I’ll never forget the warm feeling of my mom staying at home to take care of me. My first vivid memory of it was when I was 3. The assurance of seeing her flit about the kitchen, knowing she’d be there if I needed anything, bolstered my confidence that all was right in the world.
While I had always wanted kids, I never thought I’d step off my career track of navigating the male-dominated industries of broadcasting and tech to become a stay-at-home parent.
However, it wasn’t easy for my husband and me to get pregnant. After that frustrating two-year limbo, I couldn’t reconcile being absent from our child’s daily life after what we’d been through. Also, that nostalgic memory of my own mom at home ultimately inspired me to stay home, too.
Up to that point my world had been one of conferences and contracts, emails and expense reports. How does one actually prepare to stay home with a baby?
Life, changed forever
As my due date approached, the reality of making this leap solidified. It was a weird place to be, and I didn’t feel like I could really talk about it. I felt guilty for having the choice to stay home, so I kept my mouth shut to other soon-to-be or recent moms at work. And as for the few stay-at-homers I knew, their lives still were very alien to me — as alien as the baby in my belly — so I didn’t even know what to ask.
I kept any misgivings to myself because I was the “lucky” one, and lucky people don’t have the right to have doubts or complain. Or so I thought.
However, as soon as our daughter emerged, life as I knew it changed forever.
The new role tested me mentally and physically beyond anything else I’ve ever done. I would have really benefited from some preparation and advice on what I was getting into. The lack of sleep intensified everything, and I questioned how anyone got through the day without crying and drinking copious amounts of coffee or wine — or both.
Weeks went by and things got a little more predictable, but I fought against the monotonous daily pattern. (Groundhog Day, anyone?)
One day when I particularly longed for my pre-baby life, I tried to remember what had been “so great” and nonroutine about it. Turns out, not as much as I thought. Go to work, come home, eat dinner, jump on the computer or watch a movie, then bedtime. Repeat. Occasionally we’d go out, but not that often.
Meanwhile my daughter was starting to hit milestones: smiling, babbling, sitting up, getting teeth, interacting — truly amazing stuff. And it suddenly became clear that every day with her was absolutely new and different in wonderful, small ways. And that perspective changed my entire outlook on being home.
It wasn’t until three years later, this past August when our second child was born, that I realized how far I’d come with the stay-at-home transition. My routine, resources, parent network and confidence were firmly established already. It saddens me to think about how anxious and preoccupied I was with our daughter because I didn’t really start to enjoy her babyhood until she was at least 9 months old, whereas with our son, it was immediate.
What other parents say
I asked other stay-at-home parents what surprised them about making the transition from the professional world and found some familiar sentiments.
Shelly Dunn, mom of three: “The monotony of being at home was surprising. It didn't take long to realize that laundry, dishes, food prep, etc. are an infinite loop that really isn't very fun!”
Amy Florence, mom of three: “It was exhausting and emotional. It was confusing. I had a hard time learning to listen to and trust my own parenting instincts. I somewhat obsessively read parenting books from a wide range of viewpoints until I was completely confused.”
Jenny Nicholas, mom of two: “Nobody informed me that I'd be running around all day, trying to please these littles — feeding, cleaning, laundry and shopping — all day without any breaks. Nobody is around to cover for me, even when I need ten minutes to myself.”
Kristina Bernhardt, mom of two: “It was hard for me to ask for help because I thought I couldn't — as this was my ‘job’ now. A successful day could be as simple as being able to take a shower, and it's OK that the house is a mess, dishes aren't done, laundry isn't done.”
Dan Vaslow, dad of one: “I was just overwhelmed with all that needed to be done in a day. I just didn't figure out how to relate and bond with [my daughter] at first, with all the other things that demanded my time.”
Six tips for making the stay-at-home transition
It seems no matter how much you prepare, the transition will present its challenges. That said, here are six tips I wish I would have known to make things a little easier.
1. Find supportive communities, both physical and virtual.
Personally, I found Facebook was the best thing that ever happened to me in terms of a stay-at-home resource for maintaining adult interaction and learning about new parenting groups and products. But when you truly want to interact, stay-at-home dad Vaslow says, parents should meet up with other adults and kids.
“There are many SAHP [Stay-at-Home Parent] groups out there that meet once a week for just this reason. It can save your sanity and you'd be surprised at what you can learn."
Be sure to check out this list of Seattle-area parenting groups to join. Also look for websites, blogs, Pinterest boards and Twitter feeds that delight and inspire you.
The amazing phenomenon of mom blogging (and dad blogging) really pulls back the curtain to expose daily frustrations and gives much-needed levity to the rigors of parenthood. A few of my favorites: Mommy Shorts, Rants from Mommyland, Pregnant Chicken, Honest Toddler, Crappy Pictures.
2. Rejuvenate with some self-interests.
Whether it’s photography, reading, yoga, running, writing/blogging, making art, knitting or even getting a massage, make sure you have something just for you on a regular basis.
Dunn, a mom of three active boys, summed it up this way: “Keep something for yourself — exercise, volunteering, maybe a tiny side job. My first few years I made going to the gym with other moms my social outlet — it is what kept me sane.”
3. Keep expectations low, especially in the beginning.
You may feel you need to master this new role right out of the gate, but like anything, it takes practice. As the baby changes, so does the work.
“You provide constant love, support, nourishment and instant daily gratification in ways that the work-away-from-home partner is unable to. Remember that. Your role is equally important even if that baby cannot tell you,” said Nicholas.
Since your new ‘boss’ is unable to give you feedback or a paycheck, realize that even on a baby-won’t-sleep, hands-covered-in-baby-poop, can’t-find-the-car-keys kind of day, all your efforts are appreciated and matter. Even if it doesn’t feel like it.
4. Embrace some conveniences and preparation.
Stereotypes abound for stay-at-home-mom fashion. Stacy London from What Not to Wear once said stay-at-home-moms abuse yoga pants and often don’t look “put together.” But I embrace the uniform of yoga pants, as well as no-lace sneakers, hair in a perpetual ponytail and stain-hiding hoody sweatshirts. The ensemble is versatile, active and fine with getting dirty — just like kids.
Likewise, no one expects you to be Martha Stewart. Set yourself up so that you can do things efficiently and not reinvent the wheel each time.
- Use make-ahead, crock pot or prepared/frozen meals to ease the burden in the kitchen.
- Create a diaper-changing station on each floor of your house.
- Create a snack-grabbing station — bottles of water, granola bars, fruit, crackers, nuts, whatever — in reusable gallon-sized Ziplock bags (they double as “mess” containment in the field).
And for heaven’s sake, don’t worry if your house is a little messy. It’s not about having a pristine home anymore, it’s about having a functional one.
5. Apply your pre-baby “skills” to child rearing/household managing.
If you were Napoleon Dynamite, we’d be talking nunchuck, bow-hunting or computer-hacking skills. But seriously, think about your pre-baby abilities and strengths then try to weave them into your new role.
For example, I love to write so I started a dedicated blog when my daughter was born to record all the fun stuff she did and keep the out-of-town grandparents updated. Now each year on her birthday, I have the former year printed and bound via Blog2Print — which doubles as a baby book.
6. Get spousal/partner support.
Now that the baby’s here, the working parent may feel added pressure to provide and the stay-at-home parent may feel under appreciated despite his/her sacrifices. Being sympathetic to each other is key to heading off resentment, which can negatively impact your relationship.
“I think one of the more difficult parts of the transition is the effect on a couple. A couple can prepare by talking about expectations and roles [even] before the baby comes,” said Florence, mom of three.
The Gottman Institute offers a great class that addresses the negative effects children can have on a relationship. But even without the program, talking about each others' expectations, anxieties and hopes for the new family dynamic can head-off potential issues. Start talking about this as soon as you can and maintain an honest dialogue. If you can arrange for a date night, it can be a great time to talk without distractions.
(For other helpful stay-home tips, check out Domestically Challenged by Alana Morales.)
According to the Working Mothers Research Institute, there are many reasons moms stay home, the top one being “the needs of my children” (44%). However despite some serious Googling, I couldn’t find any studies to indicate that having a stay-at-home parent makes a significant difference in things like test scores.
Yet there were some findings that show kids of stay-at-home parent have better attachment. This would be expected since the stay-at-home-parent is around all the time.
Surprisingly, there is some evidence to suggest that a daughter’s independence and perception of women’s roles could be hampered by having a stay-at-home mom. I’m not sure I believe this given my own example. Still, many highly employable women are choosing to dedicate themselves full-time to the important, challenging work of raising children.
If you’re considering becoming a stay-at-home parent (or “domestic project manager” as I like to say), you’ll have your own reasons for making this choice. It’s daunting at first because it requires stamina and you don’t often get to catch your breath. But eventually you’ll come into your own and make the role what you and your family need it to be.
About the author: Kali Sakai is a freelance writer and “domestic project manager” living in Seattle with her two young children and husband.