'What Do You Do?': A Stay-at-Home-Mother's Most Dreaded Question

A woman reflects on her decision to leave the workforce, a decade and a half later.
John Schultz/flickr

The four most dreaded words in the English language, according to a recent study, are, "We need to talk." But for me, as a long time stay-at-home mom, the four words I dread most are, "What do you do?" It is the question that sneaks up on me at a parent-teacher conference or the sidelines of a soccer game. Each time I am momentarily dumbstruck and struggle for an answer. Yes, I take care of my kids, but working parents take care of their kids, too. No, the question "What do you do?" really means, "What do you do besides look after your family, clean your house, grocery shop, and volunteer in your community?" The question touches on our identity and ambition, how others value us, and even how our children perceive us. The question asks, "What does someone pay you to do?" And for that, I had no answer.

The fact that for me this was such a disquieting question suggests that even now, more than a decade and half into my self-inflicted exile from the paid workplace, I am not fully comfortable with my decision.

In 1995, just before my third child was born, I joined the 43 percent of highly qualified women who off-ramp, opt out, or walk away from a good income. Some women walk away because their families cannot afford the daycare they need to stay employed. Some women walk away because their families can afford for them not to work. And some women, like myself, walk because the career they have and the parent they want to be (with the spouse they have chosen) cannot seem to exist in the same life.

I did not make this decision with imperfect knowledge of what the workplace would offer when I returned. I made it with no knowledge. The monetary and nonmonetary costs were incalculable and barely studied at the time. But a 2011 Harvard study shows that the earnings penalty to MBAs for taking a job interruption of as little as 18 months, within 15 years of receiving a bachelors degree, is an astounding 41 percent. (Although career reentry expert Carol Fishman Cohen explains it is important to note that survey participants may intentionally choose a lower-compensated job post-career break for reasons ranging from simply wanting a less stressful job to wanting more schedule flexibility.) And the non-monetary costs can be every bit as daunting.

Walking away from my job was tinged with the feeling of failure. Even in the face to two beautiful little boys and another on the way, it was hard to find a narrative to tell myself:

You can't tell yourself that life/career/family can't all be done because all around you are women are having the "big career" or the "deeply fulfilling" career or just a good job and raising amazing children, kids just like you hope yours will be.

You can't tell yourself that you did not love that job anyway, because that is a reason to leave a particular position, not the workforce.

You could tell yourself that your kids will be better off cared for only by you, but there is no research that bears that out, and while there are times that intense parental engagement is needed, working parents are able to achieve that, too.

You can't tell yourself that you will be happier, because the studies suggest the opposite. Although for any individual woman staying at home might lead to less stress, more happiness, and a better situation for her family, studies continue to confirm that there is more boredom and depression in mothers who stay home than among mothers who work full or part time.

You try to tell yourself that if you will rejoin the workforce in a position like the one you once held. Although it could happen, it cannot be counted upon.

You can't tell yourself that others will perceive you the same whether you are working or not. After years at home our sense of ourselves as a working professional diminishes and with it, the way others view us. Former colleagues may remember you in the workplace, but many people will now know you only as a stay-at-home mom.

I would not presume to speak for another woman on the planet. But in a paradox that is not a contradiction: I am glad for every moment I was given to spend with my children, and I have misgivings about my decision to leave the work world behind. I want to preface everything I am about to say with the caveat that I loved being home with my sons. I felt it was a gift to be their mother and to be present in their lives every day.

So if the decision was of my own making, and it was made with the full support of my husband, what is so hard about the question, "What do you do?"

A Gap Where Personal Accomplishment Once Lay
To answer the question I have to admit for now, and maybe only for now, that I am not using the education I worked so hard for and that the career ambition I once clung to so tightly, I have simply let slip away. It is to acknowledge that the forward progress that begins when we move from the first year of nursery school to the second has stalled.

Not long after leaving my job I was still answering the question of what I did with what I used to do. Stay at home moms are quick to say that they were once a journalist, a lawyer, or worked in advertising. The rapidity with which this assertion is made speaks volumes. But it is not long before the answer began to feel musty and worn, a little outdated and almost desperate. Still in my 30s I was living in my own past, trying to convince myself and others to take me seriously for things I had once done.

If I seemed unsure of myself and of two minds, it is only a reflection of our country's conflicting views of women in the workplace. Pew research released just two months ago shows that while 67 percent of respondents acknowledged that women working for pay has made it easier for families to live more comfortably, 74 percent said it has made it harder to raise children. And more surprisingly, 51 percent said that children are better off with their mother at home (8 percent feel the same way about fathers). In a recent New York Times/CBS poll only a quarter of moms (and interestingly only half the dads) with kids under 18 said in a perfect world they would choose to work full time. And yet most of the careers that we prepare for and accomplishments we so admire are full-time occupations. It is easy to be conflicted in a society that is so conflicted.

Walk the Walk
One of the most important things we strive for as parents is to model for our kids the adults we hope they will become. We tell our daughters to work hard in school and strive for a meaningful career. We tell our sons the same and that the girls who sit beside them in the classroom are their equals in every way. But what happens when that does not square with what they see at home?

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Lisa Endlich Heffernan is a stay-at-home mother, a volunteer, and the author of Goldman Sachs: The Culture of Success and Be the Change. She lives in New York and writes regularly at Grown and Flown.

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