How I worked through the shame of choosing to stay home with my kids
By Andrea Ewer
Photography by Bruce Murray/VisionFire
When my firstborn was six months old, and my maternity leave was only half over, I went back to work — not because I wanted to, but because my career as an elementary school teacher was on the line. I had spent three years chasing teaching’s golden trophy, a permanent contract, and if I didn’t get back in the classroom, I’d find myself back at the bottom of the ladder. So, I bought a breast pump and lined the freezer with little bags of milk, went shopping for dress pants that concealed my post-baby bump, and hired a nanny. She and my son bonded immediately.
They spent many afternoons swinging at the park by the school where I taught, and I would peer through the window of my classroom to catch a glimpse. I would wonder how long he had napped, if he had liked the sweet potato purée that I had made for him and hoped he was happy and not missing me too much.
My heart was torn. I longed to be home with my boy, to be the one to witness his first sounds and words and steps. But becoming a teacher had been a lifelong dream, a passion I had pursued since my own days in elementary school.
When I shared with a coworker who was also a mom that I was struggling with the transition back to work, her response was “Honey, you’ve just got to rip off that Band-Aid.” Well, rip it off I had, but it seemed to be taking a long time to heal. I woke in the morning with heavy eyes and a sense of dread looming over me. My detailed lesson plans became shorter and shorter until they were merely a few words scribbled across the page. One day I noticed the principal flipping through my plan book while I had the students huddled around my feet for story time. I wasn’t surprised when he called me into his office at the end of the day to discuss my lack of planning.
I was humiliated, and I was angry. I knew I had dropped the ball. I just couldn’t believe someone else had noticed.
I wanted to run out of that building screaming This is not where I want to be! But I stayed, because I was trying to build a career. Because this was the path I had made for myself all those years ago, because what would happen if I didn’t? It would take two more years and the birth of my second son to finally trade the classroom for a full-time role at home. But I had grounded my identity in teaching for so long that it took a while to figure out who I was all over again.
Shame became an ever-present companion. It’s a feeling I’ve battled for the six years that I’ve been home with my two boys, a voice in my head telling me that I’m not living up to my potential, that I’m less of a woman because I don’t have a career. When a working mom rushes past me at school drop off, me in my leggings and sneakers and her in her high heels and pant suit, I’m often hit with a pang of self-doubt. Am I doing enough? Am I enough?
I’m learning to live with this uncertainty. Being a stay-at-home mom has been my greatest teacher. It has helped me to slow down, to be present, to appreciate all of the tiny, beautiful things in my life that I used to overlook. Like sipping my coffee at the kitchen window, watching the sun creep into the orange sky, or laughing at my husband and sons wrestling on the couch. I am more awake to my life, and more myself now than I’ve ever been.
When my second maternity leave was coming to an end (the full 12 months this time), I received a letter from the school board informing me that I had earned enough teaching days to qualify for a probationary contract, after which I would be offered a permanent position. There it was, the golden trophy, the thing that I had been chasing after all this time.
But then I glanced over at my almost-one-year-old, bouncing in his jumper, and his three-year-old brother, flipping through a stack of picture books on the living room floor, and that piece of paper didn’t mean so much anymore. I was happy with my life. Being a stay-at-home mom comes with its frustrations, and there are days I wished I was somewhere, anywhere else. And yet, I knew this was the job I wanted most of all. As I tossed the envelope into the recycling bin, a smile spread across my face, and I turned to the boys and asked, “Who wants to go swing at the playground