“You stay at home? But what do you do all day?”
“I can’t believe you put your career over your children. They need you!”
Four years ago, I made the decision to stay at home. It didn’t happen overnight; it involved a long process of evaluation and prayer. I distinctly remember when I told people. Friends and colleagues thought I was crazy. One family member believed I was “too young to give it all up”. Some claimed that I “lived a life of luxury” because I could stay at home. It’s true, I am very blessed, but my husband and I had to rework a lot of things to give up a second income, and by no means has it been easy. And since when did this decision mean I could never change my mind and go back to work later on? Meanwhile, other friends were absolutely thrilled with my decision. For them, it was as if I had finally matured into a woman who put her kids before her career, and took on the more noble, selfless job. “How could you let another person raise your child? This is the most important job in the world,” they would say.
From my experience, it seems the battle over one’s career choice after children is actually a reflection of a larger problem facing mothers today. Many feel this intense pressure to be the perfect parent, to do it all, and to not repeat the mistakes of the previous generation — lest you want to damage your children forever. Today’s mother faces a different cultural landscape of expectations; she believes that it’s actually possible to produce perfect children; and she sees herself as the deciding factor. She also believes in the lie that she can accomplish anything without having to sacrifice too much — after all, if so-and-so was able to do it, then so can she!
For one thing, we know a lot more today than we did fifty years ago — we’re constantly bombarded with study after study, on everything from the effects of too much TV, the benefits of breastfeeding, to the exact moment one must begin potty-training. We know so much about being a perfect parent. There are also countless books, manuals, and internet chat forums where parents can talk about the best way to raise a child. There are blogs where stay-at-home mothers showcase their beautiful homes and their perfectly organized lives. And there are those women who work — and find time to bake ten-dozen cookies for her daughter’s bake sale. Words like “super mom” get thrown around in daily conversation. It doesn’t help that social media sites have become a dumping ground for parents to showcase their children’s happy, perfect, well-accomplished lives.
There is a lot of competition here. And a lot of pressure.
So naturally, a mother is forced to decide — and she feels guilty either way. Something’s gotta give. It’s nearly impossible to be both June Cleaver and Hillary Clinton without sacrificing something. So parents end up finding a way to rationalize why their decision was the best — and they’re inadvertently telling the other that they are wrong. You hear passive-aggressive comments such as, “I’m glad I can be at home to invest in my children” or, “maybe you can get one of the housewives to make that banner for Teacher Appreciation Day.” There is a lot of bickering going on.
It doesn’t help that we buy into the idea that whatever decision we make, we can (and will) produce perfect children. I have to remember that while I play an important role in my children’s development, they are not blobs of clay that can be shaped into whatever masterpiece I see fit. While we can definitely see the effects of not being there for our children, not disciplining them, and failing to teach them, many of us are growing increasingly obsessed with our children’s achievement. We use our children as a barometer for our parenting prowess. We see this as our identity and purpose in life. I know one parent who worked throughout her daughter’s school years just so she could go to an expensive prep school. Later, she pretended that her daughter got into an Ivy League college even though she didn’t, because the mother wanted to feel better about the sacrifice she made. I also know of another parent who pressured her daughter into getting an abortion just so she wouldn’t think she failed as a stay-at-home mother. I am guilty of this belief that my success as a person is tied to my children. Because I do stay at home, I feel extra pressure to make sure my children turn out okay.
I feel like this desire to be perfect and produce perfect children gets pronounced in cultures where worldly success is not only valued, but demanded. I was the first-born cub of a tiger mother. I was groomed to meet certain expectations, and to please my parents. I basically spent the better part of my life working to maintain a perfect GPA, to master every piano song I learned, to win every tennis match, and basically, to do everything perfectly. So when I felt God calling me to leave my career behind and “waste my education”, as my mother would say, I knew He was calling me out of my comfort zone. He was teaching me to see that my primary identity was not tied to the world’s view of success. He was undoing years of tiger parenting, where I was groomed to believe that my dreams had to be academic and professional in nature. I am not unhappy with how I was raised; I know my parents worked hard to provide for my sister and me, and they only wanted the best for us. But I think I was born with this propensity towards perfectionism, and my parents’ good intentions ultimately fed into that. To this day, I have this fear of making a mistake and disappointing people. Or I feel ashamed if I don’t know the answer to something. But God is working in me every day; He is helping me come to terms with the fact that I will never receive a report card on my parenting; that I’ll never get a moment when I realize, “hey, I did it!” He is slowly helping me realize that this pressure to be perfect is not only unsustainable, but unattainable, as well. And I need to be mindful of this, or it will ultimately lead to my own undoing — and possibly my children’s.
The fight between stay at home moms and working moms is not so much a fight over whose choice is right, it is a personal battle over one’s desire to be perfect. This choice is a big one, and just like anything worth doing, it will likely be demanding and require a lot of sacrifice. So let’s not judge one another. When it comes down to it, everyone has a gift and a purpose, and what works for one mother, may not work for another. Maybe if we stop demanding perfection out of ourselves and our children, we’ll realize we’re actually on the same team.
(About the Author: Carissa Chu is an Emmy-winning television news producer who set her career aside to raise her two children. She is also founder of the blog on sweatshops called From This Old Ground. )