I live in a religious culture that speaks highly of women who leave the workplace to spend their time raising children. My mother had children when she was young before she had the opportunity to establish any sort of career. She made raising children her main career. I had many brothers and sisters, and some of my best memories are coming home from school to the smell of her wonderful chocolate chip cookies, fresh from the oven.
Part of my culture encourages stay at home moms, but there is the culture surrounding me that encourages women to fully engage in the workforce, to pursue leadership roles and careers. Sometimes I struggle with knowing how to balance these two seemingly competing values. I do think it is valuable for women to stay home with their children, but it is also good to contribute to society and have a career.
I saw my mom return to school at various times, considering different career paths as we grew and needed less of her time. She always encouraged us to get good grades, and it was expected that we would go to college and get an education. She never did decide on any career path, and after her children left home, she found value in the continuing care-taking needs of aging parents, children and grandchildren, as well as various volunteer positions.
I enjoy school and didn’t feel like I was done with traditional education when I graduate with my Bachelor’s degree in Horticulture. Pursuing a graduate degree was something I always had on my bucket list. However, when I graduated, I was five months pregnant with my first child, and my husband had his applications out for his graduate school. A graduate degree for myself was highly impractical, and besides that, I had no idea what I would like to study.
I spent the next eight years helping my husband continue through graduate school, and establish his career. I also maintained what I liked to think of as a hobby business. I did gardening and design but didn’t spend too much time on it or make too much money.
Most of my time was spent raising my children. And I tried to do it with a vigor. We added two more boys over the years. I took my children to parks, events, the library. I did activities with them, learning about liquid watercolors, water beads, and the many different ways the baking soda and vinegar can be combined. I created a fun home and garden for them to play in.
At times I was engaged in my life, and in those times, I was happy. But it is often hard to be fully engaged in life when the schedule for the day includes trying to potty train a resistant toddler, finding yet another way to encourage my son to reluctantly practice the piano, and going to the grocery store because we ran out of milk.
I struggled at times with my emotions: anger was far too common, depression could crop up. Mothering tried my patience and sometimes left me feeling less and without an identity. The greatest remedy to this was to have full days that I was excited about. Focusing only on my children often left me bored and depressed. Focusing on more, including things like learning, serving others, developing strong friendships, and creative projects, created a happier life for me.
I also found that having more interests than my children helped me to be a better mother. I could not only give them the necessities of life but show them the joys of living. I introduced them to gardening, design, and service. I encouraged their independence when I didn’t always have the time to give them everything they wanted right when they wanted. They had more opportunities: new places to visit, more time spent with their dad while I had a client to go to, and new friends they made. One of my children developed an active love of drawing only after I took a drawing class.
They also gave back to me. I didn’t know what I wanted to study when I graduate with my horticulture degree. Then I spent years doing kid art projects, designing spaces for my children to be kids, and visiting parks and other places. I found out that I enjoyed being creative and solving problems. Through all this experience, I decided to go into landscape design, something I had not considered seriously earlier because I did not think of myself as all that creative.
About a year ago, I was ready for a new challenge. Although my children were still young, I decided to pursue graduate school. I looked at different programs and took online classes, and was recently admitted into a Masters of Landscape Architecture program.
Sometimes I question what I am doing. My children are young, they need me. School seems stressful, demanding and I’m not always sure how I will manage. Balance seems impossible. But it isn’t a question of balance. Careers and education are not competing forces with the family. They can be complementary, adding to each other.
I’ve seen this in my husband’s career. He works at a nursing home as a physical therapist: my children have had many opportunities to get to know and love these older folk, who love to see them. It’s not only provided an income for our family, but a place for my children to learn a bit more about others who are different, and for our family to serve others.
Both my husband and I picked careers that are able to blend with family life. My husband’s employment is next door to my children’s school. As I’ve worked for myself, in my hobby business and during online classes, I didn’t wait until after my children were in bed. Most of my work is done at home, and my desk is in the dining room, right in the center of family activity. I enjoy sharing what I am doing with them.
This isn’t possible for everyone. It is very common that careers and family are treated as competing efforts that do not blend together. Most people are not allowed to bring their children to work with them, even if it is just for a few minutes, and often commute time prohibits this. Some people can’t study well with three children + friends playing loudly right next to them. Figuring out how it all works is different for everyone.
The timing can be essential: I finished one degree before I had children, and started another right in the middle of the raising them. I know others who finished their education and established their career before they had their children. Others I know wait until their children are much older and independent, or leave home. Some are forced into the workplace due to underemployment, death or divorce. It is possible to take breaks in employment if it’s needed. There are also opportunities for self-employment, working from home, having flexible jobs, and splitting responsibilities with others that help meet the demands of caregiving. It is possible to have a career and have a family.
It’s often challenging to figure it all out, but it doesn’t mean I should give up my career entirely. When I improve as a person, when I contribute more, I will also have more to give to my children. I am a firm believer in putting our family first: and this can mean giving up certain career opportunities, or delaying employment or education because the workplace isn’t often congruent to our needs as caregivers. It doesn’t mean that I have to give up my career entirely.
I need to be engaged in my life, develop self-reliance, take good care of our children, improve as a person, and contribute to the communities in which I live. What this looks like in everyone’s life is different. It can include stay-at-home parents, working parents, small families, big families, and for me, deciding to start a graduate program when my children are still young.
Endnote: With my strong, spiritual background, and I believe it is essential to make many of these decisions with the guidance of God. He helps us accomplish what can look impossible on paper. I believe family is important and should be put first. How God leads us is different for everyone!