"To be the mom I wanted to be for my son, a happy mom with a balanced life inside and outside the home, I needed to go back to work."

By Courtney Lund O'Neil
Courtney Lund O'Neil

When my son turned six months old, I was no longer happy being a stay-at-home mom.

I wanted to go back to work. Though, the job I left as an adjunct writing instructor did not pay me enough to afford childcare. It didn't make sense to go back.

But I had to.

I missed intelligent conversations with colleagues and students. I missed helping 18-year-olds craft heartbreak into art. I even missed the grading.

Motherhood gave me a miracle. But it pulled me away from the person I once was.

I realized this one morning after jumping around the living room to an at-home workout program called 21 Day Fix. I felt trapped in my lackluster push-ups on that beige carpet.

My life had become predictable. Like a brainless game of pin-ball. And I wanted my old self back.

But I felt guilty for feeling this way.

And guilt, I learned, is a bad type of friend. I began questioning myself. Why didn't I want to spend every daylight hour with my son? Was something wrong with me?

The short answer: no.

To be the mom I wanted to be for my son, a happy mom with a balanced life inside and outside the home, I needed to go back to work. But I wrestled with this. Stay-at-home parents account for about 1 in 5 US couples. Being a stay-at-home mom wasn't a bad thing, it just wasn't my thing. As parents, it is important to learn what is right for us. It took time for me to be okay with my choice. I was worried about letting a stranger watch my son, until I met a woman two doors down who ran an in-home daycare.

I also went back to work because I wanted to show my son what hard work looked like. Just like my parents showed me.

My son is almost two years old and this fall, I began a Ph.D. program. I teach two writing classes. I hardly make enough money to pay our bills, let alone my son's childcare. I'm 31 and make around $10,000 a year.

It costs a lot to carry a dream and a child in this country. Childcare is unaffordable for seven in 10 American families. A recent study by Care.com found that it costs a weekly average of $211 for a day-care center, $195 for a family care center, and $580 for a nanny. The average dual-income family spends over a quarter of their income on daycare.

Fortunately, my husband got a job fresh out of graduate school to fill in the financial gaps. Sure, it would make more sense for our family's finances if I stay home with our son, but both of my parents made sacrifices during my childhood to give me a good life. In the end, it only made me proud of them and want to follow their lead.

When I was born, my dad gave-up a job he loved as a server and restaurant manager to begin a 30-year career in education. Now, he's freshly retired and back to his dream job: bartending at a fancy hotel restaurant. Even though his career wasn't what he originally dreamed of, he doesn't regret those years of work. Those are some of my favorite memories of him, when I visited him at work and saw the way he made people feel. He brought joy to every student and colleague. People often stop him to say, "Hi, Mr. Lund! I remember you! You were the best Vice Principal I had."

When I was in kindergarten, I would visit my mom at medical school, the same one my husband attended when my son was born. Raising a baby while in school wasn't always easy for her. She breastfed during lectures; she took exams after sleepless nights. When I grew up, she told me why she made those sacrifices. She wanted her children to know that life doesn't hand you anything. If you want something, you have to work for it.

My parents taught me an invaluable lesson, just like I taught in my writing classes: show, don't tell. Let the reader figure the scene out without giving them a handbook on how to. When a reader figures out the meaning behind a scene, this leaves a deeper impact. I wanted that deeper impact on my son by letting him learn about hard work through example.

By returning to work, I might be losing money, but I'm investing in something other than my family's bottom line. At work, I shape students' lives and at home, I model diligent work for my son. I hope to look back one day and say: it was all worth it.

Do I think we need to do something about the cost of child-care so more parents can make the choice whether they want to go back to work or stay at home? Absolutely.

Let me tell you: Nothing beats the smile on my son's face when he visits me in the classroom, and I let him hold the chalk.

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