My brain was screaming. I wanted something else to work on other than diapers and Brittainy's feeding schedule, but here I was, a stay-at-home mom with a brand-new baby. My days ran together in a seemingly endless staccato of breast feeding, naps, and attacking the frustrating messes of a busy four-year-old big brother. What in the world was I doing? I was a smart woman whose brain had turned into a foggy mush. I was lonely and isolated. I was bored—and a little scared.
My choice to leave my full-time teaching job didn't make any sense on paper. My husband, Geoff, was serving as youth pastor at our church, a position that begged for a second income to supplement our monthly budget shortfall. Our balance sheet just didn't balance. Every month the bills outweighed the income, and here I was, fully capable of earning a steady salary, but I wasn't.
Somehow being a stay-at-home mom felt lazy, like I wasn't doing my share. And I dreaded the question that always came when we met new people: Sherry, what do you do? I wasn't sure if my answer of stay-at-home mom was the complete picture. Really, what I did was worry. I worried about money. I worried there wouldn't be a place for me when I tried to return to the classroom. I worried that I was becoming dull. I worried that the transmission on our car would give out just when we couldn't afford a car repair bill.
Geoff sensed my angst and called a family meeting. We talked about what we really wanted, and we looked at the bigger picture. What kind of life did we dream of for our family? What did we want for us as a married couple? Life was tough with a lot more dreams than cash, but we talked about the power of choice and how the economy didn't have to dictate our response. As mom and dad, the power of choosing less stuff in return for a little more sanity in our day was in our hands. We got to choose, and as materially poor as our life might have seemed to others, it was ours to build.
Calculating my self-worth
But my worry went beyond money. What about me? I have to admit that even asking this question made me feel uneasy. Did I have the right to think about myself and my career now that I was a mom? Did the fact that I quit my teaching job mean that from now on I was a bottom-wiping, bottle-washing housekeeper who had nothing interesting to talk about?
In my head, I had now constructed a different balance sheet that didn't calculate dollars but tabulated personal worth, reflecting the internal war that raged in my heart and my head. I had been given the gift of children. Shouldn't I spend every minute investing in them without a thought of what it might mean to me as a person? But was being a mom the totality of what I was called to be? Was I being foolish to step away from the teaching position that I knew God had called me to?
Looking back on my uneasiness makes me now wonder why I wasted so much time worrying. God knows me. He made me. In Psalm 139 he assures me that he's the one who knit me together thread by thread. It was he who gave me the drive to work and he also who gave me my beautiful, amazing kids. Was God big enough to help me make sense of how both of these could work together?
As I began to get comfortable in the skin of a stay-at-home mom, I began to see the beauty of this choice for this time, this season. It didn't mean I'd lost the ability to have an intelligent conversation with another adult. It didn't mean I had turned my back on my calling to teach. It simply meant I had the freedom to choose, and I didn't let fear or what others thought I should do drive me. Geoff and I chose what was best for us and only us.
The shoulds that shame us
The questions others threw my way were confusing and polarizing, and I faced a lot of shoulds. Was I anxious to get back to work? Was I dreading the day when I'd have to go back? I was told I should keep in touch with my teaching network so they wouldn't forget me. I was warned that we should consider downsizing our lifestyle even further so I would never need to work again. I felt shoulded to death.
I began to make a mental list of my own shoulds. We should trust and support each other to make the right decision for our own families, even if it isn't the same one we would make. We should stop pulling the "God card" and shaming others into doing what we did just because it worked for us. We should encourage the single mom, who maybe doesn't have the same freedom to choose as we do. We should pray for each other and offer to babysit and help a busy mom with errands and keep all of our other shoulds to ourselves.
I made it through my stay-at-home days with a mixture of trying to stop the days from zipping by so fast and also wondering if I would ever be able to look at a potty chair without shuddering. Some days it was fun. Other days it was discouraging, especially when I saw other two-income families buying new cars and houses and going on fun vacations. A few days made me want to run screaming from the room, but most days were full of wonder as I watched my children become the incredibly talented and unique people that God designed them to be.
After a time, I did choose to go back to work, amid a flurry of shouldn'ts. For me, it has brought clarity to the things I know for sure. Being a mom takes courage. There will be days you will have to face things that seem impossible and situations that seem to have no answer. You will have to make decisions that make you feel unsure and insecure and you won't always have a team of cheerleaders on your side. You will need to trust the intelligence that God gave you and trust that he truly does answer when you call. You will need others who know how to pray and support you, and you will need to ask for help. But you can do it. You're a mom.
Sherry Surratt is the CEO and President of MOPS International, and a featured contributor for Today's Christian Woman. She and her pastor husband, Geoff Surratt, reside in Colorado, and are parents of two adult children, Mike and Brittainy, and the proud grandparents of Maggie Claire and Mollie Rose. Connect with Sherry on Twitter @SherrySurratt.