When I was 16-years-old, I got my first job at T.J. Maxx, a popular discount department store. It was mostly my mother’s idea; money was tight, and she decided it was time for me to pitch in for gas and groceries. At first, I resented the sudden disruption to my routine. Languid after school viewing sessions of Jerry Springer were cut short so I could race through my homework, stuff myself into ill-fitting black uniform pants, and leave in time for my 5 p.m. shift. Saturdays spent in my best friend’s bedroom listening to Smashing Pumpkins and planning my escape from suburbia morphed into half-hour lunch breaks and lectures on customer service from middle managers. And then there was the work itself – mind-numbing tedium punctuated by brief moments of horror. I routinely spent hours folding and organizing discounted cashmere sweaters just to watch a throng of holiday shoppers destroy my handiwork in a matter of seconds. More than one child threw up in the toy section. Once, a creepy guy in my math class found out where I worked and cornered me while I was stationed at the fitting rooms. Security had to escort him out.
But along the way, something shifted. I began to feel a rush of pride on payday, the check between my fingers brimming with the promise of a life well-lived. My gas tank was full, our pantry at home was stocked, and I could finally afford to buy the designer purse I had been eyeing (after applying my employee discount, of course.) As my meager savings account grew with each paycheck, I started to fantasize again about leaving my sleepy suburban town. That’s when I realized that working wasn’t just a path towards material comfort. It was also a way to achieve freedom and independence. For the next two decades, I worked virtually non-stop in a variety of professions. I processed security clearances for a government contractor. I scheduled dental appointments. I helped immigrants to the U.S. secure visas. I was even a telemarketer once for about three hours. And while each job came with its own set of challenges, I could always take comfort in one constant – that I was providing for myself financially and building my own future.
That is until my son was born last year, and I made the decision to become a stay at home parent. I’m incredibly privileged to have this option, especially since the lack of paid parental leave policies in the U.S. mean that 25% of new mothers must return to work within two weeks of giving birth. However, after working steadily for my entire adult life, it was still a huge mental and emotional adjustment for me to leave the structure of nine to five employment behind to become the primary caretaker of an infant. At times, I’m riddled with self-doubt about whether I’ve made the right decision for my family and our financial future, especially since women who take extended maternity leaves tend to make less money once they return to the workforce. Suddenly, the self-sufficiency I enjoyed for so many years as a childless working woman seems out of my grasp. While I’m lucky to be able to rely on my partner financially while I stay home with our child, there’s still a part of me that yearns for my own paycheck, and to be an income provider as well as a caregiver.
Then there’s the business of filling the time. As a stay at home parent of a first baby, there’s only so many playdates, park trips, and visits to the library you can schedule. I struggled desperately at first to fill my days home alone with my son, in part because I felt like a “bad mom” if I wasn’t continuously enriching him, but also because so much unstructured time during the day felt alien to me. The working world is governed by the clock – meeting at 9, conference call at noon, lunch with clients at 3. But life as a parent requires a much higher level of flexibility, and it took a long time for me to relax and greet the day at my son’s pace. Now, instead of feeling guilty if he isn’t constantly entertained, I relish watching him explore on his own in a safe, baby-proofed environment or wearing him across my chest in a carrier while I do chores. Some of our most beautiful moments together have sprung out of spontaneity, and they’re a constant reminder for me to try and cherish my evolution as a parent.
Eventually, I plan on returning to work, out of financial necessity and because my ability to earn an income remains a core part of my identity. But my time as a stay at home parent has taught me that value can’t always be monetized. Reading my son his favorite books, rocking him to sleep for his afternoon nap, and watching his eyes crinkle with joy as I point out a butterfly on our walk are triumphs that surpass anything I have yet to achieve inside an office. And while I look forward to one day heading back into the workforce, right now I’m embracing my role as a full-time caregiver.