I had my children a few years before most of my friends did, so I’ve often been asked for advice on the age-old “working vs. staying home” dilemma. My response usually goes something like this:
They are both really, really hard in totally different ways, so it just depends on knowing yourself and knowing which set of hard things you feel more equipped to handle.
As I said, I’m the life of the party.
I always knew 100% that I was better cut out for the “working” issues, and I was emphatic about my identity as a Working Mom. Actually, in some ways the identity was stronger than the reality. I was lucky enough to have a flexible schedule, to work only 75% time, to have excellent on-site childcare and to have three months at home with each infant. Most working parents don’t have it so good.
No doubt because of these lucky arrangements, I rarely felt guilt or doubt about my choice to work. (If you know my tendency to over-analyze, this is really saying something). But I did feel curious about whether I had what it took to “stay home” and “not work.” For myself, I knew these would be by far the harder propositions, calling upon my minimal reserves of patience, flexibility, and self-confidence.
So when Terence’s sabbatical offered me the chance to peek down the Road Not Taken, I jumped at the chance. It reminded me of my junior year abroad, when I got to test out what it would have been like to go to a British instead of American university. It felt like the perfect opportunity to try being a full-time parent without all the risk. It’s only a year. I’m not allowed to work in Israel, anyway.
Just as I expected, I have found it deeply challenging, even though once again I’m in a ridiculously blessed situation (fascinating location, both kids in a fantastic school ten minutes’ walk away, etc.). Because of all these supports and the time they afford me, it’s not the demands of childcare that stand out to me. It’s the lack of professional role and responsibility, of external affirmation, of purpose. Even of earning my own income, which I never realized was important to me until it was gone. So this year has been clarifying that I made the right decision six years ago. I am excited to get back to the States and find a new, meaningful job to dig into. I hope I am able to do so.
And at the same time, it’s a little scary to me how difficult I find it to have a “year off.” It’s hard to shed my over-active, Protestant work ethic and focus on professional contribution, my need to be the hardest-working (if not the smartest) person in every room. What does it mean that I was so, so excited that yesterday I got to have two meetings? Shouldn’t I just chill out, work out, read a book in the spring that seems finally to have sprung? If not now, then when?
As if I didn’t already know this, I appreciate anew that staying calm is not my strong suit. It’s not quite as simple as “take away the job and you can just enjoy being with your kids.” I’m working on it, but I’m just prone to distraction and impatience. It doesn’t matter if I have a job or not. Jerusalem provides plenty of other political, ethical, existential issues to distract and stress me out.
Having said all of that, it has been a relief not to have constantly competing obligations. And there are aspects of being a SAHM I’ve enjoyed tremendously. This comes out most clearly when something goes wrong. Back home, if one of our girls vomited, Terence and I would look with horror at each other and immediately map out the next 24 hours until she was eligible to go back to school: I can turn that meeting into a conference call, and then you can come home during your free periods and we’ll trade off… Here, I can just focus on helping my daughter feel better. Last week, school was closed for two days (parent/teacher conferences and a once-every-four-years snow day) and I became That Mom, the person whom other parents call: “so, what are you doing on Thursday? Can XYZ come over for a playdate?” Having been on the other side of these arrangements more times than I can count, it was my pleasure to host a houseful of little people while their parents squeezed out a couple more hours to work. And it has been great to attend every single event at school, including the 8:30 a.m. Valentine’s Day parties and the 2 p.m. class birthday celebrations that would have so frustrated me back in my working days.
I have never felt that working parents (OK, let me get real — working mothers) needed to apologize. I am excited to get back to having a job and I’m also grateful for this opportunity to check out the other path. I also always knew in theory that being a SAHM would be brutally hard work for me, both in what I would do and in what I would give up, and now I know it from experience.