As my friend said with conviction, “Being at home is the best place for me, and I am so glad that I can do it. It’s so important for me to be there for my family,” I noticed the hurt look in her eyes. “I was so glad when your mother-in-law told me she thinks it’s good that I can be home with my kids. I don’t always get support with that decision.”
That familiar lump formed in my throat, and I nodded my understanding, as I didn’t quite trust my voice. I cry often, which is more often a curse than a blessing, but usually out of genuine empathy. I understood the hurt my friend did not express, the underlying disrespect from others that lead to a deep cut in one’s own conviction that yes, this is the right place for me. I understand because I too am “only” a stay-at-home mom.
It’s amazing what damage a little word like “only” can do. In German it is only three letters: nur. But they are three letters than can be drawn out and dug in like a knife – nnuuuuuurr – making the true meaning heard. This seemingly inconsequential word can also be shrugged away, immediately brushed off with a sideways shake of the head and rolling eyes. Said quickly and with the hope it will be forgotten just as fast. Both interpretations have the same definition at the core: worthless.
In Germany there is a fantastic system for maternity leave. It’s quite complicated with lots of exceptions so I can’t go into lots of detail, but here’s an overview: Mutterschutz or the actual maternity leave begins six weeks before the birth and continues for eight weeks after, with complications or birth of multiples allowing up to twelve weeks. A mother continues to receive all or most of her salary during this time. After those eight weeks after the birth of the baby, parents have a right to Elternzeit. Directly translated this means “parent time” and allows for parents to take up to three years unpaid leave from their work. Usually it is one parent, for obvious reasons as some income is good, and that one parent is often the mother, although not always. For our purposes we will assume it is the mother. The mother is not allowed to be sacked from her position at work and after those three years are up, a position of similar salary and demands needs to be available.
And there’s more. Since 2007 it is possible to receive Elterngeld (parent money) during the Elternzeit. Theoretically our mother could take those three years off and receive up to twelve months 65 % of her income. When there are already siblings, it’s 10 % more. What I’ve seen many friends do is have the mother take the three years off from her work and have the father take off several months (not usually 12 months – the months the father does not take, the mother can be paid the 65 % from her income) from his work. Of course the family now has a smaller income to live off for those few months, but it’s fun to have both parents at home. Patrick and I took advantage of this with Alida’s birth. Patrick took off nine weeks from school, during which time we immersed our children in American culture.
Okay, but what does all this have to do with my topic? All that explaining to say that after three years of being at home after the birth of a child, the expectation is high that mothers return to work. Nowadays many are returning even earlier, but that is a different story. With three kids the pressure is less. And many people seem to be understanding because my children are still somewhat small. But, my kids are growing.
At what point is it no longer valid for me to be “only” at home? Should unspoken rules or cultural expectations give structure to my decision-making? Should I give in to the common belief that making money is most important because money can save everything? My mind cries out “no!” and my jaw sets, ready for the fight. I have seen broken homes and struggling children, desperate for attention not in the form of another soccer card or shiny scooter. I know children who need guidelines, but instead are passed from one babysitting institution to another. Parents are stressed trying to get their lives organized and the few minutes left over at the end of the day are both too much for the tired parents and not enough for the hungry children.
It would be easy if it were truly so black and white. But, of course, it is not. I know plenty of couples who both work and have lovely children. They are able to balance working hours and a life outside the home and raising responsible, great kids. I have single-mom friends who manage gracefully the struggle of providing on all fronts for their families. And I know stay-at-home moms who are overwhelmed with small children and housework, who in all honesty would probably be better off at work. As in all things in life, there is no right, no wrong.
But I do know for this season in my life, it is right for me to be at home. It is the little things I am thankful for: welcoming each of my little ones home again each afternoon; being able to help with homework; sitting down at the piano to help with lessons; welcoming other kids into our home in the afternoons; having time to cook good wholesome food for my family. Being at home is not always great, and there are days I wish I could kiss each of my family member’s head as I walk out the door to work. There are many questions about the time after being at home, as I wonder if I will ever be able to use my gifts in a fulfilling career. But as I struggle to find answers to those, I will continue in my work at home. With conviction.