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I grew up in an old neighborhood in Cleveland along the shores of Lake Erie. It was a colorful Irish/Slovenian neighborhood that, I think, was perfect. One step outside, and there were always kids to play with! That is, if you didn’t want to play with one of your five siblings. We played outside all day and night until my dad whistled us in. We biked, swam, played tennis, board games and cards, and went ice skating and sledding in the winter.
Most of the moms in the neighborhood, including mine, were home, but many of them worked. One helped out at the family business, another was the Church secretary. Even my Grandmother worked at the family insurance agency with her husband! So there were all kinds of working women around us, but in such a tight-knit neighborhood, it seemed that someone was always looking out for you (and wasn’t afraid to yell at you if you were doing something wrong.) My main memory of my mom is that she was always there.
I didn’t have many interests. I loved to read, watch TV, play outside and be near the water. I tease my mom that, since I was the youngest of six, she didn’t have the energy left to take me to Girl Scouts! In fact, in a one-car home, if you couldn’t walk to it, you didn’t do it. So my one extracurricular activity was piano lessons because I could walk the seven blocks to my teacher’s home.
I went to an all-girls high school where I was a bright student who aimed to please. That was before there were honors classes and many sports. I didn’t know what I wanted to “be” when I grew up. I just always figured I would be a mom. I took college prep classes and loved math. I also loved typing class and art class! (In hindsight, I wished I had taken sewing classes.) I explored science and engineering and was encouraged to study chemical engineering because “women chemical engineers were in demand and earning great starting salaries.” I was starting to grow out of my shyness, enough to know that I wanted a career that would allow me to interact with people.
As I explored colleges, I also asked about pre-med programs. I thought I could study engineering and fulfill pre-med requirements. That way, I could go on to become a doctor or, perhaps, a biomedical engineer. Back in those days, we only applied to two colleges. After my acceptance letters arrived, I made the entirely impractical decision to turn down a full scholarship to a private school in Ohio to attend the University of Notre Dame. Why did I do that? Well, there was a rich tradition of Notre Dame Football in my house as my dad was a “subway” alumnus. I used to tell my mom, well before women were even admitted, that I was going to attend the school. And, then, when I visited the campus, I knew I had to attend. Notre Dame is a special place in which tradition is palpable.
Engineering was rigorous. It was junior year by the time we got into the core chemical engineering classes and I got my first C. By that time I wasn’t even sure I liked engineering! I also realized that I was not committed to the idea of studying medicine and continuing my education for seven more years. I felt that if I went to school that long that I would never be able to “give it up” when I became a mom. It’s funny how I felt so conflicted. I didn’t even have a boyfriend. I had barely dated! But deep down I felt my vocation was to be a mother. So that year, I made up my mind that I was going to have many careers in my life.
I came back to Cleveland as an engineer and as part of a corporate program which provided a Master’s Degree in engineering. No, it was still not my passion, but the training program was excellent and I was able to get the degree while working. I also had a great group of friends at work and in the city. One of those friends eventually became my husband.
My husband and I talked about our dreams and plans. I know he would have supported me if I wanted to work full-time or even part-time. But we wanted a lifestyle that would enable me to stay home with our kids. When we first were married, we lived on one paycheck, paid down our college loans and bought a house. (At that time, home loans were easy to get. Still, we didn’t listen to what our realtor said we could afford. We calculated what we could afford. There was a huge difference!) We lived under our means. I’m fortunate to have a husband who is a saver and a planner. We kept our social life simple, maintained our cars for 10+ years, painted and furnished our home simply, and didn’t have cable and cell phones. We weren’t deprived – we had plenty of lovely things and could provide for our kids. But we made decisions based on our budget. Saving, planning and discipline are key elements to success. I am grateful for all the blessings bestowed on us, including good educations and jobs. But I also know we worked hard and saved hard – hard enough to pay for our house and put our kids through private schools and, now, college.
At the time I became pregnant, I was unhappy with my job and had been looking for another job. Maybe – if I had loved my job – I would have considered going back part-time. But my job dissatisfaction made it easy to quit. Well, even though I wanted to quit, it was still hard to do! I felt like I was letting all womankind down. When our son arrived, I knew I had made the right decision. It was an overwhelming, terrifying and wonderful experience becoming a mother for the first time. Nothing prepared me for it! But like many mothers before me, I adapted to my new role.
More babies arrived – four in all. Throughout that time, I had a few “you’re wasting your education” comments. I felt pangs of guilt. I heard my engineering professor, who told my friend, “You’re wasting a spot for a boy” ringing through my head. I would read my alumni magazine and see the amazing careers of my classmates and feel a tad jealous. Years later, while back on my alma mater’s campus, I saw a beloved old chemistry professor, who is still a legend on campus. We shook hands and he asked me what I was doing. I hesitated, and then told him I was busy being a mom. And he told me it was the most important job I could be doing. I beamed. Despite those pangs of guilt, I do not feel my education was wasted. I deepened my love of learning and thirst for knowledge. I met wonderful people and had many fun and meaningful experiences.
Those early mom years were filled with new experiences, fears, and growth. When there were days filled with frustrations, my husband would remind me that I was “building cathedrals.” (Have you read that story?) I was able to connect with neighbors and other moms I met at the kid’s schools. I also discovered a love of sewing and knitting – hobbies that I had learned when I was a kid and which, now, gave me a creative outlet during naptimes.
By being home, I could help my kids experience the freedom of playing in the backyard, going to the beach, riding their bikes, and boredom. We put many miles on the strollers as we walked through the neighborhood or to the parks.
By being home, I could also be a housewife or homemaker, although I never loved those terms. I don’t love cleaning, but I do love a clean and organized house. Even though the housework falls along traditional lines, I admit that my husband has done every one of my chores, while I have yet to cut the grass! (This year I managed to use the snow blower for the first time!) He was particularly helpful during my pregnancies and when the kids were little – cleaning bathrooms, doing dishes, and grocery shopping.
Of course, as the kids got older – and especially as they entered school – people would ask “what are you going to do now? I had thought about it all these years. I wondered if I could reenter the workforce as an engineer. I thought about technical writing. I was already doing a lot of volunteer work for the kids’ school when I was asked if I would like to substitute teach. Every parent should have the opportunity to be in the classroom – to see that our kids are not the angels we think they are! I liked working with junior high kids and it was a wonderful arrangement to be at school with my own kids. The work was sporadic, but I enjoyed getting out again.
When our school closed, I found a very part-time job at a local online fabric company. I could come and go as I pleased. The owner encouraged me to open an Etsy shop with some of my sewing creations. I did so, and my business has grown since then. Having my business has enabled me to continue my love of learning. It has enabled me to explore my creativity, which had lain dormant for a long time. It allows me to work from my home. I’m thrilled that, at 51, I am entering a new career! I am glad that I made the decision – back when I was 20 years old – to have many careers in my life.
I have thought often about whether or not to pursue an outside job. My husband and I feel it is in our family’s best interest to have me home, even now that my youngest is a teenager. (Sometimes I think that this is an even more critical time to be home.) I like being home when my kids get home. I like being accessible if they are sick. I like preparing meals and having my family around the dinner table. I want to keep an eye on what they are doing. I want to “be here” if it happens to be one of the rare moments my teen decides to have a conversation.
I will also add that it is not easy working from home. I started my business in my late 40s and am working “full-time” at it now. Even with older kids, there are many distractions and interruptions.
I am grateful that we, as women today, have so many options available to us. I love the woman I have become as a mother. It didn’t happen overnight, but I am stronger, wiser, more confident and less shy.
If you feel a calling to be home, listen to your heart. Use your heart – but also your mind – when choosing a mate. Then, together, carefully, choose your path. Realize that life is a journey.