Laid Off: What I Lost When My Child Started School

One stay-at-home-mom experiences empty nest syndrome when her youngest begins to grow up

Last September, I was laid off. After 14 years of backbreaking, emotionally draining labor, with no vacation time or sick leave, and with workdays often lasting a full 24 hours, I was no longer needed.

Or at least that’s how I felt when the last of my three kids started school.

Last summer, I joyfully awaited the big day. My baby would enter first grade, and I would finally have all three of my kids in school full-time. My children are spaced several years apart, which meant that I’d had at least one child home with me during the day for nearly a decade and a half. I enjoyed this individual time with each of my kids immensely. We attended music classes, story time at the library and play groups. We pieced together puzzles and played games like Zingo and Sequence for Kids. Sometimes we just snuggled on the couch and watched cartoons. All those things were lovely, but it was time for a new stage of motherhood.

I had given up my career as a physician assistant to stay at home when my first child had been born. I don’t regret that move, but I’d observed other stay-at-home mom friends struggle emotionally when their kids finally joined the ranks of full-time schoolkids. So I tried to ready myself. A few years ago, I started writing for magazines, slowly building up my freelance business with the goal that it constitute at least a part-time job by the time my last child entered first grade. I thought I was prepared.

As the lazy, hazy days of summer came to a close, I happily contemplated all I would do with my free time come September. I could go to exercise classes without paying for child care! I could watch the news without my kids overhearing stories about murder and mayhem. I could complete home-improvement projects without constant interruption. I could enjoy silence.

It seemed like everyone else had an opinion on how I should feel about my baby going into first grade. Some acted like I was being released from jail. Others treated me as if I was graduating after a very long time in college. My teenage daughter was concerned. “Won’t you get lonely, here all by yourself?” she asked. I assured her that I would be fine.

I was certain that I wouldn’t be one of those moms who cry as the school bus pulls away from the curb on the first day of school. After all, I’d practically danced home from the bus stop after putting my youngest into half-day kindergarten. 

When the big day came, I didn’t cry. But for the first couple of weeks, I felt uneasy. I wandered around the house, not motivated to do anything. I felt melancholy. I was irritable and short-tempered. Maybe I should have cried after all.

Instead of feeling like I’d been released from prison, or experiencing the euphoria of graduating after a long stint of hard work and dedicated study, I felt like I’d been laid off.

The feeling mirrored how I felt when I’d actually been laid off from a job before I had kids. I’d known my last day was coming, and I even welcomed the break from a job I’d come to dislike. But when the time actually came to walk out the building, I felt angry and sad. What do you mean you don’t need me anymore? Didn’t I do a good job? How can you say I’m a valuable employee when you’re telling me you no longer need my services?

After spending 14 years dedicating my energy and time to being a full-time mom, the adjustment was not easy. Not only was I less needed, but now, instead of me being the CEO of our home — with final say over our schedule — I was now fully ruled by the rhythms of elementary school.   

In the end, I did adjust to my new stage of life after a couple of months. I’ve found that my hours alone are restorative, and I now relish the time I do have with my children even more. I’ve been able to devote more time to my writing, and I volunteer in my kids’ classrooms. I’ve realized that I am still needed, but on a part-time, on-call basis. And besides, the end of the school day comes awfully quickly.

This summer, my full-time job was restored temporarily, but by September, I will be laid off again.

We’ll see how I feel this year.

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