When Janet Coleman became pregnant with her son, it was a miracle, she says—she and her husband had been trying for three years. Coleman felt lucky to be able to quit her job and put all her energy into taking care of the baby. "I was looking forward to being a stay-at-home mom. But after a few weeks my rose-colored glasses started to fog up," she says. "My son was colicky and cried nonstop. Day after day all I did was nurse, change diapers, and rock him. There were many days I felt alone and guilty. I wondered if there was something wrong with me—why wasn't this stay-at-home mom floating on cloud nine?"
Like Coleman, many women have great expectations of what life will be like when they leave work to be home with their child. After making the switch, however, reality sets in: Staying home is a major adjustment.
"You're trading in one set of challenges for another," says Christine D'Amico, author of The Pregnant Woman's Companion (Attitude, 2002). At work, you may be dealing with deadlines and conflicts with coworkers, while at home you're coping with a crying baby, household chores, and never-ending family demands. Of course, you get to witness precious milestones as your infant learns to crawl, talk, and walk. You can also wear whatever you want and kiss workplace politics goodbye. Still, going from office to home is like stepping into a different life. It's equally—if not more—trying, in a totally new way.
For Amy Ritz of Los Angeles, one of the greatest difficulties was filling her long, open-ended days. "I'd make a mental checklist—supermarket, dry cleaner, Target—wondering what I could do to break up the day so it wasn't all about feeding, burping, and changing my son," says Ritz. But because baby care is relentless, you can feel stuck at home; often just when you're about to walk out the door, the baby will be hungry or need a new diaper. "By the time I was ready to get out it was 4 p.m.," says Ritz. "I'd look at Adam and wonder where we were going to go so late in the day."
When you're at work, you have projects and tasks you can complete and point to for a sense of achievement. But during those schedule-less, sleepless days of new motherhood, it's tough to get anything done, which is especially trying if you're a task-oriented person, says Bill Maier, PsyD, a child and family psychologist in Colorado Springs. And no one is acknowledging the good job you did nursing or cleaning the bathroom. "I felt less important and a little depressed," says Sunrise Zimmermann of Bow, Washington. "A sense of structure and the feeling that I had accomplished something at the end of the day were things I really missed about work, as well as the company of coworkers."
Indeed, being homebound can lead to feeling isolated, especially if most of your neighbors and friends are not at home with kids. "When you're used to constant adult contact at work, going 'goo goo, ga ga' alone all day can make you go crazy," says Maier.
At home, not only is the baby your sole companion, but his often unpredictable needs understandably come first. This can make you feel like you have little control over your own life. "Until I had Ariel I could eat, sleep, go to the bathroom, and work when I wanted," says Ellen Schwartz of Atlanta. "Suddenly another person was dictating my every move."
Some women also struggle with how they're seen by others. "Before Adam, I used to be my own person," says Ritz. "Now I'm just someone's mom and someone's wife. And everyone just assumes I'm all about my baby." Plus, says D'Amico, while everyone agrees that moms are really important, many people still see those who work outside the home as having more to offer.
Your new job status might also adversely affect your spousal relationship. Let's face it: Going from work to home changes the entire who-does-what equation. Your partner might expect you to do it all at home, or you might feel that you should since he's been working hard out of the house. But if he doesn't share the chore load, you may feel resentful. You might also envy that he gets to have a life outside parenthood. "I began to resent my boyfriend for having a job and being able to go to college," says Erin Nagle of Massillon, Ohio, and the mother of Kiara, 3, and Abbigail, 1. "He was able to maintain friendships through his classes and work while I was home changing diapers."
Last but not least is the guilt you may feel for even having these negative thoughts and feelings. As a full-time mom, this was the emotion I knew best: I couldn't wait to stay home with my baby, and yet, once there, all I wanted was for him to nap so I could have time to myself, or for my husband to come home so I could hand over our son. I felt guilt-ridden for not wanting to spend every minute with Benjamin, but I knew I needed a break—mentally and physically.
The good news is that the most difficult phase of baby care is over after those first three, intense months, says psychologist Maier. Once your child gets into established routines and your life feels less chaotic, things get easier. Besides giving it time, the key to making staying home work is knowing what to expect—and reaching out for help. Here's how:
Set up a schedule. For most new mothers, a routine gives them something to look forward to and can help stave off boredom and isolation. Try to build regular events into your week. For example, make Monday story time at the library, Wednesday playgroup, and Friday the gym. Use the other days for errands, grocery shopping, and neighborhood walks. "It's easy to stay in your pj's all day," says Denise Talley, mom of Jamison, 8 months. "It takes discipline for me to get up and get ready every morning—putting on my makeup and fixing my hair—but it also makes me feel good." Besides getting dressed each day as you did when you went to a job, apply other work strategies to feel more productive. Ritz, for example, makes daily to-do lists, garnering satisfaction by checking things off.
Develop a support network. Ask at the hospital or your doctor's office for referrals to new-mom groups or breastfeeding support circles and check out your church, your neighborhood parks and recreation department, or your area YWCA for mommy-and-baby gatherings. Sometimes it takes just one connection to get the ball rolling. "I was fortunate to have a sister-in-law just a few miles away with two children, ages 2 and 4," says Michelle Lajiness of Warren, Michigan. "She would visit or check in by phone almost every day. I also joined a playgroup she had started. I went a few times when I was pregnant to get to know the other women." Lajiness also counts on a circle of families at her church that meets once a month to pray, eat, and socialize.
Reach out online. Check out bulletin boards, join chats, read the news, e-mail family and friends, ask experts parenting questions, or make new friends—any time of day. For Heather Odeh of Cumming, Georgia, going online helped fill a void. "My colleagues at work gave me a lot of advice about my love life, pregnancy, and more. Once I left to be home with my baby, I felt disconnected from them," says Odeh. "Online newsletters and articles gave me answers to questions about sleeping, eating, and breastfeeding, and provided me with a sense of community." Ralana Chinsolo of Powhatan, West Virginia, says what helped her most was taking classes online to finish a college degree she had been pursuing. "It helped me maintain a sense of self," she says. "There were a lot of single mothers and stay-home moms taking these courses, so we had common ground."
Communicate clearly. Discuss your roles and expectations with your spouse, ideally before the baby is born, and encourage him to be an equal partner. "The best way for him to understand how much work is involved in being home full-time is to be involved—he should feed, change, bathe, and walk the baby as much as possible," says Joan Williams, director of the Program on Gender, Work and Family at American University in Washington, D.C.
Cluing in her husband worked for Valerie Warden of Cambridge, Massachusetts. "At first he thought that I was handling everything just fine, but at times I felt like I wanted to pull my hair out," she says. "We talked and he started to come home on lunch breaks to help out and also left work early when possible. Now I work out and actually take a shower for more than five minutes."
Make "me" time. When you're home full time, you might feel like all you do is try to meet everyone else's needs, says D'Amico. Do something that makes you feel good, even if it's only for an hour or two a week. Read during naptime rather than doing chores, or put together a cookbook for your church. Join a group that has nothing to do with the baby, such as a book or garden club or a ceramics class.
Exercise can help fight depression and keep you fit, which boosts your self-image. For Coleman, committing herself to regular workouts made a big difference. "Before I became pregnant I used to love to jog by the beach. It was a great stress reducer," she says. "For the past few months, I've scheduled time every morning—as if I were going to work—to take a walk with the baby."
Volunteering can also be fulfilling. First-time mom of twins Laurie Wolk helped organize a fundraiser for the neonatal intensive care unit where her children spent time after birth. "It was great to get out of the house, meet other people who were helped by the NICU, and do something for a cause I believe in," she says.
Be open-minded. You may quit work to stay home only to find it's not for you. D'Amico suggests waiting three months before making any rash decisions in the throes of a difficult parenting day. Part-time work is often just the compromise that's needed. Seattle-based attorney Shannon Marsh went back to work three days a week when her son turned 1. "I was craving adult interaction," she says, "and just needed a break."
Redefine your goals. As Ritz looks back over the past 18 months, she laughs at her prior preoccupations—what to wear to a meeting or whether she would get the next promotion. "It all seems so frivolous now," she says, "compared to watching my baby become a walking, talking, thinking little person." Still goal-oriented, Ritz now aims for new accomplishments, such as a good night's sleep, a nutritious meal, and a meltdown-free day. "Going to work may be fulfilling in a different way, but I wouldn't trade this for anything."
Jennifer Lang is a writer in White Plains, New York, and the mother of three.