By Joelyn Betz
Sleepless nights, dirty diapers, copious amounts of other people’s body fluids, endless laundry, picky eaters, tantrums, bloody knees, broken bones, dirty dishes, carpool, and endless worry.
These are all things most people recognize as the occupational hazards of being a parent. What many people may not realize is the sacrifice and isolation that comes with choosing to be a stay at home mom.
Being a stay at home mom has been, without question, one of the greatest blessings of my life. I have grown in ways I believe I, personally, could not have done otherwise. By the age of 26, I had three children under the age of 5. I vividly remember standing at the kitchen sink one day, doing yet another load of dirty dishes, un-showered for the third day running, exhausted, kids crying in the background, and wondering where my life had gone? Earlier that day I had scraped a dozen broken eggs out of the carpet (compliments of the two-year-old) and had bathed, dressed and fed all three kids, who were now sticky and looking like they’d never been washed. I had also cleaned the house that no longer looked like I’d done a thing to it all day, thanks to my little human tornados. There had been those tender moments of parental grace that keep us all going, but I was dangling at the end of a fraying, beleaguered tether.
I glanced up from the dishes, looked out the window, and saw my neighbor in her driveway. Fifteen years older than me, also a stay at home mom, but infinitely more put together and clearly having showered more recently than I. How does she do it, I wondered? Running back and forth to PTA meetings, teenager’s sporting events, church responsibilities, caring for her elderly parents, and still juggling the day to day of one last toddler, with apparent ease and style. I stood there at the kitchen sink, looking out the window with tears streaming down my face, knowing that I could never be like my neighbor. If three little kids had reduced me to a blubbering, personal hygiene-challenged, sleepless zombie of a mom, what would teenagers and added responsibilities do to me?
I had dreamed of this. I wanted nothing more than to be a mom and be the one to stay home and raise my kids.
I fully appreciated how lucky I was to be able to afford to stay at home with my children, which compounded the guilt and frustration I felt that day, over 20 years ago, and many days after that. Home all day most days, with the only adult interaction for 8-10 hours a day being Mr. Rogers on TV. Tending to and saving the lives of three little people 24/7 and putting nearly every personal need of my own on the back burner had created deep loneliness and desperation within me. Toddlers can’t tell me I’m doing a great job, or pay me for my work. Words of affirmation, meaningful personal interaction with peers, a sense of accomplishment, monetary rewards, all things I had been used to before becoming a mom, are virtually non-existent for stay at home moms.
Later that day, so long ago, my neighbor came over to visit me. I was sitting on my back porch watching the kids play on a warm, late August day. In a moment of rare vulnerability, I confessed my awe at how she was able to manage her life and my overwhelming feelings of ineptitude. My neighbor, Jane, looked me in the eye and said, “this, right here, raising little kids who cannot care for themselves, who need constant supervision, is the hardest part of being a mom. This is as hard as it gets, and you’re doing just fine.” Though I met her words with a certain amount of incredulity, envisioning the nightmare of a teenager that I had been for my parents, her words became the balm of Gilead for me that day. Somebody who had already been in the mommy trenches thought I was doing just fine.
My days of dirty diapers, teething babies, cleaning up unspeakable messes, not being able to get through a day without my shirt being used as someone’s tissue or napkin, teaching ABCs and 123s, and surrendering my nutritional ideals for Happy Meals, didn’t last long. I raised five lovely, smart, kind, contributing citizens over the span of 30 years and those few brutally hard years of self-sacrifice, unpaid service, social isolation, and pure exhaustion shaped me and strengthened me for all the hard, wonderful things that came later. I learned the value of selfless service. I learned that a little self-care is critical to be able to give your best to others. I learned to ask for help when I need it and sometimes to seek wisdom and support from others.
I learned that comparison, whether looking out my kitchen window or on Instagram or Pinterest, is truly the “thief of joy.”
I’ve since been employed in various positions in the service and health industries, owned a couple of businesses, been a full-time student, and even had to be both mom and dad for a while. Through it all, I learned that even though it’s exhausting, messy, frustrating, and the hardest thing I’ve ever done, being a stay at home mom is and was the most valuable, rewarding, world-changing thing I will ever do in this life, and I will be forever grateful for that opportunity.