The other day, I had a vision. I was watching my youngest child trudging off toward the elementary school doors, heaving a big, old backpack and wearing a happy “it’s about time” grin. In my mind, I watched from the van as he followed his siblings, and I sensed that I was feeling pleased in this “dream,” even as a dollop of bittersweetness surged through me.
That day is not all that far away now. Next year at this time, God willing, it will come to pass. We all know how quickly a school year flashes by. Like lightning, really. There’s not much time. And even though I will send him off into the world with mixed feelings as almost all parents of kindergarteners do, I will do so with few, if any, regrets.
During my college years and before then, I never envisioned that I would be a stay-at-home mother, but that’s how the chips ended up falling. With the exception of my first half-year of motherhood and several part-time jobs at various points throughout the last thirteen years, I have stayed home with our children, though I’ve rarely gone without earning some kind of income, even if an inadequate one. Financially, being at home has come at a great price. Emotionally, too, at times when judgment from the outside has been cast. Some have erroneously assumed we chose this life because we were financially secure and had the luxury of doing so. For me, the decision was largely based on the emotional and spiritual needs of our family. I knew that as our family continued growing, I could not be there for them in those ways if I was busy channeling the bulk of my energy elsewhere.
Now is a time of looking back. Did we choose wrongly? Were all the naysayers right? Should we have opted for a different, more secure and certain course?
Certainly, we could have chosen differently. First off, we could have made a purposeful decision not to have as many children. That would have allowed me to head back into the work force years ago and ensured a more settled future. Or, I could have pursued a high-paying job so that we could afford daycare for a large family. But that kind of job would have taken me away from our family for more hours than I was willing to be away. I knew that for me, the emotional cost would have been much too steep.
In the end, we took each year as it came, tended to the things that seemed to be in most need of our attention, and moved along as well as we could. It has never been, nor will it ever be, a perfect life filled with flawless moves. I’m sure there are a hundred different things we could have done, but pondering all of those “what ifs” accomplishes very little.
Some might say I have wasted time at home, that we could have gotten further ahead and faster if I’d chosen differently. Some might feel I have squandered all those years in college, and that now, having spent the majority of the past thirteen years away from the work force, I’ve doomed my future career. But I have a different take on all of this.
When I look at the money I have earned in the past thirteen years, it is a fairly pitiful amount to be certain, and if I were to be judged by that alone, I would be labeled a complete failure. If the financial piece were the only piece of the puzzle, I would consider myself a gigantic loser. What I see, instead, is a mother who kept on working, little by little, both within and out of the hearth, and managed to reach several professional dreams while in the midst of wiping poopy bottoms, soothing owies and whipping up yet another batch of mac and cheese. During some of the most intense years of motherhood, I became a twice-published author and newspaper columnist. I wrote many freelance articles for both local and national publications. I became an award-winning freelance writer. One of my books, too, has garnered awards, and more recently, I delightedly entered the world of blogging, whereby I’ve been able to share even more of my life as a writer, mother and faith-seeker in ways I would not have imagined when this journey first began. Those are the tangible things that I see that tell me I have not squandered anything in the path I have chosen, even if it has rarely been easy.
As for the kids, it’s harder to tell the long-term effects, but judging from how I feel inside, I think this, too, has been the right choice. I can truly say I have no regrets. Yes, it’s been a tough road financially. Yes, the sacrifice has worn us down at times. Yes, we have, in moments, lost sight of the ultimate prize. But now that I’m this close to the end of the most tender years of motherhood, I can’t say that I feel any letdown in how things have been. We may never truly know whether my being close has impacted the children for the better. We don’t know how their lives would have been otherwise, after all, and whether they would have been less or more well-adjusted had I chosen different. At this point, there’s no turning back to choose otherwise, but my heart tells me that, yes, it was worth the sacrifice. It was worth all of the struggling moments. Even though I did not perfect my mothering through being nearby and more often, I gave it the best shot I had for what I knew at the time.
I share this not to make anyone who has not been able to follow the SAHM course, nor had the desire to do so, feel badly. I recognize that every mother’s path is unique, and I respect all of the variations. I’m sharing this mainly to encourage those who have made similar sacrifices as I have. It can feel uncertain most days, and the payoff might come all too slowly and may never be totally clear. All I know for sure is that it’s true what “they” (those a little older and wiser than I) say. These years of our lives hurry by. What will we have to show for it when all is said and done?
I know what I won’t have to show. I will not have the fanciest house in town. I won’t have a lake home, or a boat, or an annual cruise to the Bahamas. I won’t have a snazzy car, or a newly updated wardrobe every year, and our kids will be repeatedly denied many of the luxuries some of their peers enjoy. But I will have deep connections with my children. I know almost as much about my children as they do (some days, even more). I have worked hard to make sure they are developed in whole, not just in part. And though we are far from perfected, both as individuals and as a family, I truly believe my frequent presence in their lives has made a difference.
This year, I’m going to be dipping my toe into new possibilities. As the kids prepare to move out into the world one step more, little by little, I will be doing the same. Our entire family is exploring new horizons, and as our separations become more distinct, I find myself feeling even more grateful for the times I have spent nearby.
As a wise friend recently told me, “Life is all about relationships. It all comes down to that.” And indeed, it does. I feel so incredibly happy to have learned that now, during the years when I’ve had a chance to truly make a difference in the way that I have. My job as a mother is far from complete, but assessing it now from where I’m at, I am at peace with what I have offered my children, even if my paychecks haven’t reflected the truth of it.
What are some of the sacrifices you’ve made in your life that have been questioned at times, but that you now look back on without regret?