An Evolving Plan For The SAHM

I used to work in consulting engineering. My annual salary was mid-range, which is standard for the consulting industry. In the field, I operated sampling equipment, fixed broken machines, and oversaw small construction activities. In the office, I reviewed data, wrote technical documents, and managed people, contractors, and budgeting for a variety of projects. I left employment just shy of achieving intermediate status. I had not yet acquired my professional designation, but I had accumulated the time and experience necessary and I simply needed to submit my paperwork.

I was happy enough at my place of business, though I will admit I was feeling like my career direction had become sluggish, with the biggest example being this: several months prior to the beginning of my maternity leave, my final opportunity for a promotion was (perhaps conveniently) deferred - for when I returned to work.

THE OUTLIER

About half-way through my maternity leave, I chose leave my career and become a stay-at-home mother. It didn’t take me long to realize that none of my female colleagues or friends had chosen this path - not a single one. At times, I feel that I am the only woman in my peer group to halt her professional career and take on full time child rearing. To this extent I consider that I may be an outlier among young professional woman - or perhaps simply professional women in STEM-related fields.

DISTILLING A DECISION

Choosing to stay home and raise children was something I always envisioned I would do. My own mother stayed home and I have lots of memories associated with my life growing up with her always around. In fact, most of the woman in both my and my husband’s families (past and present generations) stayed home fulltime to raise children. While this made the decision feel quite natural, it wasn’t at all the reason I stayed home.

First, my husband and I made this decision together and our primary reason was time. Time. What is it that you want to spend your time doing. Our answer was family. Most of our family and many of our friends live several hours out-of-town, and I dedicate a significant amount of time to ensuring that our family sees these people as often as possible and remain emotionally connected. My goal is to make the distance feel as non-existent as possible. No, my mom can’t just pop over to help with the kids so I can take a shower. No, we can’t just have an impromptu family dinner on Sunday night. But I’m not afraid to jump in the car and drive 3 hours and have a sleepover on a day’s whim, because I want to. Because to me, life is who you are when you’re not doing things you’d rather not do.

I’m aware this is not a fully-achievable goal. Things get in the way - illness, skating lessons, just plain wanting to watch a movie at home. But I try, and the kids see me try, and I think that matters a lot. This is a level of effort that is difficult to achieve when your only spare time is weekends free to drive down the highway for a visit, and the thought of being so utterly rushed every night (wake up, kids to daycare, work, kids home from daycare, bedtime, repeat) was truly exhausting for me. So having one parent at home made the most sense for our family.

Second, if I’m being terribly honest, my need to control my own home is borderline pathological and I wanted to be the one to run the show in my own castle. So although my husband also expressed a sincere willingness to be the stay-at-home parent, we agreed that I would be the parent to stay home.

So the decision to stay at home became ultimately this: What do I find truly important right now, and how do I want my life be? I wanted things to slow down enough that we could maximize our time with each other, to wanted to stay as close with our families and friends as possible considering our distance, and I wanted to prevent the everyday of our lives from feeling rushed. For our family, that meant cutting down on work hours and spending more time at home.

THE PLAN

When the baby finally arrived and life started chugging along, things really felt in place. We used my first maternity leave as a trial period and took our time making the final decision that I would stay home. As the maternity leave ended, we prepared for the financial hit that would be the total elimination of income on my part.

The financial logistics were a bit tricky, but reviewing our expenses, altering our mortgage payments, and significantly cutting our daily costs in the beginning made it feasible. I won’t bore you with details here, I basically read every “cost-cutting measures” blog I could Google and unfortunately found that I was already doing virtually all of the suggestions they provided (if one more site tells me to “stop buying a daily latte” I’m going to scream). It boils down to cutting enough costs and frankly being lucky that you’re one remaining income is high enough.

As for how I felt during my first years at home, it was significantly harder than I was expecting but it was all working fine. I would do this stay-at-home gig until we decided we were done. I had been becoming dissatisfied with the direction of my career, but when I one day went back to work I would be ready, refreshed. Sure I’d be a little behind, but I’d keep in touch with coworkers, submit my experience record to acquire my professional designation, participate in some Women in Engineering activities, and maybe even take some extra courses!

I shrink with embarrassment just typing the above paragraph. Life got in the way. There was always something new coming up that took time and energy. Problems with the house, illness, visits, deaths of loved ones, more children. Are these reasons or excuses? I’m not sure it matters. I don’t regret any of it, but clearly the plan had to be changed. I’m not simply going to throw myself back into my profession.

INPUT: “HOMEMAKER”

Seven years into my full time position as ‘mom’ and I now fill out the “employment status” portion of applications as “homemaker” without hesitation. My annual salary is “$0”. I manage medical and social appointments, create meal plans, fix broken household appliances and toys, and organize and reorganize our home for ever-evolving needs of the family. I hack a lot things around my house in an attempt to fine-tune everything so it runs as smoothly as possible. My kids actually think I can fix anything, which is both wonderful and hilarious.

RETURN FROM “UNEMPLOYMENT”.

I’ve rarely been asked the dreaded, “So what do you do all day?” Most reasonable people don’t ask that. Instead, I’m asked “When do you plan to go back to work?” I admit the prospect is becoming more and more intimidating as time increases. Frighteningly, these two questions are loaded and also intertwined. When the time comes that I do, in fact, return to work, I found myself wondering what is it exactly that I have been doing all these years that is worth anything to my potential future employer?

I am unsure what to expect, and suddenly I have questions I didn’t know I’d have. If I simply returned to my old career, will I be returning to a junior level position, with junior level responsibility, and junior level wages? And what about that mysterious but very real “mother penalty” that I’ve read about? The thought isn't overly appealing.   

What exactly does an employer see when they look at someone with a 7 year work experience gap? My resume would basically appear as if time had frozen the moment I left my office. There’s no space in a resume detailing the complete and utter CONSTANT that is being a stay-at-home parent. No space crediting the unending dedication that is being responsible for the well being of people 24-hours a day for years on end with only the occasional date night or rare a weekend away. There’s no space to explain the multitasking experience of feeding a child while cooking a meal while at the same time replacing a kitchen faucet. This is not to say that working parents do not also acquire these skills, it is simply that amount of time they must do it is less. When you are at home constantly, functioning under these conditions becomes all you do, and it never stops.

Although I understand that I have not gained technical experience in my field, I have gained a lot of other experience, grown as a person, and am most definitely not my junior-level self that I was 7 years ago. Surely my resume should reflect more than just an empty time-gap, as if I’ve vanished off the face of the planet. In that time my skills have in the following have increased exponentially:

  • financial management
  • negotiation
  • people and project organisation
  • health & safety
  • appliance repair

Let’s not forget child rearing! The actual raising of humans. In addition, I now consider myself an expert in achieving short term goals while maintaining course on long term targets.

I’ve never been great at writing resumes. But I know there must be space in there for being a competent, mature, and organized person. I just don’t know how to do that. Yet.

CHANGING THE PLAN

It may be hard for me to see it sometimes, being submerged in it for so long, covered in snot and spit food, listening to tantrums, watching eye-rolls, and making endless trips to appointments and the grocery store. But I started this trek for a reason and that reason hasn’t changed: to maximize the time we have together. My first challenge is to remember these reasons and use that time the best I can. And if I can’t, then to use some of that time to make the necessary changes that need to be made to make our life work the way we want it to.

For now, I am going to continue at home because I think the current system is working for us.  But I’m going to have to do some more thinking about how the plan needs to change in order to proceed in the future. I’m not going to jump back into work like nothing happened. I still have a few more years before getting the youngest ones into school, but it won’t be long. Right now I have trouble seeing myself return to consulting engineering, given the time requirements of that specific job. Perhaps other positions allow more flexibility. This is something I need to look into.

But I’ve done new things now, and I’m a new person, and I’m stronger for it. I know there is value in what I am doing, I just have to sort out how to make that valuable to the workforce. So what’s next? Try a different profession? Run a business? Volunteer?

Whatever the answer is, the real question still hasn’t changed: How do I want to spend my time?