woman holding baby while in a baby wrap

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After your sweet baby make his/her debut and the maternity leave dwindles down to nothing, many woman are faced with a choice: Return to work, or stay at home. Sometimes the decision is as simple as the cost of child care versus salary. Then there are the deeper questions some mothers are afraid to answer.

Do I want to stay home?

Will I miss my career?

What if I miss huge milestones in my child’s life?

My decision to leave teaching was agonizing. I felt like i was choosing to waste my education and talents, not to mention leaving 55+ students in the hands of a sub for a short time. I felt guilty that I really wanted to keep working after I had been given the choice many mothers would jump at.

Then I saw my son’s newborn face. I knew I couldn’t leave him, but I can’t tell you how many days I woke up and wished I was going to work, if only for the privilege of going to the bathroom alone. I know I made the best decision for my family, and I have the rest of my life to teach, but I often wonder what my life would be like if I had made a different decision. I was so excited to pick the brains of three successful working mothers, to catch a glimpse of what it’s really like. Below are very honest answers from:

Dana: A new principal and mama

Chelsea: A seasoned nurse and mother of two

Rachel: A veteran principal and mother of four

What are your children’s ages?

Dana: 11-month old boy

Chelsea: 3 year old boy and a 12 week old boy

Rachel: 18, 9, 6, and 18 months–all girls

If you could be a stay at home mom tomorrow, would you? Why?

Dana: I don’t want this to sound awful, but I’m not sure that I want to be a stay at home mom. I feel my job as an assistant principal gives me a separate identity. For such a long time, my work was my pride and joy. Now, my sweet baby boy is, but I still have to have some sort of normalcy to function. Also, my baby doesn’t need to be around me all the time. It’s not healthy. I feel as if my job gives me a bit of an edge, especially when I deal with troubled students. I see the situations they’re in and think how could I stop that from happening to my little one. I’m not so naive to think I could stop bad things from happening, I just feel that I have a little more of leg up on most situations.

Chelsea : Absolutely!  I love being a momma, even though it’s the hardest job I’ve ever had.  It seems like time is passing so quickly. Every stage is gone in the blink of an eye, and they’re doing new things every day.  I just don’t want to miss anything. I also feel that as a working mom, my focus is never completely in one place. At work, I’m thinking of my kids and things I need to be doing at home.  At home, things of work are weighing on my mind. I feel like I can never be 100% present in either place, no matter how hard I try.

Rachel: In an ideal situation, I would stay at home the first year of infancy.  I realize how fast the baby stage ends, and this is the time when they learn so much.  I also feel like this is a bonding time. Additionally, it is much easier to breastfeed for the first year when you are able to be with your baby throughout the day.  Now I have children in school, and my role as an educator allows me to be more involved with their education. That is a blessing to me and makes my work even more meaningful through the lens of a parent.  I am blessed with a career that allows me to be with my school-aged children when they are out of school. Because of the career I chose, my job doesn’t detract from parenting as much as other careers might.  I also realize that the adult contact and structure I have at work, while it can be stressful at times, can also be a healthy escape from the high-energy task of raising multiple children who sometimes argue and challenge the rules.  I need adult contact during the day personally, and this is something I’ve come to accept about my personality. Extended breaks such as summer break and Christmas break have illustrated my personal need to have a balance of time with and away from my children.  While I enjoy being with them when I am able, I think they need time that is independent from me as much as I need time to utilize my talents outside of the home. For this reason, I would not be a stay-at-home mom at this point in my children’s life even if it was a possibility.

Do you feel you have gifts or talents you only get to express at work? What are they?

person doing paperwork in front of a computer

Dana: Yes, I absolutely love my job. I love diving into the curriculum, finding problem areas, defining solutions, and working with colleagues. I love knowing that I’m inadvertently having an impact on students.

Chelsea : I wouldn’t necessarily say “gifts or talents,” but I do feel like I don’t use any critical thinking or certain skills outside of work.

Rachel: Yes, I love the part of my job that deals with student learning and curriculum.  I feel this is a strength that fits perfectly with the line of work I chose.

“Mom guilt” is pretty universal. What is the worst part about “working mom guilt”?

Dana: I definitely have “mom guilt.” I mostly have it when I have to be gone away from home. My son knows, I think, that during the week he’s with his babysitter. He enjoys going and playing with his 4 year old niece. It’s the highlight of this day. But, for me, it’s gut-wrenching to walk away knowing I’m missing out on lots of fun and milestones.

Chelsea : I guess I would say universally, we all feel like we’re going to screw up our kids at any given moment.  None of us are perfect, but one thing I feel like differentiates working mom guilt is that, for me anyway, it is centered around being “absent” from our kids’ lives.  I use that term loosely, but it feels enormous for me. “Absent” from their days, yet I wake them up, get them dressed and fed, drop them off at daycare, pick them up immediately after work, feed them, bathe them, and put them to bed.  So not totally absent, but it feels like Monday through Friday, our lives are hurried with every single moment scheduled. There’s not a whole lot of time to sit and play and snuggle. When we get home, it’s immediately time to cook dinner.  We eat, clean up the kitchen, then basically go straight into bath time and bedtime routines.

Rachel: “Mom guilt” is very real!  When my children are sick and I am unable to stay at home with them because of obligations at work, I most certainly feel guilt.  I also feel guilty when I work late at night at parent involvement functions at the school. Sometimes these can pull me away from my family one or two nights a week.  The worst part of my “mom guilt,” however, is when I have an extremely stressful day at work and that stress affects the way I interact with my kids at home. Some days I give my best at work and feel like my kids get the stressed and exhausted version of their mother.  Letting go of work and focusing on my children at night is the most difficult part of the guilt I face as a working mother. I have to battle my stress and exhaustion to give them my best many, but not all, days.

How would life be different if you had stayed home?

Dana: I think if I had stayed home I would have gotten to see all the firsts and the milestones I am currently missing. Although I love those things, it comes at a cost. I also would have lost my own personality, the person that everyone knew before becoming a mother. There has to be a healthy balance. I want to be a great mom for my sweet boy but also be a great leader for my school.

Chelsea : Mothering-wise, I feel like I would know everything about my children.  As it is now, I depend on a daycare teacher to let me know if one of my boys is struggling in some way, if they had a bad dream at naptime, a potty accident, etc.  There is a certain level of control I have to relinquish by allowing someone else to care for my children 9 hours a day.

Rachel: I like think if I had stayed home I would be able to give my children the best version of myself every day because they would be my only priority.  They would get 100% rather than what I have left within me after the strain of my job takes what energy and focus it demands. I would like to think I would be “super-mom” with a perfectly organized and clean home, a full-course meal every day, and a calmer demeanor.  This is probably not accurate, however, because I also know that being a stay-at-home mom comes with its own set of stress and worry. I feel like I would strive for perfection and fail, which would cause a new set of frustration and “mom guilt” even if I stayed home. “Mom guilt” is most likely inescapable no matter the situation.  When you care deeply about something and fail to be perfect, guilt tends to creep its way into your mentality.

What is different about your career pre and post children?

woman;s hands holding a cell phone in front of a computer

Dana: I am certainly more understanding and compassionate when it comes to children. I know that children come from all walks of life, and often they carry the burdens. Prior to having a child, I was more critical. To me, everything was black and white, there was not grey. I didn’t want to hear excuses and cared less about feelings. Looking back, it’s almost embarrassing to me. I should have been more open-minded rather than so narrowed in my viewpoints.

Chelsea : Pre-children, I was always the first to volunteer to travel for conferences or meetings.  I would offer to stay late to work on a project or pick up extra shifts. I never missed a day of work except for vacations that had been planned well in advance.  Post-children, if I can get out of work early, I’m gone. I’d much rather dedicate any extra time to my children than my job. I’ve turned down several opportunities to travel for work because I don’t want to be away from home overnight.  I’ve had to miss days unexpectedly when a child wakes up sick or leave early when the daycare calls and says he isn’t feeling well. I do truly love the work I do, but at this point in my life, I feel that my children need me more. Thankfully, my supervisor is a parent and is extremely understanding when such things arise.

Rachel: Because I work closely with students and parents, I think having children of my own has given me much more insight into my career.  I have begun to realize that although learning is important, a parent wants first and foremost for her child to be loved and safe. Looking at situations I deal with at school through the lens of a parent has “softened” me and caused me to look at more than just students’ behavior and learning.  I am able to see more clearly the “whole child” and have become more aware of mental health needs and social needs of students. Being a parent myself, I am more tuned-in to what parents are really saying when they call me about an issue. For example, I now know that when parents call to complain about discipline a child received, the underlying message is usually not “do not punish my child–my  child does nothing wrong” as I once believed. Parents are often saying, “I am afraid that you do not like my child because of his actions. Please assure me there is love and concern for my child behind this punishment.” Knowing this has strengthened the relationships I have been able to develop with parents of students who struggle socially, behaviorally, and academically. In many ways I feel like my work is an extension of my motherhood to more children than just my own.

What is the most rewarding part of working?

Dana: Simply stated, I love the fact that I’m changing lives by changing the atmosphere around these students. I love working and seeing the smiling faces of middles school students. I love knowing that they come to me just to talk, because I’ve either taught them or know their situation. I love knowing I’m their safe place and that I will never allow something to happen to them.

Chelsea : I guess I would say the most rewarding part of being a working mom is just knowing that I’m helping take care of my family financially.  Maybe they’ll look back and see that their mom worked hard to make sure they were cared for and had all the things they needed. When I’m recognized at work or have a patient who lets me know I made a difference in their life somehow, it helps sort of ease the guilt and pain of being away from my babies.

Rachel: For me the most rewarding part of working is seeing the impact that I can have on children in my community.  My work allows me to reach beyond the walls of my home. For me the reward is and has always been when students become successful in life because of the skill set they have obtained in school.  To know that the relationships we build with students can be that powerful is a humbling thing.

Have you missed milestones in your children’s lives? How did you react?

Dana: Yes, I have missed a few milestones. One of which included my son rolling back to front and front to back. The sitter that I have thought I had already seen him to do that, but I hadn’t. So, when I went to pick him up, she was all excited about him rolling over. It wasn’t until she looked at my face did she realize what she’d done. I have to admit it, I teared up. She profusely apologized and said she would never tell me another first. She would just wait until I told her. So, I may have overreacted, but that was my last first for that particular event. Now, I’m much more okay with the fact that she sees things I don’t. I know that my son is being cared for and loved. That’s about all I can ask for.

Chelsea : To my knowledge, I haven’t missed any major milestones.  When my oldest was a baby, his teacher and I had an understanding that I did not want to know if he had any “firsts” at daycare.  Haha. They understand how I feel as a working mother, and as much as they love my babies, they make it a point to let me celebrate the “firsts.”  The first time rolling over, crawling, or first steps. So truthfully, I may have very well missed some, but so far, no one has made me aware of it yet.

Rachel: I have missed a first step and one of my daughter’s first time to sit up on her own.  For whatever reason, both times I was incredibly proud rather than upset that I had missed it.  I want my daughters to be independent and strong while still having a strong bond with me. In both of the milestones that I missed, the in-home babysitter that I had so carefully chosen sent me a video.  I remember being so excited to get home from work so my daughters could show me what they had learned how to do.

Imagine it’s the day before the birth of your first child. What do you tell pre baby you?

a man and woman walking down a road lined with trees with one small child and a baby carried by the woman

Dana: You can handle this. There is no guidebook for raising a child, you just have to love them. There will be difficult times, probably more than you can count, but it’s how you come out of those difficult times that matter. You are not perfect, contrary to popular belief. You are going to do fine, and this child will love you no matter how much you think you’ve messed up.

Chelsea : Things aren’t going to be perfect nor are they going to go as you’d planned.  It’s still going to be okay. Your baby is going to thrive, even though breastfeeding isn’t going to work out, so don’t go into a guilt-ridden depression.  He’s going to be perfectly healthy, even though you’ll never use the baby bullet you bought to make homemade baby food, so don’t beat yourself up. Despite the times you feel like you’ve failed him in the biggest ways possible, he will love you more than you ever thought imaginable.

Rachel: EVERYONE has opinions about how you should raise your child.  Trust yourself. You are prepared and capable, and you know better than anyone in this world how to care for this child you have been given.  Do not doubt your instincts or your abilities. Be immune to criticism, shaming, and unwanted advice. Smile politely and shrug it off. You are the one chosen and qualified by God to raise this child.  Do not hold yourself to an impossible standard because the perfect mother does not exist (still telling myself this daily).

Women in the workforce get asked some pretty offensive questions. What is the most offensive thing someone has said or asked in regards to your motherhood? No need to name names. How did you respond (or how do you wish you would have responded)

Dana: Honestly, I had nothing but support. I supposed it stems from the fact that I had been married almost ten years and most people had just about given up on me ever having a baby. I was still teaching when I found out I was pregnant, and fortunately, students and parents were extremely supportive.

Chelsea : When my oldest was two, he went through this phase at school where he was crying uncontrollably at drop off and at lunch.  His teachers and I had all been trying to figure out what had changed or if anything had happened that could have triggered this, but nothing seemed out of the ordinary.  I dropped him off one morning and he was yelling that his leg was broken (although he was walking perfectly fine). I was already upset at having to leave him at school crying and not knowing what was going on with him refusing lunch.  I walked into work and rode the elevator with a coworker, whose children were much older. She asked how I was, and I spilled my guts on everything going on with my boy. She looked at me and told me point blank it was because I was working instead of spending time with him.  That he needed me, and I was at work instead of home where I should be. I walked into my office, sat at my desk and cried because I was at work instead of home with him where I longed to be. There are other instances where people have said things that offended me at the time, but this particular day stands out because I think it made me feel worse than any other encounter.  I wish that I had the right response then, and I wish I did now.

The truth is, my heart longs to be at home with my boys, but my husband is not on board with that.  He feels that we both need to be working full time, so we are. It’s hard to not hold that against him, especially when I have friends whose husbands absolutely want their wives to stay home and take care of the house and children.  So I guess one thing I didn’t expect is for such comments towards me being a working mom to end up affecting my marriage and/or feelings towards my husband. I do love him, and I respect him. I focus on the positives of my job- the purpose and productivity I feel there as well as the friendships- to help with any guilt, sadness, or discontentment related to being a working mom.  It would be easy to dwell in the dissatisfaction of the situation, but when I embrace being a working momma, my children have a much happier and joyful momma around.

Rachel: The most offensive thing said to me as a working mother was when I found out I was pregnant with my first child.  The parent of one of my students groaned when she found out I was expecting and asked how long I was planning to be out. She complained that her child would be having to deal with a substitute, which would make for a hard year for her.  I thought to myself, “Why can I not do what’s best for my child? Why must your child come before mine? Your child has a mother, and my child needs hers during her first weeks of life. Am I not allowed to be joyful about having the baby I have prayed for?”  I felt like as a mother herself, she should understand that every baby deserves the focus and attention of her mother when she is born. I wondered how this parent could be so selfish. Looking back on this incident, I know now that mothers do tend to instinctively put our own child’s needs first.  This is exactly what this mom was doing when she made an insensitive and poorly worded comment. I can understand why she thought it, but I still think she shouldn’t have said it aloud. When I came back after my six weeks of maternity leave, this same parent was so complimentary of my teaching and so very helpful to me.   Maybe it was guilt over the hurtful comment, but probably it was her primal need to have what she feels is best for her child. We mothers can all be that way sometimes. Forgiveness granted. 🙂

Thank You

Thank you to all three ladies for being vulnerable and so honest. My hope is that someone reading this will see themselves in one of us, and will have the confidence to make the best decision for their family.  

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