I have always been raised on a path toward a successful, full-time career. My parents and I have talked about it since I was young. I am the oldest daughter with only one other sibling who was very ill for much of her childhood, so as a kid I spent a lot of time as my parents’ sole helper. Living on a farm, there was never a shortage of work to be done, and I was expected to pull my weight and do a good job. “We have to go fix the fence” is still a phrase that haunts an occasional nightmare. My parents taught me that I could do any work I put my mind to and always wanted me to be successful. As I began to excel in school they challenged me to pursue my dreams and always pushed me to go to college and to have a career someday.
Yet as I went into my sophomore year of college, the decision to pursue a full-time career began to weigh on me. I had spent the past year working with first-grade students at an elementary school in Ypsilanti through the America Reads program and felt an immense amount of satisfaction from the relationships I created with them. This experience helped me to realize how much I truly yearn for a family someday, and thus I began to face the gnawing question of what type of mother I wanted to be.
All of a sudden I began to ask myself: Would I feel more fulfilled staying at home with my kids, if financially possible? Would I feel more fulfilled being there with them through every milestone in their youth, being the one to teach them to walk, talk, read and write? While I know so many wonderful working mothers, and know many children raised by two working parents who admire them immensely and are proud of all the skills they gained from that lifestyle, I began to wonder if trying to work full-time and raise a family would be right for me or would create the kind of family dynamic that I want to have as an adult.
My mother stayed home with my sister and I most of our childhood, but as we entered high school she re-entered the workforce. This dynamic completely changed how our family functioned. Even with all of us picking up more of the workload at home with chores, cooking and cleaning, things weren’t the same. Now both of our parents came home tired, more irritable and distracted after long days of work, missed some of our extracurricular events and couldn’t always answer our phone calls or be around on weekends. The feelings associated with this change were no doubt accentuated by a lifetime of taking all that my mother did for us at home for granted. Yet as I looked back, I began to reflect on how fundamental she was throughout all of the seemingly mundane day-to-day parts of my childhood.
During my infancy, she read and talked to me constantly as she went about her day. As I grew older she was able to make me healthy homemade lunches, drop me off at school and pick me up if I got injured or sick. She sat with me through hours of homework, took my sister and I on fun adventures in the summertime and we read books all the time. Because of her influence, I began watching the news and became invested in politics long before I finished elementary school. I’ve always known that she fueled my passion for history and politics through her own, but I never stopped to consider how different my childhood could have been if she had been working 40-hour weeks just like my dad all that time. While many modern childcare providers provide excellent education and care for young children, if one can afford it (and that is a big if), I feel that these benefits couldn’t have replaced the strong relationship I developed with my mother or the family values she cultivated in me everyday.
Studies have found that children “who spend long hours in child care may experience more stress and are at increased risk of becoming overly aggressive and developing other behavior problems.” While competing studies have shown that there may be benefits for children of working parents, especially daughters of working mothers, due to increased independence and having a working mother as a positive role model, others have continued to question the importance of the role of a stay-at-home parent. The better economic situation of having two incomes can often benefit a child’s education, while the lack of parental attention can lead to feelings of neglect and troubled inter-family relationships later on in a child’s life.
All of this conflicting literature, however, hasn’t changed how I feel about potentially staying home with my kids. My only fear is that if I make the choice to stay home, I will lose the respect of many of the career women around me. Even on campus I have heard many young women make negative comments about stay-at-home mothers that concern me when I consider that these peers will be the women that surround me as an adult as well.
My mother faced the scrutiny and judgment of career women in our communities who treated her as if her life was easy and raising kids full-time wasn’t a respectable choice. She was scolded by women around her as if she were a failure to feminism, a sentiment that many women who choose to stay at home claim to share. These particular women seemed to hold the opinion that because women had access to work they had a responsibility to permanently shed homemaking and stay-at-home motherhood all together. So much of third and fourth-wave feminist theory claims to be embracing the liberal mantras of intersectionality, diversity and inclusion, and yet they exclude the increasing number of women who make the choice to stay home.
My hope is that by the time I am in a position to make that choice, if it becomes financially available to me, I will have the appreciation and respect of not only my spouse and parents, but of the women around me too. I don’t want to feel as if I have failed anybody’s expectations and it is sad to think that making the choice to stay home and raise kids is seen as a failure in our modern world. While I am immensely grateful to live in a time where I have the opportunity to choose to enter the workforce full time in nearly any career field I would like, it doesn’t mean that I have to make this choice simply to buck traditional values. In fact, I hope that modern America can learn to respect families and women who still choose traditional values and stay-at-home motherhood instead of shaming them the way my mother and other stay-at-home mothers I know have been shamed. While the choice may not be for everyone, I know one thing for certain: I have nothing but respect and admiration for the work my mother did in raising my sister and me, and she deserves that respect not just from me but from other women as well.
Abbie Berringer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.