Career Conundrums of a Stay-Home Mum

Grappling with Success, Identity and Career

By Sue-Anne Wu | 18 March 2020

The person who coined “the grass is greener on the other side” must have been a mother. When I was working, I wished for more time with my children and that every day wasn’t a mad scramble; now that I am a stay-home mum, I often wish the kids would sleep promptly at 7.30 pm and daydream about what jobs to apply for in future.

The Tipping Point

Having grown up with both parents working, my husband and I desire to be more present with our children. However, I was resistant to the idea of being a stay-home parent.

Through a mixture of meticulous organisation, life-saving grandparents and chronic sleep deprivation, we somehow managed to do our jobs while being the parents we hoped to be: We were present at our children’s milestones, fed them home-cooked meals and had time to play together.

We thought we could master the elusive work-life balance by waking up at 5 am to bake birthday cupcakes and staying up long after the children had gone to bed to work. However, our tipping point came when my mum fell ill and I found myself expecting our third child. It didn’t take much to convince me that I should stop work to be our children’s primary caregiver.

A Different Measure of Success

"What a waste of your education."

This is a refrain I believe many Singaporean stay-home mums have encountered. After all, the path to success is to study hard, get good grades, get a good degree, get a good job and earn a lot of money.

Education is merely a means to an end, that is, a well-paying job. But should success be purely measured in terms of professional achievement or the size of one’s bank account?

Psychologist Madeline Levine encourages us to embrace different measures of success: Financial independence is one way of measuring success, doing meaningful and fulfilling work is another, and raising a healthy family and contributing to one’s community could be yet another.

It takes some effort to move away from deeply entrenched ideas and form new ones and some wavering is to be expected. Nonetheless for now, my idea of success includes having the space and time to be with the children as they grow.

I realised that what I needed most was to know myself, learn to accept myself and find ways to keep growing.

Re-Discovering my Identity

I felt an acute sense of loss when I stopped work. Who am I if not my job? How would I now introduce myself? My life went from spending most of my waking hours being intellectually engaged and in the company of other adults to facing helpless children who need to be fed, cleaned and reprimanded – on repeat.

Goodbye, productivity and efficiency , churning out emails and meeting (or attempting to meet) my KPIs; hello, endless days of mundane tasks with no visible results.

I was no longer a worker; I was “just” a mother.

It’s easy to swing to the other extreme of identifying myself with one of the many factions within the parenting circle: Breast-feeding mum or bottle-feeding mum, attachment parenting mum or authoritarian mum, tiger mum versus chill mum. Or worse still, to tie my sense of self-worth to my children’s achievements, be it academic, social or imagined.

Over time, I realised that what I needed most was to know myself, learn to accept myself and find ways to keep growing.

I started to do things that I enjoyed – like reading a good novel, but also tried to challenge myself by reading non-fiction books on topics that I want to learn about – such as writing or behavioural economics.

These little hobbies gave me pleasure, and also added to my sense of well-being and fulfilment.

Growing up is not finite and as persons we do not at some point become something and that’s the end. Rather, we are constantly growing and evolving.

Creating An Alternative Career Narrative

The idea of rejoining the workforce at some point both invigorates and terrifies me. Recent news of mid-level workers being unable to find jobs is disheartening, and fears of being irrelevant and competition from younger, more agile workers are very real.

But with today’s career progression being less like a straight climb up the corporate ladder and more about opportunities for growing knowledge through multiple experiences, perhaps there is a chance that my stint as a stay-home parent would not derail my chances of a promising career.

Would I be able to convince future employers that through my time at home I have gleaned highly-desirable social skills, such as understanding others’ motivations and possessing a keen theory of mind?

Together with needful re-training and networking, I am quietly hopeful of securing a fulfilling job in future.

In her memoir "Becoming", Michelle Obama quips that the question – "What do you want to be when you grow up" – is one of the most unhelpful questions an adult can ask a child. In her words, "Because growing up is not finite. As persons we do not at some point become something and that's the end."

I have by no means figured everything out but I've learnt that it's okay to feel lost sometimes. I have also learnt to embrace the season I am in.

So I am going to enjoy the time I have with my children, knowing that my dreams of working will one day come to pass when I am slightly older, hopefully wiser and with a stronger sense of self.

Think about:

  • How can you better balance your career goals while being the parent you want to be?

Sue-Anne Wu is a nature seeker and avid reader. She manages her 5 rambunctious boys (aged 4 months, 4, 7, 9 and 39) with a healthy dose of optimism and several shots of coffee.


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