- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 15, 2003

Joanna Esty used to fight illegal drugs in South America. Now she’s teaching her 4-year-old daughter, Kendra, to ride a bicycle. Beth Laufenberg used to prosecute juveniles in Baltimore. Now she goes to music and exercise classes with Lily, her 19-month-old daughter.

What do these women have in common?

They both left careers they loved to stay home full time with their children, a decision they say they have never regretted.

They are far from alone in their choice to stay home.

“More and more [career] women choose to stay at home to take care of their children,” says Susan De Ritis, spokeswoman for Family and Home Network, a Fairfax-based group that represents stay-at-home parents. “Census 2000 numbers show that new mothers in the workplace fell to 55 percent from an all-time high of 59 percent in 1998.”

The Census Bureau also reported that in 2002, nearly 10.6 million children were being raised by full-time stay-at-home moms, up 13 percent in about a decade, she says.

Making the transition from the career world to the full-time mommy world, however, can be tough emotionally, including feelings of isolation and a loss of identity, says Mrs. Esty. (The loss of income is a more practical matter, which takes planning but is easier to prepare for mentally, Mrs. Esty and Mrs. Laufenberg agree.)

“You have to get out, get involved, get to know other new mothers even if your child is only 2 months old, or you’ll start feeling isolated,” says Mrs. Esty, of Fairfax. “You do it for you, not for your child.”

Mrs. Laufenberg, of Baltimore, describes the Friday nursing group she joined when Lily was 2 months old as a “lifesaver.”

“Whatever had happened during the week, I always knew I could look forward to Friday,” she says. “It was great to hear other women talk about the exact same things I was experiencing.”

For example, the irritating tendency of husbands to think there were quick fixes — such as food — for a crying baby.

“We all identified with that. You’ve just fed the baby, and your husband says, ‘The baby is crying; maybe she’s hungry,’” Mrs. Laufenberg says.

Cheryl Juneau of Alexandria, who has two boys, ages 5 and 3, calls the nursing support group she used to belong to “invaluable.”

“Staying at home to take care of your children can be a solitary job,” she says. “Just hearing from other mothers that they, too, were up at 2 a.m. alone nursing made me feel better.”

Mrs. Laufenberg and Mrs. Juneau advise mothers to build a new network of friends because it’s unlikely they will have weekly or daily contact with former colleagues.

You simply lose a lot of your common ground. Former colleagues might want to talk about possible promotions or office gossip and the stay-at-home mother might want to talk about her child’s latest development.

In the past 20 years, many local and national groups have formed to advocate for and support women who choose to stay home with their children. Among them are the Fairfax-based Family and Home Network, formerly known as Mothers at Home, and Elmhurst, Ill.-based Mothers & More, to which Mrs. Laufenberg and Mrs. Esty belong.

Mothers & More focuses on the needs and interests of the “woman” as much as the needs and interests of the “mother,” a very important distinction, says Martha Bullen, co-author of “Staying Home: From Full-time Professional to Full-time Parent.”

“You talk about being a woman, not just being a mother, which is so important,” Ms. Bullen says, “because mothers can become so selfless that they burn out.”

What do you do?

Another big challenge in making the transition from office to home is loss of identity, Ms. Bullen says.

“A lot of new mothers who have decided to stay at home actually don’t miss the salary the most. It’s the identity they miss,” she says. “They might not even know what to call themselves.”

Family and Home Network’s Mrs. De Ritis, who holds seminars for transitioning new mothers, says what to call yourself is very personal — there is no correct or incorrect way.

“But I know that a lot of people don’t like housewife,” she says. “‘I am not a wife to my house,’ they say.”

Mrs. Laufenberg says she’s comfortable calling herself a stay-at-home mom.

“Although I could say I’m an attorney because I’m still licensed to practice in Maryland,” she adds.

One wall of the office in the Laufenbergs’ home is adorned with law school books and diplomas. The rest of the room, however, is home to Lily’s toys.

Mrs. Esty prefers “homemaker.”

“I am more than a mother. I take care of our home, too,” she says. Since leaving her career four years ago, she performs a wide range of tasks on a daily basis, including baking apple-cheese bread, making holiday cards with her daughter and lighting the pilot light on the furnace.

Mrs. Esty’s home, too, is full of reminders of a “former life.” Diplomas and certificates take up a wall in the basement along with various colorful folk-art paintings from South America. A sitting room upstairs has marionettes from Buenos Aires in one corner and Venezuelan baskets in another.

The reason labeling becomes so important is because what people do for a living carries with it a certain amount of status and validation in American society, Mrs. De Ritis says.

“In our society, a big paycheck is the definition of success,” Mrs. De Ritis says.

So how do you feel validated when making a choice that doesn’t bring with it any monetary gains?

“You have to take pride in your choice,” Mrs. De Ritis says. “We’ve been programmed to think that we have to be out in the workplace. But the truth is that staying at home to raise children is a great contribution and investment in society.”

It is particularly difficult to feel validated in the beginning when the child is small and isn’t very responsive, Ms. Bullen says. Many women take a year or more to get accustomed to their new role.

“It’s good to talk to people who have been there and done that. They can tell you things will get better,” she says. “Please be patient.”

For some, however, the choice to stay home doesn’t work, Ms. Bullen says.

For whatever reason — maybe their spouses are against it, maybe there isn’t enough money, maybe they find their careers too rewarding to give up, maybe taking care of small children full time is not for them, maybe they think a day care situation is better for the children — they just can’t or don’t want to be stay-at-home moms.

“Take the longest maternity leave you can, which will give you and your child a chance to get to know each other,” Ms. Bullen says. “And whatever choice you make, remember it doesn’t have to be forever. If staying at home doesn’t work out for you, then you rethink. If going back to work doesn’t feel right, then you rethink.”

New identity

Mrs. Laufenberg and Mrs. Esty say they may go back to the workplace some day, but they have no definite or immediate plans. They and their husbands agree that staying home with the children is the best thing for everyone involved, and they can afford it.

Mrs. Laufenberg and Mrs. Esty also have arrived at a point where they don’t feel isolated or lonely anymore because they are involved in support groups, such as Mothers & More, and play groups. They also have made new, non-work, friends.

They acknowledge, however, that it’s a good idea to keep skills and contacts with the career world as current as possible, a strategy echoed by Ms. Bullen and Mrs. De Ritis.

“People ask me how am I going to stay connected? And I always say, ‘Keep up your subscriptions and your memberships to professional groups,’” Mrs. De Ritis says.

Volunteering is another way to keep in touch with the world outside, adding a skill or two to the resume and getting adult interaction. Mrs. Laufenberg plans to start volunteering with CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) in Baltimore. The group serves abused and neglected children by representing their interests before the Baltimore city court system and advocating for their best interests in the educational, medical and social services areas.

When the children become a little older and start attending kindergarten or higher grades, stay-at-home mothers get that extra little bit of time to develop new interests, maybe even sow the seeds of a new career. In short, it can be a time of personal growth.

But careers and developing new interests are not at the top of Mrs. Esty’s or Mrs. Laufenberg’s agendas at the moment. They’re savoring this time in their children’s lives, they say. Mrs. Esty focuses on promoting Kendra’s adventurous spirit on the monkey bars, interest in spooky books (one of her favorites is “The Dancing Skeleton” by Cynthia DeFelice) and teaching her good manners and values.

Mrs. Laufenberg says being there for Lily’s language development and other progress is amazing. The other day, Lily, who is a bit of a late talker, said “bueberry” (for blueberry) and Mrs. Laufenberg says her heart almost melted.

“I don’t want to miss any of those moments. I don’t want to miss any firsts,” she says.

STAYING HOME?

MARTHA M. BULLEN, CO-AUTHOR OF “STAYING HOME: FROM FULL-TIME PROFESSIONAL TO FULL-TIME PARENT,” AND SUSAN DE RITIS, SPOKESWOMAN FOR THE NONPROFIT FAIRFAX-BASED HOME AND FAMILY NETWORK, OFFER THE FOLLOWING TIPS FOR A SMOOTH TRANSITION FROM OFFICE TO HOME:

• PLANNING — THE MORE YOU PLAN FOR THE TRANSITION, PARTICULARLY FINANCIALLY, THE BETTER OFF YOU WILL BE. SOME PEOPLE START SAVING MONEY, MAYBE THE ENTIRE PAYCHECK FROM ONE SPOUSE, WHILE BOTH HUSBAND AND WIFE ARE WORKING, TO BUILD A CUSHION. LIVING ON ONE SALARY ALSO MAY HELP INSPIRE COUPLES TO THINK OF CREATIVE WAYS TO CUT COSTS.

• PATIENCE — DON’T EXPECT THE TRANSITION FROM OFFICE TO HOME TO BE BUMP-FREE. IT SOMETIMES TAKES YEARS TO GET ACCUSTOMED TO TAKING CARE OF A CHILD AT HOME FULL TIME AFTER HAVING BEEN A CAREER WOMAN.

• STRUCTURE — LIFE AT HOME DOESN’T HAVE THE STRUCTURE OF WORK LIFE WITH ITS LUNCH BREAKS AND TWO-WEEK VACATIONS. INITIALLY, THE “FREE FALL” OF DAILY LIFE CAN BE TOUGH, BUT IN THE LONG RUN, IT CAN BE LIBERATING. WHILE SETTING UP AND ACHIEVING HOUSEHOLD GOALS CAN GIVE A SENSE OF ACCOMPLISHMENT, MAKE SURE TO SET PRIORITIES WITH WHICH YOU ARE COMFORTABLE. MAYBE IT’S MORE REWARDING AND IMPORTANT TO GO TO THE PARK WITH YOUR CHILD THAN TO VACUUM.

• IDENTITY — DON’T REFER TO YOURSELF AS JUST a stay-at-home mom. Society may not give motherhood the amount of status and respect it deserves, but you can. Being a mother is a worthwhile endeavor and an investment in society.

• Isolation — Network as much as possible. Many communities have both formal and informal mothers’ and parents’ groups (see info box) that arrange play groups for children and lectures for mothers on everything from pampering yourself to child safety.

• Boredom — Some new mothers are concerned that staying home with their children won’t be intellectually stimulating. Keeping up subscriptions to professional publications, remaining a member of professional organizations and staying in touch with former colleagues are great ways to prevent that from happening.

• Validation — Many women want to know that they made the right decision to stay home, particularly in the beginning, when their child is too young to be responsive. Joining support groups is a good way to give and receive validating feedback from other new mothers.

• Relationships — Make sure to take “time off” from child care.

Time with your spouse away from the child or children is important for nurturing the couple relationship. An ongoing dialogue about duties in the home is important, too. Some women feel strongly that they made the decision to stay home to take care of the child, not to take care of the house. For some, hiring a cleaning service is a good solution.

Time by yourself is important, too, even if it’s just to sleep in or go to the gym. Burnout from being too selfless is common among stay-at-home mothers.

MORE INFO:

BOOKS —

“STAYING HOME: FROM FULL-TIME PROFESSIONAL TO FULL-TIME PARENT,” BY DARCIE SANDERS AND MARTHA M. BULLEN, SPENCER AND WATERS, 2002. THIS BOOK IS A GUIDE FOR WOMEN WHO ARE MAKING OR CONSIDERING MAKING A TRANSITION FROM OFFICE TO HOME. THE BOOK IS BASED IN PART ON SURVEYS OF 600 AT-HOME MOTHERS ACROSS THE NATION.

“THE STAY-AT-HOME PARENT SURVIVAL GUIDE: REAL-LIFE ADVICE FROM MOMS, DADS, AND OTHER EXPERTS A TO Z,” BY CHRISTINA BAGLIVI TINGLOF, MCGRAW-HILL COS., 2000. THIS BOOK GIVES CONCRETE ADVICE ON HOW TO MAKE A SUCCESSFUL TRANSITION FROM CAREER TO HOME, INCLUDING STARTING A PLAY GROUP, BUILDING A SUPPORT SYSTEM AND KEEPING CONNECTED IN THE ADULT COMMUNITY.

“REINVENTING OURSELVES AFTER MOTHERHOOD: HOW FORMER CAREER WOMEN REFOCUS THEIR PERSONAL AND PROFESSIONAL LIVES AFTER THE BIRTH OF A CHILD,” BY SUSAN E. LEWIS, NTC PUBLISHING GROUP, 1999. LACED WITH HUMOR AND INSIGHT, THIS BOOK TAKES A LOOK AT THE ADJUSTMENTS OF TRADING IN THE BRIEFCASE AND STAYING HOME, INCLUDING A WOMAN’S SELF-IMAGE AND RELATIONSHIPS WITH SPOUSE, CHILDREN AND FRIENDS.

ASSOCIATIONS —

MOTHERS & MORE, PO BOX 31, ELMHURST, IL 60126. PHONE: 630/941-3553. WEB SITE: WWW.MOTHERSANDMORE.ORG. THIS NATIONAL NONPROFIT ASSOCIATION BEGAN IN 1987 AND PROVIDES A SUPPORT AND ADVOCACY NETWORK FOR WOMEN WHO HAVE ALTERED THEIR CAREER PATHS TO STAY HOME WITH THEIR CHILDREN. THE ASSOCIATION HAS LOCAL CHAPTERS NATIONWIDE.

FAMILY AND HOME NETWORK (FORMERLY KNOWN AS MOTHERS AT HOME), 9493-C SILVER KING COURT, FAIRFAX, VA 22031. PHONE: 703/352-1072. WEB SITE: WWW.FAMILYANDHOME.ORG. THIS ALMOST-20-YEAR-OLD NONPROFIT ORGANIZATION AIMS TO CORRECT SOCIETY’S MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT PARENTING, OFFER SUPPORT TO NEW PARENTS AND PROVIDE HELP WITH TRANSITIONS FROM OFFICE TO HOME. IT OFFERS A MONTHLY MAGAZINE AND SEMINARS.

ONLINE —

THE NATIONAL PARENTING ASSOCIATION (WWW.PARENTSUNITE.ORG) IS A 10-YEAR-OLD NEW YORK CITY-BASED NONPROFIT GROUP THAT AIMS TO GIVE PARENTS A GREATER VOICE IN THE PUBLIC ARENA BY CONDUCTING SURVEYS AND ADVOCATING FLEXIBLE WORK OPTIONS AND TAX BREAKS. PARENTS CAN FIND INFORMATION AND TIPS ON THE GROUP’S WEB SITE.

HEARTS AT HOME (WWW.HEARTS-AT-HOME.ORG) IS A CHRISTIAN ORGANIZATION THAT OFFERS STAY-AT-HOME MOTHERS SUPPORT AND ADVICE THROUGH MONTHLY DEVOTIONALS, A MAGAZINE, ONLINE INFORMATION AND AN E-MAIL NEWSLETTER.


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