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SAHM: Should I stay or should I go?

Twinsies in 2014.
(Photo courtesy of Chelsea Whitelock)


The struggle for balance between work life and family life

I have been a parent for going on a decade. During that time, I’ve been a single mom, a working mom and a stay-at-home mom. My experience on both sides of the parenting debate—choosing whether to continue working after having children or to stay home—has taught me one thing: there is no one right answer; the real struggle is finding the delicate work-life balance that works for your own unique circumstances.

After my first child was born in 2012, everyone—family, friends, co-workers and myself included—assumed I would stay home. I had a job; in fact, I worked until shortly before my son was born. But I was only working part-time, while my partner had a full-time job and made more money. Many assumed I’d want to stay home because I like children; others just figured my partner wouldn’t want to. Although seeing mothers in the workforce and fathers at home had become more common in recent years, my partner still had some outdated notions regarding gender roles.

While my partner faced PPD at home, I discovered a completely different kind of anxiety at work: fear of missing out, or FOMO.

I was lucky enough to receive paid maternity leave, but I didn’t want to give up working. I had been a slot attendant at the casino for a few years and I enjoyed the constant go-go-go of my job. I worried I’d be bored sitting at home all day with only myself and a tiny incontinent human to talk to. I’m extroverted and social; I didn’t think my sanity would survive in isolation.

“It’s the 21st century,” I said to my partner. “I don’t think it’s fair that I stay home while you work.” With a bit of time, and a lot of nagging on my part, he finally agreed. We decided I’d stay home as long as it took for my son to give up breastfeeding (it took him four whole months to take a bottle!) and then we’d switch; he’d go on parental leave while I went back to work. We were proud of ourselves for defying gendered expectations.

My partner, usually a chipper and fun-loving guy, didn’t fare so well at home. Trying to manage the stress and anxiety of a newly weaned newborn and bound by the isolation of being the only dad in his friend group, my partner developed paternal postpartum depression and anxiety (PPD/A). I didn’t even know that was a real thing until he went through it. He was overwhelmed, more irritable and angry, and he had thoughts of self-harm within the first couple of months. By the time he’d suffered through four months of this unyielding stress, we knew he couldn’t continue as a stay-at-home dad. This wasn’t a question of parenting ability, rather a protection of sanity.

Photo by Elena Mozhvilo on Unsplash

Our parental leave structure enabled either of us to use the allotted time, but only in consecutive chunks; I had already returned to work, so I was no longer eligible. 

Without the income from maternity leave, I would need to keep working. If my partner also returned to work, our only option was to find a daycare willing to take an eight-month-old. The casino couldn’t give me day shifts, but I found something with the pawn shop chain my partner worked for. I juggled two work schedules, various bus schedules and daycare hours. I was often out the door by 7 a.m. to drop my son at daycare and catch the bus for work at 8:30 a.m.

While my partner faced PPD at home, I discovered a completely different kind of anxiety at work: fear of missing out, or FOMO. I wanted to be at home to witness all the firsts: first words, first steps, first time using the toilet. The thought of missing out on milestones suddenly made me regret not staying home when I had the chance.

When my second child came in 2014, I jumped at the opportunity for full maternity leave, and didn’t look back. I was determined not to miss anything. I even chose not to return to work when the leave ran out. Most of the income from my minimum wage job would have gone towards daycare anyway, so there was no point in missing out again if I didn’t have to. I got to build blanket forts and read bedtime stories. I captured endless photos and videos of adorable moments and this time, I didn’t miss a thing. My kids were happy, my house was clean (well, most of the time) and I even had time to take an online course for the fun of it.  

Sometimes, there were things I wish I could have missed, like when my little Picasso turned the contents of his Pull-Ups into wall art during naptime.

That’s not to say there weren’t challenges. I learned to multitask in a way I never could at a job. I breastfed a baby while cooking dinner. I used the TV as a babysitter in exchange for a few precious minutes alone in the bathroom. Necessity drove me to make everything work even when they shouldn’t. Keeping my rambunctious toddler from burgling the fridge when I wasn’t looking while attending to the constant neediness of my newborn son was a juggling act. I even developed those eyes in the back of my head that parents are known for, and the corresponding omniscience. Really, it’s more like finely tuned hearing; I could tell where they were, what they were doing and who was crying, without having to stop what I was doing.

Sometimes, there were things I wish I could have missed, like when my little Picasso turned the contents of his Pull-Ups into wall art during naptime. Even my poor sense of smell couldn’t save me from that mess. Or one of the many times that we all got sick: one child was throwing up, one had a dangerous diaper situation and I had an equally dangerous toilet situation. It was one of the longest—and loneliest—days of my parenting career.

Chelsea Whitelock sitting on a couch with her sons at home.
(Photo provided by Chelsea Whitelock)

The isolation of staying home with my own personal zoo chipped away at my sanity. I yearned for adult conversations almost as much as I craved caffeine to keep me going. The stress of keeping track of every detail fueled my then-undiagnosed clinical depression. I had a hard time remembering why I gave up working (and all of the adult conversations that went with it) to stay home.

So, after two years, I went back to work at the pawn shop. I started out part-time on weekends while I developed new routines with daycare, school and work, then took a full-time position when one came available. It felt good to be back out in the world. I worked while my eldest was in kindergarten and only paid daycare costs for the youngest. This new arrangement still left evenings and weekends to spend with my kids, enjoying all the benefits of parenting—without the crappy nappy wall art!

Finally, I’d found the best of both worlds, so long as my employer could guarantee my hours. Spoiler alert: they couldn’t.

This new arrangement still left evenings and weekends to spend with my kids, enjoying all the benefits of parenting—without the crappy nappy wall art!

When I was laid off in 2017, a new job didn’t come easy. In a year of searching, I had three interviews and no offers. Few employers gave full-time day shifts to new hires, especially those with limited work experience. I’d only ever worked these two jobs, so my skills made it hard to move beyond pawn shops and casinos.

So I decided to fix this: in 2018, I finally started university. Like a day job, most of my classes were during the kids’ school hours, so I didn’t miss out on anything. I arranged my schedule so I could pick them up after school each day, and we had our evenings and weekends together.

The time management required to coordinate my school with the kids’ school and my partner’s job seemed impossible. But now that I knew what my ideal work-life balance felt like, I was determined to have it again. Good thing I developed all of those multitasking skills as a stay-at-home mom.

There are both perks and challenges to choosing either to stay home with kids or to work, and it’s trial and error to find that balance. I found a combination that works for me: I’m able to keep busy and talk to adults, but I don’t have to miss out on anything that matters. This is not a one-size-fits-all situation—every person needs something different to keep them balanced—but, as it turns out, there is a right answer: test, find and embrace what works for you.

We decided I’d stay home … and then we’d switch; he’d go on parental leave while I went back to work. We were proud of ourselves for defying gendered expectations.


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Chelsea Whitelock

Chelsea Whitelock (she/her) is a bookworm and self-identified grammar nerd, graduating in 2022. She aspires to work as a professional “book fairy” (a.k.a. editor), specializing in acquisitions and fuelled by caffeine. Raised by her dad, Chelsea learned to prove herself by saying “I can do anything a man can do … in heels.” She believes that cereal is only soup if the milk is warm, and maybe not even then.