools and you'll be surprised how quickly your phone rings. You may prefer to advertise this as a play group for the children, although that might limit you to only those mothers whose children are the ages of your own. While it's nice when you're all struggling with toilet training at the same time, you can also benefit by being with moms of older children (a parallel to having a mentor in the business world).
While we might prefer to think of ourselves as completely altruistic and totally self-sacrificing creatures, the truth is that we do need at least some compensation to keep us motivated. In the work world, obviously, compensation comes in the form of promotions, paychecks, and occasional bonuses, and few employees would continue working without them. For at-home mothers, it is quite different. There is certainly no system of promotions, unless you can conceive of parenting a 12-year-old as moving up the ladder from parenting a 10-year-old (a matter of time passing, not job performance). For most at-home mothers, payday comes only in the form of "thank you" and "I appreciate you" and Mother's Day cards. And if these come too infrequently, as is often the case, it's easy to see why moms feel undervalued.
But you do have some control over the compensation you receive. You can teach your family to recognize your efforts, and to say thank you. Okay, if your children are really tiny, you have to settle for the toothless grin--but everyone else, everyone old enough to speak, is old enough to say thanks. If you're feeling uncomfortable at the prospect of expecting to be thanked, and it feels like begging for compliments, then reframe it in your own mind as simply teaching good manners. And the best way for parents to teach good manners is for both parents to use good manners in front of the children. Let your partner know how important this is to you, and ask him to help by making sure the children see him setting a good example. Of course you return the courtesy--make sure you and the children thank him for all the things he does for the family too. And when you do get a, "Gee, Mom, thanks a lot," be sure you say how much you appreciate hearing their gratitude. This is no time for a self-deprecating "Oh, it was nothing, don't mention it." Keep that up, and they won't mention it!
If your family's financial situation allows it, consider the possibility of paying yourself a salary. This doesn't have to be similar to the salary you earned from outside employment as it's not the amount but the principle that's important. Can you set aside some amount weekly to use specifically for yourself? Decide on some things you'd really like, perhaps a massage, or a book you're dying to read, or a weekend getaway. By paying yourself even a small salary on a regular basis, they are sooner or later affordable. And, because you've earned it, it's money you can spend without guilt. One mother whose family finances were extremely tight took herself to Dairy Queen twice a month, with as much satisfaction as some women would feel over the purchase of a new car. "It's only an ice cream cone," she said, "but it's my ice cream cone and I earned it!" It really is true that "if Mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy," so realize that by occasionally treating yourself you actually are benefiting your family. Again, in fairness, your husband should be able to set aside some of his paycheck for his own purposes.
But most importantly, figure out whom you feel you have to please, whom it is that you think controls your emotional "paydays." If the answer is, "my husband, my children, God, my neighbors, my children's teachers, my mother, my mother-in-law, all my friends, and everyone else I know" then you have way too many bosses and it's no wonder every day feels like your annual review. Give it up. You cannot possibly please everyone, and it kills your healthy self-esteem when you try. When it comes right down to it, only you know your priorities. Only you can decide whether you are meeting them and how much they are worth.
It's true. There is something about outside employment that enhances women's self-esteem. But luckily for at-home mothers and their families, it's not necessary to "get a job" to have the same benefits. You already have an interesting, challenging, worthwhile career. By creatively addressing your absolutely normal needs for identity, for structure, for support, for appreciation, you can have the best of both worlds.