I was a full-time SAHM for almost 10 years. Aside from a few hours a week when grandma babysat, I was around my kids all. the. freaking. time. We had no paid babysitters. It was all me. I knew about every morsel of food that passed their lips, every time they pooped or peed, and the intricacies of each of their moods.
Okay, some of that is a slight exaggeration, but when you are a SAHM to little ones, you are entrenched. You’re fully tied up in your kids’ lives, for better or worse. And I’m not going to lie: Sometimes has been hard — damn hard — to be that wrapped up in the chaos of raising two rowdy, beautiful boys.
Still, as my youngest got older and started school, I was prepared to be pretty sad about leaving the role of full-time SAHM mom behind. Like, buckets and buckets of tears kind as I dropped my little guy off at pre-K for the first time kind of sad.
But that’s not what happened. At all. Instead, I breathed a great big sigh of relief after I walked out the door. I could not believe how overjoyed I was to have a few hours to myself each day.
Well, not all to myself exactly because I work (from home) during every free minute when my kids are at school. My family needs the money (in fact, being a SAHM for so long really put a financial strain on our family, even though it was the right thing for us in many ways). And I was fortunate to find work I can do at home, and I work my ass off doing it.
But the thing that surprises me most is not only how much I love working (the silence, the feeling of accomplishment, the cashing of my checks — oh my!), but the way parenting would feel so much harder once I began working.
All of a sudden, my kids seem more difficult than ever. And I know it’s not because they have changed. Their behavior hasn’t deteriorated in the past few years or so that I’ve started to work more. They are the same energetic, opinionated, creative, talk-about-everything-under-the-sun-until-my-ears-fall-off-and-destroy-the-house-at-the-same-time selves.
They haven’t changed, but I have.
Maybe it’s that being in a silent room working at a computer for 25 hours a week has lowered my tolerance to the loud chaos of children. Perhaps it’s the stark contrast that gets to me. Maybe I haven’t mastered the art of transitioning between work and home yet.
But maybe it’s that even though I’m working, I still have to take care of most of the housework as well as the “mental load” of running a household. Maybe it’s that my kids still need me more than anyone to tend to their emotional needs, and I feel that pressure pounding down on me as soon as I see them after our days apart.
It turns out that I am not alone though. I recently stumbled on a 2014 study from Penn State University that found both men and women had lower levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) during the work week than they did when they spent time at home on the weekends. The same was true of parents who worked, men and women alike.
But even though both men and women experienced the same levels of stress as evidenced by their cortisol levels, women reported feeling much less happy at home than they did at work. On the other hand, men reported feeling happier at home than they did at work!
Go figure, right?
The study does not explain the reasons for these findings, but I venture to guess it has a little something to do with the fact that regardless of whether women work outside the home, they are always the default person responsible for everything that goes on in their home — from child care, to housework, to managing the family calendar.
And maybe that’s part of my problem. Even though I have cut back in my role as a SAHM, I still have most of the responsibilities of one. And the truth is, sitting in my little home office clicking away at the computer is a respite from all of that.
I am not sure what the answer is. I am blessed with a husband who wants to help and does. But it doesn’t exactly come easy for him. I have to remind him to do almost everything he does around the house, and that is a chore in and of itself.
He does as much child care as I do (and I don’t have to remind him to do that, thank goodness). But he does work more hours outside the home than than I do and at a more grueling job than I have. He’s a teacher, and he literally gets no breaks from kids during the day, so it’s hard to expect much more from him.
I hate that this is such a gendered issue — that women shoulder the burden of the home and of parenting to such a greater extent than men do. I know that there are tons of men who are out there trying to step up to the plate. But I also know that our culture is so steeped in age-old stereotypes and structures for how this is all supposed to work, and that it is very difficult for any of us to truly break free.
I thought becoming a working mom would mean that I would somehow be freed from at least some of the responsibilities of motherhood and home life. But what I found is the opposite, and I’m still trying to reconcile that — to figure out a way to create a better balance of work and home life for myself.
I may not get that ever — or at least not until my kids are older or out of the house. But I also know that I — we — can do better when it comes to divvying up the responsibilities of child care and housework equally among all of our family members (yes, including children!).
We mothers deserve to have a lot more of that burden lifted from our shoulders.
Maybe it’ll just take time. I’m still finding my groove as a working mom. I’m pretty new to it, and I know I don’t have all the answers right now when it comes to work/life balance. Not by any means.
But at least I know I’m not alone.