Waging the Internal Battle Over my Stay-At-Home Path

Just when I thought I had come to terms with my rank as a stay-at-home mom, my working-mom neighbor asked me:

“So, Kate, what’s keeping you busy these days?”

Was she kidding? Was she being cute or facetious? Or was she effectively dismissing the validity of being a full-time mother at home?

She is, to put it politely, not the kind of woman who would do well staying at home every day with her son. I had dinner with her once upon a time, back when we were still attempting to be more than just neighbors, on the eve of her return to full-time work after the standard 12-week maternity leave. I was still pregnant then, with little idea of what she was going through as a new mom, but I was still amazed that she showed no concern about being separated from Colin*. When I asked her how she felt about going back, her sole response was that she was running out of things to do around the house. Huh? I remember thinking, What about raising your son, isn’t that still left to do? I wasn’t bothered by her desire to go back to work, but I was put off by the apparent lack of focus on her child.

Since I gave birth to my own son, I have tried to be more open-minded about other women’s choices. In my monthly moms group, the majority of the members work away from home at least part-time. Their stories have shown me how unique each person’s path is and I have seen that there are pros and cons to each side of the working/homebound coin. I feel lucky to be able to stay home with Rennie, but I do miss out on the rewards of spending my days in the grown-up world. With the support of my friends and family, I have come to deeply appreciate what I do most days. And I can still respect the experiences of those that are different from mine.

Then I get blind-sided at a social gathering by my type-A neighbor and I feel at war again. In the moment, I was too stunned to say much more than, “Well, you know, stuff…” Later, I reflected on the question and saw that it really was loaded and barbed. It came after a spell of constantly running into each other— on the street, at the grocery store, driving by each other. At each one of our bump-ins, I was with my son and Neighbor was alone. I was pushing Rennie in the stroller past her house and Neighbor was shutting the front door as the nanny was taking Colin out for a stroll. I was sitting with my son on the front stoop and Neighbor was speeding by in her Volvo Cross Country with only the dry cleaning in the back. I was carting Rennie through the grocery store; Neighbor was on the cell phone with her accountant and joked at the checkout line about being “one of those women.”

The bottom line is: Neighbor knew what was keeping me busy, she had seen me busy doing things around town with my son. Apparently, she just didn’t think the things I was doing qualified as busy enough. Just after she inquired after my busyness, she excitedly described her early mornings of getting up to join her walking club before work, saying that she could better boast the Army’s old tagline about doing more before 9 a.m. than most people do all day. I guess I am one of those people she does more than.

I can’t, and shouldn’t, waste time trying to understand why Neighbor posed the sharp question to me, and why she chose to do it at a party in front of a large clique of working women. It looked an awful lot like she enjoys being overburdened and feels superior to people who can’t handle all that she can, but that’s really none of my business. What I need to take away from this exchange is how it made me feel and why.

For weeks after, I kicked myself for not shooting back a more pointed retort to what is keeping me busy. “Raising my son” would have been a nice simple way to put it. Or a more specific “I’m teaching Rennie how to clap hands” would have implied a type-A attention to detail she could understand. My favorite response was “Much like your nanny, I find taking care of a baby a full-time job.” But that would have let on just how much her question bothered me, and I should be above it, shouldn’t I?

I wonder if it ever goes away, the torn feeling between the paths chosen and not chosen, between how we feel about our choices and how we fear others judge us for them. Generally speaking, our generation has acknowledged our role confusion and there has been much discussion (at least on Oprah) about how women need to support one another, how we must frantically avoid tearing down or judging each other. Open one of the many women’s magazines in any given month and you’d likely find an article on how to finally settle the silent war between stay-at-home moms and working mothers.

But for the most part, I don’t think the war is between the women anymore. The women I know are vocally and passionately supportive of the other camp. My cohorts are far more likely to brush off the urge to judge what others do, to ask open-mindedly how someone else’s experience is going, to offer support without condescension. I think we know now that we are all trying to muddle through and make it work somehow. We try to be easy on each other by not adding to the conflict.

No, I think the war is within each of us. Many of us wage inner battles over our choices and the ramifications of them. Is my son stimulated enough in his day care? Am I a weak role model for my daughter since I don’t work? Am I missing important bonding when I have babysitters? What am I doing wrong, and how can I possibly make up for it?! I wonder if any of us spend more time focused on what we do right, how the path we’ve chosen has improved our lives, instead of looking at the pitfalls that come on each and every path. If you are one of those people, who can see the lush, healthy forest despite the few puny trees in the shade, consider yourself a poster child for the war-free zone.

My Neighbor may be more in conflict than she lets on. It could be her way to fight her own battle: Go on the defensive to ward off the thought that she’s not spending enough quality time with her son. The fact that I never see them together would suggest that she doesn’t, in fact, get much time with Colin. Instead of judging Neighbor for it, instead of drawing any conclusions about what kind of mother she is, this fact helps to remind me how much time I get to spend with Rennie and how much we both enjoy it. The truth is that I don’t want a busy life, I cherish the ability to plan stress-free outings. I don’t want a life that’s crammed with activities, that’s part of the reason that I have elected to stay at home with my son. So I can’t feel belittled by the idea that my life isn’t busy enough because I don’t work. I may still be have battles of regret with myself, at times feeling small for my little life at home, but at the end of the day I’m winning my own war.