Issue 3.1 – Nonfiction

Imaginary Debt



“Hi, Baby Girl! I’m home!” I scooped up my four-month-old after changing out of my scrubs. I’d only been gone a few hours, but I had at least two hours of charting ahead. I got some cuddles in before delving into my tablet to document wounds, blood sugars, and lab values from the day’s visits.

Even before I married Ryan, I dreamed of having a child and staying home with her. After having Liza, I decided to maintain per-diem status as a home health RN. “Why go back? Do you even need to?” my mom asked when I told her my plans. A single mom, she raised me while working full time. She wanted different for me. I explained that I wanted to keep working. It was a lie. I felt I had to work; I owed it to someone.

My agency was accommodating. I only needed to work one weekend a month to stay on staff. Ryan has weekends off, so it worked out. He’d text me pictures of Liza napping on his chest and I’d check in to ask how much she ate. Every day I worked felt like a payment made. With each paycheck, validation that I was working, contributing.

Friends and acquaintances would start conversations with, “Are you back to work?”

“Oh yes,” I’d say, “I’m back to work.” They would nod approvingly, and I would feel that I’d given the right answer. Often, I left out that I was only working two days a month.

A problem with my commitment was that we live five hours away from family. Between visiting them and having family come to us for the weekend, two days a month began to come at a higher cost. I was also dreading the mornings that I had to leave Ryan and Liza. I wanted to be home. I had trouble leaving work at work, and would often lie awake at night fretting over the next day’s caseload. This wasn’t new. I can’t think of a job I’ve had that hasn’t kept me up at night.

It became difficult to predict my availability. After some discussion with Ryan, we decided I would stop working altogether. We had the financial ability to run our family on his income alone. It was too good to be true. It was all I wanted, but I was still hesitant. I put in my notice as Liza turned five months old.

“I’ll pick up visits again when she starts preschool!” I explained to anyone who seemed interested. I wanted them all to know that I intended to work again. “And you know, part-time is tough with retirement and all. It limits IRA contributions if I don’t make a certain amount…” after that statement the physical therapist I worked with three years ago was probably looking for the nearest exit. Why was I explaining our retirement strategies to an old co-worker I ran into at the post office? I couldn’t give a simple answer about staying home without attaching a laundry list of semi-apologetic reasons why it was so.

A few weeks later, I sat in the circle of our weekly New Mom Network, hosted by our local hospital. A woman was introducing herself and her baby. “Are you going back to work?” someone asked. My ears perked up, I could feel myself holding my breath.

“No. I’m fortunate to be able to stay home with Ethan,” she replied.

That was it. No explaining. No promising to work again the instant she’s able. No apologetic tone for leaving the workforce. Her statement hung in my mind while the rest of the group moved on. I tried not to stare. All I wanted was to stay home with Liza, and that’s exactly what I was doing. Why did it feel somehow wrong to enjoy it?

I thought back to the approving nods I received when I told people I was a working mom. Maybe they weren’t nods of approval. Maybe they were just…nods. It became clear that I was  projecting my own issues with jobs onto others.

I took stock of my hang-ups. I was let go from my first job after college, and I took it really hard. Since then I’ve had very fragile emotions regarding my role as “employee.” I’ve  suffered from “Imposter Syndrome” at every job since. Despite encouragement from supervisors and positive outcomes for my clients, I was always waiting for them to find out that I wasn’t “good enough” for the job. That’s what happened at my first job, so how could it ever be different?

I once was named “Employee of the Month” and was entirely convinced that it had to be a mistake. There’s no way I was worthy of that recognition. Just as I felt that title was undeserved, I was not deserving of my new life at home. I didn’t earn the right to walk away from my job.

Once I recognized these feelings, I began to shift my thinking. I remembered the woman from the meeting. “I’m fortunate to stay home…” She was exactly right. Instead of being thankful for the ability to stay home with Liza, I was too busy being insecure. I was a stay-at-home-mom who at times felt jealous of stay-at-home-moms!

Over time I realized that I was using feelings of shame to continue to make those “payments.” Each apology to a friend or stranger felt like a way to pay back a little debt to my mental creditor. Slowly, I started allowing myself to own my role as a mom who stays home. I am part of a family with the means to allow me to spend my days with Liza, just what I want to be doing. For that I’m overwhelmed with gratitude.

My daughter is two now. I rarely feel uncomfortable telling people I don’t work outside the home. I’ve embraced the role, now having perspective where I lacked it before.

Last week, I was texting with a friend when she asked, “Are you going back to work when she starts pre-school?”

I took a breath, typed my reply, and hit send. “No.”


SONY DSCStephanie Williams is a registered nurse, currently staying home with her toddler in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Her dream is to publish a children’s book some day.

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