Carisa’s Story: A Working Mother’s Case for Staying Home
Fifteen years ago I wrote my first book about the incalculable value of mothering—not motherhood, mothering—and why children and families are better off all the way around when mothers, or simply parents in general, stay home. One of the main questions I’ve been asked over the years since I wrote that book, which, as it happens, is set to be re-released in five days with the new title, The Two-Income Trap: Why Parents Are Choosing to Stay Home, is whether or not I think the working mother trend will reverse and more mothers will start to stay home.
My answer was always the same: Yes, I think it will happen.
I believe that time has come. Not only did Pew Research publish this finding in 2014, in March of this year a study at the University of Michigan and the University of Texas at Austin found young people are rejecting the two-income family model their mothers and mentors touted as “enlightened” and are moving back toward a more traditional family structure.
Even psychologists are noticing the shift. “Midtown psychologist Anjhula Singh Bais says she’s seen more young people of late aspiring to “Leave It to Beaver”-style marriages,” writes Christian Gollayan in the New York Post. “They either come from divorced households, are wary of the tumultuous online dating scene or want to diverge from their liberal parents’ relationships.”
Fran Walfish, a family and relationship psychotherapist in Beverly Hills, CA., agrees. “I am seeing a growing trend of millennial couples who follow traditional gender roles.”
Yet more evidence of this shift can be found in the fact that the gender pay gap has become a persistent thorn in feminists’ side. This very powerful special interest group is hell bent on getting mothers out of the home and into the boardroom in the name of gender equality—but it just ain’t happening. That’s because, as even The New York Times reported a few weeks ago, most women choose motherhood over career.
So I wasn’t altogether surprised to receive a heartfelt email from one Carisa Peterson, wife and mother of two young children who laments her decision to work full time and who shared with me in an honest and compelling essay how women like her were misled. Carisa’s story is a consummate example of what the fallout for families looks like when its society assumes women will always be, or should always be, in the workforce without any interruption. As though having children, as most women do, doesn’t change everything—when of course it does.
Here is her story:
I grew up with a stay-at-home mother, but because many of my mother’s friends worked outside the home (in what were likely varying shades of part-to-full-time), I never gave much thought to which scenario I would prefer—and I really didn’t think it would be a big deal to work and raise young children at the same time.
I was also raised in a fairly liberal household. While our family practices and roles were traditional, I was encouraged to do whatever I wanted to do professionally and I understood that I could do it all and be exactly who I wanted to be, the assumption being that everything else would fall into place.
In this age of women having every opportunity and being free of all role restrictions, I wondered why there is still a good chunk of women who return home after having children, leaning out when we’re supposed to be “leaning in” as captains of our own ship.
Then I had my two children.
The reasons I’d be home if I could go much further than your average economics-of-the-demographic chart and are deeper and more nuanced than average survey respondents are willing to say. But perhaps it’s time we take a fresh look at why women ‘lean out’ rather than in.
We go back home because maybe we’ve read one too many of those “enjoy your children while they are young because the time goes so quickly” essays online, and we’ve let it sink in because it’s true and we’ve always known that it is, and we’re done trying to glaze over it by pretending the glazed doughnuts in the break room should make up for this fact.
Maybe we’ve been harassed with door-knocking and knob-giggling on a regular enough basis while we’re in one of the multiple company bathrooms pumping our breasts, despite the paper-thin acoustics that announce to whomever walks by exactly what it is we’re doing and why they could try another bathroom.
It could be that whether it’s one or one thousand times per night, our children usually want us—Mommy—when they wake up scared or sick or simply frustrated that their sock fell off. The secret, for some of us, is that we want to be wanted for middle-of-the-night comforting. It’s part of what we’re doing this whole Motherhood thing for, and truth-be-told, we hate having to wake Dad up to tell him to go do something we thought he should be listening for in the first place but didn’t hear because, as it turns out, men and women aren’t the same. They’re wired differently. But that doesn’t make having to report for a full day’s work at 8:00am sharp suck any less.
Maybe we’re tired of choosing between having that pile of clean laundry the size of our first apartment actually folded and put away, or taking the family to church and pulling the family clothing out of the pile like permanently-wrinkled radishes out of a dirt mound throughout the rest of the week. I’m someone who likes at least some of my family’s laundry folded and for us all to go to church, believing both are at least somewhat important to one’s well-being.
Maybe some of us are happy eating iceberg lettuce and re-configuring that casserole recipe four different ways if it means we get to be the ones to teach our children their ABCs and why it is they might want to be a good person and how to be one.
What if we want to have dinner ready for our children earlier than what should be their bedtime? What a luxury it would be to all sit down together before 7pm. We decide to stay home because we know dinner kits aren’t the answer. They merely keep us working more in order to afford them.
And believe it or not, some of us want to have sex. And maybe we’ve figured out that we could once again use the time after the kids have gone to bed to be with our husbands because we’ve had a nap time or a school day to do some of the things that needed to get done.
Perhaps we’ve discovered that the “me” we used to be before we became a mother is seldom found in file folders and small talk, but that She could be found if we had a moment to breathe that’s not also when we’ve collapsed into bed after our chores are finally done and our husbands have fallen asleep, or when we’ve fallen into the mostly mindless rabbit hole of social media because that’s all the mind we have left at the end of an entire day, sun-up to sun-down, of our mind being consumed by the demands of our workplace and from responding to the needs of our family.
Maybe we’ve tried delegating some of the parenting, cleaning, cooking, and average family life management to daycares and our husbands-slash-Dad. But if you’re like me, you didn’t voluntarily tear your crotch open or have your stomach sliced or go through the ups and downs of adoption because you were harboring a deep-seated desire to make someone else do all of these things. And theoretically—if you’re like me—you enjoy the role of mother, teacher, boss-of-something-even-if-it’s-your-own-home, most days. Dad is just as busy as we are, working to pay the bills. Maybe we’re just as tired of fighting over who does what as we are from simply doing those things in the first place.
Perhaps we’re tired of feeling nervous that our job is on the line because we hadn’t prepared our boss or our co-workers that at least one of our children would be sick every few months. Yet here they are, needing to be pulled out of daycare, one after the other, while our department full of childless, job-hating co-workers watch skeptically over the top of their cubicles as we walk out to yet another afternoon “off.”
Maybe we’re sick and tired of using all our sick time and some of our vacation time on our kids. And because we have none left, there we are: both sick and tired—usually both—and we seek a better way.
It could be that we birthed human beings who are ours, and who are small for a breathtakingly finite amount of time. Suddenly, being a relatively forgettable cog in the wheel of commerce (or, worse but real, being given “busy work” to fill your 40 hours if someone notices your real work is done and you have just a few minutes to make a doctor’s appointment) feels manifestly unimportant.
Perhaps we’ve seen one too many pictures posted by our stay-at-home friends of field trips, or of summertime adventures, or of midday art or gardening lessons with the youngest; and we know they’re cleaning, cooking, and getting stuff done too. Maybe some of us are old enough to have had a mom who did this for us back when mothers at home didn’t have to hide behind their Pinterest boards to prove they were doing something productive with their time. We know, deep down, that we are the products of their time.
Maybe we’re tired of hating our friends for the same choice we would have made in hindsight, and we’re done having to suppress the rolling, twisting ball of pain that rises from the pit of our belly every time we’re reminded of the time and memories with our own children that are lost to someone else’s time clock. Maybe “being at home” is captaining a ship.
And so we stay home, if we can. If we can’t, we seek an escape hatch or at least a pressure valve. The chance of renewed happiness is better than known unhappiness and cemented regret. But that’s a subject for another word count.
And now, why I work.
I work because when I wasn’t looking, and because I wasn’t looking, my marriage became a game of each man for himself. The only safety net we’d have if I quit my job now is the one I’ve earned myself. I work because I stopped listening to my own heart song and started listening to someone else’s. I work as much as I do, and in the industry I do, because I assumed I could expect an instinct for basic solvency in my husband as our life evolved, especially considering his having less of an aptitude for, and interest in, homemaking. To my own chagrin, I didn’t blatantly express this expectation, unwittingly circumscribing myself as the primary breadwinner. Thus, I have failed us all.
I dream of the day we can all begin talking as though we are what we are: men and women, each of whom have differing talents, interests and responsibilities. With a healthy dose of honesty and realism about the demands facing a young family, we could settle into the role we’re most suited for within our individual marriages—be it the role of working within the home or the role of working professionally outside of it. Our families, and thus our futures, would once again be supported and nurtured.
The truth is, for many women our children will always be our greatest passion. And I know we are theirs. Isn’t it time we began admitting as much?