This week will be the children's last at school, which means two and a half months of summer holiday--or the end of my mornings to myself! Seems like a good excuse for a retrospective on being a stay at home Mum with school-age children.
Bear in mind that my intention for 2013 was to return to work although I should note that my hope was to be able to work at the same school as my children. and this did not pan out. I did have a brief stint covering for another teacher, but since February, my children have been going to school every morning while I stay at home. Initially, I was very much looking forward to the experience of having three
hours to myself every day--it seemed so decadent and so full of
opportunities to Do All The Things.
Children Get Sick
In fact, it started off with me acting as nursemaid as the whole family got sick with the round of winter bugs. The children (mostly my two year old daughter) continued to be sick off and on until the beginning of May, but certainly February and March were almost completely taken up with one child or another being off school. Meanwhile, I felt almost permanently under the weather as ear / eye / throat infections caused interrupted nights, and the stress of not getting other things done translated into insomnia.
Coming right after my month as a substitute teacher, this was something of a wake-up call, as it was starkly obvious just how difficult February and March would have been if I was working. I could hardly have taken half the week off every week.
Obviously, in that situation, my husband could have taken days off as well--in a pinch, he could probably manage to work from home, although that wouldn't always be feasible. Also, there were days when I erred on the side of keeping a weepy child home; if we were both working, I'd be more likely to send them into school and hope for the best.
Even so, it made me appreciate just how difficult it is logistically when both parents are working with no alternative childcare. For that seven week period, there were at least two days of every week when somebody (usually my daughter, but we all suffered off and on) had to stay at home, which would have meant either my husband or myself (and a couple of times, both of us) would have had to take a day off work.
Millions of families manage it, so no doubt we could as well, but that doesn't mean it's easy, and I don't suppose anybody really succeeds in keeping all the plates spinning without dropping one from time to time. We could afford a nanny, but considering where my interests lie, we don't personally gain much advantage from paying my salary to somebody else to look after our children.
Time Abhors a Vacuum
Once the children did start getting into reasonable stretches of wellness (and we weren't going on trips around the US), I finally got into a routine of free mornings. That has been wonderful. It's a tremendous luxury after four years of infant and toddler-care, and I love it!
Still, it's interesting noting the disconnect between what I envisioned and reality. One of the things you learn as a parent is that you can get a phenomenal amount of things done if somebody takes the children away for just a couple of hours. Whenever I needed to completely reorganise a room or had some other grand housework job, I would get my husband to take the children out at the weekend while I got the job done.
Therefore, I vaguely assumed that five such opportunities every week would mean that my house would be eternally spotless, I could tackle all those projects I'd been meaning to do, and still have time to go out and just enjoy shopping or maybe take a weekly swimming class or something. Not to mention, with that daily break from childcare, I'd not only be able to stay patient with the children, but I'd have boundless enthusiasm for our afternoon activities.
The reality? Well, my personality is such that I get fixated on things. So if I decided to reorganise the filing cabinets or archive all the photos or write, I would do that. I would not do any housework. Moreover, when the children got home, assuming I had not finished my current project, I'd be thinking about it, twitchy to get back to it and... yes... irritable with the children for distracting me from my ongoing task.
It probably took me a few weeks to figure this out. Damnit, cognitive dissonance. While realising this means I can work around it a bit, it is always going to be a problem for me, it's something I will have to keep watching out for, and it will certainly always be one of the flaws in my parenting.
The truth is, of course, however much time we have, we expand our activities to fill it and thus constantly feel that we don't have enough time. I never did take up that swimming class, and I haven't done much shopping outside of necessities either--though, to be fair, I don't really like shopping that much, and right now, the novelty of being alone in the house hasn't worn off. I'd much rather treat myself to twenty minutes of watching How I Met Your Mother in peace than of looking at clothes on a rack.
The irony here is that I've always been an advocate of the stay at home mother, yet personally, I felt that I could not justify my unemployment once both the children were at school. It was always my intention to return to work at this point, so that I would be contributing to the household finances and so that I would be focusing on myself and my career plans--i.e. so that I wouldn't 'just' be a Mum.
Had things worked out and I'd been able to take up the job I originally wanted, this would probably be a post about getting to grips with parenting and career. Instead I've spent the past few months wondering if I should find a Plan B without actually starting the jobhunt.
Part of this has been because we have been finding a new school for the children (more on that in another post) and we agreed both that that should take priority and that there wasn't a lot of point in me finding a job until we had that settled and we knew what my time commitment to the children would be. Working at the same school would have solved a lot of logistical issues regarding hours and holidays; we've still got to account for those.
Yet a lot of my procrastination has been due to my own re-assessment of my value to this family. I appreciate more than I did before that having one parent who doesn't work is a huge asset (even if it does come with unfortunate housewife connotations). And while any family can benefit from a second salary, we're very very lucky that we can live so comfortably off my husband's current income.
It doesn't mean I'm giving up on my career, but I can still plan for it, research my options and prepare myself. I fully intend to earn money again, but it's going to wait another year, maybe longer. (Around this point in reading the blog, my husband is probably having a great time devising snarky comments--I do it all for you, dear.) Again, I'm in a fortunate position here, in that I'm not looking to climb a lengthy career ladder. I've read plenty of blogposts from mothers who would like to stay at home longer, but whose job aspirations prevent them from putting their careers on hold.
Fortunately, the other lesson I've learned from the past few months (and indeed, the past few years) is that being a stay-at-home mum doesn't mean that I've lost my identity outside of the children. The internet in particular has been a great outlet for that--thank heavens, I've always been a geek! Serendipitously, this assuages some of my income guilt because at least my hobbies come free.
The Long and the Short Term of It
And that, in a nutshell, is how I've learned to stop worrying and love being a Stay At Home Mum. (Well, maybe I'm still a little defensive.) What I don't yet know is how long this situation will continue. Until both children are out of pre-school? Until my daughter's immune system kicks into gear? Until an unmissable job opportunity presents itself? Or perhaps until after we've left the US, which is another nebulous deadline we talk about occasionally.
I hope this doesn't become one of those things where I wait for a right moment that never comes, but certainly, here and now, it makes sense to keep ourselves adaptable. Perhaps I'll have new plans for 2014.
Right now, I've got a week left to relish my mornings, before I go back to being a full-time mother over the summer vacation. I suspect I might be feeling quite jaded about that in another month or so, but for the time being, I'm excited about taking the children on days out so I'm going to capitalise on my enthusiasm while it lasts!