Appreciating Diversity in Parental Fulfillment

I am fortunate enough to say that right now, this place where I am in life, it is exactly where I want to be. That’s not to say some moments aren’t fit to send me running for the hills – the whims of toddlers do not bend easily, after all. But being a mother is something I always wanted for myself; dearly so. It is with great appreciation that I get to have my sweet whirlwind of a son call me “Momma.” That also happens to be my job title, and for that, I am also immensely grateful. Although I always dreamed of being a mother, I didn’t dare plan that I would be one that cared for my child throughout the day. Yet it was the sincerest desire of my heart.

My hesitation to let that desire bear any fruit had many facets. I wanted to always provide for myself, and the idea of not being financially independent made me feel inadequate. Starting a career and pressing pause seemed frighteningly uncertain. How would my exit be received? What would my re-entry look like? Having completed law school, the crippling reality of student debt and an adamant wish for no one else but myself to pay it off reinforced my belief that being a child’s at-home caretaker would be impossible – particularly if I wanted to avoid horribly guilty feelings and fear of resentment. Since many of my friends were made through workplace meetings, I had no idea how relevant I would stay or how involved I would remain. What’s more, I felt as though it would be socially unacceptable to walk away from something I was “supposed” to do in order to do something I “wanted” to do.

Once our son was here and my husband and I realized that it would be possible for me to stay home, those reservations didn’t evaporate. Something just trumped them – or someone; a very small someone. But as J.R.R. Tolkien wrote, “Even the smallest person can change the course of the future.”

My exit was far more graciously received than I could have imagined. I was petrified, but met with understanding. I have very fortunately been able to maintain many of the friendships I feared to lose, and the financial tradeoffs made and corners cut have been well worth it.

Yet I have much remaining guilt over my student debt payments, and I initially asked my husband quite often about that aforementioned resentment issue. I still do not know what my re-entry to the workforce will be like, and I think about my lack of financial contribution each time I reach for my wallet. My husband has reminded me that “support” comes in forms other than money. I have come to realize and recognize that the balancing act of support that is marriage can be a beautiful thing – even with potholes along the road, and the occasional wayward turn.

Still, I have felt uncomfortable with some reactions about my decision. It is difficult to have something dear to you be a subject of perceived side-taking, especially when whatever the decision may be has been a subject of personal introspection and required the mustering of more courage than you could have considered.

On one occasion, soon after deciding to stay home, someone who knew of my decision stated conversationally that it serves the parent’s own self interest to be their child's daytime caretaker, as the child would still thrive under other conditions. At first I felt ashamed. Was I self-serving? Then I felt angry, indignant that someone would make such a judgment about the way we have decided to parent our child and run our household; offended at the suggestion that I would for some reason think children would not thrive under other circumstances. Long afterward, I realized something: perhaps that person was not commenting on my personal decision. Perhaps it was simply a statement on the topic of parenting. Perhaps it was an observation. Perhaps it was a statement of the reason for the decision made in their own household. It had nothing to do with me personally, and it wasn’t made in judgment of me. But I had gotten defensive, and in that instance, I became guarded.

Avoidance of parent shaming has been an item of social awareness in recent years. It is good to remember that we all have the freedom to raise our children in the way we feel they would best flourish. We also have the freedom to decide in what manner that raising takes place. To me, that particular item seems to be set apart from the individual active parenting decisions like letting a toddler play on a smartphone or letting a preschooler throw a tantrum in the toy aisle without reprimand. We are reminded not to direct our ire at those individual acts because we do not know the circumstances surrounding them. A void seemed to exist in the area of support for parenting household decisions, and that is now changing too, for the better. Each family is surrounded with a unique set of circumstances, beliefs, and values. Whether a child is raised in a family with two working parents, with one stay-at-home parent, or a single parent; whether a child goes to daycare, grandma’s house, or stays at home - all of these choices are made by untangling a complex bundle of emotion, desires, finances and practicality. As parents, given all that goes into that decision, we can become guarded and defensive at the merest suggestion of criticism. It’s only one of the reasons that the parenting arena is a formidable one to occupy. By realizing all that has gone into our own decision, and recognizing all that has gone into someone else’s, we can begin to understand our own reactions and be more aware of how our comments may be perceived and received.

I’ve been told never to apologize for doing a job that you love, and we really shouldn’t, for that is what leads to fulfillment. Fulfillment comes in all different styles, but no matter what job or mixture of jobs it is that makes you feel fulfilled, the end product is bound to bring about your best self. I believe that when we bring our best selves to the table, any parenting decision is destined to be better. So, whatever your household composition or operation, have confidence in your decision, because it was made with respect to a unique microcosm, the success of which only its members can truly determine.