Being a Stay At Work Mom - Our Role Reversals Explained

Written originally, June 3, 2015 (edited a bit for updates):

Several Hopesters have asked me to talk more about my choice to be a working mom, while Dan stays home with the kids. From the beginning, we knew this arrangement was a good choice for us. It fits the way we are; the way we work together...it has always just made sense for our situation. However, another reason why I chose to stay at work was because it's who I am...being a professional is so much of my identity and where my strengths lie. So, here's a little peek at what it's like to be a SAWM (Stay at Work Mom)! And to set the correct tone...let's turn on this 2011 jam (P.S. I love Jessie J’s hair)...

What do you like about being a SAWM?  I feel really, really lucky...every day, I get to leave the house to be with other adults. I get to be outside the world of direct caregiving for a part of the day. It's also incredible when I have a really deep conversation with another special needs family, and I know that I can help them in a very meaningful way with their future. I get extremely excited--because, I'm going to be able to give them a really cool gift, and at first, they have no idea how much easier it’s going to make their life.

Yes, I'm a pointy-head nerd because I talk about money all day long with people - how to save it; how to spend it; and how to maximize its efficiency for their family.

Why stick with your career? I've always been very career focused. Before I was a financial planner, I was in marketing. I loved serving people that way--dreaming up solutions to grow a new business, and helping them come to fruition for an owner or CEO. I loved watching businesses become really profitable because of my ideas.

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My first year at Northwestern Mutual, I was named “Advisor of the Year” out of seven offices in our district...I had the most new clients, the most diversity of product/service sales, etc. I was the first female in the history of our district to do that. Yes, I had a family to support, but I simply saw it as being very passionate about helping as many people as I possibly could. I came into this industry for that reason...to help other special needs families do proper planning because very few advisors are giving proper advice in this area of financial services.

How did having kids change things? Having Hudsyn changed everything. Up to that point, I was climbing the corporate ladder--taking on more responsibilities, making great money and hiring new team members who reported to me. Beyond being focused, work was very important in my life. I was described by many I worked with as being “smart, efficient and to the point.” I was rarely emotional about work…it was all logic and black/white decisions. It was fun to accomplish a goal with business-building strategies and tactics. I loved the team environment and everything we focused to accomplish. Happy hours were with co-workers or those I knew I needed to build relationships with in order to move up. Free time was rarely about personal hobbies or pleasure. For fun, I used to write lists of things I wanted to accomplish for work by a certain date. It was insane!

I think God knew I wasn’t living life for the right values. So, things changed. After Hudsyn was born, everything about work faded into the background. Sitting in the NICU holding her, everything about who I was instantly vanished. I no longer cared about what was on my to-do list for the week, nor who was doing what for which project I had been working on. As I mentioned, I'd never been a very emotional person, but as soon as she was placed in my arms with wires hanging from our sides, all I did was cry from then on. In fact, it became difficult to NOT cry. All of a sudden, I was softer and a much more heart-centered person.

I’ve heard before that when you have kids, your heart just gets up and begins walking around outside of your body. That’s exactly what happened to me. That turning point changed what it meant to be a typical mother, and eventually, what it would mean to be a mother staying in the workplace.

What was your maternity leave like?  I had three months of maternity leave, but we lost a month because of Hudsyn needing to be in the hospital. She was hooked up to all kinds of machines at first...so I couldn’t hold her all the time. I missed out on bonding with her for most of that first month. And then when we went home, it was nonstop visiting and people coming in and out of the house. People bringing food, helping out…which of course we needed at the time and loved. But, for someone who's introverted, it was exhausting. I get a lot of energy from being by myself, but that didn't happen. We needed the help to be sure, but it was hard. There was zero down time and nights weren’t a respite because Hudsyn rarely slept more than 1-3 hours at a time.

We had been in counseling almost as soon as Hudsyn was born. When I had about a month left of maternity leave, I said to our therapist one day, "OK, I have to go back to work in a couple weeks. You need to teach me how to get better and not cry so much. I need to go back to being the old Kacy so I can function at work. Our therapist giggled. I was a little put off by her reaction...and I asked her why she was smirking. She said, "Why do you think you have to be better on a deadline?" ...and that statement blew my mind. For the first time, I realized that I didn't have to be "better" right away. I could keep working on this...and I felt a lot less pressure to deal with being the mother to Hudsyn and being back at work. It also reminded me that I was beginning a very long marathon, one that would take me down a road I wasn't necessarily prepared to travel.

What was it like going back to work? Exhausting! We were up all night, and then I was at work during the day. I was still pumping every two hours, and for many, many days, I was getting just a couple hours of sleep. I would come home, collapse on the couch, and get a little sleep before Hudsyn was awake all night. It got a little better around six months, but our lives pretty much existed around her feeding schedule (which is normal for most infants…and she didn’t have her G-tube yet). At that time, Dan was still working nights so weekends were also difficult because I was up all day and then all night, falling even more behind on sleep before going back to work on Monday morning.

Around three months, Hudsyn started having seizures, and that threw things off again. It added a whole other level of complication, and any balance we had at that point was gone. We now had epilepsy as a diagnosis, and a whole other world of treatment and medications came into our lives. Hudsyn's brain wasn't well. Our hopes of having a "Miracle Baby" were shattered. Up to that point, she’d been eating fine, gaining weight and achieving her milestones for an infant. But her brain injury was winning...and all of our attention went toward her medical needs again.

It was also difficult because I had no vacation, but I wanted to be at work just as much as I wanted to be at home. I spent about a year being totally torn--I always wanted to be where I wasn't.

How did you find support? Other new moms were great, but didn't have a kid like we did…they just didn’t “get it.” While I was adjusting to being a new mom, I was researching therapies, medications and anything that might help her get back to no seizures. I was also trying to manage her care from work, but it was stepping on Dan's toes--he was finding his new role, too, as a stay at home dad (SAHD).

In the first year I went back to work, our parents were able to help out a lot, but I wasn't able to manage her care the way I wanted. I had to learn to trust that Dan was going to be a great dad, and not criticize every little thing he did that was different from the way I would do it. Combine a Type-A personality, a traumatic birth and two sleep-deprived parents…and major arguments are inevitable. That year was very difficult on our marriage.

How did Damek change things?  Damek was a few years later. He was VERY unexpected--exciting, but a surprise, and definitely something that was scary after Hudsyn. But after I had him, I think it just solidified that this is what was going to happen--I was going to stay at work, Dan was going to stay at home…indefinitely. Here's the day I told Dan I was pregnant for the second time. His voice and nervous laugh pretty much sum up how we both felt. He immediately went out and brought home my favorite flavor of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream from the grocery store. We were excited, but also terrified. Ice cream was definitely in order.

We got another big surprise after I got back from my maternity leave with Damek. I was told my job no longer existed…and my services were no longer needed. Yep, I was fired. It was just a couple months after I’d had him...panic ensued. I was glad we’d had savings to sustain us for awhile. And, for about six months, my career was up in the air. I started doing freelance work and interviewing. We again talked about changing things up and having Dan go to work full time. But again, it just came out that I needed to have the job, and Dan needed to stay with the kids. Remember, before, when I said God knew I wasn’t living life for the right values? His work became present again when the faint idea of becoming a special needs financial advisor became my focus. Interviews used to be easy for me - and jobs were always plentiful. But for whatever reason, none of them were working out this time. My heart just wasn’t in it to go back to work in an environment that offered such little flexibility and in the end, completey devalued what I’d brought to the table by letting me go immediately after coming back from maternity leave. I had also hit the proverbial glass ceiling so my income wasn’t likely to increase even if I was spending more time at work.

What's been most helpful to you? The Baby Connect app was a huge help at first, we used the app to track diaper changes and feedings. It was great--I could log in and see everything that Dan was doing. We could also send information to Hudsyn’s pediatrician directly from the app. Today, we use Cozi to create lists and keep track of our day-to-day stuff. Also our special needs support groups are still key. We get advice, product recommendations, home modification hacks, etc…but also emotional support from parents who are going through the same things we are. Social media has been invaluable for finding those tribes.

How has being a SAWM benefited your family? Well, aside from the financial support, I'm not overly exposed to sickness from the kids--so at the very least, there's one healthy adult in the house! Plus, if there are personal errands to run or things I can't get to in the course of my day, Dan's there. I never have to take off work to meet a service person for a home repair. I can work late at the last minute and not worry about picking up the kids from school or daycare. We don't have daycare expenses (that's what I call Dan's salary). I’m able to spend more time with clients and prospects so the business can make more money in the long-run. But above all, I know Dan is there taking care of our kids. If an emergency happens with Hudsyn, my #1 guy is on the front line, and I trust him completely to manage each and every situation with her. All of our values and attention can be given to both Damek and Hudsyn when its needed most. That, to us, is invaluable.

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What's been the hardest part about being a SAWM? Starting a business is one thing, but doing so when you’re the only one responsible for paying the bills is another. There was a crap ton of pressure that first year and I was regularly stressed month to month. I’m sad to say my health (physical and mental) took a backseat and working 90+ hours a week became normal. Now, my business is over six years old, so it’s a LITTLE easier than it was…but I now have staff to pay to support the clients I have so gratefully earned. I still track every penny each month and probably will continue to do so.

In a lot of ways, I was prepared for this--my mom was a breadwinner, and so I always had a strong role model. That being said, she also did all the cooking cleaning, and shopping. My mom ran everything, where dad got to do the fun stuff with us...but it's different for Dan and I. My job is to make sure our clients are taken care of and to provide for the family financially. Dan's job is the operations manager of the home. He cooks, cleans, makes decisions for Hudsyn's appointments, etc. We're a very equal team when it comes to taking care of the home and our family.

I won't lie, it's very satisfying to earn the money. As stressful as it can be sometimes, that's exactly what keeps me motivated and focused in the business. And, guess what? In my meetings, we cry. Crying is normal. Working with families like ours is emotional…so I never have to go back to being the old version of myself. Emotion in this line of work is very important and we process grief together. I don't have the luxury of being an underachiever in my business. It's 100% effort or I have to go home and face my kids' faces of not being able to give them what they need. In my mind, that’s just not an option. I’ve never given my brain the choice of failure.

Do you feel like you get judged sometimes? Of course. When I walk into a doctor’s office with Dan and the kids…and they only look at or talk to me about the kids. By the way, he’s clearly listed as the primary caregiver on all of their records and goes to 90% of the appointments alone. When Dan accompanies me on a business trip and others think he’s the financial advisor. It’s annoying, sure. But what’s most concerning is we all do this in some way. We assume things that aren’t reality. Do you ask a female you just met (who happened to tell you she’s married) what her husband’s name is instead of possibly thinking she’s in a same-sex marriage? We're a team, and we had reversed roles even before we had kids. I always wanted the career, I never cooked, and my oven was used for shoe and bag storage. Dan loved cooking, adored children and wanted nothing more than to take care of others.

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At the end of the day, it doesn't really matter what other people think. I mean, seriously, where does the gender role stuff come from anyway? I love my kids and care about them, but I've never fit the traditional "mom" stereotype. I’ve been reading a lot of Rachel Hollis’ work lately and we could be besties on this part. I won’t be the one leading the Girl Scout troop, baking cookies or volunteering at the school. Granted, I’d probably sign up to be a basketball coach but neither of my kids are athletically inclined. For us, we're all in love, happy, and working together. That's what really matters, right?

How has your personal experience made you a better professional? Hudsyn broke my heart wide open. Because of her, I'm more emotional and expressive. She's made me a better professional, too. I couldn't do what I do (financial planning for special needs families) without having gone through our experience. It's made me more empathetic. I take my time, don't stress about little things. I feel a lot more peaceful, and I get to share that with clients and other business owners. It's gratifying, and then I come home and see my family. It's taken us awhile, but it feels like everything is really balancing well now.

Going through this trauma together has made us better each individually and as a family unit. I have really big plans to be a powerful advocate for Hudsyn and other children/adults similar to her by helping other families on this journey. There’s definitely a bigger purpose...a vision for what we’re doing because of what happened with Hudsyn. My mom recently told me, "I'm proud of you for really taking lemons and making lemonade these last few years."

That made me smile…and, occassionally, I add vodka to the lemonade, but hey - no one’s perfect.

Be grateful and enjoy the rest of your week, Hopesters!