10 years ago this summer, I quit my job and became a stay-at-home Mother. It was a sea-shift in my identity and something that still shocks people who knew me as a child. I was a straight A student in High School, College and Law School. I loved working. I always had an internship and a plan. I interviewed well and was eager to please on the job. Positive feedback from School, and later Work, was how I measured myself as a successful human being.
Then I got pregnant and life was awful. I couldn't believe that I had done everything "right" and still ended up so miserable. I was 28. I was a star at my Law Firm after 3 years of super hard work. I worked for an all female staff, for little money and what I assumed was greater flexibility in hours. I married the perfect feminist guy who adored me. Jon cooked, cleaned, and happily looked forward to being a stay-at-home Dad 3 days a week, while he worked as a College Art Professor 2 days a week. I had a rented brick house with a huge garden. I even found a trusted babysitter who had a backyard filled with ponies to watch my little girl.
This was the life I'd mapped out at age 21 at my all women's college. Happy marriage. Beautiful, only daughter. "Thrilling" work that was socially important with an all women Law Firm. The only problem was me. I was miserable.
I decided to quit my job when I found out I was pregnant with my second child, and my first was 15 months old. At first it was an easy decision. I refused to be pregnant again at my Law Firm. That was beyond a miserable experience the first time.
For example, I had an appellate brief due at the exact time as my due date. For trial lawyers, appellate briefs are rare and sort of a big deal. There are all these special rules and requirements and super strict deadlines. As a young lawyer, I was supposed to get special mentoring from the Main Office to help me with this assignment. The older lawyers were busy and kept pushing back their deadline for a critique of my rough draft.
I remember writing an email saying "Even though the Court's deadline is March 18, I've got to have a final draft sent in by March 1. March 17 is my due date. It's my first baby and my doctor says I need to be ready to go into labor at any time two weeks before my due date."
Instead of getting an email reply, I got a phone call from THE appellate guy in my 80 person Law Firm. "Oh Abby, you're being so unreasonable...." He goes on to tell me that he has found memories of putting the final touches on his best appellate court brief while his wife was in labor with their third child. "She had 6 hours of labor, so I had 5 hours and 55 minutes of free time to work."
So help me, my first uncharitable thought to a fellow Catholic was "This is why you're now divorced!" I bit that comment back as really not appropriate for a junior attorney to say to someone 30 years her senior. Instead, as an attorney, I went with logic.
"I'M THE ONE PUSHING THE BABY OUT! I can't draft the final edits of my appellate brief while I'm in labor. Lets get this brief finished early!"
It was like a "head slam the keyboard" kind of moment. I had so many of those moments at this workplace.
When I found out that I was pregnant with my son, I drew a mental line in the sand. There was no way I was going through another pregnancy, child birth, maternity leave, newborn period with this Law Firm. It wasn't even what we Catholics call a "Culture of Death." The Culture was "work comes first, always, before everything else." The few female Managing Attorneys who had children, basically had nannies. They had a babysitter who came into their house at 6 AM, dressed the children, fed them 3 meals a day and a snack. They dressed them in their PJs before their Mothers came home at 7:30 PM. This was all on an public interest attorney salary of $35,000 to $40,000 a year. I think the going rate for long-term babysitting by an adult sitter in our area of Appalachia was only $2 an hour. The longer I worked at this Firm, the longer it seemed like a total nightmare to stay there long term.
I quit. I thought I was simply taking a time out--a six month maternity leave, instead of a 3 month leave. I told my husband he needed to support us. He agreed. He was a part-time professor, so he started to look for full-time work in his field. I knew I was probably moving to a new State, which meant taking a new bar exam. I figured that we'd move to where ever Jon found a job. Then I'd get my license and open up a part-time Law Firm. I remember thinking "Art Law" would be fun. I wanted to help artists get started with new businesses.
We cashed out our retirement accounts and moved back to the place where we met in graduate school--Madison, Wisconsin. We had $15,000 in cash which at the time seemed like such a pathetic retirement amount. Now that seems like a fortune!
Something happened when we moved. I feel in love with mothering. I remember clearly the first time I took a walk with my little girl to the post office. Hannah stopped to look at a pretty flower growing inside a sidewalk crack. I was impatient to get my task done, and then I realized "Oh, we're not in any hurry." I stooped down next to her, awkwardly with my big pregnant belly. Hannah wasn't a talker back then. It was her body language only that showed me how interested she was in this plant. So I started talking for her. I mentioned all the cool things about this flower, the purple petals, the spikey stem, the way it smelled. Then I showed her the sign language term for "flower"--sniff, sniff with the nose. Hannah copied my "sniff, sniff" with a smile. Then she skipped off happily in front of me, her blonde pony tail bobbling along the sidewalk.
"What a great kid!" I thought. "She's fun!"
Then I realized with some sadness, this was one of the first times, I hadn't hurried her from place to place. When I was working as an attorney, life was such rush. Even on the weekends. Going to the post office was not an "event" it was a task. We had fun mother-daughter moments, but they were always on my schedule. This was one of the few times that I put myself on Hannah's schedule. It seemed like such an impoverished life for a toddler to never have enough time to examine a pretty plant in the rush to follow her Mom's frantic To Do List.
Ten years is a long time. I'm chafing a little bit after a decade. Right now, it's a lot of nausea and partial bed rest. These are not the Pinterest moments of Stay-at-Home Mothering! I find myself wanting to go back to work sometimes. Not because I think there is something great over there that I'm missing out on. More like "I'd rather be anywhere but here" or "Seriously, two more years of toddlerhood even after I get Abigail and Tess out of this whiny stage?"
Even so, a decade of Stay-at-Home mothering has been good for my soul. I'm calm. I'm clear. I've got more internal resources and a better sense of direction. Even with a new baby, I picture myself doing more projects outside my house next year. I think I'm slowly drifting more into "when" I go back to work, rather than "if" I go back.
I'm really grateful for this pause in my 30s, which isn't really a "pause" at all. It was a fast forward to finding the real me. I'm grateful to my Smith College Professor who wrote me an encouraging email while I was see-sawing on the "should I quit my job" decision in 2004. She wrote me "If you're going to live the exact same life that you planned on before you have children, why have children at all?"