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Being a Stay-At-Home Mom - November 2020

Is It Right For You? Is It Right For Your Kids?

By Dr. Christiane Northrup

Few things bring up as much guilt, ambivalence, and self-doubt as deciding whether to stay home with your kids or work outside your home. When I was faced with this decision, I certainly had my share of all three. It doesn’t help that worry about being a “Supermom” is rampant in our society. Because unjustified self-reproach and anxiety are major healths risk over time—for both mothers and their children—I want to give you some soothing thoughts on the whole topic.

The Roots of Self-Doubt When you get pregnant for the first time, everyone—from your own mother, to your mother-in-law, to your neighbor—will tell you what you should be doing. You’ll be amazed by how many perfect strangers come up to you and give you advice. This advice continues after you have the baby. And you’ll notice something right away—everyone has an opinion and what you hear is inconsistent. There can be vast differences in the information given to new mothers by highly trained doctors, even though these recommendations are often backed up by scientific data! (Data, I might add, that keeps changing.) For example, some doctors will tell you that your children need to drink cow’s milk to develop strong bones. Others will cite data proving milk is associated with asthma, allergies, and even gastrointestinal bleeding. These physicians insist you can build strong bones in other ways. When it comes to deciding to work after you have children, your mother and your mother-in-law may have completely different viewpoints. For example, one of my friends has a mother who has always worked. After she had her baby, she wanted to go back to work. Her mother was very supportive. Her mother-in-law, on the other hand, never worked outside the home. She urged her daughter–in-law to stay at home as she did! My friend knew that if she decided to work, she wouldn’t “measure up” to her mother-in-law’s standards of what a “good” mother should be. And this brought up some guilty feelings and self-doubt, which were hard for my friend to contend with.

There Is No “Right” Answer, There is only “Your” Answer I believe that on a soul level, we pick our parents. And that means that we also choose the circumstances and the challenges we face as we find our passion and purpose in life. For example, the child of an unreliable parent may learn the skills needed to deal with emergencies later in life. The child of a parent with severe limitations may develop an enormous amount of compassion and eventually become a healer. Seen from this higher perspective, the day-to-day details of whether you will be able to attend every school play become less critical, though still worth considering. It’s important to remember that your needs, and those of your children, will change over time. You may feel satisfied staying home with your toddler, yet need to work or take up a hobby once your children are in school all day. A mother may feel perfectly comfortable putting her children in after-school care when they are younger, yet feel they need her supervision when they become teenagers. This means that “Your Answer” may change overtime, and that’s okay. When deciding whether to stay home with your children or work, here are some principles to guide you.

 1. Endeavor to Become a Happy and Fulfilled Human Being Your job as a mother, first and foremost, is to be a happy, healthy human being. You must, of course, meet the real needs of your child for food, clothing, and love. But after that, everything is negotiable. Understand that you can’t hope to have happy, healthy children unless you yourself are happy, healthy, and fulfilled. Children learn far more from who you are, than from what you do. If you’re staying home out of a sense of guilt and obligation, you aren’t doing your children any favors. They can smell hypocrisy, sadness, depression, and frustration a mile away. And, depending upon their temperament, they might think it’s their fault or try to soothe it! Carl Jung once said that the biggest burden we place on our children is our own unfulfilled dreams. At the very least, a stay-at-home Mom who is there simply because she believes she “should” be, but who would rather spend more time out in the world, won’t be very good company. (Have you ever gone to a social event with someone who didn’t want to be there? Did you enjoy being in their company?) On the other hand, if you long to stay home with your children and have the temperament to make homemaking a full-time job, then do everything in your power to make that happen. This is the time for truth telling and downsizing if need be. Do you really need two new cars? One of my friends has an old “beater” to get to work. His wife drives the more up-to-date minivan. Another buys all of her kids clothes at Walmart, Target, or even Goodwill. You also don’t have to get your kids everything they see on television. In fact, studies now show very clearly that overindulging kids with material goods can lead to depression and even illness. Kids know when you are “buying them off.” They’d prefer your genuine presence over “presents” anytime. There is a balance. One Mom in our community managed to stay home with her kids by inviting other children into her home (for a fee) for both day care and after school care. My children went there occasionally and loved it. The money this Mom made allowed her to stay home with her kids. (Her husband’s job involved a lot of travel and he was home only on weekends.) The whole set up was a win-win for everyone involved.

2. Resist Mother Blame One of the main reasons that Moms feel so much guilt is that we live in a society that blames mothers for everything and has for decades, whether or not they stay home! The roots of modern psychiatry as put forth by Sigmund Freud are all about mother blame. If anything goes wrong with a child, we blame the mother—without looking at her as a human being who needs enormous support to do the job of mothering well. A mother “inherits” some guilt along with the job, and may be asked to carry blame, even when it has nothing to do with her. By and large, the father is let off the hook because the mother is responsible for his emotional and physical needs, too, along with those of her children. This is ridiculous. As if mother blame weren’t enough, our society is not set up, either psychologically or physically, to easily accommodate the needs of mothers and young children in most areas of the country. The urban planning of the last 30 years centers around cars and driving, not communities and families. (You’ll notice now that some of the most successful churches in the country know this and have set up entire compounds and support systems for young families with children.) Back in the ’50s and early ’60s, when working outside the home was rarely an option, it was much easier. Kids went outside to play, older kids played with younger kids, you knew everyone in the neighborhood, and neighborhoods were safe. Most families only needed one car because you could walk everywhere. And when you did drive, there weren’t any car seats to deal with. You just piled all the kids into the station wagon and went! (Of course, I would never advocate that today, given how much safer children are in car seats.) Sadly, even during these idyllic days mothers were still blamed if their children were unhappy or messed up. Interestingly, no one blamed mothers for working long hours during WWII. One of my friends, now in her 60’s, spent several years in state-sponsored day care during WWII while her mother worked in a munitions plant to help the war effort. She laughs when people talk about the damage that day care does to kids. She said, “At a time when all women worked because we were at war, no one gave a second thought to the effect of day care on children.” Women’s time was deemed too valuable to the war effort to expect them to stay home with children. And because working outside the home was culturally sanctioned, no woman was made to feel guilty about it. In fact, she would have been made to feel guilty if she had stayed home with her children! Yet today, society is quick to criticize a woman who puts her children in day care when it contributes to her sense of well-being and personal fulfillment. And it flies in the face of a Sacred Cow in our society, which is this: “If you don’t want to spend every waking moment with your two year old, you must be a bad mother.” As a rule, I encourage you to eliminate judgmental phrases such as “good mother” and “bad mother” from your vocabulary. They are too loaded with “what other people think” to be useful to you. When you start to think about mother blame critically, you begin to see that it is a very convenient and potent way to control an entire group of women and keep them “stuck” in service and sacrifice. To claim your right to self-fulfillment and happiness is to risk losing the so-called “love” of your family, society, or social group. (Though I don’t think this is done consciously or maliciously.) The good news is that the higher your self-esteem and the more you believe in yourself and your inherent goodness, the more blame-resistant you become. And this is a gift to both you and your children. Remember this: You are the only mother your child will ever have. It’s not a competition. Besides, it’s important to make a few mistakes as a parent and admit to your children that you don’t have all the answers. This helps them accept their own humanity as well.

3. Use Your Own Power to Mother According to Your Heart] Every one of us has the power to create our lives along lines that are more fulfilling. I’ve seen this repeatedly. If you don’t like something, you have the power to change it. I did it, so can you. Knowing that consciousness creates reality (not the other way around), I decided to re-invent the way I practiced women’s healthcare so that I could have more time with my children —and also time to articulate a new vision of what health really is. When my children were two and four, I realized that I couldn’t continue to work the 60-80 hour weeks that were (and still are) standard in my profession. (I tell this story in vivid detail in Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom [Bantam, 1998]). Knowing that the same things that were stressing out my patients were also adversely affecting me, I envisioned a medical practice that would honor what it meant to be a woman and a mother. I wanted to have more time with my kids without being made to feel guilty by my colleagues. In 1984, I took the Empowerment Workshop with Gail Straub and David Gershon at the Omega Institute. This workshop gave me the tools to manifest my dreams using the power of affirmations and understanding how consciousness creates reality. (See "Empowerment: The Art of Creating Your Life as You Want it” by David Gershon and Gail Straub, High Point Press, 1989.). The practice known as Women to Women was the result. I worked flexible hours at Women to Women for all the years that my children were in elementary and high school, so I had time for work and family. And over time, I learned how to care for myself! Many women are now working flexible hours at many different jobs. Many work from home. Katy Koontz, the woman who helped me with the Resource list for Mother-Daughter Wisdom is a freelance writer who is raising her daughter while working at home. The editor of this e-letter, Judie Harvey, is raising three kids and also works from home! Although she loves the balance she has in her life today, she remembers it was difficult finding the right mix. “Instead of feeling like I could gracefully transition from the corporate world to my home persona, I often felt like I was on the outside looking in—the Moms from nursery school criticized me for being a 'part-time Mom,' and many of my peers looked down on me for being a 'part-time employee.' Driven by what others thought, I overcompensated for the time I was away from my children—I even made homemade organic baby food for them—and in the process wore myself out. Ultimately, I figured out what mattered most in life (to me) and I never lost sight of it. From this vantage point, I’m able to make decisions that benefit everyone in my family. It takes courage to find a balance that works for you, but with creative thinking and flexibility, it’s definitely possible.” Over time, Judie was able to find a way to work at something she loved (using the skills she’d developed in the workplace) while having more time with her children. I’m so clear on the advantages of being able to choose to be home that I’ve even put together a home business opportunity. In short, there are all kinds of ways to creatively mother your children, develop your gifts and talents, and bring in an income!

4. Children Are Young for a Very Short Time: You Will Be Their Mother for a Very Long Time Okay. There’s one time I think you should stay home or keep your children with you as much as possible, and that’s when they are newborn and young infants. The mother’s body forms an “outer placenta” at that time that the child needs in order to adjust to independent life. The baby and mother have been one organism for nine months—and for at least three more months, the mother’s body is the outer placenta and the baby is an external fetus. A loving caregiver can also provide that function but it’s not the same. I stayed home with my oldest for three months, though we moved and it was an insane time that I wouldn’t care to repeat. (Let’s just say that I didn’t make a very good placenta!) Then I took her with me to the office each day for the first six months of her life. (I was fortunate to have that kind of flexibility.) With the second, I went back to work in six weeks but also brought her in with me for several months. I have to admit, putting a six-week old infant in day care breaks my heart! But I know that some kids thrive in spite of it. It all depends upon temperament and soul qualities. The quality of the time you spend with your kids when they are little makes a difference for the rest of their lives. They need to know they can count on you. They need to know you’re there for them. And you need to mean it. That doesn’t mean you have to be home 24/7, but it does mean that when you’re present, you should be present. And it means you need a support system of other people to create a “village” of support when you’re not present. The period of time we remember as our “childhood” is very short. It ends around puberty. At this time, children become far more interested in their friends than in their parents. But then, when they reach their 20’s and 30’s, they’re more interested in their parents again. This relationship goes on a long time. There are multiple opportunities to enhance and repair it if necessary. The degree to which you continue to grow and develop as a happy and fulfilled human being is the degree to which your children will want to be around you—for a lifetime.

 5. Give Yourself Credit—Mothering Is, Hands Down, the Hardest Job on Earth Having young children is the most delightful and most challenging time of a woman’s life. I’ve never done anything that hard. Really. Being on call, going to the operating room, and being a doctor is far easier. (At least if you have my temperament—which is why it was better for both me and my children that I worked.) Mothering young children—especially when there are no older siblings or relatives to help—always involves lots of bobbing and weaving, trying to be two places at once, trying to juggle multiple schedules. You don’t have to make it any crazier that it already is. One of my friends is a stay-at-home Mom of an infant, a seven-year-old son, and a nine-year-old daughter. To maintain a good quality of family life, she limits her older children’s extracurricular activities to “one at a time.” They can play soccer or take piano lessons. Not both. And they have to make their choices themselves. This prevents their family life from disintegrating into a chaos of missed meals, endless hours in the car, and, let’s face it, a missed childhood! I applaud her. She also has a “date night” with her husband each week. And goes out with her girlfriends regularly! She’s happy, healthy, and her children are delightful. What’s more, they can entertain themselves for hours on their own. They aren’t needy, whiny, or demanding. They are, quite simply, happy, normal kids. I’ve seen the same thing with the children of working Moms—at least the ones who don’t wallow in guilt and, as a result, are far too lenient with their children, giving in to their every demand! My kids liked being home and playing with their friends when they were young. Other than a few dance classes, they didn’t like taking lessons or doing activities after school. So I let them be kids and just be! They didn’t want to go to camp in the summer either! (We already lived in Maine—home of many summer camps. So finding a lake to swim in or a beach to sit on was never a problem!). Bottom line: I didn’t spend my young mothering years driving myself nuts with lessons and activities when I was home from work. We always had dinner together because we didn’t allow “activities” to wipe out family time. Please note: These were all conscious choices—just like the decision to live in a small town in Maine in the first place versus a big city where both my husband and I had far better offers and would have had bigger paychecks. But we wanted to raise our kids in a small community instead.

 6. As a Culture, We’re Searching for More Balance The women having children now are daughters of the baby boomers—the group, including me (and many of you) that came of age during the sexual revolution, the women’s movement, and the civil rights movements. Many of us refused to be trapped at home like our mothers. Instead, we were going to “have it all.” So we delayed childbearing, went into the work force in droves, and opened up a world of choices to women that were unheard of before. Quite simply, we changed the world. In the process, none of us suspected how difficult childrearing and working would be. And we didn’t have nearly enough role models. In addition, the men we married had a mother who had stayed at home. So they didn’t know what to do in our much-dreamed of partnership marriages either! It’s little wonder that the pendulum is swinging back now so that many of the country’s most well educated women are deciding to stay home and raise their children themselves. They’re leaving the fast track because, having seen it, they’ve decided it’s not worth sacrificing their health and their children’s health on an altar of guilt. I, for one, applaud this decision. And I see it as an inevitable search for balance. We pushed the envelope way out. Now we’re collectively reeling it back in. But there’s a big difference between the mothers of baby boomers and the daughters of baby boomers. The daughters of boomers know they have far more choices than their grandmothers ever did. And when you make the conscious choice to stay home from that perspective, it’s very different from not being allowed to become a doctor, a stock broker, a lawyer, etc. It’s helpful to know that all of us are part of a culture that is bigger than we are—but one in which we can still create a great life. It’s also helpful to know that although your child is part of you, she’s also her own person.

So when it comes to working outside the home, follow your own heart. You’ll be the best possible role model for your child to do the same. And that is the basis for a healthy life. To Read More about Other Christina Northrup see her website at www.drnorthrup.com

Dr. Christiane NorthrupDr. Christiane's Bio: Christiane Northrup, M.D. is a visionary pioneer and beloved authority in the field of women’s health and wellness. A board-certified OB/GYN physician who graduated from Dartmouth Medical School and did her residency at Tufts New England Medical Center, Dr. Northrup was also an assistant clinical professor of OB/GYN at Maine Medical Center for 20 years. Recognizing the unity of body, mind, and spirit, Dr. Northrup helps empower women to tune in to their innate inner wisdom to transform their health and truly flourish. Dr. Northrup is the author of two New York Times best-selling books, Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom, The Wisdom of Menopause and her third book, Mother-Daughter Wisdom. - Dr. Christiane Northrup Website


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