So you leaned out—not in. Now what?
For some time now, you’ve been a full-time mom—A.K.A. a cooking, errand-running, laundry-doing, schedule-making, care-taking, house-yard-and-pet-managing chauffeur. Or maybe you’ve been a mostly-full-time mom, working part-time like I have, arranging your work schedule around your kids, knowing yours is a second income, and sometimes a wash when you factor in expenses like childcare. How often have you looked at back wistfully at your pre-kid life, when you put on nice shoes, skirts and blazers every day for work, when your hair was coiffed, when you had fast-paced, intelligent discussions with other adults, when you went to the gym on your own schedule, and met your spouse for dinner after work without worrying about a sitter? Of course, back then, all you wanted was a baby. You got one—or two or more—and the subsequent years have been the most fulfilling imaginable. You wouldn’t trade a single day.
Also, you’re thankful to have been in a position to “lean-out” in the first place. Not everyone gets such a choice. You’re grateful to have a spouse whose income supports the family, grateful to be able to devote yourself to parenting.
Still, some part of you looks back on your full-time-work days, thinking what a great deal you had. You knew exactly what your purpose was, who you were. Your nose may have been to the grindstone, but that was what it took to compete in the “real world.” And now, every weekday morning, looking out of your kitchen window, you can see your leaning-in neighbor—in her suit and smart haircut—dashing, briefcase in hand, for her train to that same “real world.” There she goes, you think. She’s still in the running, still excelling. Fully competent, responsible for her family’s economic well-being, dependent on no one. Her children look up to her. They miss her when she travels, are still excited when she comes home. With a queasy mix of guilt and jealousy, you think, there but for my own choices go I.
And where did you go, exactly? Besides the pediatrician’s, the barber’s, the Tae kwon do studio, the PTA executive board meetings, the grocery store, the playground, Petco and Home Depot? Besides driving to two thousand piano lessons, three thousand dance classes, four thousand soccer practices and thirty thousand playdates? Sometimes it feels like the self you once had got submerged under all those obligations, crushed under the tires of your own SUV. I used to be competent, you think. I used to get respect. But the fact is, the daily endeavors of full-or-mostly-full-time mothers frequently go unnoticed and unapplauded because they are a given.
You and I know that supporting the status-quo of a family takes enormous effort and stamina. But if you do it right, no one else notices. It’s a mother’s job to render him or herself obsolete, right? Bit by bit, you’re supposed to do less and less for your children, so that gradually they learn to master their own lives and become happy, self-assured people who can care for themselves. That’s the challenge of being a full-or-mostly-full-time mom. If they don’t need you to do everything for them anymore—if you’ve achieved your goal of obsolescence—then who the heck are you?
I remember pushing my daughter’s stroller through our Brooklyn neighborhood, later pushing my son’s through our New Jersey suburb, thinking Now I am complete. Now I am fully me. I had wanted to be a mother so badly, for so long—after working in schools and adoption agencies for seven years—I felt actualized at last. Most of my leaning-out friends feel the same way.
Now, however, our kids are big, at least bigger than they were. We still drive them some places, but they walk to soccer practice and no longer need us to make playdates for them. We have no hand in their social lives whatsoever. As they race out the door, heading to school (without us taking them there), we shout after them that they must text to keep us apprised of their after school plans.
Then they’re gone. And here we are. Ready for something else to make us complete. What will it be? You’re a different you than you were before you had kids. You can’t go back, so what does forward look like?
Some moms look at what they used to do and combine it with the life experience they’ve gained over their parenting years. For example, a former neighbor whose child had verbal delays went back to school to become a speech-language pathologist after spending years immersed in that discipline. Another mom I know followed her passion for fashion and is now an executive for a clothing company. Still another mom—a former attorney who has spent several years advocating for her special-needs child, demanding services that the school district was slow to provide—is considering a run for office.
It might seem like a luxury to take stock and branch out like this. In most cases it does require significant resources. But some of my mom friends, suddenly under pressure to support themselves and their children following a divorce or job loss on the part of their partners, have done it out of necessity, scraping together help and support from friends and family.
A single mom whose ex is much less of a financial support than he could be, took out loans for a degree in social work. Through connections, she landed her dream job while still in the MSW program. Now that she has her license, her career is moving in a direction she’s happy with.
Another mom turned her parenting blog—begun when she was pregnant with her second child, chasing the first around a playground—into a parent coaching business. Another blogger and mom-friend began researching her ancestry, blogged her efforts, and has transformed her life in the process. She has written a book and given lectures on her family’s remarkable history and the process of her search. (You can read her amazing blog here.)
These women looked at what they knew, combined it with who they were and what they loved. Each added some research and a little elbow grease and gave herself a second act in the work force. On her own terms.
What would it look like if you filled out this home questionnaire:
What did I do before I was a Mom?
What kind of paid and unpaid work have I done since becoming a mom?
What else have I done that might look nifty on a resume? (e.g. PTA treasurer, Local Soup Kitchen Volunteer Coordinator, or—in my case, choreographer of elementary school musicals.)
What have I learned about myself since becoming a Mom?
What skills and interests have I discovered?
What are my Passions?
When you’re done, look to see if there is any overlap among the categories. If so, is there a field out there that might combine your special mix of skills and passions? If not, is there one thing on your list that jumps out at you, begging for exploration? Once you cast your net wide—looking at all possibilities—the next step is to focus. Pick something, zero in and deepen.
To be honest, I didn’t “lean” in or out specifically. Instead, I’ve “leaned” a whole bunch of different directions. I’ve been a dancer, a choreographer, a teacher, a writer and a clinical social worker/psychotherapist. Instead of doing so many different things, I could have gotten farther in each by “zeroing in” more. For every field I’ve sampled, there’s an alternate reality I can picture where I’ve focused all my professional energy on that one thing—writing, psychotherapy, ballet—and achieved a higher level success. My fellow social work trainees at the Ackerman Institute are now faculty members who have published papers on their specialty areas of family therapy. Those I started out with in the corps of various ballet companies are now renowned ballet teachers and choreographers. n particular, a fellow classmate from the first and only creative writing course I took in college, is now a literary household name. Jodi Picoult.
As for me, I’m a psychotherapist with a private practice I keep manageable enough that I have time to write, be available to my children, and teach ballet (a new development I’ve added to my plate). Or I’m a writer who’s a licensed psychotherapist and ballet teacher. Or a ballet teacher who … you get the idea. It’s working for me. Though I’ll admit, it would be nice to have a simple answer when someone asks what I do, there’s no part of my mix-n-match career that I would give up.
It’s an amazing thing to put together the pieces of you and—with equal parts focus, patience and effort—begin a journey to the next phase of your career. You’re doing it for yourself, but you’re also modeling something invaluable for your children.