'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.
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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?

While I might be able to convince adults that I had once been a high-heel-wearing, microphone-wielding trader on a massive trading floor, shouting to brokers and salespeople alike, to my kids I was just their mom. Teaching them how much I valued my role as their parent was a life lesson second to none, but when speaking about the importance of focusing on a career and striving for professional success, a credibility gap opened up.

When asked if they were happy that I had been home with them, not ungratefully, they told me that lots of parents worked and kids stayed in after-school programs or had babysitters and that too would have been fine with them, and they are right.

Isn't It Time You Thought About Going Back?
Then there are the questions from those who really know us, the family and longtime friends who cheered at the sidelines of our careers and provided encouragement at every step. The questions began not long after my youngest was born: "Are you going to go back?" "The kids are getting older, do you miss the office?" "What are you going to do when he starts kindergarten...middle school...high school?" No one asks my husband what he is going to do next, it is presumed that he will stay in his job, regardless of our children.

If I had been asked the question once, I could have ignored it, but the hundreds of times I have heard this question suggests that my job as a stay-at-home mom might be a brief foray but not one those around me believed should last.

Yet here is the problem. Even though I might have known that my kids would grow up and my job as a stay-at-home mom would end, the horizon of opportunity that once seemed ever expanding suddenly began to contract, at first slowly and then rapidly as I quickly became outdated. Being a stay-at-home mom meant that the working world moved forward and I didn't. The longer I stayed out of work, the further behind I fell. Sheryl Sandberg points out, "Women who take time out of the workforce pay a big career penalty. Only 74 percent of professional women will rejoin the workforce in any capacity, and only 40 percent will return to full-time jobs. Those who do rejoin will often see their earnings decrease dramatically." Life is not about money, but it serves as a proxy for levels of responsibility one can expect in returning to work.

Experts will tell you that while a certain diminishment of earning power and professional stature comes with leaving the workplace that part time work is the best remedy to ease reentry. Other experts add that in the absence of employment, strategic volunteering in areas related to your career goals is a helpful path to pursue.

Raise Your Hand, After All You're Not Doing Anything
In a world that bows down at the altar of busyness, where bragging about not having enough time is not considered bragging at all, the SAHM with school age children is hard pressed to join in. Sure there is tons to do to meet the needs of a family, but on many days there is flexibility about how and when those tasks get done, leaving the SAHM an easy target for local causes that needs volunteers. It is a slippery slope for moms who find themselves with unstructured time from 9:00 am until 1:50 pm and it is easy to fill the hours with mountains of volunteer work, which makes you feel great about contributing to your community but can leave you with little to show on your resume.

I have a soft heart for a lot causes and a hard time saying no. But when I look around me at the class moms, PTO officers and teacher appreciation lunches, I know that I am not the only one. The educational and civic organizations across our country depend on an army of volunteers and because of the hours that so many of these activities occur that army has a lot of stay-at-home mom soldiers.

But volunteering is a bottomless pit and with no "I have to work" excuse at the ready, I easily filled my days with volunteer activities from the trivial--sitting in meetings wrangling over centerpieces and seating charts--to the far more meaningful, as a board member for local social service organizations. It is easy to feel busy, even overwhelmed by the requests to volunteer only to find that you have made very little investment in your own future.

Divorce, Death and Downsizing
Being a SAHM is a gamble. Husbands and partners, as well as their income, can disappear by any number of means leaving the non-income earning spouse scrambling for a job. As 50 percent of marriages do not last 20 years and cyclical economic downturns can lead to income loss, the risk of facing a job market for which you are unprepared, is very real.

Being a SAHM meant both taking a bet that my marriage would last and leaving behind a very real part of my adult identity, a part I had worked all my life to achieve, the independent part. So even in a marriage of equals, where decision-making is fully shared, staying home means returning to the role as an economic dependent, a role many of us had not been in since college or earlier. And even when it is entirely clear, as it was in my family, that the stress and exhaustion levels will be reduced with one parent at home and that both adults will be happier, it is hard not to feel a twinge of fear at the risk you are taking putting all your eggs in your income-earning spouse's basket.

If this experience has taught me one thing it is the importance of leaving a pilot light on under your professional life. I should not have let the flame of my career die entirely, but rather sought out part-time or other creative options and kept up with former colleagues and bosses. There are times in some families when the best solution is not to have both parents working full time, and if the recent polls are right, that may be true of many families. Yet I wished I had given leaving the job market the same focus, attention, and planning I gave to entering it. Rather than simply running away from what felt like an untenable situation for my family, I should have been heading towards a different career path, one of my own design.

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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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