On Wednesday, the thermometer climbed to a whopping 14 degrees and the sun was out in full after days of snow and cold. At 2:30, smack dab in the middle of the workday, I took my daughter over to the best hill in town and we spent an hour sledding. Then we made snow angels and walked with our toes pointed in and out just like in Ezra Jack Keat’s Snow Day that we have been reading all week. We played and played. Then we came home and rewarded ourselves with the cookies that we made earlier that day. It was a glorious afternoon.
These are the kinds of afternoons that working moms have only occasionally. For my family, they are going to be a lot more commonplace because in a few weeks, after the birth of the baby that is due mid-March, I am leaving my job. Permanently. I am going to be what is commonly called a “stay at home mom.” This post is about why I am making this decision.
The Via Negativa
First, I am not leaving my job because I have an unsupportive institution. Every institution has problems supporting working moms, and as a society, we still have a long way to go in promoting the well-being of working mothers (flexible career arcs and tenure paths, affordable health care, better maternity leave, more fluid boundaries between the office and the home, on-site daycare, etc.). But my institution is, I think, as good as it gets right now. I have a wonderful chair who has sacrificed to no end to support me, and beloved colleagues who have bent over backwards to teach my classes, proctor exams, and help in endless other ways. All things being equal, I love my institution and would spend the rest of my career here, if I wanted to continue in my career. But I don’t.
Second, I am not leaving my job because I think it is what women who are mothers should do. I get this a lot when I tell people I am going to stop working in order to stay at home full-time. “It’s the right decision,” they say knowingly. “Children need their mother.” Yes, children need their mothers. And their fathers. And choosing to work does not mean that one chooses to not parent. I know so many women who are working ceaselessly and sacrificing daily to make sure that they are being good parents to their children while also pursuing a career. I don’t think that it is better that women stay at home. I do think it is better for me.
You Can’t Will All Possible Goods
All this being said, I have grown very disturbed at the way in which my female peers and colleagues who are working moms live such incredibly busy lives (maybe men do too but I sense this more with the women I know). My working mom friends live lives that are extremely disciplined, structured, and scheduled more tightly than the heads of states of most nations. After the birth of my daughter, I lived such a life. I woke up early (around 5) to plan lectures and grade while pumping milk for the day. I nursed by daughter and got her and me dressed and ready. I taught classes, met with students, bounced home to nurse, went to meetings. I also went to mom groups around town, Books and Babies at the local library, toddler sign language classes at our local children’s museum. I made my own baby food, cooked meals for my family at night, cleaned the house. At night, after putting my daughter down, I would grade, answer emails, plan classes for the next day, work on scholarship. I also tried to find time to pray, to go to confession or daily mass, to read scripture. My calendar was always full, and full weeks in advance. My conversations with my husband were almost always logistical. We were committed to being her primary caregivers without relying on daycare, and I am lucky to have such a hands-on husband, but it required constant planning to make sure one of us was with her at all times. I worried constantly about trying to do everything.
For some women, this sort of life is acceptable. In fact, some women thrive in a busy and structured environment. Until recently, I was that sort of woman. But somewhere along the way, I started wondering what the effect on my daughter was. And the more I wondered whether this was the sort of life that would allow my daughter to flourish, the more I wondered in turn whether it was the sort of life that was allowing me to flourish.
You see, when you lead such a structured life, what you lose is spontaneity. You lose the ability to respond to unexpected contingencies. I can remember having conversations with students about important matters that would extend beyond the time I had allotted. I would panic because I would then be late to my next appointment or late to pick up my daughter, and my whole day would be thrown off. I would spend the time I should have spent being emotionally present to a needy student fretting about the schedule. Or I remember times that my best friends would call and I would think with annoyance “Don’t they know I don’t have time to talk to them right now?” I would want to make plans to meet with friends or colleagues, and for months, fail to make an appointment because we couldn’t find any free time in our schedule. I was always saying no to requests for favors (taking someone to the airport, watching a sick friend’s kids for a few hours, etc.). I thought constantly about the Good Samaritan parable. I saw myself becoming the priest and levite, not due to malice, but simply due to the sheer lack of time.
Then my baby became a toddler and became a lot more difficult to place in a schedule. Her newfound independence made it impossible to leave the house in a timely manner because she wanted to dress herself, put on her own boots, find a particular hat to wear, load her purse with various objects, and walk down the stairs without her mom’s help. I rejoiced in her competence but struggled with how to both accommodate this new little person and all the other things I had to do in a day. I found myself growing impatient with her efforts, snatching a sock out of her hand after five minutes of trying to get it on, exclaiming harshly “we need to leave. NOW!” When she started talking, I found myself annoyed at how long it took her to get a thought out or tell a “story.” I had phone calls to make, emails to answer, papers to grade. And she started to feel my impatience. She became clingy, anxious to please, easily upset, and prone to acting out. I began to see how my anxieties were affecting her negatively.
You can’t will all possible goods. But what goods do you give up in order to pursue the others? As a young mother, I didn’t want to miss out on opportunities to watch my child socialize with other toddlers or to meet other young mothers. I didn’t want to miss out reading the same book over and over, or nursing her, or holding her as she drifted off to sleep. As a teacher, I didn’t want to miss out forming relationships with my students, mentoring them, listening to them. As a wife, I didn’t want to miss out on family time and intimate time with my husband. As a Christian, I didn’t want to miss out on time spent with my Lord. And as a human being, I didn’t want to miss out on opportunities to trudge through freshly fallen snow with a snowsuit-clad two year old and a sled. But something had to give.
More is Not Always Better
A little over a year ago, I carved out a year to discern how I should respond to my growing discontent and what choices I should make to ensure that I was able to flourish as a woman and a mother. I sought out spiritual direction from two people: a priest and a married woman. I made it a priority to pray each day and to go to confession once a month. I sought counsel from numerous sources–stay-at home moms, professional moms, women without children. I dedicated the summer to simply being present to my family. I cancelled plans to go to conferences and to work on getting my dissertation published. I conscientiously forced myself to slow down. I planted a garden, went on long walks, and cleared the calendar. We got pregnant again.
During the summer especially, it became clear to me that I could not be the sort of mom I felt called to be and the sort of teacher I wanted to be. I couldn’t do both well, but what I had to do well was parent. The words of a dear colleague echoed in my mind: “I might fail at my career, but I cannot fail my family.” What I discovered during the summer is that I was in danger of failing my family, not through neglect or irresponsibility, but by simply trying to do too much. What made the decision difficult is that all the things I was doing–teaching, mentoring students, scholarship, serving my institution, and everything associated with parenting–all of these were good things. But it is possible to have too many good things.
My decision to leave my job is a response to many things, but one of the major reasons I have made this decision is because I want my family to have a simpler, stabler life than I was able to offer as a working mom. Again, I do not consider my decision normative for all women. But I do wonder about so many of my female colleagues. I wonder if they are happy. I wonder if they are flourishing. I have heard so many of them speak with gratitude, a gratitude I feel too, towards our parents’ and grandparents’ generation who fought so hard to allow us the opportunity to have a career in addition to or instead of taking care of children. But for those of us who decided to do both, I wonder if we haven’t largely just added another full time job on top of the one our moms and grandmothers had as homemakers and caregivers. When people find out I am leaving my job, they say “Oh, you’re going to be a full-time mom.” To which I always respond that I already am a full time mom. It’s just that now I am also not going to be a full time teacher and scholar. I wonder if it really is good for women to work as hard and as long and as much as we are working. Or, I wonder, have we just adopted a sort of frenetic “works righteousness” that sets us up for failure because there simply isn’t enough of us to go around. I don’t know the solution for the larger problem. I only know the solution for me.
On a final note, my discernment process to leave my job was grounded very much in certain spiritual practices and motivated by the goal of responding to God’s call in my life. One way that I discerned that call is by imagining two paths–one where I kept working and one where I stayed at home. When I imagined the former, I would find myself distracted by calendars, by planning, by fretting about what to do next. It became harder to stay focused on prayer. I felt turned in on myself, anxious about life, uncertain. Ignatians would call this desolation. When I imagined the latter option, I felt myself turning towards God and being filled with a sense of God’s providential care. I found it easy to pray, and desirable to stay in prayer. I found myself becoming more open too to the needs of others. Ignatians would call this consolation.
I bring this up because among many of my peers, passing on the faith is a key concern. Jason just wrote about it recently. In the era of the “nones,” how do we keep our kids Catholic, or even more generally just Christian? For many of us, passing on the faith becomes just another thing on the to-do list: RE classes, bake sales and parish raffles, youth group field trips. But I am convinced that the key to passing on the faith is living it ourselves. Passing on the faith means passing on a relationship with Christ that is central and life-giving. Such a relationship, like any relationship, takes time and effort. How is a busy mom and career woman to foster it? I remember mentioning how important I thought prayer was for the vocation of a lay theologian once in a meeting of my peers, to which one beloved colleague responded, “But where does that go on the tenure application?” His comment was not snide nor offered rudely. It was a genuine bewilderment as to how lay theologians were to go about developing spiritual practices in light of all the other things we had to do. But we must. And we must even more so as parents. Neglecting my spiritual responsibilities is not just denying God God’s due; now it is also denying my kids their due. My husband and I are the first teachers of the faith, but our lesson doesn’t come from a textbook, but from the way we live it out daily. How are we to do that when our day is already so full?
I hope that this post helps to continue the discussions that women are already having. I don’t think there is one right path for women like myself, but I do think that women struggle in discerning the right path for them, and in that sense, the experience of other women can be invaluable. In sharing mine, I do not intend for women to imitate me, but to simply add yet another voice in the growing canon of women in this generation who are trying to figure out how to flourish. There are, of course, many other reasons that I am making my decision, reasons that pertain to the specific contingencies in my life (my husband’s own pursuit of a career, our desire to have more children, etc.), but the desire for simplicity, for a life that is less full but maybe more fulfilling, is a major motivation. And for the first time in a long time, I am feeling peace.
One of my brightest students was in my office this morning talking to me about the difficulties that young women like her face when trying to plan for their careers and motherhood at the same time. I just came across your incredibly moving and insightful post and sent it to her. Thank you.
I made a very similar decision about 5 years ago when pregnant with our second child. Thank you for articulating this experience with such candor, faith, and insight. God bless you and ENJOY!
Beth– Thank you so much for sharing this story, and more for your careful wisdom in living it out and telling it. I hope you will see the blog as a place where you can continue to share in theological conversation more “managably” than in a FT academic position! I especially appreciate how central the idea “you can’t will all possible goods” is in your discernment. While particulars differ, this problem is present for people in many states of life – Jim Martin clearly engages it in the Jesuit Guide, I feel it frequently, I certainly know married male colleagues who do. I do not in ANY way mean to equate all of these; it’s simply an issue where willing multiple real goods ends up being a central struggle in living the Christian life. Moral theology doesn’t tend to have great categories for this problem, but it’s a real one, and the description you offer above gives much insight into it.
Dear Beth, Thank you so much for this piece. So much of what you write resonates with my life and the stresses I feel in trying to be a theologian, teacher, and parent. I have chosen a different path for now, and I will try to nudge my university towards more family friendly expectations as I stay in my position, but I totally understand your decision. As my husband and I pray about whether we should be open to having more children, the stresses of my job are a major factor in my hesitancy (we have two kids now). As I pray about it in the same Ignatian methods you describe, the “Emily mother of three” brings more anxiety than peace. That might change, but that’s where I am right now, in part because I love teaching so much and accept the demands it makes on my life.
All of this is to say that I really appreciate the tone of your piece in that you describe the personal struggle and the social pressures and how they weigh on you, without offering a “one size fits all” answer that would be demeaning or demoralizing for other women who make different choices. Working women hear so many different kinds of messages in our culture, and my students, like Andrew’s are confused in their discernment even as college students. I hope we continue to hear from you in a variety of fora after you officially “leave” your teaching job. Because you don’t officially “leave” being a theologian, right?
Lori and I planned from the beginning our of our life together that she would stay home with our children if we were blessed to have any. When our son was born, we made the necessary adjustments to allow her to be a full time mother and she stayed at home until after our younger son was in junior high. This business of raising children and sorting out roles in our society is beyond my ability to fully grasp and all I can do is pray that any couple facing the challenges will come a decision that is right for them. What I can say with certainty based upon our experience is that if God has had a fundamental role in your discernment and if the decision you made is what you think is best for your children, you will find you have made the right decision. For parents there is no greater purpose than to love and nurture your children they way the need to be loved and nurtured.
Thank you for sharing this eloquent and insightful narrative. It brings into clear focus issues challenges and decisions that so many parents face, often without the aid of the knowledge and practices that informed your own discernment. It also offers a number of springboards for reflection and discussion about important matters, both personal and social, that bear heavily upon the fulfillment of the vocations of marriage and family. As I read the emerging summaries of the results of the Vatican survey of Catholic views on family issues, I keep hoping that the kinds of issues you raise will surface in the conversation. They seem to me to be central to the experience of so many married Catholics who are striving to be faithful to their callings.
First, thank you for your honesty.
Second, thank you for your willingness to be vulnerable and daring to ask yourself so many hard questions.
Lastly, I am late in posting a response because I am living a very similar kind of life right now. My daily pattern echos some of what you describe above. I have three little ones (ages 6, 4 1/2 and soon to be 3 at the end of the month), and I thought until very recently that life would be easier to manage if I had an I-Phone and thus access to email, calendars, etc all the time, especially given my oldest daughter’s entrance into kindergarten this past fall and all that a new/outside schedule coming into house/family schedule entails. Yet I am at the point that I can no longer deny that the past six months have been overwhelming as I try and balance work and family. I often think to myself if I repeatedly tell my students that a computer screen cannot take the place of face-to-face conversation,then why do I continue to think that if I just have my calendar at my finger tips I will be less stressed and have more quality family time? You are right Beth- where is the spontaneity and unscheduled time for creativity?
So many have lived through what I am experiencing, e.g., the “school schedule” overtaking one’s family schedule, so I feel somewhat embarrassed when I try to express the level of stress I feel these days when someone rather innocently asks me, “How are you, Kari-Shane?”. I know the real answer, but it’s not the “pretty answer” so 9 times out of 10 I give the answer I fear everyone wants to hear- the kids are well (and they are, thank goodness!, Ben and I are well, etc. What gets me every time, however, is when I hear this: “I don’t know how you are doing it, Kari-Shane!” The funny thing is that I usually respond and say, “Well, I am not doing it well!” and rarely does anyone actually believe me.
There is so much more to say. For now, let me conclude with just saying your post (and Holly’s- thank you to Holly as well)is helping carve out MORE space for us to talk MORE OPENLY(i.e., honestly) about issues that matter tremendously in the field of family ethics. I can only hope these and other related issues receive some attention this coming November 2014 when the bishops meet.