Independence and the Stay-At-Home Mother

Caught between little dependents and financial dependence

Becoming a mother is a defining experience. In less than a year a woman's body is transformed by pregnancy, her limits are tested by labor and she is overwhelmed by the all-encompassing love she feels for her child.

In the midst of this turmoil, a woman must make a decision that will have a profound impact on her baby, her partner and her own sense of self: Should she return to work or stay home?

The ways that a woman interprets and values personal and financial freedom influence her choice. As Jacqui, an environmental scientist who worked in Burnaby, Canada, before her two children were born, points out, the stay-at-home mother is in the position of having to "build a whole new life. She has to find new friends, establish a new routine, negotiate a new intimate relationship and financial life with her partner." This act of recreating herself often forces her to closely examine her beliefs about independence.

Losing financial autonomy

"As I was growing up, my father jokingly referred to my mother, my brother and me as parasites who were living off him," confides Julia*, a Yale graduate who worked as a Client Service Coordinator for the government in Vancouver Canada before her daughter was born. "I learned at a very early age that the most important thing is to be independent and to pull my own weight economically."

When she began contemplating becoming a stay-at-home mother, she found the thought of relying on someone else "terrifying." Her feelings had nothing to do with her husband, who she loves and trusts, but everything to do with the situation itself.

For the first time in her life since she was ten years old Julia does not have a bank account. It didn't make sense to maintain a separate account and pay bank charges on it when she doesn't have a job. But when she found she couldn't write any checks for such basic things as groceries, she asked her husband to order some checks printed with her name. When they arrived she was listed in bold black type as Mrs. Julia Hampton.

"I was mortified," she says. "For that brief moment it seemed as if I was not a person in my own right, but had been reduced to a 'Mrs.' Having no income made me question who I was."

She has money squirreled away in a money market account and a "secret" VISA that she never uses. Just having that credit card makes her feel better. She often feels as if she "is on a leash about the day-to-day expenses and having the VISA means that if I ever saw something I wanted to buy, I could without having to have a big discussion about it with my husband."

Jacqui also has her own credit cards. She uses them to maintain her credit rating and she kept her personal bank account because she needed to feel that she had freedom financially. She saves receipts for all of her expenses and her partner pays her back at the end of the month.

Working at home

Many mothers are becoming entrepreneurs and are running businesses from their homes while they care for their children. Starting her own web design business helped Heidi, a mother of five in South Carolina who once worked as a research assistant in a chemical research laboratory, maintain her financial independence. She is "just starting to make a bit of money, but it is nice to have a little to spend without feeling guilty that I'm using money the family needs for something else."

Most women find that they have to make lifestyle changes to adjust to being a one-income family but these alterations are not necessarily viewed as restrictive. Christine, a former bank teller in Pennsylvania with three children, believes she has "more freedom from the demands to have what the Joneses have. I don't feel we have to live up to a certain standard [we can only achieve] by working two jobs. It was an adjustment at first but now we are used to finding ways to save or not to spend too much. It makes us creative and we love to do things together as a family like going to museums, parks, have picnics or play board games. We even cook together at times and just enjoy one another more."

Living after your own nature

The issue of personal autonomy is, in some ways, an even more complicated subject. "I don't have to clock in to a 9-5 job every day or wait until a certain time each day to be with my children. I also have the freedom to spend time with my husband on his days off, which fluctuate because of shift work, and I don't have to worry that I have to work on his days off. I can be spontaneous throughout the week, going to the park and library when it suits me and not having to deal with crowds at the supermarket on payday or Saturday. I don't have to make my kids wait to be with me or to tell me how their day went. And I don't have to worry about missing work if they are sick and upset my boss, because I am the boss at home," says Christine with a smile.

Heidi feels that she has less independence: "I cannot just hop in the car and go when I want. When I do want to go out, I have to make arrangements for the children and this has to be worked in to someone else's schedule. I find it stressful because I tend to be a creative person who works well in large chunks of quiet time, which I don't get, but most of the time, that's OK. I feel pretty good about it and find it rewarding to watch my children grow and learn. Sometimes, when things have been unusually stressful, I get resentful of having all the demands on me with no time for myself."

Personal liberty is such a subjective topic that each woman interprets it differently, in a way that is unique to her. Julia believes that in most ways she has more freedom as a stay-at-home mother. "Nothing throttles independence like a corporate job and the feeling of being a rat in a maze. I think it would be neat if I could get on a plane and go to New York, do small negligible things. But I'm not in my twenties anymore, when you need those wild lashes into freedom. The restrictions would only be a problem if they went on and on, until I was 45 or 50."

Thoreau wrote that independence is "the ability to live after your own nature." Motherhood asks new questions of a woman, tests her beliefs and values and, by doing so, offers her the opportunity to know herself more completely. How she views the issue of independence while she cares for her children at home is determined by her individual temperament, personality and spirit.

* Name has been changed.

Cathy Allison is a freelance writer and fulltime mother who lives in Vancouver, BC.