My friend Kristin’s story of her unexpected decision to stay at home with her kids for 10 months comes at the perfect time for our reflection lately on women and work. I’m so grateful she shared her story of having the guts to do what a lot of us dream about and the real truth of what it took to make it possible (unglamorous stuff, like wearing her same old clothes and not eating out).
My college friend John met Kristin at an ultimate frisbee game many years ago and I’ve been enjoying her friendship ever since. John and Kristin have become my adventuring-with-kids idols; they took their son, Ben, canoe camping in the Boundary Waters and sailing in the Bahamas before he was two.
Ten months ago I started out on a personal journey to change my life and lifestyle. With little warning to friends or colleagues, I went from having a full-time, high-stress position directing a student program at a small college to being a stay-at-home mom. I had no other plans than to stay home with my kids for the summer and then look for a job starting in the fall once I’d had a chance to get my bearings and make some decisions. It felt a little like what I imagine sky-diving to be like: the free fall was a bit scary, exhilarating, and strangely, easy, all at the same time. The quiet and relief of it was tremendous and ominous.
When I tried to explain to people why I had left, I think it sounded a little like: too much stress, not happy, husband traveling too much, young daughter with medical needs, and GAH! All of which were true, but I think the real reason deep down was that I was unsatisfied with who I was as a full-time working mom with kids age 1 and 3. I had begun to explore mindfulness and meditation and felt solidly not present for most of my days. Other than my consistent yoga practice, I felt frustrated by how cluttered my life felt. I did not like the kind of mother I was to my kids, nor did I think I was modeling the kind of life I wanted our family to lead.
Earlier in the year I had read the article, The Medium Chill by David Roberts and began to think about the time vs. money phenomenon playing out in our life. I wanted more time to enjoy life and our family, something that no amount of money can really fix. The idea of changing our way of life, especially around consumption and “needs” appealed to both my husband and I. We were not interested in keeping up with the Joneses nor aspiring to the typical American Dream.
I had no experience as a stay-at-home mom. Of course there was the maternity leave for both kids, and the odd day or two where my husband was traveling and I was alone with the kids, but overall I was not often a one-woman show and liked it that way. I had always had the idea in my head that I just wasn’t cut out to be a stay-at-home mom. I was in awe of those moms (or dads) that spent day in and day out with their kids, patiently wiping butts and teaching kids to share. I told myself I wasn’t patient enough, not creative enough, not fun enough… and the list went on. Sometime in the spring of last year I began to want to stare those fears down and really put myself to the test. I wanted to see my kids all day long and revel in the simplicity of days at home.
With little clarity about the future and no longer a job to go to everyday, I began to focus on what each day with the kids was going to be like. Very quickly, we developed a pleasant, laid back rhythm to our days. We took lazy walks around the neighborhood studying sunflowers and anthills. We picnicked by and swam in nearby lakes and pools. I took the kids on bike rides to our neighborhood library regularly. We planted gardens, inspected their progress, and harvested berries, green beans, and cherry tomatoes from our backyard. I spent quiet afternoons napping with the kids or cooking fresh and healthy meals. I was delighted by the calm and steadiness that came from having one adult at home most days. I noticed how present I was becoming with my kids and how my parenting skills were growing with ease (and a lack of stress).
Yet, I should also be truthful here: it wasn’t always easy. I struggled with missing co-workers, trying to apply for jobs during naptime, and finding ways to be frugal. I felt frustrated when I would lose patience with Ben or make amateur-mommy mistakes such as staying out too long with no snacks. I found myself having feelings of self-doubt and questioning my own identity when I would go to the playground and find groups of moms deep in conversation while I played alone with my kids. Was I a stay-at-home mom or was I just someone who was passing through? Would I find a job? Would we run out of saved money before I got a job? Sometimes the unknowns were too much. So most of the time I tried to focus on mindfulness and on enjoying the moment without thoughts about the future. I forced myself to notice the way Meredith’s hair would fall across her face when she was deeply engaged in playing, or on the way Ben’s face lit up when he climbed a big ladder all by himself, or how it felt to lay in the grass with fall leaves blowing around us.
So 10 months and counting later, I am still unemployed, still living on a tight budget, and still looking for a satisfying and manageable job. However, I am incredibly grateful everyday for what I have learned about myself, my kids, and my wonderful husband since the great experiment began. You know what? I wouldn’t trade this process for anything. I believe that I was meant to take this journey that in the end has brought me closer to the following ideals:
Simplicity: Sometimes intentionally and sometimes out of necessity, our life has become simpler. We have more time and less money. We have stopped eating out, buying new clothes, or going on vacation. We don’t think about selling our house or redecorating a room. But with all of that comes freedom and simplicity. When catalogs come in the mail, I don’t even open them before putting them in recycling. I am not interested to see what we won’t be buying and don’t need. I don’t worry about where to go on vacation or whether or not to buy a new swimming suit I don’t need. I haven’t gone to the mall in ages and you know what? I don’t miss it. Not one bit.
Intentionality: We have made a conscious effort to weed out the clutter in our life. Ironically, in a year of less for us we have done more letting go and donating of material things to others. I have become recommitted to finding more space in our little bungalow, which includes taking an honest look at all the STUFF we don’t need. I have enjoyed trying to do more with less. When the kids got a new (used) bunk bed from IKEA, I “redecorated” their room by reusing things we already had, making them new duvet covers, and by buying them each a new set sheets of sheets.
Early on in this journey, I swore off personal spending… No more new clothes for a new season or buying things I didn’t absolutely “need.” I have been taking a harder look at what I already have and have become more creative with what I wear. In my old life, I would buy a new pair of jeans when another pair got too well-worn. No longer. I do laundry more often and worry less about what people think. I enjoy my well-worn jeans and the old running shorts that I rediscovered at the bottom of my drawer, and feel less drawn to keep up with the latest trends.
Experiences: When we do have some financial flexibility, we choose experiences over things. When my girlfriends invited me along on a weekend away, John insisted I go to enjoy some much-needed child-free friend time. I went with no guilt, not much money, and had a great time. Instead of getting thousands of toys for Christmas for the kids, we gave them swimming lessons, gymnastic classes, and music classes. We now spend weekends playing outside, potlucking with our neighbors, cooking together, or finding new ways to enjoy our city (for free).
Relationship-Rich: Since focusing on a calmer and happier life and reducing our luxuries, we have invested in our relationships. With more time, we have explored (and I think, succeeded) in more effectively connecting with our kids when they are upset or misbehaving. This means taking time to understand and explore feelings, being physically close, and being able to be flexible to suit our kids’ needs. This work has paid off; recently my highly sensitive son, was using to his words (yay!) to tell me he had an “owie.” When I asked where he was hurt, he said, “well, my feelings are hurt.” A momentous breakthrough for him and for us.
Our focus on time together has helped my husband and I to be more intentional about asking our parents to cover date nights which may only be things like a cheap movie, an ice cream cone, or a walk around the lake together. Although we have always been on the same wave length and very happy, I feel like this lifestyle has helped us to be even closer. It feels wonderful to be exploring the ways our lives are changing together. We have taken more time to really talk and think about our life in big ways, and most importantly to consistently share what we are feeling gratitude for in our life. We often have great conversations about decisions we are making and how they relate to our larger priorities. These are things I don’t recall us doing as often or as well when it felt like we were unconcerned about money and rushed in our daily lives.
Finally, this change in our lifestyle has also meant taking the time to reach out to friends more often. We plan simple things together, but are able to enjoy real, close, honest time together. Through this process, I have found that some of my girlfriends who have always been good friends, have now become my life-lines in helping me make tough decisions, deal with disappointments, and reflect on life as a stay-at-home mom looking for a job. They have made this new phase of life feel wonderful, rewarding, and adventurous by loving me in all my vulnerability and seeking.
Gratitude: The final lesson of my life in the last 10 months has been gratitude. Whenever I am feeling down about not getting a job offer or not having enough money, I start making lists of what I am grateful for. I think about families who don’t have half of what we do. I think about how lucky I am to be able to spend so much time with my kids, to have time to read books, and do yoga multiple times a week. Most of all, I feel gratitude that at age 36 I am still able to explore, re-define, and continually learn new things about myself and the life that I am leading today.
P.S. A couple of months ago, as I was applying for mostly part-time jobs, I came across a full-time position that was exactly what I wanted. It had everything I loved about my previous job without many of the aspects that had made it absolutely soul-sucking and family-UNfriendly. It was, however, in a prestigious area of the University. And after all the job rejections I had weathered, I didn’t see myself actually getting offered the job but I still applied. Each time I was invited back to another round of interviewing, I was mildly surprised, but still didn’t expect to be offered the position in the end. As they began calling my references, I had to take the possibility of being offered the job seriously. The good news I had been waiting for for so long was actually heart-breaking! I’d been confident in looking for only part-time jobs, but now the possibility of a full-time job made me question the whole purpose of my almost-year off.
After a lot of conversations with those close to me, hours of soul-searching, and a good talk with my future (wonderful! kind!) supervisor, I decided to accept the position. As with all big decisions, making this one was about timing, gut feeling, and my belief in the value of risk-taking in life — not a process that I cannot describe very well. I will miss my kids every day and am sad to leave day-time dance parties, fort building, and trips to the museum. I especially have no good way of describing this part of the decision and am still unsure as my kids and I move towards new adventures, new learning, and new friendships when I go back to work.
I have a month before I start my new job and in the meantime, I am wrestling with the things we all do: how to keep our family sane, fed, and happy while working somewhere else 40 hours a week. This time however, I feel as though I am going into it fully grounded, knowing who I am as a mother and having a greater focus on the things in life that really matter. Honestly, I am not stocking my freezer with frozen meals or setting up some new! amazing! efficient! laundry system (although maybe I should be). Instead I am simply soaking it up, sending gratitude out to the universe, and keeping it real by buying some new clothes.