Giving Up a Career for Motherhood
An essay by Judith F. Brenner
Back in 2004, despite the judging eyes of others, I chose full-time parenting, and left the workforce despite being degree-laden. It is not a cop-out to decline the role of “super mom.” Peers accused me of sacrificing my career by leaving the corporate opportunities behind. Yet I am content with the decision. I was paid in priceless memories of first steps and first periods. I’ve been paid in thank-yous from my smiling baby turned teenager slurping up history from the pureed baby food to today’s smoothies.
For many parents, scaling back at the office has become a necessity when the cost of childcare strains even a middle-class salary. A recent poll in the Washington Post (July 2015) shows 65 % of parents have passed up a job opportunity, stopped working or switched to a less-challenging job to allow more time to care for children. The numbers didn’t add up for me. Worse, I dreaded what I was missing at home when the babies were with a nanny. The money could not replace the fear factor of lifetime memories I was going to pass up.
Since age 16, I worked in a factory and after college, I became a journalist writing about manufacturing. I applied these skills to motherhood, engineering efficiently crafted meals and DIY closet organizers. I wrote prose about steel, lighting energy retrofits, and introduced the idea of portable toilets to Thailand as a publicist. As a stay-at-home mom, I taught toddlers how to sit (or squat) on these vacuum-molded plastic potties and installed LED bulbs before they were cool. I wrote about infertility labs in hospitals and neurological studies on stuttering. This fascinating knowledge was put to use getting pregnant, and later, knowing exactly why I couldn’t help stuttering when seeing my child tip a crystal vase: “Oh-o-no-No! Dddddon’t touch Thhhhaaat!!”
I once wrote maternity-ward brochures about a breastfeeding hot line, and later I knew whom to call. Following the horrific 911 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, I was a crisis communications manager answering business inquiries about property insurance coverage. Later, I knew too well how to submit claims when a frozen pipe burst downstairs, flooding my daughter’s bedroom carpet. (Should have prevented that one.)
I used to write confidential memos to employees about corporate restructurings. Now I pride myself as chief operating officer of a home with no secrets. I used that postgraduate wisdom on time management and workflow. I developed best practices for keeping everyone’s favorite outfits clean when they need them. Home-cooked meals were produced with the least amount of pots to clean. My hands still do the brunt of the housework. They look like my grandmother’s hands with papery skin and pulsing veins indicating a life map. Are they paths to wisdom, or roads to foolishness and waste? My daughter traced the pillowy veins with her finger on my thin skin, comparing them to the Science Museum’s exhibit on the anatomy of human hands. The docent
asked if I’d be their hand model. Yet I am content with how they look. My hands
continue to wash dishes, apples, clothes, counters and floors. On winter days, they
crack and they bleed. Summer brings dirt under fingernails. The creams and the kisses from children are all the remedies required. My hands are not pretty, but I am content.
Yes, I passed up the opportunity for promotions. Was it a cop-out to enjoy the feeling of contentment as a domestic engineer? Some say this state of mind led to complacency. Complacent minds tend to stagnate. Others said I’d be out of touch and unemployable in the future. I heard from peers: “What on earth do you DO all day now that you don’t have a job?”
Job opportunities to leap back into the workforce abound. Out my window, I often saw neighbors waiting at the bus stop. I used to get out the stroller, and network with the men and women to stay plugged in on workplace trends. There was a playwright, an art masterpiece restorer, a computer tech, an economics professor and across the way, two doctors. Nearby, I met stay-at-home dads who had great insights on the best parks, sledding hills, ice rinks, city fishing holes and the scoop on bird feeder building workshops for kids. The working women on my block equally shared their talents. I learned how to make disastrous dinners look pretty thanks to a food stylist who directed photographers. An advertising rep taught me about sales tactics which I used to help a friend host a jewelry show for some extra cash. It was valuable to meet a lawyer, a singer, a Spanish workbook editor, a tech stock analyst, and a dentist who also produced documentary films in India. I was content to hear about my neighbors’ fascinating occupations, and eager for my daughters to see the possibilities. Yet I was disenchanted when the questions came thundering toward me: “When will you go back to work?” “What do you do with all that time?” When I wasn’t defending my position in person, the questions bantered from the TV. Daytime talk show experts said that a woman wastes her earning power when she chooses motherhood as a sole profession. “Allowing the man to be the provider is risky. He will die. Or leave you for another woman. Or get sick. You will be stuck with a mortgage, kids, and earn less as a penalty for leaving the workforce.” How could I be so irresponsible? I respected the argument, but I resented the assumptions. I didn’t fear the future. Yes, I traded a W2 for the terrible twos, and now the tech-addicted teens. I am not rushing. I don’t have to jam household chores into a weekend when corporations are closed.
I met my goal to be available when their little eyes shined with pride or squinted with tears. I was there to congratulate them, to soothe them, and listen to them right at the exact moments they want to be heard. My hands, like those on a clock, relished every minute to catch a spontaneous cuddle. My fingers shuffled playing cards. My arms threw snowballs or pushed swings. (I am famous for my “underdogs!”) The rough skin on my hands reveals the joy of being content. I feel full.
Once my daughters started middle school, I started freelance writing again. A friend of mine who also left the workplace a decade ago landed a job as an environmental scientist in the corporate world, thanks to her networking. After raising babies to teens as a stay-at-home mom, she stayed in touch with former bosses as they moved around. It can be done. For me, I opted to go back to work as my own boss. I acquired a national trade publication to work at home while my daughters are in middle school and high school. I write how-to features, sell ads, and enjoy a flexible schedule. My hands are worse off, the bank account modest, but the memories of full-time motherhood are priceless.
Judith F. Brenner founded Minneapolis-based Creative Lakes Media, LLC, in 2010. As a former journalist and corporate communications manager, she credits those experiences for flourishing a home-based writing and publishing career while immersing herself in the most important job of her life, motherhood. Her oldest of two daughters will be off to college in the fall of 2018, a milestone she says proves how every day is precious.