The Existential Crisis of the Wait-at-Home Mom

The first generation of Philly women who “opted out” in order to stay home with their kids is now ready for what’s next. Trouble is, opting back in can be pretty scary when you aren’t even sure who you are anymore

THEIR KIDS ARE in school. Their husbands are at work. It’s 10 o’clock on a Friday morning, and these women have nothing they need to do.

[sidebar]Sure, they could be playing tennis. Or organizing the silent auction for the Lower Merion High fund-raiser. Or calling their friends to meet them in a few hours for lunch at Du Jour in Haverford. They aren’t, though.

They’re doing yoga.

But this isn’t their mamas’ yoga. This is serious, sweating, handstanding yoga. This is guy-playing-the-drums-and-­chanting yoga. And the nine women — most in their late 40s — practicing at Jai Yoga on Montgomery Avenue in Narberth aren’t resting in child’s pose. No, they’re bending and twisting and inhaling deep into their abdomens, trying to quiet their troubled minds as they face the front of the dimly lit, caramel-colored studio where two red, glowing Buddhas hang on the wall, staring back at them.

It’s no surprise that they’re thin and coiffed and pedicured, or that they’re sporting ginormous diamond rings, and outfits by the high-end line Beyond Yoga (with its odd but appropriate slogan “I Am Beyond”) that they probably purchased in the boutique downstairs, along with their VitaminWater. Many of them are, after all, stay-at-home-moms on the Main Line, and have been for the past 10 years. Or 15 years. Or 20 years.

They haven’t always been stay-at-home moms, though. They used to be career women, with big degrees and big-paying jobs, 120 percent committed and on their way up. But when kids came along, they decided to give it all up to stay home and raise their families, 120 percent committed to that. Now the kids are pretty much raised, and these women are the only members of their families who are really at home anymore. They’ve become, instead, wait-at-home moms — waiting for the kids to come back from school or soccer practice or their friends’ houses, waiting to cook dinner, waiting to help with college applications, waiting to remind them it’s time to go to bed. Waiting, in essence, to be useful.

They knew this moment was coming — they just didn’t expect it to be such a blow. In fact, a lot of them were looking forward to it, to all the time they’d have to themselves. And they did everything they could think of — planned vacations, joined boards, took watercolor classes, baked for every bake sale they could find. But it wasn’t enough. They weren’t feeling fulfilled. They weren’t feeling like they were contributing. They were starting to feel bored, yes. But they were also starting to feel something they never anticipated back when they decided to stay home with their kids — they were feeling meaningless.

Which is why they’re here, doing yoga on a Friday morning in a room that’s far too warm and has a sign outside it reading, “Quiet voices please, spiritual awakenings in process.” This is why, after class, one student asks if she can jot down the passage the instructor read today from the best-selling book The Secret (and, incidentally, this is probably why The Secret is a best-seller): “Decide what you want to be, do, and have, think the thoughts of it, emit the frequency, and your vision will become your life.”

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  • karen

    Having stayed home with my kids through their middle school and high school years I related to this article. I am glad this situation is being recognized and addressed. I navigated this on my own. I figured out what I wanted, sought out contacts through networking and took a course that led to meeting the person who was instrumental in helping me get my job which I have been at for almost two years. It was a lonely, isolating, scary road to travel. I felt intimidated, old, embarrassed, and hopeless at times. One needs the fortitude to persist. I am so glad I did.

  • Jodi

    My sister did not have the high powered credentials prior to off-ramping. She was still searching for herself then, struggled with post partum depression with her kids as babies, and has now has otped for a career in what I beleive to be some very radical and dangerous new age therapies that have cut her off from my family. She associates us with her former, unhappy self and we are devastated.
    Thank you for writing this article. I think you only scratched the surface at how devastating a problem this is for many women and their families.
    I hope you will do a follow up on this.
    Thanks for the terrific reporting

  • Gretchen

    I'm a 38 yr old corporate professional, who makes enough for my husband to stay at home with our two kids – 2 and 6 yrs old. My career provides me with intellectual stimulation, which I appreciate. But my most important job is raising two healthy, happy kids who will grow up knowing that their purpose in life is to serve God and follow His Word. Believe it or not, if you pick up the Bible and actually read what's in there (try a Bible study if it's too daunting to start reading on your own), you will find all the answers these suburban housewives are searching for. You won't find the answers in a gymnasium, waiting for Buddha to enlighten you. Most people's misery stems from them always asking "what about me?". If you thank God instead for all He's already graced upon you, the self-pity fades, and your life-purpose becomes clear. You realize that no matter what you spent the last 10-20 yrs doing, it was all in preparation for the next job God has for you.

  • susan

    My husband of twenty years left five years ago to move in with a divorced woman that he met at work. I chose to stay at home and raise my two children who are now both in college. I live in a 6000 sq ft home which I am being forced to sell. My husband never wanted me to work. He said that it would throw us into a higher tax bracket, yet he left me for someone with the same first name as myself, same build and same hair color. I do have three different degrees from three different colleges but that was twenty-five years ago. I would have to start from ground zero. I wish there was more laws protecting stay at home moms and less laws punishing them for choosing the most important job in the world. I believe that moms are so busy doing things for everyone else that they dream of a day when they can finally do something for themselves or that their families will want do things for them. Being a mother is a selfless job and if they even are strong enough to pull themselves away fr

  • Amy

    Your article was the first I have ever read that dipicted exactly me…almost….The stay at home mom for 17yrs with three children; no more wiping noses, kissing knees, or scarring monsters away….now it's become can you take me here, can you wash this, can I do this, can so-and-so come over,can I have so much money for? Why can't I??? I've done my job well…no one has told me this. I just have to assume because my children want nothing to do with me. I want to stand in the middle of all them and scream, "what about me." I moved away from family to support my husband's career and "our family". That's what I was "suppose" to do right? We were not naivee. You can not blame us. We wanted the best for everyone and thought that would be the best for us.We were the cheerleaders.Now we have to find away to cheer ourselves on to encourage ourselves.I thought it would be different. I'm not sure how. Would I change a thing…maybe. But please realize…it wasn't naitivity, dependence or inco

  • Lin

    Excellent article. I agree totally! I'm a Mom of 3 sons, the last one a senior in college. Now is the question what to do next? Thanks for the input.

  • kristin

    Sounds like 12:03pm has sour grapes to me. Why bother commenting on something you know NOTHING about. It's women who are unhappy with the CHOICES they have made that find enjoyment in putting others CHOICES down. I hardly consider myself useless because I chose to stay at home raising a family. And how would you know if being a SAHM is the most difficult job in the world when you don't even have children? I don't know if it is THE most difficult job in the world, but it certainly is the most difficult job I have ever had…and also the most rewarding.

  • Mike

    It must be Christmas that we are being blessed with another article about Main Liners. How about another great article with Lavinia about how Matt Lauer is causing the real estate market to go south. Anohter hard hitting article there, Philly Mag.

  • T.

    I have to say a story about Main Liner women who are stay at home moms does nothing for me, I am a WORKING mother who has the unique opportunity to bring my child to work with me. I am also writing a thesis and taking care of the home – the only thing I am not is the bread winner. How bout an article which really focuses on the problem of the lack of stay at home DADs!? Where is the support for women to accelerate their careers? Aren't we in 2008?

  • Lois

    This is a big issue for the women of our age group. Intelligent, creative women at the prime of their life with so much to offer the world, but no idea how to get started. Consider working with a personal coach to unlock your passion, your purpose and set some action goals to move you in the right direction. This is your life, and you are fully responsible for creating the best one possible.

  • Margaret

    I was a single working mother who got no child support. I had to work two jobs to provide a home for my daughter and myself and to have a decent standard of living. I would have loved to have had the option to be available when my daughter came home from school, when she was sick, when something was going on at school, etc. I would have been thrilled not to have to worry about bills and to have to live paycheck to paypcheck. Stop whining.

  • John

    That article resonated so much with me, except I'm a stay-at-home Dad. My wife had better career prospects than me 19 years ago, so we decided I'd be the one to stay home. I did some freelancing, but mostly I raised our four kids. When they were little I felt like I had the most rewarding job in the world. But when my oldest went to college, I got depressed. You feel useless, unrewarded, out of the loop. I've had the most challenging job in the world, but you get no credit for that on the resume — and employers look at you funny when you say you're a man who's been home with the kids for 19 years. This society has never valued people who work with kids — look at the salaries teachers get. This is a huge problem — there are millions of women (and men) who have so much to offer, but they feel devalued by a society that doesn't respect their choice to stay home with their children.

  • Dru

    I'm not a stay-at-home Mom or Dad, or a Mom at all for that matter. I am a college student who is seeing my parents go through this from the other side. I'd like to comment on those people claiming that women (or men) are naive for making the choice to raise children and not foreseeing the difficulty of "letting them go". It's not that they didn't foresee it; they simply made the choice to face it when it came. And now it has, and it has, and it's hard. "Cry me a river" thinks this is an occupation that "renders [women] almost completely useless in society"? I am 20 years old and even I can see that unfortunately this is severe naiveté on your part. These women and men may not be on the front page of the New York Times, but they're molding human beings, establishing a character, instilling morals and goals and priorities in children and young adults. I am who I am because of the choices my parents made when raising me; this was not lost on me. You think that's not a direct cont

  • Dru

    You think that's not a direct contribution to our society? Watch me become the next president.

    Thank you for this article.

  • Merri Lee

    I am a "stay-at-home" mom of three young children, and I have not come to the "bridge" yet which is the subject of this article. It is another milestone that parents reach which is met with joy and sadness, emracing the new phase one enters with a child and missing that which becomes a memory. I was full of joy when they walked, yet miss the adorable crawling and pulling up stage too, for example. How can one say mothers are useless in society (as someone did above) when there would be no society without mothers and fathers? The best "choice" is the one that is right for an individual/a family and that is different for everyone. Parents work, we just don't get paid for the work we do for our families. Spending as much time as you can with your family is an opportunity that does not come later. Paid work will keep.

  • Lindsey

    Your comments "Cry me a River" are exactly why we are the most self centered group of people our country has ever seen. You should be ashamed of yourself. Who better to teach my children than their mother, who has a doctorate degree, and many wordly experiences to share. I truly feel sorry for you that you cannot find value in something so selfless as that.
    As mothers "Boo Hoo", we need to be supportive of each other. I cannot say how hard your life may be, just as you cannot comment on my own. Until you have walked in my shoes, I suggest you keep an open mind too. I could tell you to stop whining as you have told me, but I won't. We all make choices in this life, and have to deal with the consquences. It is just nice to read about mothers who are going through something similar, just as you probably find comfort talking to other single mothers who are working hard to make ends meet.

  • Nicole

    I'm thrilled this magazine highlighted such a sensitive subject. There seem to be so many strong opinions about the subject. I'm not one to judge any woman's choice on what they are willing to forgo in life to have more time/energy to focus on other areas of their lives they deem more worthy. Mainly because I have yet to have children of my own but I can offer the perspective of what it's like to grow up with a mother who wanted forgo her career but knew she had to stick it out careerwise to ensure my sister and I would have a promising future. I guess my mother had a 6th sense that knew our father's job security wasn't what he thought it would be and decided to stay with her career, advancing her degree to better herself financially. It was the right decision because my parents divorced and my dad was laid off (huge recession in the early 90's- similar to what's going on now) so that looking back I can thank my lucky stars my mother had a career to support my sister and I or god knows

  • Nicole

    …where we would have ended up. Again, this isn't a slam against SAHM's. I just hope women are careful to make sure their husbands are in a situation to finanically provide for their family no matter what (death, divorce, etc) before they give up their income because "it's the right thing for the children". Granted, it works out great for a lot of children who get to keep their mother around when they are growing up (this includes the future president who commented above). Believe me, I grew up wishing I could have had my mom around more but now that I'm an adult in the verge of marriage/possibly motherhood I have a much more realisitc understanding of how different my life would have been if my mother gave up her career and the comparison is not pretty. I know know my situation is much better because she kept her career and I was afforded better opportunities because of it. This is just my experience and I know others will have an entirely different perspective.

  • Leigh

    The idea of returning to work does not need to be as daunting as we make it. Half of the battle is simply making the decision to "simply consider it". With careful thought and a patient approach, the re-entry process can actually be a lot of fun, and hugley exciting. I believe a lot of women want to return long before they actually do, but become paralyzed. I recommend not jumping right into resume writing and interviews. You should take this well deserved time to truly evaluate which areas and industries could make sense, based on your true talents, interests, and passions….that is where you need to start.

    I just heard about a seminar being conducted on January 15th. It is a workshop focused on women who are considering re-entering the workforce, but truly have no idea on how to even begin. Email to get additional information.

  • Karen

    I was so infuriated by the person who posted "Cry Me a River" I created an account so I could reply to them. You are asking for a tongue lashing when you say that stay at home mothers, of which I am one, are just whining and their job is not important. You have absolutely no clue how difficult of a job it is and you have no right even beginning to comment on something you have no idea about. I am so grateful however that you have not decided to have children because the last thing this world needs is another person like you, spewing hatred and ignorance. Stay at home mothers are not only employable, they are the most valuable person a corporation would have the privilage to employ. Why? One of the many reasons is because they're multitaskers, cool under pressure, and organized; skills that are born out of having children. And by the way, all the money you make from your job will never come close to fulfilling you the way a child's love would. I pity you and your childless life.

  • Tracy
  • tracy

    Is there anyway to get in touch with the women that is starting Moms next step? There is no information on the web site. This type of service could be invaluable to" slightly older" Mom's who are trying so hard to get back in the work force. Does any one know of any groups or organizations that might deal with this type of issue? It has been my experience, that when a group of women get together with a mission in mind, the outcome is always helpful and very productive………Lets face it, when we need to make a life desition or choice, we do what we beleive to be the best choice at that time.Life is a learning experience, and when we know better, we do better, . It is a very personal decision, either way.

  • Raimondo

    Hi guys. Some editors are failed writers, but so are most writers. Help me! Help to find sites on the: . I found only this – university of phoenix houston. There are pervasive note; uniform baseball; list county and fund people. It is particularly one of the most large. THX :cool:, Raimondo from Zealand.

  • EJ

    Yes It’s hard to get back to work after a 12 years hiatus raising your family. However, I have found former colleagues and professional friends generous with their time, ideas and kindness. I have so many ideas to research & pursue and it’s just the tip of the iceberg. I am confident that I will eventually find a position to give me current experience and then long term.

  • JS

    Does no one take exception to the tone of this article? I was a ‘high powered’ professional. I quit to take care of my kid. My kid is grown. This article is about me, but, I’ve NEVER felt like I was ‘waiting’ on anyone. I’m fulfilled with my life. I have more to do than I can do. I don’t need to go back to work to feel good. I feel good, fulfilled, just like I am. And so very busy! There are many much more meaningful ways to spend my time than working a paying job. The idea that I’m just sitting around waiting for something to happen is offensive.