“The oldest story in the world: I followed a boy”
This week I meet Maud, who left her native Dublin at the age of 29 and a half to live with her boyfriend in America, just for a few years. Almost eleven years, one wedding, and two children later, she’s still there. She describes herself as an editor by calling, but lately has taken to blogging so much that she might just like to be called a writer. Since her first child was born, she has shunned the corporate world in favour of baking muffins, making endless cups of tea, and telling her children that no, they can’t play on her computer. She currently lives in a leafy Maryland suburb of Washington, DC.
She blogs at Awfully Chipper – one of my favourite blogs of all time.
“I complain about my kids just as much as everyone else, and make just as many (or more) not-really-joking jokes about getting out of the house on my own” was one of Maud’s responses about staying at home, but the good news (for her kids!), is that when I asked her if she ever misses working outside the home, she replied “pretty much never”
Thank you Maud for taking part in this interview for Office Mum – so could you tell me about your family?
My children are a seven-and-a-half-year-old boy and a just-turned-five girl. Their blog names are Dash and Mabel. Their real names are not.
And now could you tell me a little about how you ended up living in the States?
The oldest story in the world: I followed a boy. My now-husband and I met at UCD. He did a master’s and worked in Dublin for a year or so, and then moved to the US to pursue a doctorate. We broke up but stayed in touch, had a long-drawn-out back-and-forth angst-ridden relationship/not-relationship for five years, and finally I was lucky enough to win a visa in the green-card lottery. I was made redundant from my IT-sector job in Dublin at just the right time, and in January 2003 I happily moved to the US, “just for a few years.”
And what did you work at when you first moved over there?
The first job I got was a temping job that turned into a permanent one. It was as a receptionist/secretary/PA in a small division of the Engineering Department in PennStateUniversity, which is located in a rural part of central Pennsylvania so otherwise tiny that the town itself is called State College.
After 18 months there, my boyfriend graduated with his PhD and we moved to southmost Texas for his first post-doc position. (We also got married. It was a busy summer.) I landed myself a job in the small university he was going to before we even got there, as a technical writer in the Department of Environmental Health and Safety. This was a bit closer to my chosen profession of copy editor, since in practice the writing was mostly rewriting and restructuring existing manuals.
If you had stayed there after having children, would you have had the flexibility to work from home or work part-time – was it family friendly?
While in theory American businesses are very unfriendly and inflexible to parental needs, in practice I would probably have been able to mould my job to fit my needs if we had been staying in south Texas. My boss said I could bring the baby in with me (though I couldn’t see that working out at all in practice; he wasn’t the sort of baby who would just hang out happily in his carseat under a desk). My boss’s boss even called me after a few weeks and asked if I’d consider working part-time in any capacity, but I declined. I had drawn a line under that job in my mind and was moving on.
When did you decide that you weren’t going back to work?
I had always known that I wanted to stay at home with my children if it was at all possible, at least for the first while, and assuming I didn’t find I was going nuts with the isolation. In the event the decision was an easy one to make because our two years in Texas were up and we were planning to move back north four months after the baby was born. I had no formal maternity leave, because in the US there is none; but I had paid in to a short-term health insurance plan and was entitled to four weeks’ benefit (it would have been six if I’d had a C-section). They also have to keep your job open for you for six weeks under the FMLA (Family and Medical Leave Act), but they don’t have to pay you anything while they do that.
Do you ever miss working outside the home?
Pretty much never, I have to admit. I suppose I miss having my own income, but I soon adjusted to spending “my husband’s money” without qualms. Because I left my last job behind when we moved, there was never any option of returning to a known quantity; finding a new position from scratch, in a totally new city (we live outside Washington DC now) would have been a much harder proposition. Also, I had left a job, not a career. Besides that, I did find that being a mum came pretty naturally to me. I know it’s an unfashionable thing to admit, but having kids was basically the one thing I’d always known I wanted to do, and it had been a longish time coming. (I was 32 when I had my first.) I am hugely appreciative of the fact that not everyone gets to make this choice, even if they want to – I’m lucky to be able to do this.
Tell me the good stuff – what’s great when you stay at home with your kids?
Don’t get the idea that I’m some sort of amazing crafting, baking-with-my-kids, homeschooling Mormon type. (Sorry, that’s an American joke.) I complain about my kids just as much as everyone else, and make just as many (or more) not-really-joking jokes about getting out of the house on my own. I do get to wander round the shops or do the grocery shopping on a weekday morning when they’re nice and empty, though for the first five years or so I always had at least one little helper with me at the time, which makes it less relaxing. I was able to breastfeed my babies for as long as they wanted, which was very important to me. I didn’t have to worry about pumping milk for when I was at work. So often weaning from the breast goes hand-in-hand with returning to work, and I was happy that wasn’t an issue for me.
I love being here when the big one gets home from school, and letting my little one have plenty of time to just play on her own at home in the afternoons (she’s only in school in the mornings until next year) in a way that she wouldn’t if she were in daycare. (She’s an introvert. She needs her alone time.) But the best thing, and the thing that has probably kept me sane for the past seven years, is what I call my village – the community of other stay-at-home and part-time mums (and dads) who I’ve met in my neighbourhood. There are a lot of parent-and-baby activities locally, and since they were little my kids have had music and baby gym and storytime at the library and Wednesdays at the playground, and all those activities basically turned into me meeting my friends, the other parents.
The other thing is simply the knowledge that I was able to be at home with my babies in those years that go so quickly and you never get back. The minutes went slowly, and I might not have done the best things I could have with every moment, but on the whole I’m glad I was able to be there. I feel that we built a good foundation. (Besides, I’m a control freak. I like to do things myself.)
Do you feel that society judges stay-at-home mothers? And does it differ between the US and Ireland? Does society judge working mothers?
You know, I think I live in a bubble. I don’t really notice what Society does. My friends and I, who are mostly parents of small children, are all just doing what works for us, what we can do, and what is the best thing for our families. We’re too busy yelling at our kids and pushing people on swings and telling each other stories about the latest disgusting thing that happened to worry about judging.
Do you think it’s easier or more difficult to choose to stay at home in the States, compared with Ireland?
I’ve been surprised by the number of SAHMs (and SAHDs) I know here. I think the recession and in particular the housing situation in Ireland has saddled many couples with a mortgage that means they both have to continue working even if one would have liked to stop. People here think house prices are very high, but compared to Dublin they’re pretty reasonable. There are pockets of very high prices, of course, mostly where the “best” schools are located, but in general you can buy a house in a reasonably “good” area for much less than you can/could in Ireland in recent years. Due to the short or total lack of maternity leave, mothers who breastfeed and return to work here accept that they will pump (express) milk, and by law they should be provided with a place to do so. In practice, I think that’s not always the case.
I think Ireland has more family-friendly policies for part-time work or job-sharing. Health insurance is always a huge issue for families here – if one parent has a job that comes with health insurance, the other can work out a solution that may involve contracting, part-time, or flexible hours – but insurance is paramount because it’s terribly – usually prohibitively – expensive to pay for it when it doesn’t come with your job. The new Affordable Healthcare Act (Obamacare) should change this to some extent.
Do you think there’s an optimal solution out there – a perfect balance that enables a mother to have a fulfilling career while being there for her children?
Yes, though in this country it involves having a partner who has a full-time job that comes with insurance. But I have seen mothers with school-age children start working at things they love, that suit them, that they can work around their family life very successfully – yoga teaching, photography, giving children’s art and music classes, making jewellery – many creative pursuits that are very fulfilling, give back to the community, and also turn a profit (maybe). That’s what I aspire to. But “being there for her children” isn’t always just about spending time at home: I know many mums who work full-time, more “corporate”, jobs and who are great mums not just in spite of but probably because of it. It’s all about figuring out what’s right for the whole family. Motherhood doesn’t mean sublimating your personality and needs for the sake of everyone else.
Would you like to go back to working outside the home at some point in the future?
At this point I have to say that I’d rather not. That is, I do want to work (for money), but I want to do it from home. The idea of spending all that unproductive time in traffic or on public transport, and even the time that’s spent at work but not actually working, sounds terribly wasteful to me now. From a simply economic perspective, I have a short window of time when my kids are at school, and I want to maximise my use of it.
If you could do any job, what would it be?
Right now, I do some freelance copy editing, and I blog (which is a creative outlet but doesn’t generate any revenue). Next year I’ll have more time because both my kids will be in school from 9 to 3 every day. I would like to get some more freelancing, as editing is something I can do well and confidently. My secret ambition is to be a fiction writer, and I want to seriously do more of that in the coming year – but it’s a gamble, of course, and might not turn into any sort of paycheque. The idea of writing at home while my kids are at school all day is currently my nirvana. As time goes on I might crave the socialisation of an office environment, but having had this time at home I’m loathe to go back to the rat race.
Do you think there’s a glass ceiling for women, or is it a perception based on the fact that mothers often look for flexibility or part-time hours which in turn limits their opportunities?
Ireland has had two female presidents; the USA has not yet had one. Though it’s a different role (Ireland has yet to have a female Taoiseach, after all), I think that in a nutshell shows that the glass ceiling is actually tougher in the US. I never had a male boss until I moved to the US, where I never had a female one. I know several stay-at-home dads here, and several same-sex couples with children. Making assumptions about whether someone might want to stay home with the baby and who that person will be is outdated, but it certainly continues to happen – and that’s what makes the glass ceiling.
Do you have any advice for a mother considering leaving work to stay at home with her children?
Find your village. It’s vital. Get out in the community and get involved in local activities for babies and small children, join playgroups and host playdates and do whatever it takes to build a support system for yourself in your new role. The other parents are your co-workers, and you get to choose them. Make your village a good one, without judgement and with similar parenting values. Your village might have to be on the Internet at first, but it’s out there if you look.
Secondly, use this time when you’re choosing to step out of the hamster wheel of career to think about what you really want to be when you grow up. When you’re working, it’s so easy to feel that this progression from entry-level to middle-management to whatever’s next is the only thing you can do – and the idea of diverging from that path is terrifying. But when you’ve been out of it for a while you have the luxury of taking a breath and looking around to see how many other ways there are in the world to earn a living and do what you want to be doing at the same time.
Any other comments?
Thanks for letting me waffle on for so long. I remarked to my husband that I apparently I love writing about myself. He suggested that I should get a blog. 🙂
Maud, I’m so delighted that you agreed to do this interview – it’s so interesting to read about life in States and how it compares with here. I love what you said about finding your village – it’s definitely something that’s applicable here as well as there. And something that many first time mothers don’t realize – often because it’s so hard to get organized to go out anywhere, and because it’s difficult to see the value without having tried it. I wish you every success in your writing goals, and in the meantime, lucky us who get to read about your life every week in Awfully Chipper.