One last word

One evening, I accompanied my husband to an event with his firm. I usually don’t attend these events, but it was the Tennis Masters in a suite at the London O2 Arena, so I thought why not. Kids kept me busy at home and it sounded like a nice change of scenery for one night. So I went and we mingled with the bankers, while really trying to catch the actual action on the court. During a break, one man asked me where I was working. I answered that I was actually at home with our children. The guy looked at me, mumbled something like Oh, and then turned around. He literally left me there like I was not worth talking to.

My name is Jo and I am a stay-at-home mom. What I would really like is to stop feeling bad about it.

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This is an exciting time to be a woman. Beyond a 90’s girls band and a marketing tool, girl power has taken off big time. Today more than ever we count more girls in college, more women in politics, more female entrepreneurs and CEOs.

The fight for salary equality for the same work between men and women, though not yet achieved, is gathering strength from all sexes. I can’t begin to count how many articles I have read in my favorite magazines about women empowerment, women who ‘made it’, women at work, women mentoring younger women, women leading the way, etc. From Sheryl to Lena to Tina and Amy, we are presented with strong examples of successful women.

As a young woman today, it feels like you can be anything you want. It is inspiring to see this message spread out widely in the media.

The other thing I love is walking my kids to school every morning. My five year old daughter manages to invent entire stories that will last exactly the duration of the school run and always involve role-playing. Her imagination is wild and I love to hold her tiny hand while she explains that she is Princess Leia, I am Darth Vader and her brother Nino is R2D2 because “he is small and can’t talk so well”. I listen to her, and consciously look at her and my son. I feel very lucky.

I am exactly where I want to be. I want to take my kids to school at 9am. I also want to be there at 3pm when she finishes class. I cherish the moment where Stella first sees me waiting – eyes widening and grinning like she just saw Santa. Except it happens every day. We walk home and she explains her day to Nino, who is two and doesn’t understand all but is beaming to see his big sister. I take it all in. It won’t last forever.

Of course all is not pink in paradise, I’ve had my fair share of public tantrums. That moment where the kids won’t stop screaming or crying and it feels like there is no way out. That’s when I wonder why I am not safely at work with humans that won’t throw food at me. But I am getting better at coping with these times. And I don’t regret my choice.

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So why am I so ashamed to be “only” a stay-at-home mom?

I don’t have a job. Well I do, but not one in the sense you’re thinking. And socially, I feel left out. Worse, I feel dumbed down.

I understand that what I do is not rocket science (although sometimes I wonder). My job does not require hardcore calculations. You don’t need a college degree to do it. You can switch off your brain and do most of it. I’ve had days where I would go shopping just to talk to someone who is older than two.

But the time I spend taking care of this little family and the sense of organization I developed in order to make it work is no small feat. Why can’t I be proud of that?

My work as a mother is not easy. I used to be a financial auditor and a management consultant. Let me tell you that being a mom is a lot harder than either. I don’t have to go into any detailed explanation here – anyone with kids will understand. Me, I had no idea. I never imagined that raising children would be this tough on my sleep. I didn’t know that I could feel this clueless or this upset. Not to mention the threat on your relationship. You can find numerous articles and mom blogs detailing #momlife with no sick days, no holidays and no bonus whatsoever. And that’s okay. I chose that.

More than once I’ve been asked what do I do in my spare time when the kids are in school/nursery. But my day is about five hours long so it’s not much time and somehow I am plenty busy.

Sure I go to the gym, I have coffee with girlfriends sometimes at eleven in the morning on a weekday. But it doesn’t mean I don’t do much. It’s not like I could go to the gym on the weekends when the kids are home. Actually, I am a lot busier on weekends than at any other time.

There is no daytime binge watching of House of Cards in my bed, nor days spent at the spa. Even if there was some spare time, does that mean I am a lazy person? Should I feel guilty?

There is this idea that it is not enough. A successful woman should have a great marriage, a great career and a great family. The Big Three. And I understand that it took long enough for women to get the possibility to have their own career. The possibility is and should be celebrated. For decades women were expected to focus on marriage and family. I’ve watched enough episodes of Mad Men to know that it was not necessarily about what women wanted but what was expected of them.

I read a lot of pieces about the Big Three, but they always go the same direction: I have a great career and no children but why should I feel bad for my choice? I think these articles are important because they reflect a contemporary situation about women working hard to obtain a brilliant career and the choices associated with this hard work.

I loved reading that Marissa Mayer got a nursery in her office at Yahoo so she could be with her child and be CEO as well. I thought hey, maybe she has it all figured out!

But it got me wondering if there was a problem with me as I was “just” a mom?

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I can’t pinpoint exactly why I chose to stay at home. But I can see two factors that may have influenced my choice.

First, it was very difficult for me to get pregnant. We went through a number of IVF trials and eventually, after many painful months of needles, blood tests and hormone injections, it worked. I am now the lucky mother of a five year-old girl and a two year-old boy.

The other thing is I was not happy with my career. As a management consultant I was shipped off to various companies and locations without much notice. It was fun for a bit but I started to miss being home. I didn’t like it enough that I would pay someone else to raise my children while I was travelling to solve another company’s crisis. So I stopped working when Stella was born and just never went back. I feel like she needs me. And I need her too.

I feel bad that I don’t make money. I was raised to be an independent woman, professionally and financially. Not earning my own money is against everything I’ve learned. I am not protected and if my marriage ends for whatever reason, it will be harder for me to pick up my finances. I am also not used to ask if I want something (I don’t). Before, I was working, earned my money, bought the shoes. Simple. Now, I don’t receive a paycheck. To make me feel better, my husband demonstrated how much I was bringing home by not paying someone for the hours I spend doing what nannies do in other households. We also made the calculations of the cost of a nanny to bring the kids to school and pick them up so that I could go back to work, should I choose to do that. Basically a large chunk of my salary would disappear that way.

What I wish is to not be looked down on every time I mention that I am home with the kids. I don’t like the look of sympathy I get. Like I am a lot less intelligent than people who have a job.

Hey, guess what? I went to law school, got two Masters’ degrees – in Political Science and Human Rights – and worked in three different countries before I had my children. My previous employers include Ernst & Young and the United Nations. I have nothing to prove. That’s what I want to yell. Instead, I feel stupid.

The shame got the best of me and for a couple of years, I would introduce myself with my previous title: “Oh, I used to be a financial auditor, but now I have small kids, so…” I felt like I was saving face and didn’t appear like the unintelligent person a stay-at-home mum must be.

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I used to live in Tokyo before having kids. In Japan, women who have kids and continue to go to work are completely disregarded. Even worse, they are looked upon by society as bad mothers. Even though things are slowly changing, Japanese women have a long fight ahead. Traditionally, a woman may work until she finds a husband, at which point she should slow down. Finally once kids come around she is expected to stop work completely. Of course, younger generations are changing that. But it is taking time. My point is, I would be a totally respectable person and my choice would be honored, if I lived in Japan. Now, in Paris, London or New York, I am not worth talking to? I don’t want that the norms and traditions of the place I live in dictate the way I choose to live my life.

Once my mom took the children and we went on a kids-free weeklong holiday. Kids were both under 4 and not sleeping well. We just wanted to lie on a beach in Thailand. There, we met an old lady and we explained that we were new parents and just needed a break. Christmas was around the corner and we did not look forward to the whole Santa thing with the kids and the entire family. We were pompous and annoyed. The old lady looked at us quietly and said: “you know, you only get ten of those”. I asked: “Ten what?” She said “Ten Christmases that matter to them. After that, it’s over. They won’t care, there won’t be Santa or magic and you will miss that. You’ll get fifty more Christmases and you will spend them reminiscing of the ten that mattered”.

She had a point, and this is also why I really want to enjoy my kids during their younger years. Before I know it, they will be out the doors screaming “Later, Mom!” Or just ignore me as any angsty teenager does (I sure did). At that point I know they will need me less. And maybe then I can go back to work if I feel like they don’t need me anymore. Don’t get me started on my concerns of how it will be to find a job after a 10+ years break. That will be my next fight.

The hard part is this: I feel completely alone. Sometimes I wish I lived in Japan again so I would be the norm.

When Stella was born, I was living in Paris. All my friends from school are lawyers, consultants, bankers, marketing execs, etc. As soon as they had their babies, they took the professionally acceptable (and legally mandated) 12 weeks-maternity leave and then went straight back to work. Work at their level means a good 10-hours a day, unless something goes wrong. Then it’s more. So they all got full-time nannies that they paid with their high salaries. And that’s fine. I just did not want to do that. I couldn’t leave Stella. But it was not fun to hang out at the park at 11am with barely any other young mothers around.

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The other day I re-watch Mona Lisa Smile. I love that movie. Not only the awesome cast but also the hopes and dreams a teacher will throw at you, helping build a confidence you never thought you had. In the film, Kristen Dunst is dreaming of being a wife. Julia Stiles is struggling between getting married or going to law school. Maggie Gyllenhal does not even consider monogamy. With Julia Roberts, they learn that they can be a lot more than a wife and mother. They don’t have to choose. And so I wonder if writing about my choice of staying at home is helping to set women back fifty years. I am still a feminist. I still love a good success story of a girl who launched a start-up and is kicking ass in Silicon Valley. Hell, my favorite movie is Working Girl (yes, I am that old) and the first book I read when I started working was Madeleine Albright’s autobiography (she’s awesome). So my brain is still there and my ambition is, too.

Is it incompatible with raising my children myself? Could it not be just another thing to be proud of? Or at least not be embarrassed of?

I think progress is the freedom to choose what you want to do as a mother and as a professional without judgment or guilt.

I won’t be a stay at home mom forever. My kids won’t always need me like they do now. I intend to have a stunning career. I am excited for the future years. I want it all, just not all at the same time.

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