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Is Stay-at-Home Motherhood a Choice, When You Didn’t Get to Choose It?

My unlikely career change

If I’m being honest, the only thing I ever wanted to be was a mother. Would-be careers flew on and off the list like pigeons around popcorn in Central Park—veterinarian, teacher, physical therapist, athletic trainer, psychiatrist, psychologist (once I realized psychiatry involved med school), social worker, etc.

Ultimately, I landed in graduate school for early childhood special education, mostly because I knew I could do it, and I knew I could do it well. I figured I could make some money (uh, what was I thinking?) while I decided what I really wanted to do. Also, I wanted to be a mother. Hello, tons of practice.

Needless to say, many things went wrong with this plan. The most unlikely of which was I fell in love with my job. Not only did I love and adore and admire my students, it was also beyond amazing to be able to teach little people how to be actual humans. The work was hard—it was emotional and draining and left me physically exhausted each day—but, it was meaningful and it was mine.

Then I got married.

I became a college/pro football coach’s wife. And soon after our “I dos” came the second round of “goodbyes.” We left Philadelphia, and I left the job that I started just eight months prior. (The first round of “goodbyes” came after we got engaged, and I left New York, as well as our long distance relationship, behind.) Not even a year later, we’d say goodbye to Miami, and soon after that, Boston. In each of those cities I’d leave behind good, kind friends, a good job, and students I loved. Each move felt like a sacrifice, and each time, I willingly made it as my husband took the next step in his career.

Then came Chicago. We landed here when I was six months pregnant, and after our boy was about six months old, I tried to go back to work. As it turns out, when you leave every job in the middle of the school year, no one really wants to hire you anymore. Suddenly, all of the sacrifices we made as a family to propel Sean’s career felt crushing. My career, the one I loved and was still paying off in the form of school loans, seemed dead, buried under the weight of them.

The thing no one tells you about marriage and sacrifice is that compromise doesn’t always mean that both people are getting what they want. It sometimes means one person is getting everything, because that is what’s best for the family at that time.

In our case, S’s career, even at the entry-level mark it is right now, is much more lucrative than mine would ever be. With a child to provide for, these things matter. So, S works. And I do everything else, including parent, largely on my own. His job isn’t a typical nine to five, and he works late into the night most days, including weekends.

Marriage is a partnership, but how does that play out when the shift of balance is all off? We’re still trying to figure this out.

What I’m left with daily is a lot of guilt. Staying home when we need a second income, even though I’m unemployable through no fault of my own? Guilt. Browsing my phone for a few minutes as the kid basically chases his own tail? Guilt. Buying baby gear and coffee fairly freely, though we’re on a budget and I don’t financially contribute? Guilt. Enjoying time with my kid, but not enjoying every moment with my kid? Guilt.

Knowing I’ve always wanted to be a mother, and then realizing it’s not all of who I am?

Guilt.

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