COVER

A FEMINIST STAYS HOME

'I liked going back to work. But I also missed Jacob.'

March 1 1999
COVER

A FEMINIST STAYS HOME

'I liked going back to work. But I also missed Jacob.'

March 1 1999

A FEMINIST STAYS HOME

'I liked going back to work. But I also missed Jacob.'

Mary Nemeth came to work for Maclean’s in November, 1988. She rose quickly through the ranks, from assistant editor to associate editor to senior writer and, finally, to Calgary bureau chief. When her son, Jacob, was born in March, 1997, she took a one-year maternity leave. But three months after returning to work on a part-time basis, Nemeth, now 36, decided instead to become a stay-at-home mother. Her report from the home front:

I was shaking when I made the fateful call that would knee-cap my journalism career. And I was still numb late that afternoon last spring as I made my way home through the drizzling rain. Then I stepped through the door and Jacob beamed and reached his little arms towards me. We stepped outside onto the back porch and danced around and around, Jacob giggling as the rain splattered on his cherub face. I was as happy as I have ever been. I couldn’t even remember why the decision to quit my job had been so agonizing. It seemed so right—for my family, I hope, but also for me.

I am a stay-at-home mom of a nearly two-year-old toddler. I am also a feminist. And I think my decision surprised many who knew me. I was even vaguely embarrassed when I called to tell my colleagues, as if they might label me a fraud who had only masqueraded as driven and ambitious. (They turned out to be unfailingly supportive.)

To be honest, I had expected to enjoy motherhood.

But I also had an excellent, well-paying job. I covered peacekeeping operations in Somalia and the Olympics in Atlanta. I was in the swim of current events. I liked going back to work. But I also missed Jacob terribly. Our home life became hectic. And I started to feel as though special moments were flying by, escaping into eternity, and I could never get them back.

I should add that I have a sweet, decent husband (he works as an estimator for a general contractor) who would never suggest that I have any less say in family decisions just because I stopped earning a salary. Yet I am uncomfortable being dependent on him. I want to be self-reliant. I do not want to burden him with the full weight of supporting our family.

I can certainly understand why many mothers of young children continue to work outside the home. I have friends who have fulfilling, productive jobs and also have charming, happy children. They want the best for their kids at least as much as I do for Jacob. But I do fervently believe that families should be able to choose to have one parent stay at home—and that choice is very often not possible, or at least not realistic. The women’s movement has traditionally lobbied for good subsidized child care. And that is still vital. But to the extent that feminism is about giving women choices, the movement should be fighting just as vociferously for tax reforms that would benefit stay-at-home parents.

My family is fortunate. We can make do on one salary with some lifestyle adjustments, but no significant hardship. I know couples who have tried, but simply could not make ends meet According to the Vanier Institute of the Family in Ottawa, seven out of 10 couples raising children now have two incomes compared with three out of 10 three decades ago.

A parent pays a long-term price for interrupting a career. I don’t know yet what my decision will cost me. I know a teacher who is on

her third year’s leave of absence. But most of the stay-at-home moms I know have no guaranteed job to go back to. I can understand why most companies would not, could not, promise to hold a position open indefinitely. Frankly, an obligation to do so would just discourage them from hiring women.

I was 34 when I had Jacob. After nearly a dozen working years, I am gambling that I have enough of a track record to land a job some day comparable to the one I left. It helps that I can write an occasional freelance article and that journalism is a fairly progressive field. But the demand for reporters ebbs and flows. Whatever work I do find, I can’t help wonder whether there will forever be an invisible asterisk beside my name—“former housewife, commitment to her job now suspect.”

In the end, I decided the benefits outweighed the risks. I love my little boy. And I love the time I have with him. There are days when we are out of sync, when I feel I’m saying “No” a million times and I think I really should be better at this parenting thing. But there are many more times when I am struck by how lucky I am—like the other day when Jacob discovered with great glee that his shadow will dance if he dances, too, or those tender moments after a nap when I cradle my grumpy little boy in my arms as he slowly emerges from sleep. We go for walks these days and collect rocks and hang out at the playground or the zoo. We paint and draw and bang pots with wooden spoons, and I can understand most of his half-articulated words because I am around when he learns them.

I am sure Jacob would have been fine had I kept working. And yet this is my chosen path and so I would like to think that it will make a difference in his life—that it will help him, if only in small measure, to grow to be a happy, secure, responsible man. Of course, I am staying home for my sake as much as his, for the sheer joy of watching him bloom. Surely every family should at least have the opportunity to tend its own garden. □