Carrots for Michaelmas: Musings of a Catholic Wife, Mother, and Occasional Redhead

“A Dog Could Take Care of Your Child” Or Why I Quit Grad School to Stay Home with My Kids
April 16, 2012, 3:11 pm
Filed under: Children, Motherhood | Tags: , ,

Firstly, let me clarify what this post is not. This is not a post in which I judge working mothers. Five weeks after my son was born I went back to work full-time until after he turned one. Daniel needed to finish school so I needed to bring home the bacon. I don’t think that made me a bad mother, nor do I think that other moms who need to or choose to work outside the home are bad mothers. However, this is a post in which I explain why staying home was the right choice for me. This is a post in which I challenge our culture’s views on the value of motherhood.

My story:

My husband had just finished his thesis and graduated and our son was almost 18 months old when I applied to and was accepted into a graduate program at Unnamed University in Unnamed Department with stipend and a tuition waver. I was really excited about the opportunity. I had been pretty miserable being away from my son, Benjamin, 9-10 hours everyday at work and I thought that my program would allow me more time with him since I could do much of my studying at home. I was also motivated to begin grad school because a) I loved what I was going to get to study and b) I felt like I needed to use my academic skills (I graduated from a very prestigious undergraduate program) and move toward a career path. Because that’s what you do if you’re a well-educated, intelligent woman, right? You have a career! You make an impressive salary! You definitely don’t just stay home, right?

So, I began my program during the summer session. My classes were inspiring. I loved the course material. I was getting good feedback from my professors. But…I just wasn’t happy. When I was in class or in the library I missed Benjamin so much and I wished I were home with him. When I was home with Benjamin I felt anxious and preoccupied: “I really should be studying right now! I wish he would go to sleep so I can finish my readings! I need to go back to the library!” I couldn’t just relax and enjoy the precious hours with my boy. I started to think more seriously about my program and what exactly I was going to do with my degree. After all, our current economy isn’t kind to teaching positions in the humanities. When I graduated, how would I get a job? Would I have to move? (We had just moved back to our hometown for my program and were blissfully spoiled by having two sets of grandparents in town.) What about having more babies? Wouldn’t it be impossibly hard to get tenure while mothering more than one child? And if I wait to have more babies until after getting tenure…my fertile days might be over. And perhaps most importantly: do I really need a prestigious career in order to be happy?

Toward the end of the semester, I met with the Director of the program and explained that I was seriously considering leaving the program to raise my son and just work part-time. The director voiced his concern that I was throwing away a great opportunity: great program, full-tuition waver, stipend, not the sort of thing you just walk away from. “You can be a mother and an academic,” he claimed. He described a female faculty member in another department who had 3 children and yet had a successful career. (I later discovered that the female professor’s husband stayed home full-time to raise their children.)  Anyhow, he said he would give my number to the only female faculty member in our department who had children (she had one child) so she could explain just how to do it all.

When she called me, she described her life a little bit. I was admittedly shocked to hear that she commuted to Florida from…..Pennsylvania. Every week, leaving her son with her husband for the week and going home for the weekend.  It’s not that I think that makes her a horrible mother. Different things work for different families and jobs in the humanities are hard to come by. But, for me, it would be a miserable way to live my life.

I voiced some of my struggles with being a mother in grad school such as feeling constantly torn between two worlds. “What you need to learn,” she explained, “is how to compartmentalize your life. When I get on that plane I am Dr. X, then when I get home I can be mom again.” I tried to explain that learning to compartmentalize my life didn’t appeal to me very much, what I was trying to do was integrate my life. Live it as a whole. Not have to sever various aspects of myself into this or that context.

Then she told me all the dreadful things that would happen if I left the program to stay home: “You will become intellectually stagnant.” (I’ll forget how to think? Is that what happens to everyone who doesn’t have an advanced degree?) “You will only have friends who talk about diapers and you’ll be bored out of your mind.” (Um….who do you think I hang out with? And how insulting is that to SAHMs?) “You will wake up in 10 years and realize you don’t know who you are.” (You are your career, she seemed to say. If you’re merely a mother, when your kids go to school, you are no one.) But to me that mindset seemed very odd because my identity must be found in Christ, anything else will be ultimately unsatisfying. If my identity was wrapped around being a respected professor, it would be just as misplaced, if not more, as if my identity was founded on my role as a mother alone.

Anyhow, I tried to explain to her that I just didn’t feel like I was being the mother I desired to be while I was trying to succeed in the graduate program.

Oh, you’re just experiencing guilt because of cultural norms of motherhood.” (“I am?” I thought. “Aren’t almost all American mothers working mothers? Isn’t staying at home the exception, not the rule? Isn’t the pressure I’m feeling concentrated around having a successful career to define me instead of the unimpressive role of merely being a mother?”)

You have no reason to feel guilty. Your son doesn’t need you with him every minute.”

It’s not that I feel guilty, necessarily.” I explained. “When my son isn’t with me he’s with his dad or his grandmother having a wonderful time. He’s happy and coping very well when I leave for class or to study. But I am miserable. I MISS him.”

Well, your son will be around forever. But this is your one chance to do this program and have this opportunity.”

This statement seemed completely upside down to me. “But…my son won’t be almost two forever. He’ll only be almost two RIGHT NOW. And…I wasn’t aware that medieval studies was going anywhere…”

You son is almost two? At that age they just want attention. It really doesn’t matter at all whether they get that attention from you or from someone else.” And then there was the real kicker: “At that age, a dog could take care of your child.”

A dog could….what?!” I refrained from saying, “You are out of your ever-loving mind! You have successfully convinced me to stay home with my kids because your entire perspective on motherhood is absurd!” But I didn’t say that. I think I mostly just stood with my mouth open, too shocked to speak a real sentence. Because of course, I knew she didn’t mean that literally a dog could raise my kid. No, indeed. What she meant was far more offensive than that. She meant that the day-in-day-out tasks of motherhood are such meaningless drudgery that an intelligent, well-educated woman with potential to succeed in a prestigious career should never lower herself to merely raise children. Such work requires neither intelligence, creativity, engaging challenges, nor the unique attention and love that only I, as their mother, can give my babies in the daily tasks of mothering them. Staying home with my babies has no real value. There would be no paycheck, no performance reviews. Diaper changes and feedings and kissing boo boos and tucking them in at night: those things can be done by someone else, while I reach my true potential and gain respect in my field.

I was appalled. The thing is, the professor wasn’t a bad person. She wasn’t trying to insult me. She was trying to help me. She felt sorry for me. (Poor young mother! She got landed with this kid at 23 and now she’s having to give up her dreams and throw her life away!) But I think her perspective was misguided.

At this point in the conversation, I tried to respectfully explain that I thought I had made up my mind as to what I would do and I would let them know as soon as possible so that they could give the funding going to my tuition waver and stipend to someone else. Because I had made up my mind. I had made up my mind to be there with my kids. To embrace the daily grind of motherhood. To discover it’s not drudgery at all, but something meaningful and beautiful, using every ounce of my intelligence and creativity to do it well, challenging me at every turn. This work of motherhood is my vocation, my privilege, and my joy. 

It’s been almost two years since I quit grad school. During that time, I’ve had another precious baby and never regretted my decision once. Not for one second. Because I can’t imagine that life could get any better than this.

24 Comments so far
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YES. I am so glad you wrote this!

Comment by jesstock

So beautiful and inspirational! Thank you for challenging cultural norms!

Comment by Jane

Thanks, Jane!

Comment by carrotsformichaelmas

Well, there goes our plan to have Bonnie raise Pip will we live the rock-and-roll lifestyle. Thanks a lot, Haley.

Comment by Katherine Grimm Bowers

Hahaha. Bonnie would be the best nanny.

Comment by carrotsformichaelmas

Thank you for your post. I almost want to write one myself on why I want to stay home with my child.

Comment by Kaitlin Martin

I have three children four and a half and under. I am so grateful that I am able to stay home with them and only work a few hours a month in the evening (from home). At the same time, I’ve spent the last four and a half years trying to fiure out what ELSE I was going to do…what career would be mine. It is only in the last few months I’ve settled into satisfaction with exactly what I do now. Despite what our culture tells me, I dont need any other career to be complete…my kids are enough! There may be other things I want to add down the road, and I’ll know when the time is right. For now, things are great the way they are. Thank you for sharing this post, I very much enjoyed your perspective!

Comment by Kelly

you know i love this story…so absurd and amazing. glad to see it in writing!

and i know your precious children are very blessed to have you and Daniel as parents.

Comment by Lois

Wow, Haley. This is beautiful, and powerful. I’ve been picking up Wendell Berry lately, again, after leaving him off (unintentionally, OF COURSE) for a few years.

I’m actually reading an essay right now, about feminism, the body, etc, etc, in What Are People For.

I must say, you’ve captured the essence, the truth, but it has left me very emotional, hearing it from you, another woman.

No offense to Mr. Berry, not being a woman and all, he is still dead-on. 🙂

Thanks. Seriously. This is very important, what you’ve written.

Comment by amy

Amy, as usual, your comments remind me that we’re kindred spirits. Wendell Berry changed my life. I read the essays in “Art of the Commonplace” a couple of years ago and I was amazed at how he articulated things I have believed deep down but couldn’t express. I think I’ve read exactly the essay you mentioned about Feminism and the Body. Amazing. I want to read it again and then we should discuss.

Thanks for your encouragement. Your opinion means a lot!

Comment by carrotsformichaelmas

Thank you so much for phrasing this so beautifully! I myself actually finished two undergraduate degrees and a master’s degree in software engineering before my husband and I had our first baby when I was 23 – and now I “only’ stay at home with my beautiful son. It’s so hard to let yourself feel worthy when you’re “wasting” your education and not “appreciating” your talents. But as my husband points out, my talents are just as well served at home, with my baby. After all, he’s got to learn to be a fantastic engineer, just like his parents! 🙂

P.S. I’ve never even seen your blog before today, but my wonderful mother-in-law linked to it on Facebook. Needless to say, I think you just may have me hooked. 😉

Comment by mamagoertz

You are so right! Your excellent education has made you an even more interesting and inspiring mother. Also, I think my college education was important even if I never have a job that uses the skills I developed because what I learned makes me a better person and helps me enjoy life more deeply and made me a life-long learner and lover of the true, the good, and the beautiful.

Comment by carrotsformichaelmas

Dear Haley,

I am so thankful to discover your blog! I am looking forward to regularly visiting your site. As a Catholic homemaker like you, (oh and I spent a lot of my childhood in Baytown, Texas : ) Don’t Mess with Texas!) I’m sure a lot of your stories will resonate with me.

You have a beautiful family and you did the right thing by listening to your heart to become a stay at home mother. Taking care of your children and your home is your ministry! What a blessing! I’m glad to know that you don’t regret your decision.

It is a shame that so many stay at home mothers often feel devalued and under-appreciated for choosing and WANTING to be a homemaker.

I wholeheartedly agree with your sentiment about leaving grad school and resigning from your professional journey to pursue your life’s calling as a stay at home mom. I, too, happily gave up a lucrative job and my professional career as a corporate paralegal to become a full time stay at home mom to my son.

Many people, including many mothers, protested and discouraged me from leaving my work. They argued, like the female professor, that I would “lose” my intellect. As if becoming a stay at home mother somehow automatically erases my intelligence! Absolutely not, in fact, being intelligent and an academic will only help us to raise children who love learning. I’m sure your children are so bright, much of that certainly has to do with how smart their mommy is!

The important part of our stories is that we didn’t let anyone dissuade us from putting our family first, no matter the sacrifice and costs!

I think you and any other stay at home mothers here will find great support in my community blog called MAMABEARMATTERS.COM

This website is dedicated to connecting and celebrating all the hardworking and selfless stay at home mothers. I want to reach out to women like you who are clearly so happy to be and proud to be homemakers!

My long term goal is to create a supportive mentorship network for stay at home mothers, and I think you would be a wonderful mentor for the program Haley!

I hope you don’t mind, but I would like to add a link to your post above on my site. I believe many women will find great value in your story about putting your family first!

Blessings to you and yours,
Khristine Anne,
Founder of Mama Bear Matters: Celebrating Stay at Home Mothers

Comment by Mama Bear Matters

Thanks, Khristine! I will check out your blog and thanks for linking to my post.

Comment by carrotsformichaelmas

Its a beautiful post and so true! thanks for sharing it! in our family my husband and i are very lucky to be able to work part time and spend the rest of the time with our daughter, i woudnt change it, this way it give us space to earn a living and put our skills to practice (even tho i dont work directly in my career) but also be at home when she needs us to do homework, take her to extra activities, etc is the quality of life that counts and that it makes you happy! we are very blessed

Keep up blogging your post are always inspirational, xx

Comment by Karen

Karen, both parents working part time sounds ideal! My husband would love to be more a part of our children’s day and not only see them before breakfast and for dinner and bedtime and we hope to make that happen someday. Thanks for the encouragement!

Comment by carrotsformichaelmas

Loved this post! I was working on my PhD when I “threw it all away” to bring up three amazing little souls. Best decision I ever made.

Comment by Michelle

I like to think about it like this; jobs and school are temporary, my children’s souls are eternal. All flesh is grass, fading away, and if the love I pour out on my kids can lead them to the Father then I can touch eternity with my ever fading hands. They are too important to give that up. I cannot imagine out-sourcing the care of my children except out of the most dire need or circumstance. You are a great momma from all that Elizabeth Martin has told me!

Comment by Katrina

Thank you, Katrina. What a beautiful perspective on motherhood.

Comment by carrotsformichaelmas

LOVED this post!!!! I’m a university graduate and have encountered the same nonsense when people discover I stay home with my children. Thanks for this post!

Comment by Mrs.Stopnik

You’re welcome! Thanks for stopping by 🙂

Comment by carrotsformichaelmas

Love this! I have an MA and there are some people in my life who regularly insinuate that I’m not using my talents to the degree I should be by being a SAHM. They mean it in a nice way, but really, I think my education degree and my MA in Children’s Literature are being used quite well with my daughter at home. 😉 I’m glad I was directed to your blog! We’re Lutheran, but it looks like we have many similar viewpoints.

Comment by Jen Lehmann

Oh, Jen! What I wouldn’t give for an MA in Children’s Lit. That sound so wonderful! I took one class in college on British Children’s Lit that met at an amazing library full of stained glass windows and a professor who studied under C.S. Lewis. It was heavenly. I kept all the books and I can’t til my kids are old enough to enjoy them.

Comment by carrotsformichaelmas

Yes, there were many times during that program when I sat back and thought, “Reading Charlotte’s Web and Harry Potter is my homework??” It was amazing.

Comment by Jen Lehmann

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