Before the arrival of my daughter I had been under the distinct impression that one of two possible futures awaited us, depending on fate and circumstance. One was that everything people say about babies is true, and that I would be shackled to this little creature beyond the point of no return. Gone would be the days of dinners in Cambridge! Even daily walks and trips to the grocery store would become impossible! Everything would become such an ordeal, we would cease to leave the house for the next two years, out of strife. The second option, and the one I was counting on, was the exact opposite: my life need not change at all, really. In this version of my unknown future I was free to take my infant with me everywhere, or, in a pinch, hire a responsible childcare professional to stay with her for any interim period during which I might care to be an unfettered adult. I continue to conduct my life like a normal human being, except that now I have a kid, end of story.
It did not really occur to me that a third future might be possible: what if I like motherhood (and my child) a bit too much?
“It’s like having a dog, basically,” I attempted in lame explanation to my sister, who has never owned a dog. “You could leave them at home, or do things without them, but you just love them so goddam much, and they’re so much fun, you want to spend all your time with them. So you end up bringing your dog everywhere, or just staying home with the dog, or inventing new activities that you can do with a dog. Like hiking.”
Perhaps it says something interesting about me that I felt the need to express my attachment to my daughter by comparing her to a canine companion, and that somehow this was justification for my new behavior, and my contemplating staying at home to take care of her, at least temporarily. Over Labor Day weekend my sister wasn’t the only one to whom I felt the need to explain myself. Two friends, from my childhood and adolescence, had descended on the north shore of Massachusetts for the week; both ambitious and successful in their own rights; both childless, overeducated, and very much employed.
The first, my oldest and best friend, C, currently holds a clerkship in Minneapolis. After graduating from one of the top law schools in the country, she found herself unemployed and unemployable in her husband’s hometown, where she had accompanied him for his PhD program. She spent the next two years job-hunting, volunteering, canning vegetables, making beer and cheese, writing a novel, and generally doing all sorts of fabulous things that weren’t technically gainful employment. Although she’s now employed, she has a very different sort of worldview regarding work than she did two and a half years ago.
“I became disillusioned*,” she told me. What was the point of her long years of law school, and what was she doing with her life, working so hard?
“It has made me reevaluate what I want to do; I am not as ambitious as I once was.”
When I tell her I am considering quitting my job entirely and staying home with Charlie, she grins and nods noncommittally.
“My sister-in-law and my good friend in Minnesota both considered staying home, but in the end they both ended up going back to work. I think you should probably go back, just to get some perspective, but you have to do what feels right to you.” The “to each her own” argument.
My other friend, whom I’ve known since middle school, is finishing up her own PhD. Unlike C, who is clearly smitten with Charlie and expressed the wish to start her own family sometime soon, J has no real interest in having children.
“I’m really considering quitting my job,” I tell her, anticipating horror and revulsion.
“Why?” she asks, instead.
“Well, I don’t like my job,” I begin, slowly, “and I really like this”–I gesture toward my baby, my house, my dog, our lunch, etc. “I could imagine just staying here for a while.” J just looks at me, so I keep going, despite myself.
“I make so little money, and if I were to stay home it would save on daycare costs, and allow G to have some more flexibility in his career, which is important for him right now.” J looks at me like I have three heads, then starts spouting something about some academic who’s studied women with my disorder, and recommends some feminist philosophies that might help me.
I get this sinking feeling: I’d been telling myself for days previously that I wouldn’t get into this debate with her, and yet here I am, arguing for something I don’t feel I should need to justify.
In France, my beautiful eldest sister-in-law shrugs off such concerns after I explain to her that I might be doing a bit too well at home with my child–to such an extent that I might want to stay there forever.
“It’s funny,” she laughs, “the reactions of other people, when you tell them you stay at home. They make faces.” (she demonstrates as only the French can) “‘Oh, really?’ they ask me. ‘But what are you going to do?’ And I say ‘Oh, don’t worry about it; I want to do this! It’s what I love to do.'” She grins winningly, her large dark eyes squinting into smiles.
She tells me this story twice, to make sure I’ve understood her correctly (or perhaps she’s enjoyed a good amount of the Bordeaux is just repeating herself), and I cannot help but admire her nonchalance, not to mention her self-confidence. Among my very large French extended family, she is the only woman of my generation who I know does not work, in the traditional sense. She goes on to say how her 16-year-old’s friends are poorly behaved, their parents divorced, their houses empty when they come home each day.
The funny thing is, I don’t really believe that staying home would benefit my daughter in any noticeable way. Already, at the age of almost-4-months, she is a very social creature. She loves new people and new experiences far more than I do, and I have no doubt that she would thrive in daycare. No, if I were to do this thing, it would be for me, not for her.
Does this make me selfish? Perhaps. I do want to stay home to be with her. On the other hand, if I’m making this decision for myself, and this is the choice I make, I’m not sacrificing some part of my self, or my life, for my child or my husband. I’m doing this because I want to, not because I feel pressure from my daughter, or society, or family, or friends. No justification required.
*All conversations in this post have been paraphrased and rewritten according to my imperfect memory of them.