In this yearlong series, a stay-at home mom chronicles her youngest daughter’s senior year of high school and the college admissions process. She also relates her parallel journey as she prepares for an empty nest and considers what to do with the rest of her life now that her stay-at-home job is ending.
For me, August always signals the beginning of the end of summer. The days are becoming visibly shorter. Back-to-school commercials begin to air. Fall decorations pop up in stores.
This August, though, signals an even bigger ending for me. My youngest child is preparing for her senior year of high school. A year from now, I will be an empty nester, at least part time, while she is in college.
Eighteen years ago, I decided to leave my job as the managing editor of a small New York publishing company to become a stay-at-home mother. I already had a 3-year-old daughter, and I was four months pregnant with my younger daughter at the time. I wasn’t enjoying my job as I once did, and, because I lived in New Jersey, I was beginning to see that a two-hour commute each way plus caring for two children would be very difficult. It had been hard enough with one child.
My husband and I believed we couldn’t afford to live on one income, but we decided to take a risk—I would stay home for one year, the first year of this baby’s life, and then I would find a new job that I liked better and would, hopefully, be closer to home. “One year, that’s it,” I told my husband the night before I went into my office to give my notice.
One year turned into two turned into five turned into ten turned into eighteen. Along the way, when times were tight financially, I looked into going back to work. I interviewed on and off, was even offered a couple of positions. But each time, I resisted. No matter the financial pressure—and I recognized how lucky I was to even have a choice—I loved being home. I was an active volunteer in my girls’ elementary school, then created my own small nonprofit, and eventually, I turned back to my roots—writing—and wrote freelance articles for a local newspaper. I’ve written and self-published three novels and had essays published on various websites. Every year I’ve asked myself, is this the year I go back to work? And every year, I’ve had reasons not to.
My younger daughter has needed my full attention. When people ask me why I don’t work, I’ve corrected them gently—I don’t work outside the home. This has mostly happened at parties and gatherings. I tell them my daughter is my work. And she is. She has needed every minute of every hour of every day that I can give her, even in those hours she’s been at school, and especially in those hours she’s been home.
But now she’s getting ready to go. We toured colleges last year; she’s made her list. She’s done taking SATs and ACTs. She’s asked two teachers for recommendations. She’s itemized her activities. She’s excited to go to college, but full of trepidation. She doesn’t like being away from home, not even to sleep over at a friend’s house. She doesn’t like disruptions in routine. But she also can’t wait to meet new people, to have more control over her schedule, to find a new place to call home.
I’m excitedly helping her with this rite of passage into adulthood. I’m thrilled for her. The big question for her is where she will take her next step. Where will we be taking her next year to start her new life—to the small school, nearly all the way across the country, that offers unique block scheduling? To the liberal arts state school she felt right at home in the minute she set foot on campus for the tour? To the somewhat larger, private college, a four-hour drive away, with so many major options that she won’t have to worry about not having enough choices? What will she be doing, a year from now?
Still another question has arisen for me: What will I be doing this time next year? What is my next step? All of my friends have gone back to work, most of them full time. Some stayed in the game while our kids were in elementary and middle school, utilizing a hodgepodge of day care, friends and babysitters to tide them over until their kids could manage to stay alone on their own. While it was hard for them then, they reap the benefits now—they’ve ramped up their hours, taken on promotions, moved into more demanding positions. Others went back to work after years at home, at first part-time. Still others went back to school for more advanced degrees so they could re-establish themselves in the marketplace. I’ve done none of this.
Will I go back to work? Part-time or full-time? Is it possible for me, in this competitive job market, to even find something? Would it be better if I started volunteering in a field I’m interested in? Or should I take some time to readjust after my daughter leaves? Should I pursue something completely new or stick with what I know? I could write novels forever. Is that enough?
I’m only 47. After 21 years of raising children, of giving them everything I have, my time is coming. But what does my time look like?
It’s the beginning of the end. For both of us.