Recently, I was on vacation and got to catch up with an old friend. We hadn’t seen each other in a few years, and over the weekend it became clear that though we have kids about the same age, our parenting experiences have been pretty different. One example? Unlike my return to work seven weeks after the birth of my first child, she has been home with her kids for the past nine years.
That is soon to change: Her youngest is about to start kindergarten and she is going to begin a full-time office job.
“I’m really anxious about it,” she told me as we took a walk in the woods with our collective brood. “My family life is just so full right now and I don’t know how I will fit everything in when I‘m working.”
She wasn’t kidding about how full things are. Carefully planned chore wheels, hours doing art projects, nature walks, bread made from scratch, music classes, volunteering, and reading marathons at the local library are all part of her daily routine. But even though her five-year-old’s weekly chores included cleaning their bathroom (whereas my six-year-old still has to be reminded to do things like flush and wash hands), imagining myself in her place didn’t make me think I’d be a better parent if I stayed home.
In fact, after our conversation, I had a feeling that being with my kids full-time would mean I’d be a worse parent. That’s because while my friend thrives in the domestic realm, working gives me the balance and perspective that I need to be a more solid mom when I am at home. Here are five ways this plays out for me.
1. I’m more appreciative of the time I spend with my kids.
While lots of moms love being at home with kids, there are plenty of moms — and I am one of them — who not only need to work outside the home, but also want to.
I’m not going to pretend that as a result of working, I cherish every moment I have with my kids. But I do know that if I were home with them every day, I’d be more inclined to wish I were elsewhere more of the time. As things are now, I don’t feel like my kids (or the simple realities of parenting) are preventing me from having the life I want. So I get more enjoyment out of the time I do spend with them.
2. I have time to be somebody other than “Mom.”
As a teacher on the school calendar, I get to spend school breaks with my kids. I wouldn’t trade this for anything, but being home with my three kids this summer (a nine-year-old, a six-year-old, and a nursing baby) sure means that I don’t get a lot of adult-focused time.
And even though my job has me with children most of the time, being with my students is very different from parenting my own kids. That difference is key. When I am teaching, planning lessons, meeting with colleagues, or eating lunch, I have regimented breathing room that I rarely get at home when every few seconds the baby needs to eat, my son wants me to find a missing toy, or my daughter is begging to play Minecraft on my phone.
I love my identity as a parent, but I also love that being a parent is one part of who I am. I need time (wherever I can get it) to dedicate to those other parts as well.
3. Working contributes to my overall happiness.
There are a lot of things that I appreciate having in my life. Here are just a few: my kids. My partner. My family. My friends. Writing. Books. Music. Running. Socializing. Vacationing. Sushi. Swimming. The beach. My job.
Not all of those things give me joy all the time, but take one away for too long and it chips away at my sense of having the full life I want. That gets me down, which in turn makes me a less fun and more grouchy mom to be around. In my case, working serves us all. I get to have a life I find fulfilling, and my kids get a better parent as a result.
4. I’m not always worrying about money.
Having a job has allowed me to feel secure in my ability to provide for my kids. Obviously, I have financial limits, but it’s freeing to know that I can send my kids to summer camp, or splurge on an American Girl doll, or opt for the extra cost of dental coverage without fearing the financial burden.
Having a job was also a hugely important when my life dramatically changed after my older kids’ father died suddenly. I became not only a single parent, but also my family's sole provider. The fact that I had a steady income meant that while many aspects of our lives changed, we didn’t have to do things like move or give up beloved activities.
These days, I have a new partner and my financial situation is different as a result. But making my own money is still important to me. This way, I don’t have to feel dependent on my partner financially — and while we are moving toward shared finances, that was a move born not out of necessity, but rather out of open conversations and mutual agreements.
The idea of not working has simply never been on the table for me, both for practical and personal reasons. And while that may change one day, for now having a job simply continues the way I have always viewed myself in adult life — and, over the last decade, in parenting life too.
Originally from Canada, Ellen Friedrichs is a health educator (and mom) based in New York City, where she teaches high school and college classes, is a contributing writer at everydayfeminism.com, and runs About.com’s LGBT Teens website. Find more of her writing here and follow her on Twitter @ellenkatef.