Tuesday, November 4, 2014

When Staying Home Gets Hard: My Story

I have experienced being a stay-at-home parent in three different countries--Vietnam, the United States, and Canada.  My journey into parenthood began in Vietnam.  I left my work as a foreign English teacher to stay at home with my daughter, who was born in 2003.  At that time I was already a cultural outsider, since I was an American expatriate woman living in a mono-cultural Asian society.

Choosing to be a stay-at-home parent has become counter-cultural in many parts of the world, but in places like China and Vietnam, hardly anyone sees staying at home as a realistic choice.  It is simply not done anymore.


After maternity leave, every other Vietnamese woman I knew went back to work.  I, on the other hand, was free to stroll around, learning the language and the culture better, as I interacted with others when I was out and about.  And my blonde-haired, blue-eyed baby girl was an instant conversation starter.

I was also blessed with the company of several other new expatriate moms in my city who were parenting abroad for the first time.  However, I mostly parted ways with my educated Vietnamese female peers who had been my teaching colleagues.  They continued to teach, leaving their children in the care of older family members or paid caregivers.


In 2006, we returned to America, with two children in tow.  We were blessed to come back to a familiar church that was full of college-educated stay-at-home mothers.  They reached out to me, and I was encouraged by our time together.  I was not the odd one out within that urban community.  And I could see examples of other parents who were further along the journey in having one parent opt to stay home to raise a growing family.  Some opted to educate their children at home too, and I wondered if that was the more devoted path to take.

Then we moved again, to Nebraska, where we started out knowing no one.  I immediately sought out a MOPS group to join, before we even settled on a church to attend.  And once again I found a place to belong and grow as a mom.


Yet it also seemed like almost all of the other moms were trying to earn extra income somehow.  And with a husband in graduate school, it seemed like I needed to work at least part-time too.  I tried writing articles from home to earn a little extra, but multi-tasking is not my strength, which is one reason I wanted to stay home and focus on my children to begin with!

Then an opportunity to teach an English class came up, and I dove back into teaching, which I loved.  But it didn't have such a good effect on my family life.  I tend to focus intensely on one thing at a time, and I allowed that to shortchange my sleep and in turn, our family life suffered.

So that season of dropping the kids off with their dad for a few hours ended for the most part, except for an occasional substitute teaching gig, which again left my family feeling that they were less important than the class I was covering for an hour or two.  Eventually I stopped substituting as well, and we took out a student loan for the last year of my husband's education so that he could focus on finishing while I was with our children at home.


It was also during this time that I became more acquainted with the growing Christian homeschooling community.  And due to my tendency to compare and question our family's choices, I started to think maybe I was "less-than" as a mother because I was sending my kids to school.  Because maybe just staying home with my children was not enough.  I should be their teacher too.  It makes staying at home more legitimate--noble even.  Wow, look at those amazing home school moms!  And they are doing an incredible amount.  I commend those who do it well.

On the other hand, in one group I met a few women who seemed trapped.  As if they couldn't not home school.  If they stopped homeschooling, they would be failing their children and their family values somehow.  So several of them, it seemed to me, were simply soldiering on without joy, some with the help of anti-depressant medication.  And I wondered if the two were linked.

What I mean is they felt like they had to stay home and home school their children, even if they no longer wanted to or thought that they were doing it successfully.  And that seems like a recipe for discouragement, possibly leading to depression.

Perhaps I am also projecting some of my own experience onto their stories, but I don't think I am entirely off the mark.  Because even though I don't home school, I have begun to feel like I have to stay home, whether I am successful at it or not, while the kids are young.

And yet I am surrounded by women who opt to spend their days working outside the home, some because they feel that they have to bring in more income, and many because they want to.  Staying home can be lonely.  One's efforts often go unappreciated and/or are too quickly undone.  In a workplace, one gets camaraderie, appreciation, and financial compensation!  Things get done and stay done much longer than they do in a house full of six people.


So in many ways I feel like the easier option would be for me to work outside the home.  There are very good odds that I would be successful at it.  That is what my education and experience for 20-some years prepared me to do.  But I don't want to regret missing time with my kids.  At what point, though, does my failure to thrive as a stay-at-home parent merit reconsidering the decision?

That is the hard question my husband and I keep coming back to.  And I still don't have an answer.

In your family, what factors play into the decision to stay at home
 or work outside the home?

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