I am ambitious. I don’t have the Ph.D. to match, but I’ve always been an achievement addict for whom simply existing never seemed to be enough. As a twelve-year-old child, I was already making to-do lists during my summer vacations. I used to have a Dr. Seuss All About Me book where I could circle what job I wanted. I circled about half of the hundred or so choices.
One of the occupations I circled was mother. It didn’t occur to me then that motherhood would get in the way of any of the other fifty or so careers that were destined to be mine.
But when I became a teenager, conference talks, seminary videos, and Young Women’s lessons were all about the virtue of staying home. Nothing, they told me, would be more important than my family. Writing books or typing memos would never compare to the sweet joy of holding a newborn baby.
I agreed. It was family over career, not both. Once I had kids, I would stay home, because that was my role. The idea that I’d have to figure out a way to get back into the working world, ever, never occurred to me. I knew so much about what motherhood was like before I had kids, before the real world introduced itself to me.
After BYU graduation, I worked full-time, putting my husband through his last few months of classes and his internship, right up until my first baby came. Then I quit everything. I even abandoned my hobbies.
I’d always assumed that I’d be able to channel my ambitions into my children. I wouldn’t need fulfillment, because the cute adorable babies would fulfill me. Except it didn’t work that way. I was stuck in my tiny little apartment with no transportation, very little money, and nobody to talk to. At first I thought something was seriously wrong with me. It took me years to understand that babies wouldn’t remove my ambition like a frontal lobotomy. I was still me.
There was no check-off list. With no tangible rewards for my work, I focused on keeping the house clean, since that was my only visual measure of success. I knew housework didn’t matter much in the grand scheme, yet it did in a miserable, white-knuckle way, because that was all I could cling to. The house became the tyrant I could never please, no matter how hard I tried. When my child’s behavior didn’t match the parenting books, I began to wonder if I knew how to make good decisions at all. Not only was I stressed out and depressed, I developed a real lack of self-confidence. The assurance school had always given me was gone and it felt like I couldn’t do anything right.
My previous job wasn’t conducive to working at home, ever, and didn’t pay much more than the cost of transportation and babysitting. I’d come up short in the practicality department because my degree was in music and French, and I wasn’t qualified for much of anything.
I took up some hobbies again and started seriously thinking about what I could do to earn some money. I tried a variety of money-making ventures—some were mildly successful, and others were complete disasters.
I didn’t want to work full-time. There were broken arms and psychiatrist visits and the croup and bouts of diarrhea that seemed to last forever. There were fits of rage and driveways full of snow and leaking faucets and worn-out tires. Some dual-earner families made it work, but I couldn’t see how we could, especially considering that we’d started out on the premise that DH would be working full-time and that I would be taking care of the kids.
No one ever tells you that these decisions, though they’re not set in stone, are difficult to change once you’ve already made them. And that once you have kids, everything changes, making personal goals much harder than before.
I plan to teach my kids differently. I will tell them: Plan for providing for yourself and your family. Don’t depend on some happily-ever-after to fulfill your dreams for you. Choose something you love, but infuse those dreams with a good dose of money-making practicality. If you want to study art history, go for it, but take some business classes so that you’ll be able to get some income from what you love, whether that’s at home, in a business, or in an actual job. Don’t assume that if you “get an education,” a degree will guarantee financial security. If you’re going to graduate school, do it as early as you possibly can. Get some experience working so you have some proven, marketable skills. Keep your resume and your networks as updated as possible. Keep learning and developing new skills, whether you’re employed full-time or not. Be open to change, because there’s a real possibility that you might not want to continue in the field you started in.
Things are better for me now for several reasons. My youngest is four years old, so we’re past diapers and sleepless nights and baby food carpet mashing and running into traffic. I’ve been writing (and occasionally been paid for it). I’ve joined some business networks and I volunteer weekly. I’ve made some new friends who share my interests. I started a website for people like me who are searching for a combination of work and family that works for them (www.familyfriendlywork.org).
I’m still at home, and I’m still wishing I could pull in some more money, but I enjoy what I do and I have big plans for the future. I don’t have a great answer for when people ask me what I do. I’m a work-mostly-at-home-mostly-for-free mom? I don’t know. All I know is that I’m a lot happier when I feel like I’m making a difference in the world, when my world is not confined to four walls, and when something is getting done.
-Submitted by Kaylie Brown Astin