Updated October 2020
If you had asked me as a first year veterinary student what I planned to do once I had children, I would have given you a blank stare.
Don’t get me wrong. There was no doubt that I wanted children…eventually. But hey, I was focusing on getting my degree and I didn’t have an elaborate “life plan” post graduation. And there were plenty of mothers out there that were somehow getting the job done, both at work and at home, so why would I worry about it NOW? I had more pressing concerns, like getting a job after graduation and paying off my student loans.
To say that this was an oversight is a huge understatement.
It’s funny how life just happens. I met a guy while I was in vet school. We fell in love, got married, then we had our first child. It all sounds so, well….routine.
Let me set up the scene for you. My husband (Mr. RLDVM), an MD, was finishing up his fellowship program. He was working crazy hours (unfortunately, this still holds true). This is all I’ve ever known since we met; our relationship has always had to accommodate his unforgiving schedule. My own career as a veterinarian was also keeping me busy as we were living our DINK (dual income, no kids) lifestyle.
When our first child was born, there was no question that I would stop working and stay at home full time. Mr. RLDVM was set to finish his fellowship training in a few months, and it didn’t make any sense for me to go back to work for such a short period of time before we’d have to pack up and move.
We moved to a completely new city, and the next few years were a blur. Two more children were added to the family. Now I had three children ages 3 and under. Extended family was a plane ride away. I attempted to make my own support network by reaching out to other mothers with young children.
This proves to be challenging when even getting out of the house seems like an insurmountable task, between packing the diaper bag, getting the kids into their respective car seats, working around nap times, nursing them around the clock, dealing with the tantrums, wrestling with the weather gods…the list goes on. I was wary of hiring any outside help thanks to my Type A “I can do it on my own” mentality and apparent inability to delegate tasks properly. Forget about trying to “have it all” or “leaning in.” I was just in full-on survival mode at that point.
Apparently, I am in a group of “opt-out” moms with advanced degrees that made the choice to stay home. This term was coined in a 2003 New York Times article titled “The Opt Out Revolution.” I distinctly remember reading this article as a newlywed, not fully understanding how this might apply to me in the future. Later, when I was deep in the trenches with my 3 children, Ann-Marie Slaughter’s article “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” spoke to me. She was brave enough to share her own struggles with juggling work and home life. According to this Pew survey, about 10% of highly educated mothers stay home. And apparently, there are people out there that deride the choice of women that decide to opt out, considering the vast numbers of women who work out of necessity and/or are using their influence to better society through the workplace. Those that opt out are a failure to feminism and to ourselves.
So am I a failure? Did I waste my degree? Am I the perfectly coiffed stay at home mother who has freshly baked cookies ready for her children as I keep a tidy household?
To anyone who knows me personally, the answer to that last question is a resounding NO. But for the first two questions….it will depend on who you talk to, because everyone is entitled to their own opinion.
But honestly, I think that my answer is the only one that truly matters in this case. And I would say that no, I am not a failure, and no, I did not waste my degree.
If you want to look at this from a purely financial point of view, I worked long enough to make up my student loan debt. That income allowed us to live comfortably with just enough money to save at the end of the day. If I had chosen to continue working after having children, my net income would have been substantially reduced due to childcare costs and taxes, leaving little financial benefit. My decision to stay at home has allowed me the time to evaluate and analyze our own personal financial situation with a fine-toothed comb, improving it in such a way that our future returns from my knowledge will make up for lost income. In addition, I can pass this information along to our children, hopefully continuing the cycle of good financial stewardship so that they can achieve their own financial security.
But this is so much more than a financial decision. This is where personal finance truly becomes personal. I could have very well decided to return to work regardless. And many women in my situation choose to work even if they are able to rely on one income. I absolutely support their decision because I trust that they are doing what they believe is best for them and their families.
Along the same vein, I made the best choice for me and my family. I had a specific vision of what I wanted to do as a mother, and it required that I was going to be fully engaged with no other distractions. I know myself too well, and I simply knew that working as a veterinarian was going to add to my stress level by trying to coordinate my work schedule around childcare.
For those that think that I lead a charmed life, let me tell you that I have struggled mightily since becoming a mother. Being a mother did not negate the fact that I was still the ambitious, independent woman that I was prior to having children. As I alluded to earlier, having three children within a 3-year time span is absolutely exhausting, both physically and mentally. But in addition to this, I went through a seismic identity crisis.
When you’re used to being referred to as a doctor, when people look at you with a measure of respect based on your professional accomplishments, it can be a huge hit to your self-esteem when you get to the end of your day and feel like nothing has been accomplished. Children are not known to applaud you for your efforts to be the best mom ever. Becoming a stay at home parent renders one invisible in a society where you are seen as a caretaker, and nothing more. No one really bothers to ask if you had a life prior to becoming a mother. Or if this does come up in conversation, they look very surprised and you know that they are quietly asking themselves why I even bothered to get a veterinary degree if I just stay at home. “Are you planning on going back to work?” they ask hopefully. This is where I start fidgeting, wanting to answer in the affirmative, but also wondering how this will fit into my new reality, my new normal.
Of course I want to work. I’ve worked since high school. My first paycheck came from working at a dry cleaning business. I took part in the federal work-study program in college, earning $4.25 an hour at the dining hall working the conveyor belt and hand washing pots and pans. I worked all throughout vet school. I’ve had three different jobs as a veterinarian. I miss my furry patients. I miss the satisfaction of helping my clients. I miss the camaraderie with my colleagues. I miss my paychecks. They were a huge source of pride that I could support myself financially.
And don’t even get me started about filling out those forms. You know, the ones where you need to write down your employment status. Technically I’m unemployed, but I’m working harder than I’ve ever worked before. This kills me every single time. (Edit: I am now self-employed, but I still think of this every single time I fill out a form!)
But to equate a paycheck with value is wrong. I am still adding immeasurable value to our family. My children see first hand the hard work that goes into supporting a family. They see this not just from their father, who is gone much of the time in order to serve our community in amazing ways and support us financially, but they also see it in how I take care of them and serve the community in my own way. I care much more about whether they respect me as a person rather than what society thinks, and because they respect me, they value me as well.
To go from a full-time veterinarian to a stay at home mother has been quite the journey for me (Edit: I have now transitioned to working from home, so the journey continues!). One thing is for certain: never, ever will I regret this time that I’ve spent with my children. There were incredibly difficult moments that made me stronger, but it’s the joyful moments that shine and stay in my heart. I am especially grateful to have been given the choice to stay home. To have the chance to be fully engaged with my family and feel like I have put my everything into being the best mother I can be is the greatest honor.
And you know what? I still have my DVM. No one ever took it away from me. It has been waiting patiently as I approach a time in my life where I can utilize it once again (Edit: I now serve veterinarians and other professionals through financial coaching and education). It will serve me differently than it did at the start of my career. But being an “opt-out” mother has given me a completely different perspective on life and what I truly value. No one can ever put a price tag on that.