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Please Stop Assuming I’m Going Back to Work Just Because All My Kids Are in School

The Motherhood Identity Project

For the past year or so, I’ve been plagued by people asking me when I plan to go “back to work.” They’re aware that my fourth and last child will head to kindergarten this fall. For the first time in 13 years, I will have no kids at home during the day.

The assumption is that I’ll have all the leisurely time in the world. What will I do to fill my time? I must earn my worth, I guess? Contribute to my family by bringing in a consistent and respectable paycheck?

I used to work outside my home, and the job was considered prestigious. My grandfather lovingly called me “Professor”, referring to my college teaching job. I was not, in fact, a professor, but a lecturer who worked part-time teaching 3 college writing classes a semester. I had approximately 70 students every 4 months.

That job title was enough to wow some people. I had a master’s degree and was teaching mostly college freshmen at a local university that was rapidly growing in both rank and recognition. In society’s eyes, I had a real job with real responsibilities. I absolutely loved my work. However, when our family grew by adoption — quite rapidly — I found myself with 3 babies under the age of 5. I couldn’t keep up with the essay-grading, curriculum-planning, and teaching.

With reluctance, I let my department chair know that I would not be returning to work in the fall, losing my 9-year seniority. I didn’t know what I was going to do in the future. At that time, I knew I had to focus on my family. The cost of childcare was greater than my bi-monthly paycheck. Staying simply didn’t make sense.

That was 9 years ago. I absolutely miss the energy and bustle. College students have hope, drive, and excitement like none other. I was honored to be part of their educational journeys. But I do not miss grading 10-page research essays — times 70 —and the poverty-level paychecks. Many of my colleagues, also lecturers, had to teach at multiple schools just to make ends meet. We were overworked, overstressed, and underpaid — much like many of our friends in other areas of education.

I have days where I miss the classroom, but I remember everything I had to give up in order to be there. I’m older now, have 4 kids, and have battled breast cancer twice. I can’t bring myself to go back to the university knowing that I’d be walking into education and all its typical issues, plus the pandemic that never seems to end.

Others who work in non-education rarely grasp this, thus the big question: When will I get back at it? After all, I’ve had all this time off.

Off? It’s laughable. Raising babies — 4 of them — has been the most grueling (and rewarding) work I’ve ever done. And no one paid me to do it. This work doesn’t end, or even taper off much, just because all of my children will be in their own classrooms during the week. Oh, and I’ve written over 1000 (yes, thousand) articles since I left my teaching job. But being a self-employed writer doesn’t impress most people.

My teen and tweens’ activity schedules and therapies alone consume hours upon hours of sitting in waiting rooms and gymnasiums, as well as time in the minivan. There’s the usual meals and snacks to prepare, laundry, dishes, house cleaning, phone calls, and appointments. Many school weeks aren’t full weeks, between events like holidays, staff development days, and parent-teacher conferences. There needs to be a caregiver available for after school and the days off.  

We chose to have a big family, which means we chose this busy life. I am not complaining about the beauty and chaos that we often live in. But what is both offensive and hurtful is the assumption that I am somehow more valuable if I contribute in a very particular way.

When all of my children are at school, I have no doubt that most days will still be quite busy. However, there will be some chill days, in which I will unapologetically go to lunch with my husband (who works from home 2 days a week), meet a friend for coffee, attend an appointment sans kids, read in the sunlight, and exercise. I am aware that to many people, this makes me appear lazy and selfish. After all, I’m a mom who is supposed to sacrifice every spare moment, gifting it to my family or, in some people’s eyes, working at a “real” job. And I’m currently cancer-free, so why can’t I just … get back at it?

I recognize the immense privilege I have — the one in which I have a choice. Yet I find myself just as defensive as the next mom — whether she works full or part-time, or her labor is paid or not. We, as women, simply cannot win. We are so often asked to prove ourselves, our worth, to satisfy others who don’t pay our bills or raise our kids. The fact that we even question whether women work outside the home or not is incredibly sexist. Men are rarely asked or defined as such.

I wish that instead of people asking me, or any other mom, when we plan to go back to work (or work differently), that we would approach each other with curiosity and support. I don’t know one single mom who has made her work-life decisions lightly. In fact, moms are usually classic over-thinkers, routinely putting our needs aside for the greater good of our families. We beat ourselves up enough without needing someone else to add to the criticism, second-guessing, and demands for validation.

My own mom taught me an important lesson growing up: I am only in charge of one person, and that person is myself. The responsibility of being okay with my work decisions falls on me. As women, we will always be judged by someone. However, we can choose to walk in confidence, knowing that we are the best person to care for ourselves and our families. The opinion of an outsider is just that — an opinion. It is not a verdict on our value as women, partners, and mothers. We alone determine our value … and that value, no matter what, should never be based on a paycheck.

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