Finding Fulfillment Now That My Kids Are In School

by Sarah Tornah Roberts for Ravishly
wundervisuals / iStock

A stack of papers, color-coded and stapled together are sitting on my kitchen counter. I have two-ish weeks to fill them out and turn them back in, but frankly if it takes me more than 24 hours, I’ll be shocked.

My baby is going to kindergarten. He’s the youngest of our four boys, and for a while, I was dreading this monumental event. No more babies at home? Everyone off and running, kind-of-sort-of living their own little lives? The idea has taken some getting used to, but now that I’m at the filling-out-paperwork stage, I can’t help but begin to imagine all the possibilities.

I’m not the only one who has realized that a new chapter is about to open up for me and our family. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard from friends, family, acquaintances, and even strangers, “Well, well. What are you going to do with yourself?”

And that is when I start to squirm, and I start to scramble. Inevitably, I stammer that I’ll have a lot more time to volunteer at the school, or that maybe I’ll take my CBEST and become a substitute teacher—part-time work with the flexibility I need.

“I’m sure I’ll find something,” I murmur.

As I stumble over my response to this constant question, people respond with knowing and approving nods: Yes, of course. This is what we do once our babies are out from under our wing. We follow them on their way. We go to the aquarium, we run play center time, and we create class parties straight from the pages of Pinterest.

And while all of these things are excellent, necessary, and noble things to do, the truth is, I have very little intention of doing them with any regularity. I do plan on volunteering at the school more frequently—as in, twice a month, which is twice as many times as I currently volunteer. I seriously doubt I’ll become a sub, because I don’t really want to.

In reality, I have my eye on a little coffee shop just down the block from the school where I can set up shop and chase some dreams. And yet, I can’t seem to confess this to the many inquiring voices when they wonder aloud how I will fill my hours now that my kids will all be in school.

Some of my hesitancy certainly stems from fear of failure. If my writing career flops, I’d rather not have it do so with the whole PTA and my extended family in the front row. But I think there’s more to it. I suspect that what I’m responding to with my canned answers is a felt expectation that having had the privilege of staying home with my children for the last decade, I am best suited for continued self-sacrifice. In short, I should take my mothering to the school grounds or get a “real” job.

For the last decade, I’ve been in the trenches of motherhood. I’ve been pregnant, nursing, chasing toddlers, managing special needs in-home therapies, and picking up after kids all day, every day. It’s been an enormous privilege and absolutely my choice, but it’s also been one of the most demanding seasons of my life.

I have squeezed in time here and there to write and (occasionally) be published. But once upon a time, before kids, the plan wasn’t to be a part-time writer: The plan was to write full-time. With all the kids in school, it’s the first opportunity I will have to come close to achieving that goal. And I’m going to seize it.

I am grateful for those who find fulfillment and their true calling in coming alongside our schools and remarkable teachers. I am astounded by their generosity and the joy they have in making my kids’ school experience a little more special. Time and energy poured into our schools is a valid and honorable choice. But I also firmly believe that turning these sacrifices and choices into an unstated expectation of motherhood is not only fertile ground for shame and guilt, it also perpetuates a misogynistic message that most of us reject. It goes something like this:

Sure, women can be ambitious.

Sure, women can have dreams. Until they have children.

I’m not saying having children doesn’t change things. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t reevaluate our life choices as we build our families. What I am saying is that we must stop hinting to cisgender women that once they’ve had kids, their lives are laid out for them.

They can continue to pour themselves into nurturing the next generation during all their waking hours, or they can find a job that doesn’t interfere with their family life too much. But dreams and risks and coffee shops while their kid’s teacher could really use an extra set of hands? Nonsense. Immature. Selfish.

I’m telling my sons a different story, one I actually believe in. It goes something like this:

Yes, women are ambitious.

Yes, women have dreams. Watch.