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The power of choice in relationships: why I’m an at-home Mom

September 23rd, 2005 · 6 Comments

There was one moment at the party when I surprised myself:
Late at night and talking with two women,  old family friends.
They wanted to know who I am, what I do, etc.
I shared bits of my history and work life, including the fact I have a son, am almost divorced, etc.
One gave me a look.
”So it’s nice you have R to keep you company,” she purred.
I gave her a look right back.
”Actually, with R, it’s far more than company,” I said quietly. “Truth is, I chose him.  There
are  tons of guys out there to date, but I chose him.  I  think he’s really special.  He has the most 
giving heart.”
The women exchange glances.  Suddenly, this conversation was moving to a whole new level, one called the truth.

suzannah anonymous writing at Fork in the Road

Fork in the Road is written by a woman going through a divorce after 26 years of marriage and discovering who she is and what she wants as she dates. This post was one of my favorites. R’s health problems affect his appearance and even his ability to participate in various activities. Yet suzannah anonymous knows that she has chosen him for who he is:

The message:  It’s not that he’s an easy meal or convenient. It’s that  I’ve chosen him.

The impact and implication of her choice is evident in the reaction of R’s relatives. I thought this was a stunning story. What is more powerful or beautiful than announcing that you have chosen someone?

A world without options results in resentment. If we do not have choices – or do not perceive our choices in a situation – we will feel trapped and suffocated. Life on automatic pilot is for automatons, not humans.

Tuesday’s New York Times front page story on Ivy League women who plan to take time away from the workforce in order to have families
Many Women at Elite Colleges Set Career Path to Motherhood (I first read it here, via Jay McCarthy) has resulted in a number of intense discussions( see here and here, for examples). It’s not a simple decision. The thought that this social and personal debate would have been “solved by now,” as one professor is quoted, reveals how the complexity of this issue has been overlooked and simplified.

Every day in my blog reading, I encounter pieces of this story, a story each man and woman has. There’s the concept of financial balance within a relationship, as Jory des Jardins described in
The ROI of Love. The struggles to find good child care, health care and money to pay the bills all play a part in the decision. The reality of death and divorce also have influence, and leave some single parents later struggling to survive. Woven into all these considerations is the ability to have children, the ticking clock women’s bodies bear, and the reality of infertility.

Mothering has its sweet simplicity, as
Meghan wrote on Saturday: She is literally the best thing about my life, and I get to be her mom forever. Every single day. I wake up and there it is right in front of me. Sometimes I really can’t beleive it. .

Yet there are also times of loneliness and frustration. Those who choose to stay at home often feel their minds become neglected – not only by the intense tedium of child care routines, but also by the prejudice of others who dismiss their intelligence. Jenny wrote in
Of Bon-Bons and Soap Operas: SAHM Misunderstood: Some just do not understand that though I “stay at home” with my kids I have a mind (split 3 ways, but a mind nonetheless!), opinions (oh, I have opinions), a degree (was a high school teacher), and a darn charming sense of humor (if I do say so myself!).

What does it mean that Ivy League women want to stay at home with their children? This I’m certain could be fascinating fodder for at least a few PhD theses. However, I will not attempt to cover all the possible reasons why a young woman at university might make such statements. And I won’t dissect and discard the article for its
methodology as others have done.

What I will do is describe my own story. I was one such Ivy League undergraduate. And yes I decided to stay at home with my children, although this was 15 years ago. When I started college, I was planning to pursue an intense graduate school program and career but one of the many reasons I left that path was the fact that the subsequent debt of $100,000 would have prohibited me from being able to take time off to be with my family.

My multiple reasons for making this choice might make a small thesis in itself. College for me was like one of those mysterious boxes in mathematical problems: Put x into the box and y comes out. Who I was at 17 when I started at the university was very different from who I was at 20 when I graduated. What happened in those years was due in part to another three years of life lived, but also due to intense introspection and also intense experiences beyond what I had known in childhood.

Already, at 20, I knew I wanted to homeschool my kids if I could. Growing up as a latch-key kid, I longed to let my own kids come home to someone who was available for them. And, like
Annie, I had been warned at a young age – 16 – that my childbearing years could be few, if any. I couldn’t afford to wait until my forties to start a family. These are just a few of the factors. Somewhere I have a box filled with my thought processes written out on index cards so I could spread them out before me, and keep them to remember why I made my decisions.

One response I’ve seen to the NYT article – and one response I received to my own decision – was that education had been wasted on women like me, expensive education to boot. But I believe this is a perspective that fails to see the value in raising children. If we are nurturing and preparing the next generation, we need to know how to help them be the best they can be from the very beginning. Neurology, psychology, music, physiology, geology and physics become part of a parent’s course of study as we answer their questions. We need to be able to explain to them the complexities of the world around them, its history and future, the time and place they have been given to live. I’ve certainly used my college education as I’ve educated my own children. And I am continuing to educate myself during these years at home, and planning to return to employment in the future. Given our longer life expectancy and extended time until retirement, I imagine I will still have many years, decades in fact, to pursue a career.

I could take
susannah anonymous‘s words and change them slightly for my own life: It’s not that staying home with children is easy or convenient. It’s that  I’ve chosen it.

Yes, I’ve heard many stories of women in previous generations who didn’t have choices. Women who felt their only option was to stay at home with kids, trapped in a hamster wheel of dead-end domestic duties. Women who sadly were denied school and employment due to their gender. Some fear we might return to that time, if women are going to choose to be at home anyway, pregnant, barefoot and scrubbing the kitchen floor after getting their diploma.

But there is power in choice. As
susannah’s post revealed, there’s a difference between being stuck, making do or getting by and the act of wanting and desiring something or someone. This path hasn’t been easy or convenient. We’ve made some financial decisions (this could be a post in itself too). There have been other consequences and experiences. It’s been intense and intentional.

Through all of this, I know I have made a choice. I want to be at home with my children. Maybe some women in previous generations were miserable because they felt forced into their life. They mistakenly associated the unhappiness they felt at home with kids with the act of childcare itself, not with their own lack of options. They longed for the feeling of freedom. Although it has its moments of weariness, raising a family has challenged my intellect and changed who I am as a person in exciting ways. Whenever I feel worn out, remembering the choice I made refreshes me.
I wanted this!

And I didn’t make this decision by myself. Ted and I have made these decisions together in our marriage. He too has made his own choices. And he has chosen this life with me. Many dads these days are rearranging their lives to have more time for their kids. This NYT piece fails to focus on future fathers.

Wednesday while the girls and I were waiting for a bus in downtown Seattle, a grandfather came up to me and started a conversation. The second sentence out of his mouth referred to the fact that fathers these days are more involved with their families than dads of his era. Already composing this post in my head, I was struck by his observation of my generation.

As suzannah said about her dating options, I too have
tons of choices for my life. I’m grateful. I’m glad to be a woman in this time and place. I appreciate the opportunities I had and the doors that open to me. But having more choices doesn’t invalidate the choice I made. No, I believe that having more options only increases the value of the one I choose. It makes my time at home more precious and important to me and helps me give all I have, Ivy League and all, into the next generation. When women have more choices, we all benefit.


Heather Armstrong’s decision to put ads in her RSS feed puts an interesting perspective on this discussion. After all, what if a woman can have a fulfilling and financially rewarding career by blogging or working while at home (some blogging salaries look nice!)…and allow her husband freedom to pursue his dreams?!

Letters the NYT published from readers in response to the newspaper’s article [ via Bruce Umbaugh]

Tags: Uncategorized

6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Althea // Sep 24, 2005 at 9:42 am

    You mentioned this, but it deserves emphasis: the kids aren’t little forever, and even if you “give up” lots of career years to stay home with them, there are a lot more years ahead of you when they’re out of the house. And by then, many women are more confident and independent too.

    I left a corporate law practice to stay home with three kids. Now one is in college, the other two are in high school and I’m working again in my own business, my own way, with a work style suits me.

    I will always treasure the delicious, long days with my boys, telling stories, climbing trees and having readfests on a pile of pillows in the den. I even homeschooled for a little while. It taught me more than I learned in law school..the boys taught me more than anything else has.

  • 2 Jory Des Jardins // Sep 24, 2005 at 6:25 pm


    This subject fascinates me. I don’t have kids or an Ivy League education, but I’ve made a definite decision to be a–for lack of a better term–career woman. Truth be told, I wasn’t aware I made this decision until I turned 30 and, partnerless and childless and a workaholic, figured I must have made this choice. However, my twin sister is an Ivy League educated mother of 1 and 1/2 (due in ’06) and struggles daily to justify the Ph.D. in comparison to being a mother. To keep herself on a career track she and her husband pay a nanny a considerable sum (more than she made for a while) to be with her daughter while she commutes to her job. It’s a choice she has made, but I wonder, when I call and the nanny answers and tells me about the great day she’s had with my niece, if eventually my sister will think maintaining a career is worth it. I can’t speak for her–she’s done a great job of making it work–but I must admit I’m glad I’m not the one making that choice.

  • 3 Yule Heibel // Sep 27, 2005 at 11:42 am

    I’ve got a ton of things to say on this — I too saw that article (via “most emailed” on the NYT website while looking for something else!) — but have barely a moment right now. (And I also haven’t had time to follow all the great links you provide…)

    But, just this for now: I’m an over-educated Ivy League PhD woman (Harvard, and to boot the first in my generation in my family even to graduate from high school, much less go to college — my sisters all had to leave school to go to work), and I’m at home homeschooling my children. Like Jory’s sister, I initially had a nanny (an au pair — a number of them, in fact), while I tried to continue my academic career, which began as a sabbatical replacement at MIT in the School of Architecture’s History of Theory and Criticism program. That job (as well as the sabbatical replacement position I had at Brown University in the art history department) paid well enough to pay for childcare, but eventually — because we couldn’t uproot and move all over the country to follow temporary postings — the highly-paid sabbatical gigs petered out and what was left were adjunct positions. These are low-pay, no-benefits exploitation gigs that more and more universities use to avoid hiring permanent faculty. They also don’t pay enough to cover childcare.

    My moment of epiphany came in two parts: first, while teaching at MIT and bumping my head on the glass ceiling (faculty meetings and other should-attend events at 5:30pm that last for hours and hours, stocked with men whose wives are home taking care of business, the one or two — literally — women there either childfree or nervous about the ticking meter of the nanny overtime bill), I suddenly realised, “who do they (MIT, the other Ivy Leagues) think will be their future students, if not kids like mine?” See, my kids are really bright. So, if my kids are the ideal future student, how come the universities make it so hard for Mom to work there? What’s the story? Shouldn’t the model for education be more encompassing or holistic, and recognise that it is important that kids (who are all smart in myriad ways) can’t just be farmed out to strangers all the time, but need the extended period of care and attention and nurturing that parents are mainly interested in giving? Therefore, why do we uphold the 80-hours-plus-per-week model of careerism? Who has time left over for children, if that’s what we’re supposed to emulate?

    The second part of the epiphany (in the form of a slap upside the head) came when I realised that, no, having both of them in school from 7:45am till 4pm was not going to “free up” my time …because, it’s not the case that kids get less complicated or challenging the older they get. Sometimes, when you have babies or toddlers, you think, “ah well, once they’re a bit older, things will get easier.” Nuh-uh. Yes, they get easier because the kids are more verbal and, personally, I found that was a relief. But then you might find that the schools can’t meet their needs AT ALL.

    See, one thing I found really interesting (and upsetting) in that NYTimes article was that the women profiled had this whacky idea that schools would come along and pick up the custodial slack once their kids are old enough, and that they would then be able to go back to their careers. In other words, they were thinking entirely IN THE BOX, not out of the box. They didn’t question the premise of school as a place that primarily serves custodial purposes, and therein lies the rub, at least from my perspective. There’s dishonesty in how they’re looking at schools: on the one hand, schools are supposed to “educate” (how, exactly?, what do they do?, how much rote learning is going on?, how much teaching-to-the-test?, how much classroom energy is going to the class troll vs the learners?), but what most parents really want from school is a place to park their kids so that they (the parents, adults) can get on with their “real” lives.

    That “real” life, meanwhile, is choosing — to reiterate the wonderful word that Julie focussed on — to put themselves back into a box, too.

    I think this issue is way bigger than the NYTimes article made out. The article was another one of those simplifications that suggested that it’s a personal choice. Speaking as someone who slid into this headfirst, without planning, I think it’s a much much bigger deal. Until I had these people to deal with (my kids), I thought it would be a piece of cake to hand them over to schools, etc., but it’s all connected, you see. Take the idea of “good schools,” for example. What is a good school? Well, in the US, it’s either an independent school (you’re paying money for it, so it must be good — I’m being sarcastic), or, you move into an upscale area with high real estate taxes that fund the supposedly “good schools.” Right there you see that the issue of schools is tied into an economic web that screams volumes about social justice. It’s a totally unfair system, yet you think you can expect that custodial function from the school and not have it rub off in terms of values on your kids.

    Well, like I said, I should sit down and write something coherent about this, because I could go on, and I will eventually. But let me just repeat that the NYTimes article simplified matters (you have to, in journalism), and that I don’t believe that thinking inside the box has much to do with personal liberation or freedom. It would have been nice if at least one woman with more radical social ideas had been interviewed — someone who might have suggested that she’ll take a year or two or five out, but then expects to start a company (or work in one) where she can bring her kids to work for part of the day at least. Instead, the women interviewed seemed to want to rely on the old custodial function of school (whether the bulging factory school or expensive private school) to “fix” their problem of choice. There have to be more creative answers than that…

    And Julie, your points are excellent, particularly the point about fathers’ involvement. The NYT piece highlights further “in the box” thinking because it suggests that for these women, marrying a guy who’ll make enough money is the answer. Time to kick that box in.

    Sorry about the long rant…

  • 4 Tony Modesto // Sep 30, 2005 at 9:19 am

    The trend is that women choose to be mom, without choosing to be companion, lover, and playmate to their husbands. Which is probably why you’re close to being divorced. Which is a trend women continue to make and why they continue to divorce thinking they can make the same decisions and get different results.

  • 5 Ted Leung // Sep 30, 2005 at 10:54 am


    I can confidently say that you have no idea about Julie’s status as my companion, lover, playmate, and friend.

  • 6 Bob V // Nov 11, 2005 at 6:39 am

    Um, has Tony been reading the same blog the rest of us have been?

    Anyway Julie, I think there part of this discussion focuses more on the roles women choose to take on rather than how well they do them. To the extent that a woman gets an IV league degree and quits her job to have babies and fill there mouths with food until she can send them to boarding school or ignore them once they are old enough to not kill themselves, she is wasting her education. Similarly, a woman who uses her branding to get a prestigious position and procedes to accomplish nothing but getting in other people’s way while collecting a hefty salary is also wasting her education.

    Julie, one reason I learned from your blog as well as those of the ones you link to is that it is possible to be an achievement-oriented stay-at-home mom. There are ways to be a good mom as well as a bad mom, and it is a difference that has real consequences. Anyone operating under that environment is not wasting any of their efforts.

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