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.