Jessica remembers the first day she went back to work after having her son Jeremiah. "It was my birthday," she says, "and he was 3 months old. When I dropped him off at the day care center we had found for him, he had a dirty diaper and was screaming.
"I tried to explain to the girls working there that he needed to be changed. I sat him down on the floor and put his car seat in the other room. When I came back, he was still on the floor, screaming. I went to the car and bawled. Then I called my husband, Jim, and said that we could not do this to our baby."
Jessica faced every mommy's worst return-to-work nightmare that day. She admits that she didn't put a lot of thought into her decision to go back to work. "I went back because it was what I knew," she says. After her unnerving day care experience, she found a woman through a moms' group at church who was willing to watch Jeremiah along with her own three daughters.
When Jessica gave birth to a second son, Josiah, two years later, she and her husband felt the timing was right for her to stay home. But she got more than she bargained for. "Staying home with the boys was a huge challenge for me," she says.
With a demanding infant and a busy toddler in need of stimulating activities, Jessica says, she felt frustrated and missed working. "Jim actually told me that he thought I had more energy for the boys when I was working," she says, "because I would focus on them when I was with them."
When a new job opportunity came up, Jessica returned to work, arranging a baby-sitting/day care combo for her children's care.
Denise says her views on being a working mom were formed, in part, by her own mother, who stayed home from the time Denise was very young.
(It is interesting to note, that one's own situation growing up can play a big part in one's expectations on this topic. Men and women who had stay-at-home-moms are more likely to assume their family will be the same. Likewise, individuals who had working moms may see it as completely normal and reasonable for the mom to return to work.)
Denise always assumed she'd be a stay-at-home mom like her own mother. She even chose a career in public relations – a job she knew she could freelance – with her future goal of being a wife and mother in mind. Then came grad school. "It was a tough choice," she says. "I really wanted to do it. I'm a super nerd – I love school. But I didn't want to incur the debt." Still, with no boyfriend on the horizon, "I figured marriage wasn't a guarantee, so I took the plunge."
Denise also hoped the degree would help her excel to a place in her career field where she would be allowed flexibility if she became a wife and mom in the future. "I gave it my all during the early days of my career," she says. "I worked insane hours, honing my craft and working hard to be good."
Five years ago, when Denise married Andrew, he had been working at a profitable home contractor business in a different state. "We bought a fixer-upper that was in almost uninhabitable condition, so it was a full-time job for him to fix it," she says. Each day, Denise went to her job at a large nonprofit organization, and Andrew stayed home and fixed the house. "That was fine because we were childless."
When the couple did become pregnant, Denise was able to work out a flexible schedule with her workplace.
"My daughter rocked my world," she says. "I was completely enthralled by her and dreaded going back to work. My job and career, which had previously consumed such a huge part of me, suddenly didn't matter when I compared it to my baby."
Though she longed to stay home with her baby, doing so just wasn't an option: "I was the one with a steady job and health benefits."
Denise shed tears on her first day back, but she tried to settle into the "new normal." Then, when her daughter was 3 months old, she unexpectedly became pregnant with her son.
Denise and Andrew worked out an arrangement where the kids would always be at home with at least one parent. Andrew continues to take contracting jobs as he can and watch the kids when Denise is at the office.
"I went into motherhood thinking that being a stay-at-home mom is a better thing for the family, so I've wrestled with mommy guilt," she says. "I'm not the mom I'd like to be. I can't cook the meals I'd like and keep the house as clean as I'd like. It's forced me to depend on God more – the kids won't turn out well solely because of me, but because of Him."
Denise feels one major positive of her family's arrangement is the teamwork style of parenting she and Andrew have developed. "There is an intense sense of partnership that I don't think we would have without struggling our way to it," she says.