A giant post about being an at-home parent after being a full-time working mom
A question I'm often asked is how the transition has been from being a full-time working mom to being an at-home parent. As I started to write this post I realized I have a lot to say. I thought about breaking this up into a few posts but instead I'm going to leave it as one giant post so all my thoughts are in one spot. I'll touch on why I quit my full-time job as a science writer three years ago, how my days go now, my thoughts on finding my value and identity after being a full-time working parent, the differences in parenting now versus when I was working, and will address the question, "But which is better?"
So here you go...
one time Chris and I actually had a reason to have a meeting together at work! I had a friend capture the moment
Planning for + quitting my job
Quitting my job was something Chris and I thought about and planned for. Even before we started a family we had talked wanting to be able to pick our kids up from school once they started kindergarten and not have additional childcare. We weren't sure how that would work out but it was something in the back of our minds. When we started a family I enjoyed working full time and felt proud of being a full time working mom. What I liked about working full time was spending my time doing something intellectually stimulating, earning an income, getting to interact with coworkers I enjoyed, and working at a university. Our days were full but we found our groove, cherished the quality time we had with our boys, and enjoyed our combined household income.
At the same time, I did often feel overwhelmed at how full life felt. Looking back at it now: I remember we would usually be walking in the door at the end of the day around 5:40 p.m. and this was after leaving work by 4:30 p.m., usually feeling a little guilty that we were ducking out "early." With a 7 p.m. bedtime for the boys we had just over an hour to: unpack and process lunch dishes for four people, make and serve dinner, have quality time with the boys, do bath time if it was a bath night, get wild boys into pajamas, and read bedtime stories. The morning routine was similarly demanding.
I started feeling less fulfilled by my job sometime after Cedric was born. I think the fullness of the days including all the effort of getting out the door in the morning and the post-work-dinner-bedtime rush started wearing on me. At the same time I was finding fulfillment and energy from producing The Girl Next Door Podcast, which launched in January of 2014, and continuing to write on my blog. Probably in 2015 Chris and I started talking about making a plan for me to work towards quitting my job. The biggest piece of the puzzle was our finances and we thought through budget scenarios. By the beginning of 2017 we felt that our pace of savings plus a recent promotion and raise for Chris put us in the position where I could quit my job in early 2018. I felt so ready at that point and I counted down the months.
"What do you do?"
Working full-time gave me a concrete identity in addition to the the sense of contributing something of value. When someone asked, "What do you do?" I had an easy answer: "I'm a science writer for ASU." And then I could explain what that was usually to remarks of, "That's really interesting!"
Now I don't have quite as straight-forward of an answer but I like the one I've come up with. I don't identify as a stay-at-home mom because I don't feel it captures the writing and podcasting work I do. But saying I work part time from home doesn't feel right either. I don't get paid to write and podcast and sometimes don't even spend five hours during a week on the endeavors. When someone asks me what I do I usually answer with something like, "I'm a writer and a podcaster, but I'm home with my kids too." I think that answer places value on the creative work that I do but also addresses the underlying question that I think people are really wondering which is whether I work outside the home or not. I'm also intentional about telling the boys about the work I do as a writer and podcaster.
Since having Dashiell eight years ago I've felt many feelings about being a working mom. Even while I often enjoying working full time I often also wished I could spend more of my weekdays with Dash and then Cedric. Even as I knew that I was a great mom I chafed to read statements like, "I'm so glad being a mom is my full time job" from stay-at-home mom friends in social media captions. I felt like that implied that working full-time meant I was only a part-time parent and I didn't think that was true. But perhaps my sensitivity to those statements belied an underlying insecurity or envy.
Letting go of my identity as a full time working mom was something I had to come to terms with and I talked through it with my counselor ahead of quitting my job. It was interesting to me that even though I wanted to quit my job and had made the decision to do so I had to work through fully giving myself permission to follow through on my decision. Part of giving myself permission to quit my job came from not wanting others to see my quitting my job as a a broader statement about being a stay at home mom versus being a full time working mom. Or that by quitting my job I was saying I didn't feel like I was a good mom when I was working full time. I still feel very aware of this. I felt and feel proud of my experience as a full time working mom who earned an income, made contributions to a large university, and was a great mom through it all despite having a lot on my plate.
I am someone who thrives on structure. While I was working full time my job necessitated having very structured days even when I wasn't at work. In the morning Chris and I had to get ready for work, get the boys fed and dressed, and we packed everyone lunches for the day. In the evenings we had to unpack lunch boxes, make and serve dinner, and then do bedtime with the boys. One reason I felt ready to quit my job is that our days felt too packed. There was structure but too many things that had to be done within that structure.
I knew that when I wasn't working full time I would need to create structure for myself. Since I've been the at-home parent my weekly structure has been largely dictated by Cedric's preschool schedule. During the first year I was home, Dash was in kindergarten and Cedric went to preschool two or three days per week (the program was flexible). During my second year at home, the ill-fated 2019-2020 school year, Cedric was in preschool four days per week for most of the year. I was just transitioning him to five days per week of preschool in anticipation of Maeve's arrival when coronavirus made us throw out the script.
On days when Cedric was at home with me I enjoyed the slow pace of our days and the one-on-one time with him. Cedric is an easy going and fun sidekick. Our days might include a play date with a friend, going to the library, or running errands. There were some days where I felt like I tried to be too productive with errands and household tasks without enough child-centered activity. That helped me see that trying to accomplish just one errand and/or at-home task was usually the right balance for our days.
On days when Cedric was in preschool I tried to make my focus writing and podcasting. I found that it could be easy to fill my days alone with things that felt productive or enjoyable at the time – like running errands, cleaning, email, and scrolling social media – but didn't leave me feeling accomplished in terms of my creative endeavors. What helped prevent this was planning out my weeks and tasks. I also recognized that I had the most creative energy at the beginning of the week. This is why Cedric's preschool schedule was to attend on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday. I liked having two full days at the beginning of the week to take care of things and to get momentum. Mondays and Tuesdays were my days for writing and podcasting. I tried not to schedule appointments or anything social on those days. Thursdays was a work/flex day and is when I would schedule appointments. Occasionally I made plans to have lunch or go hiking with a friend during the week but mostly I liked to reserve the days Cedric was at preschool for being productive.
I tried to also be thoughtful about when during my day would be the best time for scheduling any appointments. I used to think that I would always want to take care of something first thing in the morning. Instead I found that having an appointment first made it harder for me to get into a creative/productive mindset afterwards. Instead I starting scheduling appointments for midday on Thursday, if possible. I could have a few hours of work time, then an appointment, and then enough time to get ready to pick up the boys from school at 2:40 p.m.
coffee dates on the way to work were a perk
Sharing the work of parenting and household management
When Chris and I were both working full time I felt we had a very even split of parenting and household duties. Now I would say that split is perhaps closer to 70/30 with me taking on more household work and parenting, at least during the weekdays. I really value a clean, tidy, well-organized house. I also don't mind doing most housework if I have the time to do it such as while listening to a podcast or audiobook.
Ahead of quitting my job we talked about what sharing the household work would look like. I actually looked forward to having more time for cleaning and household management. When we were both working full time I felt like we were never quite on top of the household and it was a minor daily stress. Now for the most part I enjoy keeping up the house and laundry a little bit each day. Part of this is for the sake of efficiency. It feels easier to keep the house clean by doing a little bit every day versus doing everything on the weekend like we used to do. Part of my motivation for keeping up the house is for my own enjoyment and creative productivity. I enjoy my days at home with Maeve more when the house is tidy around me. And when I get time to write I have better focus in a clean house. But sometimes when I've spent a lot of my day cleaning I'll question whether it was the best use of my time. I'll think, "Am I being brainwashed by our patriarchal society that I'm taking pleasure in mopping my floors instead of contributing to society in a more intellectual way??"
There have a been a couple of instances where I felt that I spent too much of my time on housework. A challenge with this kind of work is that it can be invisible. An overflowing laundry hamper is much more noticeable but much less work than an empty hamper with clothes folded away into drawers. I remember a particular week when I hadn't done much creative work and felt like all I had accomplished was cleaning, cooking, doing school pick up, and laundry without a lot of appreciation. Meanwhile Chris was making exciting progress on a work project, publishing academic papers, and meeting with interesting people. Realizing that I wasn't feeling recognition for my efforts (words of affirmation love language here!) I talked to Chris about it and asked if he would make more effort to express appreciation for what I was doing. Of course he was happy to do so, and usually is great about expressing his appreciation. He said he felt badly that he hadn't better expressed how much he appreciates all that I do around the house.
I learned a couple of things from that experience. One is that I need to balance household/parenting work and my creative work during the week. I do highly value a clean and efficiently-running household but it shouldn't always be my top priority. The second thing I learned is that I should give value to the household work that I do by telling Chris about what I did during the day. This is not meant to list all the things that he should show appreciation for but it does help make visible the things I do and helps both of us to recognize their value.
Additionally, although Chris is the one earning an income I see myself as a really important part of his job. By taking on more parenting and household responsibilities he is able to to put more bandwidth towards his job which supports our family financially. I've also always seen myself as supporting his career in terms of listening to what's happening in his job and giving advice along the way. There have been several occasions where he's said that I helped him work through a professional challenge or that I gave him a good idea, which makes me feel proud. When I asked Chris if I could share his salary as part of this post he said, "Sure. But it's our salary not mine. The money I make only happens because of the work you do while I’m at work. So it’s money we both make together. "
family dinner celebration after I gave my notice at work
Parenting then versus now
A big change since quitting my job is that I have more active parenting time during my weeks. I want to be clear that I don't feel that I'm a better parent now because I'm not working full time. But I do have more time to spend actively parenting and on parenting-related efforts which I find fulfilling – although sometimes it's also exhausting!
I love that I can put parenting first without having to justify my choices to anyone else, which is how I felt when I was working full time even though my boss was always 100% understanding of any kiddo-related schedule change. I love not having to call in sick to work (and feel the associated self-imposed guilt of doing so) if one of the boys is sick and needs to stay home from school. I feel like I have more bandwidth now to reflect on where each of my children are developmentally and emotionally and what they need from me as a parent. I have more time for related activities like requesting and picking up library books for them or spending time with them at the park.
Another factor in parenting now versus when I was working full time is that the boys are older. Even though they've have some challenging behaviors during the past three years overall they are becoming more independent and have fewer meltdowns. I like the timing of when I quit my full-time job because during the years when the boys required the most demanding parenting we had help in the form of loving daycare teachers. As we emerged from that time I quit my job and am enjoying extra time with them as big kids heading towards the tween years. I love dropping the boys off to school, picking them up at the end of the day, and being able to spend an hour or more at the park. I enjoy having the time to be involved in their school like attending PTSO meetings and volunteering without worrying about work obligations.
With Maeve I'm also getting the experience of being an at-home parent with a baby and I really enjoy it. I love not having to leave Maeve in the care of someone else, even as wonderful as the boys daycare teachers always were. I really love not having to pump breastmilk at work or make several bottles every morning followed by washing bottles at night. At the same time, I have been Maeve's primary food source for a year and being away from her for longer than a couple of hours usually requires a lot of planning (she's never warmed up to taking a bottle). As much as I love having so much time with Maeve I get few breaks during the day and have sometimes wished for more intellectual stimulation during my days. "I just wish I had a meeting to go to!" I lamented to Chris one day. I don't actually wish I had the obligations that a meeting and a job bring with it. But days with a baby can be a bit boring and lack a feeling of accomplishment. Listening to audiobooks has also been a great way for me to have something intellectual for myself while also parenting a baby. As Maeve gets older I'm going to enjoy our days even more. I'm looking forward to play dates, library story time, and activities like play-dough. I would also like to find a babysitter to care for her at our house for 8 to 10 hours per week to give me consistent work time.
When people ask me about quitting my job I think perhaps they might want to know if I'm happier now that I don't work full time or if I feel that not working is "better." What I can say is that in this season of life and given my passion for writing and podcasting I do feel more fulfillment in my current situation of not working full time for someone else. I have not regretted quitting my job and it felt like the right decision for me and our family. But I see that as speaking only to my personal situation and not anyone else's. I also want to acknowledge that having the choice to quit my job and to still have a household income of almost $150,000 (Chris's current salary, or our salary as he sees it) is incredibly privileged and I recognize that.
For any other parents out there who are considering working more or working less what I would encourage is to consider what brings you fulfillment. Thinking about fulfillment shifts the conversation from working versus not working, which has never been a productive conversation. We don't expect all working adults to enjoy the same job so why would we expect all parents (ahem, all mothers) to find fulfillment in identical ways. While I enjoy having more time to actively parent I would not find as much fulfillment in my life if I was not also working on writing and podcasting. Knowing that helps me to prioritize those things which in turn make me a happier person and a better parent. If a financial situation allows for the choice to work, work less, or not work outside the home I wish that we could see the worthwhile contributions that a mother makes in any of those situations.
Okay, that was a lot of words! Over 3,000! I really did have a lot to say. Sitting down and working this all out in words is something I've been wanting to do for a while. Thank you to the readers who asked about my experience and gently nudged me towards finally capturing it.