As I write this, I’m sitting at our (cluttered) kitchen table with two Maltese dogs underfoot and a homemade espresso at hand. The door to our patio is open, and I can hear the hush of morning traffic leave our neighborhood, and the occasional caw of a crow. Feeling gratitude for the coffee, and for the moments of easy solitude as I wait for Zoe to wake up.
Being a stay at home mom (SAHM to the uninitiated) wasn’t in my life plan. I grew up in a large family and finances were tight as I entered my teens. I started working on my fourteenth birthday, for spending money that would give me my first taste of financial independence. Years later, I was happy with my career at our local teaching hospital. I was a Project Manager implementing a clinical research management system, and I had come a long way from somewhat humble beginnings.
My first job was as a Hospital Aid in the NICU. I was transitioning from junior college to PSU, and was looking for a tuition break. My boyfriend’s mother was a Charge Nurse in the NICU, and suggested I put in my resume. It was a re-titled janitorial position, lots of mopping, cleaning isolettes, and restocking supply carts. But they offered tuition assistance, and I planned to work myself through college. I cross-trained at the front desk and was happy to eventually transition into cleaner work.
Next, I moved into an administrative assistant role, and after a few more years, I transferred into the IT department to work at the Help Desk. At the end of my 90 days, I took the leadworker position because no one else wanted it. It was a great, albeit stressful job that had me working with engineers on all of the university’s systems. After a few years, I interned with the Unix Department and moved into a junior level engineering job, one of my favorite roles in my tenure, to date. The position only lasted about a year, until I was bumped by a more senior employee in a round of layoffs.
I went back to the help desk for two months, and then took a position as a junior software developer on the Student Information System. During that time, I married my husband, Chad. We were excited to start a family eventually, after we spent some time as a couple, and after we were more financially secure. We enrolled in grad school and completed our MBAs in a 2-year part time program at Portland State University. Then, after 14 years in one organization, I got my dream job as a project manager to implement its first-ever clinical research management system.
I had finally arrived. I had more autonomy and responsibility than I’d ever had. I had two in house developers to oversee, plus a duplicate team at the vendor site who were to help co-author the site. It was the most stressful job I’ve ever taken, and I wanted so desperately to do a good job, that I often worked harder to meet deadlines, instead of raising red flags that we had resourcing issues or other constraints. I loved the pace and the responsibility, and I did my best to deal with the stress, because it was my first project and I felt like I had a lot to prove. The project itself suffered a number of setbacks and challenges, as I understand most do. Due to creeping customer requirements, and vendor vaporware that was slow to materialize, our 12-month implementation timeline was pushed to 18 months, and then finally to two years.
I’d been using the original 12-month schedule as a milestone for our family planning. Everything was going to fall into place perfectly. The project would go live (to critical acclaim and broad acceptance across the university) and as I basked in the glow of success, I would get pregnant and take maternity leave with the least impact to the project. But as the timelines continued to slip, my age caused me to do some soul searching. After a few months of living in limbo, Chad and I agreed that starting our family needed to come before the project.
Fortunately, I got pregnant in a few months, and it was a great motivator to reduce my stress levels at work. At home, we’d emptied our office, painted it purple, and refinished a crib and dresser set we found on craigslist. My favorite quote from Chad as we painted the nursery: “what happens if she turns two and decides she hates purple?” My answer: “we wait till she’s 14 and can hold a paintbrush, then we let her pick any color she wants.”
We also toured daycare centers, as another new parent tipped us off that we should get signed up pronto, as spots were hard to come by. There was a national corporate day care center across the street from my office, so we started our search there. We like the providers, but the center seemed a little institutional, Chad called it baby jail and recounted his horrid memories of daycare. His mom confirms that Chad complained about daycare when he was little, but she thought he was having a hard time adjusting, but one day she picked him up early and he was laying in the corner, rubbing a blanket that he’d laid over his head. She took him out of that one at that point. My mom didn’t work when I was little, and I had a lot of siblings, so it made sense that she stay at home, so I didn’t have a preconceived notion about what daycare would be like. We toured six other centers and got on a long wait list for one that we both liked, but we ended up going with the center that was across from my office for the convenience.
Zoe was born and I took 14 weeks of leave. Since I’d worked so hard in the preceding years, I was able to take paid maternity leave, and excluding the delivery, time in the hospital, lack of sleep and learning to care for a newborn, it was a luxurious 14 weeks vacation. By about 8 weeks, our schedule included breakfasts out, meet-ups with other new moms in the hospital mom’s group, and lots of Amazon shopping to outfit the nursery and me with whatever was needed.
It was also the first time I contemplated quitting my job to be a stay at home mom. Chad reminded me I wouldn’t be able to take Zoe out to breakfast every week, and realistically that we’d both have to stop eating out. We discussed what it would mean for the family to lose my income, and contrasted it with our desire to raise Zoe at home. The finances didn’t pencil out with our grad school loans and our car. I also wrestled with the fear of being financially dependent on my husband. The tie-breaker, for me, was Disneyland.
I am a conflicted fan of the mouse. While I know it is a huge money and waste generating industry, not to mention the bevy of princesses with misaligned priority who await rescue by strong handsome princes, I have such fond memories of a family trip there when I was four and numerous trips there in my twenties, that I was already fantasizing about taking Zoe when she was older. I dropped the fantasy of being a SAHM so that we could put money in retirement, pay off our debt, and take memory-building trips, e.g. to Disneyland, with Zoe. And besides the financial reasons, I was ready to model the working-woman role to my daughter.
They say that the birth of a child is one of the most stressful things that a relationship goes through. I returned to work a mere two weeks before the project launch. After go-live, though, the pace didn’t slow, and the visibility of the project increased. I juggled the needs of my family, with the needs of the organization. I had worked on asking for help in the pregnancy, but still felt I had a lot to prove on my first official project. As the work stress continually grew, I realized I had less and less mental and physical energy left for my family. Chad had been doing his best to pinch hit and stay flexible. He stopped any complaints about his job and became a sounding board for my weekly cry sessions. But he was feeling the stress of a stressed out spouse.
I sat down with a pad of paper and started penciling out our finances. What would it mean if I quit my job and we lost half our income? Car loan, two student loans, the mortgage on the duplex, not to mention our mortgage, and did I mention I’m a type 1 diabetic? How much would healthcare cost? Was there a way to make it work with just one paycheck?
Looking at our assets and our liabilities, the duplex I’d bought when I was 27 gleamed on the page. It was going to be our retirement, or Zoe’s college fund, but I was swiftly coming around to it being my ticket to a lower stress life. After some discussion, we pulled the trigger, met with a real estate agent the next day, and had listed within two weeks of our decision. If it sold at a good price, we could pay of our car and student loans, and put money in the bank. This would make our nut small enough to cover with one income, and to give us a little padding in our nest.
Despite the brainstorming and the problem solving activity, I was still on the fence about leaving my job. Not only was it financial stability for our family, and financial independence for me, it was also a big part of my ego. I was proud of how I’d worked my way up the ladder, of how long I’d worked for one organization, and of the reputation I’d established there. I wasn’t ready to leave that behind, but I also wanted options that weren’t currently open to me.
To help improve our future cash flows, we refinanced our house. We lost four years of equity to lower the monthly bill, and we decided we could make an extra payment every year to recoup the loss, if I didn’t end up quitting my job. We were getting lowball offers on the duplex that wouldn’t work for our plan. The strain of the holidays also ratcheted up my stress level and I felt increased anxiety about being financially dependent on my now stressed out husband. But the politics at work were becoming increasingly negative too.
After the New Year, I was notified that my supportive boss would be leaving in eight weeks. It hit me like a hammer. My boss was great at removing obstacles, and helping to promote good solutions. With a leadership vacuum, I was certain I would have to shoulder more project responsibilities, and I already felt I was at a breaking point.
I met with a dear friend and role model, and vented to her (e.g. cried into my sandwich) for over an hour. She suggested I have a frank talk with Chad about me quitting my job soon, and that even if we weren’t financially ready at the moment, my mental health was at stake, and that it might be worth it to live out of our savings until the duplex sold.
Let’s just say that Chad did not support this idea. After a difficult conversation about the merits of me actually quitting my job, and some less than constructive exchanges, I realized he was only responding out of fear of financial ruin. I suggested we lower our asking price for the duplex to try and generate a quicker sale, so we agreed to speak with our real estate agent, and, somewhat relieved, I started researching how to quit my job gracefully.
In our phone call with our agent, he gave us the best news. Just that week, four other agents had brought buyers through the property, and based on conversations he’d had with them, he expected to receive multiple offers at our full asking price by the weekend. With a huge sigh of relief, I started writing my resignation letter.
This was by far the most stressful period we’ve ever come through as a couple. On top of selling a piece of real estate, we were raising a toddler, and considering a huge life change. I can say that we each did the best that we could, and I am so grateful that we came through it able and willing to repair the damage that occurred over this stressful few years. This long tale ends happily. The duplex was sold after a bidding battle that gave us slightly more than our asking price, and a secured second place buyer. I gave four weeks notice to work, and focused on transitioning out with as much help to the department as I could muster.
I’ve been out of paid work for three and a half months, and I love this new life. It’s not perfect, but, I remind myself, I’m not seeking perfection. Though I fantasized about the organized, perpetually clean house I would live in once I quit my day job, I am coming to grips with the fact that I don’t want to clean house on most days. I’m placing value in doing things for myself (e.g. this blog, exercise, rehabbing old furniture) in addition to caring for home and family. I spend quality time with Zoe, observing her, challenging her to grow, challenging myself to be more patient, and I interact with her in meaningful ways every day.
As I finish writing this, I’m sitting upstairs in our office. It’s late on a Saturday night, and I can hear Zoe rolling over in her crib. So I’m here, full of gratitude for the change my life has taken. I am being a better mom to my daughter, a better wife to my husband, and a better friend to myself. This is just the start of this journey, and I’m working on being present for all of the joys but also the frustrations and sorrows that this moment can bring.