So goes the family legend: my mother attempted to stay home to my brother and I but it didn’t work out. I was carefully and repetitively informed that she “couldn’t do it”. She was “bored”, she “couldn’t get things done.” My father was just “naturally better” at it so, he stayed home. As we got older they both worked more and more, soon having two fulltime jobs. The house was empty after school but the family was together for dinner every night. My brother and I enjoyed a stable and home-centered upbringing and we all knew my mom was too “independent” to be a stay-at-home mom and my dad was “laid back” enough to do it. Read: stay-at-home moms were cow-like and didn’t expect much from life; my father was lazy so did well at it.
This story worked well for my interests as at 18 I pursued college (full scholarship) and a career in engineering – a field similar to my mom (she worked in civil; I in chemical). I was one up from most in my FOO since I would be getting a four-year degree right off the bat and supposedly bounce into a well-paying field and then the promotions and if I could catch a man, the coveted DINK status. Sure enough, post-graduation I did well in my workplace; I loved it, I was liked, I was up to the challenge of the job and loved the mental and cerebral energy I could pour into it. Children were not on my radar. Looking back I wasn’t doing any of this resentfully, fearfully, or for other people’s reasons at all. I loved the schoolwork (not so much the classes or the university) and even more, the work itself. How I loved the work; how I still miss it.
After a few years in the workplace I became pregnant and married my long-term boyfriend and father of the child-to-be. While Ralph and I were pregnant, newlywed, and being begged by our employer (we both worked at Port Townsend Paper Corporation) to stay on to dual salaries we briefly considered it. Not for more than about four minutes. It didn’t feel wrong for us to both work, precisely – and my salary was hardly cushy for a single-income family. I think we felt like, Who would be with this baby then? and there was no satisfactory answer. I still can’t explain why Ralph and I felt this way – it was instinctive, it was mutual, and it has ended up only strengthening with time.
Of course, I had the better-paying job and the degree, not to mention the familial expectation of breadwinner while Ralph was to get the less glamorous and more onerous duty of nose-wiping, cooking, cleaning, and diapering. When I went back to work after my maternity leave (which, despite being federally protected, I had to fight against my work culture for) Ralph came home as a happy homemaker and loving father to our very, very lovely and precious new baby girl. I remember printing out the latest pictures of her to tape to my hardhat. I remember my pride being an engineer, the first female foreman at my workplace, in charge of men twice my age; a mother, wife, and full-time breastfeeder as well. There is nothing that can take the pride and joy away from me that I felt during that time.
Some people may be under the impression I left work immediately after my first child was born; not so. It happened neither suddenly nor consciously. I left my job because the job started to suck; mostly my boss(es). When I started seriously considering leaving I remember my mother’s advice and comments – she was literally split between admiration that I would not be pushed around or work in conditions I couldn’t stand – versus many objections to do with my income and my nature – as in, I wasn’t the type who COULD stay home and raise children. “Ralph is so good at it… It would be too hard for you!” I remember hearing often.
This internalized bias existed within myself as I quit my job and came home, supplemented on unemployment and more and more reluctant to return to work. At some point it became Ralph more actively looking for work than I (he was doing independent consulting at the time). I still remember being pregnant with my second child as Ralph took on fulltime work with more and less flexible hours and I wasn’t quite in ownership of my choices. Deep down I was completely sure I couldn’t do it; this sham of Kelly-at-home would crash down. My mother was right, I thought. Helpfully, my father picked on me; to this day makes jokes that I don’t have a job, yet he sprinkles enigmatic compliments around our family’s lifestyle choices. If I wanted to find out what was beneath his assholian teasings I might ask; perhaps someday I will.
What gradually began to piss me off was this idea that a housewife and mother needs to have “something else” going for her. Money, a job. That a woman who stayed home had to be lazy or have no aspirations or “laid back” in order to enjoy and do well. Because I am none of those things yet time has shown I make a good mother, wife, and run a home well. I existed as a strong, energetic, too-frenetic mother whose strengths were emerging despite being told from all sides this work wasn’t worth my or anyone else’s time.
It took me years to feel I could stay home. I may have been built to do science and math and work aggressively in a male-dominated field and ironically, I was trained out of thinking I could do anything else. But as it turns out, daily I’m glad I “pushed through” my barriers to staying at home, to leaving (however briefly or for the rest of my life) my career. It hasn’t been easy to put myself in a vocation denigrated by so many (men I used to work with would get sad I’d quit, “You had such a great mind!” one once said); nor to feed, clothe, and support four of us on a single income. In fact, in many ways – physically, mentally, and emotionally – it’s been the toughest challenge I’ve faced. In overcoming that challenge along with that of school, engineering, the world of work I discover a few things about myself: one, that I’m good at challenges; two, that I seem to seek them out.
You can’t have it all and all at once. I miss work. I miss earning money. I am sometimes sad that my cohorts and peers advance – not so much in position or title but that they are earning work experience in a field I enjoy. I am glad I remain true to myself and don’t live life according to anyone’s expectations, according to fear or pseudo-security needs regarding money. I’m glad Ralph’s career got a chance to flourish and I know he likes it. Mostly I’m glad to get to spend so much time with and love on the three most important and amazing people in my life. I will never regret one moment I’ve spent with them.
Saturday was my anniversary. Ralph and I have been married six years – which means we’ve been together for almost ten! Or as Ralph points out, “Nearly one third of our life”. I just about fell off the bike when he reported this. I’ve still been thinking about it. He’s been my advocate, cheerleader, lover, partner, best friend, and co-parent for all these years. I guess he’s just as up to a challenge as I am.