Stay at Home or Work? Every Mom’s Big Decision

As I was trying to shovel applesauce into a screaming toddler’s grimacing mouth the other morning, I saw this news segment on TV that asked: Who’s got it worse, working moms or stay at home moms? According to a University of Washington study, stay-at-home moms are more likely to be depressed. But the caveat is that those working moms who try to be super moms–meaning they have unrealistic expectations of work-life balance–were more depressed. The big takeaway being that any way a mommy slices it, she’s likely to run up against depression at one time or another.

I have thought a lot about this question over the past couple of years, as I struggled to decide whether to stay home full time with my wee one or go back to work. I’ve also seen a lot of mommy-friends come up against the same big question–and come up with different answers. But as I look across the spectrum of full-time moms to full-time professionals with kids on the side, one thing is clear: No one has it easy. Each work-life permutation that I’ve come across has moments that are positively overwhelming and definitely worthy of a whimper or two.

Of course I’m painting with a very broad brush, so bear with me, but most of my stay-at-home mommy-friends’ struggles stem from the fact that they are indeed home all the time. While it’s wonderful that they get to spend every waking moment with their precious wee ones, many of them seem to feel that they’ve lost a little of their shimmer and shake along with their connection to the working world. They’ve got a good grip on all things domestic–their laundry baskets aren’t overflowing and the litter box doesn’t stink–but finding things to do and places to go with the wee ones other than the grocery story and Target isn’t exactly easy. Hooking up with playgroups, classes, and activities can be as much work as dating or interviewing for a new job.

Life for working moms, on the other hand, is seriously programmed. From the moment the alarm rings to moment the last kid is in bed, it’s go-go-go time. In a way that’s good because a day can just fly by,  but one small glitch and the wheels are nearly going to fall off. There is absolutely no time for stuff like misplaced keys, runaway dogs, or flat tires. (My mommy meltdown of the week was over a broken back gate.) There’s so little time to take care of the basics that anything that requires extra, special, or immediate attention feels like a way bigger deal than it probably truly is. But having way too much to do in way too little time is the reality.

So, whether its about feeling invisible or inadequate, life for any mom, regardless of employment situation, can be stressful if not downright depressing. This realization begs the question whether there can really ever be a good work-life balance.

One of my brother-in-laws had a very good “dad” response to that question. He said that he knew he was close to striking that point when he felt like he was just doing in his estimation “good”–not fantastic or great but not bad or terrible either. It sounds a little depressing, but I get what he meant. It’s like if he was being a super star at work, he knew he wasn’t being the dad he wanted to be. And if he was being super dad, he probably wasn’t putting in the time or effort at his job that he should. So, when he was doing well enough, that was balance. I guess that makes him the good-enough father before there was the good-enough mother.

While I think that’s a truly honest assessment of the situation most young parents find themselves in, it’s not exactly prescriptive. The best how-to advice I ever heard was unsurprisingly from my best friend. (It’s always funny to me that you never really have to go far for good advice.) As an executive at a well respected, Fortune 1000 company, she’s definitely corporate to the max; however, she’s also a great mom who adores being with her kids, so she knows all too well how delicate that balance between a successful career and home life is. As I was blubbering to her about my decision to work or not to work, she finally told me the way she would have it, if she could: work 3-4 days a week, with the flexibility to work from home, and limited travel. And it dawned on me–isn’t that the way most mommies would have it? You’re home enough, but not too much, you have a little bit of income, and you still stay connected to the world that’s 18 and older.

But sadly, few of us are afforded that luxury of flexibility and those that have it cherish it. A lot of school teachers have a pretty good gig, working the same hours that their kids are in school and then summers off. But I learned recently that most female doctors only work three days a week because of this issue of family, and I instantly regretted my career decision. I certainly could have made a lot more money for the years I spent in school and have as close to a perfect work-life balance as possible. But I’ve got to imagine, or at least hope, that maybe the business world is in the process of changing to accommodate families needs to have moms and breadwinners. Maybe by the time Gen Y decides to have kids, the flex schedule will be more commonplace than it would seem today. Because the reality, at least according to that University of Washington study, is that as a mommy, you’re far from escaping depression at some point, no matter if you’re at home or at work.

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6 Comments

Filed under baby blues, family, moms, stay-at-home moms, working mom

6 responses to “Stay at Home or Work? Every Mom’s Big Decision

  1. I worked until earlier this year when I became disabled. I can truly say that I love being home with my children and don’t even really think about work anymore. The experiences I’ve been at home to see are priceless.

    • No doubt! And you point out exactly the reason so many moms decide to give up jobs they love–they value those experiences with their wee ones more. It’s never an easy decision, but in the end, most mommies end up doing the best thing for their families that they can given whatever the circumstances. Thanks for the comment!

  2. Martha O'Donnell

    Excellent–bravo pour mettre un nouvel article! Il y a toujours les situations plus desirables que les autres, mais lesquelles te donneront le bonheur. En ecrivant de la decision de travailler a la maison ou au bureau ou aux deux, ca te fais reflechir a ce que tu veux.
    Bien fait, ma petite,
    Maman

  3. The question of whether to work or not is difficult enough. But when you have to consider the possibility of having another child, it just makes things even more complicated. Do I start looking for a job now, knowing that it’s possible I’ll be pregnant again in a few months? Do I put it off until that child is born and a bit grown, which mean another 2 years at least? All hypothetical, of course. We’re not at all ready to look beyond M. But I can appreciate the complexity of the decision making process at work. That’s why I’m not going there, yet.

  4. I think you make a great point. And I think that’s exactly how mom’s who start out saying they are going to take a 2-year hiatus from working to be with their first never end up going back to work. Life just gets in the way. But really isn’t that whole I’ll-go-back-to-work-when-my-kid-is-bigger thing a total myth? I don’t see how your kid needs you any less at 3 than at 3 months. The needs are different, yes, but are they any less? I don’t think so. So maybe that’s really something that a lot of moms tell themselves because deep down they are torn about deciding to stay at home in the first place. But out of all the moms I know, only a select few have been able to reintegrate into the workforce after taking time off to raise a baby (or in many cases babies). And really those who have gone to work have gone back on a part-time or consultancy basis, which goes back to my whole thing about finding balance between working and staying at home. I don’t really know what all that adds up to–it’s just what I’ve observed–but maybe it just means that most women who decide to stay home end up finding out that they’re good at it and it’s rewarding enough to not worry about the paycheck.

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