“You just quitted, mom? You just quitted being a lawyer?” my 4-year-old asked. She stared at me expectantly, waiting for an acceptable answer as to why I stopped working three years earlier.
“Well, no, Emily, it’s not that simple. I did not just quit.” I laughed a slightly hysterical laugh and wondered out loud if she thought I wasn’t working all day at home, taking care of her and her five sisters. She stared at me and waited for a clear “yes” or “no” answer.
The truth is that there is no short answer. I stopped working because Emily was my third baby in four years, daycare costs were high, and I was the go-to parent for any illnesses and such due to my husband’s irregular work hours. It was also financially doable for me to stop working, which is admittedly a luxury that many do not have.
I never really pictured myself as a stay-at-home mom, but I also never pictured myself having six kids in six years including surprise triplets (yes, surprise, babies number 4, 5, and 6). Yet here I was, doing just that with my six girls, ages 8, 6, 4 and 1-year-old triplets.
The triplets were clinging to my pants, all wanting my attention, while the big girls were peppering me with questions about everything from whether the tooth fairy wears shoes (“she flies; she doesn’t need shoes” versus “of course she wears shoes; she’s like a tiny princess, duh”) to why-oh-why we can’t get a dog right now (It’s not happening, kids) to why I just “quitted my job” as an attorney. As if I just gave up and collapsed on the couch to lounge and eat candy all day. I thought about my former colleagues, who were doing very important things like serving as White House counsel, partners at major law firms, and high-ranking Department of Justice officials. In contrast, I was answering questions about fairies, puppies and being a quitter.
I looked around my kitchen, which looked like tiny toy bombs had exploded everywhere, and I thought for a second about what it means to be a stay-at-home mom. I thought about how to explain it to my daughter so that she knew that whether I was working outside the home or not, I—her mother—and all mothers, were working tirelessly all day, every day. Of course Emily had moved on to something else about 10 seconds later, but her question lingered in my mind. If she ever asks me again, this is what I’ll tell her about life after I “just quitted” my job.
It means that you never have a “typical” day.
When I was working, I decided when to use the bathroom or eat lunch. These days, my three babies determine whether I am standing at the kitchen counter inhaling a sandwich at noon or eating cold leftover macaroni and cheese mid-afternoon as I sweep up the remnants of their lunches. Every day presents new challenges, adventures and moments of pure joy.
One recent day, the babies woke up at 5 a.m. and promptly head-butted me in the face before I could even get my coffee. After checking to make sure I still had all my teeth, I chugged some coffee before officially starting the day. As I was doing so, the babies got into the big girls’ marker stash and chewed on them like little gerbils. By the time I got to them, all the colors of the rainbow were dribbling out of their mouths and down their chins. They shrieked with excitement as they tried to color their play table. Their shrieking woke up the big girls, who were already asking to know what fun things we’d be doing that day. Which is how we ended up at the park at 7:15 a.m. You learn to roll with it, or you’ll get rolled over.
It means you can multitask like a boss.
When you’re dealing with impatient little ones every day, they often demand food, love, cuddles, responses or drinks while you’re in the middle of other tasks. As a result, you often find yourself doing three to 36 things at once. Tying shoes while nursing the baby and calling the pediatrician? Boom, done. Preparing lunch while holding an antsy baby and finding that favorite lovey? No problem. Peeing while holding the toddler and drinking coffee? Part of the job. Cleaning out the car, ordering birthday presents, and chatting with your best friend while in the carpool line? Child’s play. While it’s theoretically possible to do some of those tasks after the kids have gone to bed, those precious minutes allow you to catch your breath and maybe say hello to your partner, brush your teeth, or watch mindless reality TV before you start the treadmill of tasks for the next day.
It means you work tirelessly for very little (immediate) validation.
Unlike my job as an attorney, in my current position there’s no performance review. Instead, I do my best every day and hope that when my kids grow up, they’ll be functioning adults who know how to wipe their bottoms and don’t erupt into tantrums when they’re given the pink bowl instead of the blue one. These days, there’s no one to tell me that I really made my daughter feel loved today at a time when she really needed it. There are no pats on the back for not getting poop up to my elbows when baby Houdini corkscrewed herself off the ottoman and onto the floor during changing time. Only love every day, giving and hoping and aiming to raise kind, thoughtful, responsible little people. Every once in a while, my big girls tell me I’m doing a great job, and when they do, it makes my day and gives me the boost I need to get through the longer days.
It means that you show up. Every day. Even the relentlessly long days.
Being a stay-at-home parent is a relentless job. You report for duty regardless of whether you’re tired, fragile, mourning the loss of a parent, or recovering from having a baby. You show up when you haven’t slept more than two hours in a row for eight months and your toddler is having a tantrum because you cut her pancakes, thereby rendering them broken and inedible. You still show up. You get them dressed, change their diapers, and get them fed. Even when it feels like every ounce of your being has been spent and there’s nothing left to give, you still give more, day after day. On those days, you put your game face on and tackle the day, because it’s coming whether you’re ready or not.
It means that your work is solitary and, at times, lonely.
At 11:30 a.m. on any given day, moms across the city are standing in their kitchens alone, putting together some semblance of lunch and filling up sippy cups while their toddlers clamor for attention. Though many of us have partners, those of us who stay at home are often doing the day-to-day work of parenting alone. It is a solitary job, which is why we meet up at the park, drinking coffee together. It’s why we go out for girls’ nights and why we take over the play area at Chick-fil-A.
We have to get out and share our challenges and seek support on our hardest of hard days. It helps us to feel connected to our friends, to the outside world. Sharing our joys and frustrations reminds us that we’re all in it together, and we’re all doing the best we can.
It means that you’re constantly engaged, both physically and mentally.
Your hands never stop moving, tending, fixing, consoling. All the while, your mind is racing with plans for the rest of the day, anticipating who will need what next. The endless to-do list grows and shortens as you check things off. It means that you are always on, both mentally and physically, even when you’re not engaging with the kids.
It means that every day, your day is filled with tiny, beautiful moments that make it all worthwhile.
Though the days can be long and crazy, every day has a handful of moments that are so beautiful and amazing, I want to pause time and live in them forever. Those tiny, beautiful, unexpected moments help you to step back and see your kids with new, clear eyes. Like when my babies lean in to kiss and hug each other. Or when my big girls play ring-around-the-rosie with the babies, making them screech with laughter. In those moments, I pause completely and feel the joy in the chaos. Those moments make all the other ones fade into the background, and they make it all worthwhile. They remind me to stay focused on the fact that the days are long but the years are short. They remind me that I’m not just getting through the days but instead we’re living and loving and growing with each day.
I’m not sure what the future holds for me, and whether I’ll ever go back to work as an attorney, which I know would present a whole other set of challenges. But for now, I’ll try to enjoy these fleeting days of finding baby socks, wiping bottoms, and fixing food no one eats. It is an extraordinarily rewarding, exhausting and fulfilling job, despite the long hours and full days. Regardless of whether I go back to work or stay at home, I know I’ll never quit being their mom. There’s no quitting that.