Confronting the terror of being a stay-at-home parent

Guest post by Emily Zebel
Photo by Emmy Zebel

There is something terrifying about being a new Full Time Mom with an infant. I’m trying to peg it.

Is it the responsibility? Possibly. Behavioral ticks take on a new weight when you’re the one on the clock, round the clock, providing the care.

Is it the isolation? Perhaps. Though I suspect that feeling will diminish with each day (it already has) as [my daughter] Willow gathers more and more of her sensory reins.

But there’s something else, something I can’t name. The terror did not actually strike me immediately. Immediately I was too moon-eyed and sleep-deprived to know what was going on. But slowly, as each day folded back onto itself, as Willow and I both fumbled through our still-awkward dance of deciphering our respective rhythms, I realized that something has fled. Not a bad thing, but a thing nonetheless. And in its stead is where the terror resides. What is it?

Before Willow was born I knew, with confidence and delight, that I wouldn’t return to the office. And then the contractions came. And then the hospital. And then the first week at home with this tiny pulsing beautiful creature they call a human baby. And then my partner Colby went back to work. And here I was left, not going back to “work,” with this awesome thing, this baby, for long stretches of time in the center of a long stretch of countryside in the center of a long stretch of rural terrain in what feels like the very center of the universe. It is stark here. Only the desert’s austerity could compete. And I would think, “Geez, now what?”

The days have never been this still. My days were always a constant whir, a full schedule. That certainly still holds true in a way: the breastfeeding, the changing of diapers, the laundry, the long morning jogs, the laundry, my insistence on cooking everything from scratch, the diapers, did I mention the breastfeeding? But it is a different kind of busy than what I experienced when “gainfully employed.” What was that whirlwind? From this hushed post I see that former world as a blur, I see it the way a child lifted from the crowd onto a set of strong, broad shoulders sees, and I see that what’s fled is the blur. What’s fled is the World of Distraction.

And here, in its stead, I’m staring right into the eyes of the terror itself; the wild, four-legged animal of humanity that is asking me, “What now will you make of this?” Here we are with one car. One income. One baby girl. What perceived need there once was for fashionable clothes and take-out sushi and daily lattes is moot. What has emerged is the clarity of simplicity. And simplicity is terrifying, because it means that I not only have to stare at the wild animal of my true self for long periods of time, but I also have to become comfortable with it, one with it. Otherwise I might very well be doomed to a life harboring feelings of isolation and resent instead of clarity and gratitude. It is fostering the hand-built architecture of a sound mind, sans a consumer lifestyle, that has emerged unexpectedly in tandem with this whole homemaker/motherhood bit. And I don’t think that will be a bad thing to instill in a small child.

I’m turning the lights on Simplicity. It is not so terrifying. Willow is rousing from her afternoon nap. I think I’ll make a cup of tea and take her for a long stroll in the autumn air and see what palettes the landscape has to offer us today.

Comments on Confronting the terror of being a stay-at-home parent

  1. Thank you. Today is my due date (any moment now we can hope) and I have given up my corporate job of 6 1/2 years to stay home and be a mom, which I am so happy about, and yet… well you captured it perfectly here. Again, thank you.

  2. You’ve touched on all the things that I’ve felt over the last year – the isolation, the weighty thought of responsibility, the occasional long periods of monotony. And you’ve described it beautifully.

  3. Whilst I’m only on maternity leave (And returning to work in the new year, albeit for only two days a week) you have still managed to sum up exactly how I feel. So pleased this has been posted.

  4. “I not only have to stare at the wild animal of my true self for long periods of time, but I also have to become comfortable with it, one with it. Otherwise I might very well be doomed to a life harboring feelings of isolation and resent instead of clarity and gratitude.”


    On Monday, I officially resigned from my job and with it, gave up ten years of teaching English in high school. It’s been a tough, revelatory decision-process and whilst I am very happy with my final choice (and very aware of how lucky I am to have such a choice) I’ve also been trying real hard to pin down the lesson to be learned therein. And here it is, expressed with beauty and style and it’s so obvious, and so simple.

    Thank you Emily, your words are going to keep me company on this wild road for a long while to come.

  5. Wow.

    My heart just broke open a little bit wider and I took a deep breath in.. full of the fresh air of my own stretch of country air, one vehicle, one little boy. These words are worth more than gold.. and sum up what SO very many of us feel so deeply for that first year (or two?).

    A great hug and a sincere thank you.

  6. That was really wonderful.

    My constructive comment is about the title: why is it Mom centric? I think it would have been just as accurate and effective if it read “Stay-at-Home Parent”.

    (I’m extra sensitive because I’m a working mom with a stay at home husband.)

  7. Simplicity rocks. I was never this excited about my job despite all the pressure and kudos. My monetary rewards suck, but every day, I’m a bit more thankful that I get to watch this little creature turn into a human being. As a scientist – this is the most amazing experiment I’ve ever conducted.

  8. I appreciated your description of early motherhood. I have a 4yr old and a 3 month old and we recently moved to an acreage. I am a city girl and living over an hour from a major city center has been challenging. I’ve been so busy trying to ram my city life into my country life that I haven’t stopped to change the perspective. Thank you for putting it simply that the perspective, the isolation and self realization have to happen to see the light and the gift

  9. This is exactly what I needed to read at the moment and I will read it again and again. Thank you so much Emily for giving me some peaceful clarity to my busy over-active mind 🙂

  10. just an hour ago i had a talk with my new boss about starting to work again sometime soon after 1 1/2 years at home. thank you for that beautiful piece!
    and: thanks offbeat mama for keeping me sane! ♥♥♥

  11. So beautiful, and I think this is exactly what my mother meant when she told me that a week after I was born, she watched my father leave for work again and, for a brief moment, thought desperately to herself “take me with you.”

    She’s been an awesome mother!

  12. This is so fabulously appropriate right now.
    Ive been a working mother for 1.5 years and was just confronted with the decision to put my almost 2-year-old in daycare, or quit my job (that i love, and that keeps me sane). Neither choice would be an easy one to make and i was all but freaking out.
    Luckily, an old friends mother can replace our nanny and i think she’s perfect! She saved me from having to sacrafice all my hard work that got me where i am, and she also saved me from having to hand out my precious child and paycheck.
    I almost submitted an essay about it until i remembered i suck at creative writing.
    Thank you for doing it beautifully and accurately!

  13. Oh my goodness! I am not alone!!

    I came across the site purely by accident and am now convinced I have found a second home here on the internet!

    We had always known I would become a stay at home mom when my daughter was born, and when I finally became one I was dumbfounded.

    What was I doing? Who was I?

    Then we moved to Denver (from California) when our daughter was four months and once again I was at a loss.

    How will I survive with staying home all the time?

    My daughter is now ten months old and I am convinced I made the right decision to stay home, but there are still some days that I feel a bit lost.

    I like the idea of embracing simplicity. Thank you for writing this!

  14. This post made me cry and summed up so beautifully all the things I haven’t quite been able to out a finger on in the last seven months at home with my son. I can’t even add anything because you said it all so beautifully. Thank you!

  15. First time visiting and so glad I found this! Beautiful and raw sentiments here. I remember saying to my husband a few weeks in (in tears!) “When our daughter was born, you added ‘parent’ to a whole list of things that make up your identity. But I feel like ‘mother’ wiped out all the rest of mine.” It’s so painful to feel that staying home to raise her, while a blessing I am thankful for every day, can feel like a burden, too. No matter what our choices about how to do it may be, it feels good to commune with others who also admit that motherhood is glorious and crazy hard all at once, doesn’t it?

  16. I found that too, Courtney, and I resented the fact that I felt I had been erased and replaced with ‘just’ being a mother for a long, long time. I talk about it more now, and my son is more self-reliant now he’s 10 months, but it is getting better.

    I tried to talk to my mum about it, but she just said ‘well, I never got bored at hme with you, we just played’, but I still find that, thrilling as your child’s development is, playing with blocks is still playing with blocks…

    It’s tricky, there’s so much pressure placed on the status of ‘mother’, and that can be hard to live with. Sadly, for me, I can’t get that sense that Emily puts in her post as joy at finding the blur has gone. I have a strong sense of wanting more, but not knowing what that is.

    Confusing thing, this parenting lark…

    • Betty — yes, completely: “wanting more, but not knowing what that is.” It’s hard to go from an existence filled with rich adult conversation and intellectual stimulation to…this, as profound (Holly’s word) as it can be at times. Looks like I agree with your guest post as well — our daily outdoor adventures have kept me sane, as has throwing myself into a local “crunchy moms” group even though everyone else’s babies are so much older. And going to see a social worker for talk therapy once in a while, which I was afraid to do but has lifted the dark clouds in a big way. But it makes you feel guilty, doesn’t it, for not thinking that “this is enough”? Anyway, babbling…

  17. This was a great read, thank you. I am sort of a stay-at-home mom in that I am a freelancer who works from home and out of the house…but until we find solid childcare I’m at home with the baby every weekday and try to get work done at night (fyi, this doesn’t really work).

    I agree with all of the writer’s sentiments, but one major thing I didn’t totally expect was the immense amount of anxiety! I’m an anxious person by nature, but wow it’s completely off the charts with a baby in the picture. Olive is 3 months old and I’m still often having to talk myself down from the worry perch far more often than I’d like. But yes, all of the stuff she wrote about is spot-on…having a kid really does change EVERYTHING. Not to say I don’t love it, but…wow.

  18. I was not really terrified. But I am jealous. Jealous of all the people who get to go to work, and then come home and relax. Of all the people who get brakes-lunch, bathroom, coffee, even to smoke. I have to take the baby with me to the bathroom, and then I still have the older ones pounding on the door for things that really could wait until I get out. Almost 7 years and no brakes for me.

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