Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 4:4-7

08 April 2010

A Difficult Transition

This is the post that won't go away.  I have half written it about four times and then deleted it, but it just keeps asking to be written - somebody out there must really need to read it - so here it is in full with the caveat that by throwing this out into cyberspace I don't wish to enter into the stay at home or go back to work debate.  This is a personal reflection.

Back in December 2002 I walked out of Room 6, locked the door, handed the key over to the principal, said goodbye to the teaching staff and headed off into the sunset (so to speak) into a new chapter.  For as far as the eye could see, I knew what I would be doing - and those who know me well know that I like to have a plan.   

In March of the following year we welcomed this little man into our family. 

And then two and half years later we welcomed this one too.

And so for the last seven years I have stayed at home and looked after house, home and our two small boys.  Having already dropped to one income, pre-children, when my husband left his engineering job to study, we now went down to student and parenting allowances.  For a short while we lost the student allowances!  But there was never any question about it.  We weathered all conditions of financial change through God's good grace and providence.  God blessed our socks off time after time.  Through God's good blessing we did what we had decided we'd do, long before any children were born.  I stayed home to look after the children.

The last seven years at home with the boys have been great, hard, a joy, tiring, full of wonder, stimulating, at times very small...a list familiar to most parents.

But it needs to be said that I spent much of 2009 thinking longingly of 2010, the year when our youngest would go to Kindergarten for two days a week.  Don't get me wrong, I love them both to bits.  But two lots of five hours a week, childfree, to teach Scripture without having to organise childminding, to clean the house and have it stay clean for an hour or two, to get a haircut or go to the dentist, to have extended times of prayer, to read a thousand books, to catch up with friends and finish the conversation, to visit some of the older folk from church who are finding it harder to get there now, maybe even do some exercise...  I was tantalised by the options for most of last year.

So, I have had a term with ten hours at my own discretion.  And how has it been?  Firstly I discovered that I had highly unrealistic expectations about what one can get through in that time!  Housework in particular has barely rated a mention in the last ten weeks, apart from the absolute essentials.  In fact, I've done worse in that area this year despite the extra time because I have been more intentional about spending time with the boys when they are home.  Housework will need to rise to the top of the list next term - at least for a day - for the sake of on-going good health.

That said, having the time available has been good.  Really good. 

And yet, for most of first term my heart was troubled.  I have realised that I am in transition from what was last year - at home with child/ren in my full care - to what will be next year - both children in school full time. Next year, or sometime therefter, I am faced with a decision.  Whether or not to return to paid work in some capacity.  It has really troubled me.  And the fact that it has troubled me has taken me by surprise.

Not going to work during the last seven years was a no-brainer for me.  And we have managed to make ends meet, thanks be to God.  But here is the thing.  We now get to decide whether we continue on like this or not.  We are faced with a choice.

I could quite easily and happily fill my time volunteering at church and the school - and doing a little bit of housework!  I could quite easily get some part time work nearby, confined to school hours that doesn't disturb the flow of the household.  One choice fills a need in my community.  The other choice fills a need in our bank account.

So the next question is, does the bank account really need filling?  Aren't we managing?  Well, yes we are.  But we live simply and we now face the decision whether or not to make this our long term operating style.  To live counter-culturally and not have it all.  Or else to work and have a bit more flex. 

I have excellent role models in both camps - women who have gone back to paid work and women who have deliberately chosen otherwise - women in both camps who I respect enormously.  

I write this post because I know I am not alone.  There are others out there in blogosphere anticipating this same transition.  Nicole is writing a series on this very topic and for this post, Simone (who blogs here) left a particularly astute and helpful comment. 

At the height of my agitation last the term, Jean shared her manifesto with us.  Amidst her words was this sentence written as though in neon lights,

The majority of married women with children return to work soon after their children go to school—sometimes for financial reasons but also often because of the pressure of feminism, careerism or materialism.

Great, searing words that invite thorough investigation of one's motives.

I'm not fully thought through as yet, although for those sweet enough to be worried for me, it's not overwhelming me anymore.  So please do not worry.  I am over the angst and now happy to let it be for a time.  I don't actually need to make a decision any time soon.  And a decision will come.  Let it also be said that I also know that any decision I make at some stage in the future will not be irrevocable.  But this post has been nagging away at me to be written because maybe it needs to be said (ie. this was a long of saying) that this transition, from having small children at home to having those small children at school, is hard.  Because there is a big question that needs answering...

As a Christian, how do I best use the time now given to me to serve God, my family and my community, bearing in mind my own capacities and circumstances?  It's not a question anyone else can answer for me.  Nor is it one I can answer for anyone else.  But that is the big question.

And as a sideline, it has given me some empathy for those in another of life's transitions - those anticipating retirement.  I have heard that this transition is really tough on some.  I never used to be able to understand it.  But now I do.  I have been travelling from a period of really intense activity to one that brings with it discretionary time.  There is a parallel in retirement. 

There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under heaven.
Ecclesiastes 3:1


Mrs. Edwards said...

Beautifully said.

As an aside, I don't know about parenting and student allowances. Do you continue to receive a parenting allowance (from the government?) even after your children are off to school? What about moms who forgo away school and homeschool?

Simone R. said...

I will pray for you. It is hard.

Buying a house was a big part of my returning to work. We intentionally didn't over-extend ourselves (our house is very small and... humble), but my working has made the repayments painless. If we had it again, we'd buy a bigger, less ugly house for more money.

Some people are good at being productive and godly at home. I realised pretty early that I wasn't going to spend more time doing housework. It's just not me (good that we have a small house!). Unless I've had a really hard day at work, I find I'm more motivated to be present for the kids in the afternoon than I am if I've been self-indulgent. Easily, my most exhausting days are those when I'm not working, but doing bs with others, teaching RE, helping at school etc.

There is a time for everything. If someone had told me 4 years ago I'd be teaching again now, I'd have been very surprised.

Helen said...

Oh Miss Meredith! I am pausing in my morning pancakes Daz just made to write this! Firstly, I had forgotten how CUTE the boys where as babies, awwww! Look at N! Sweet. You are a GREAT mum and wife and housewoman, I think the housework has slipped due to MG folding up, that was always a reason for me to clean the bathroom over the last 7 years! So blame me for that one and I can send you photos of the dust balls in our hall to prove the lack of MY housework skills. I think you should embrace part time work, embrace the new challenges you will meet, exercise bits of your brain that have been quiet. Think about all the good you will do by helping those grad students. Then you can still balance church and school duties. You can do it and I know you will do it well. xx

Cathy McKay said...

Thanks for your well spent words Meredith. So careful and gracious. Praying for a joyful time as you keep "transitioning". xxc.

Meredith said...

Lovely friends, thank you. Thank you for your comments, encouragement and prayers and for standing alongside me in this vexed question. Even your comments in all their variety demonstrate what a complex and personal issue this is. I know I am not the first to tread this path and will not be the last. But I hope it was (or will be) helpful for others to have put my dilemma out there. And it has been helpful to me to be loved by you all today. Thank you. Why don't you all pop over for a cup of tea some time.

Meredith said...

Amy - not sure what it is like in your neck of the woods but we have a very generous government here. We can receive means tested parenting type allowances until the children are 16 and even then it can be on-going under certain circumstances beyond that for fully dependent children living at home and in full time study, up to 20 years old I think. It isn't equivalent to a salary but it is a good amount that makes a big difference. It certainly helped us in our student years and even now, props up our budget. I would think it would be a significant help for homeschooling mums, especially if their husbands don't earn enormous salaries.

One of the quandaries though is that the means testing is very pronounced and often, going back to work for a day or two can leave you further behind than you would have been had you stayed home. The parenting payment cuts out faster than you can earn it back, if you get what I mean.

Which raises the question of whether the government does this to encourage you to stay at home or whether, if one has earning capacity, they should go out and earn to save precious dollars for the government to use elsewhere. But that is another problem for another day!

Mrs. Edwards said...

Thanks for the explanation on those benefits. "Very generous" indeed. We're pretty suspicious of strings attached with that sort of generosity, so that is interesting.

When our first babies (twins) were born, I initially returned to work part time. After six years of hard-charging in my company job, my heart just wasn't interested in it anymore. All the fulfillment from work was gone. My income was about 2/3 of our joint income since my "career" was a corporate accounting job and my husband's is civil service (which pays lower). Cutting our income that substantially was a difficult decision that required a lot of faith, but God has always provided for our needs.

You've got some wise commenters here and I don't have much wisdom for you! My situation is very different.

I do think, however, that the idea of housework being a factor in the decision is a bit of a distraction. I would instead ask, not if the laundry suffers when you are working again, but if your ability to disciple (note that says disciple not discipline) your children suffers. When kids are away at school our responsibility to Deut. 6 doesn't go away--in fact it intensifies because our kids' teachers are not partners with us in bringing them up in the Lord (unless, perhaps, it is a Christian school).

Whatever our vocation as women, as Christ-followers our sanctification and holiness should be our primary concern. The wondrous thing about God is that He uses our circumstances as the means for accomplishing our sanctification, not usually as the end of our sanctification. He is faithful! Whatever our circumstances, He will shape us to be more like Jesus! Thanks be to God.

Jenny said...

Hi Meredith - you know from my blog that I am going through exactly (bizarrely the same!) transition with my youngest starting preschool two days a week this year. I have been longing for 2010 for so many years for the same reasons as you. And similarly to you I've really struggled all through first term. So much so, that I just felt tired and overwhelmed a lot of the time.

It's not a straightforward question of either 'stay at home' or 'go back to work' is it?

We are blessed women to have so many options and I'm trying to focus on the privilege it is to have choice.

Keep writing Meredith - it is an important topic to keep talking about.

Sarah said...

Putting the money issue aside, ask yourself what would be the best use of your time as a Christian? If the boys and husband are busy elsewhere and you working is not impacting on you serving them, then I say go for it. Whether it be unpaid work (ie. visiting the elderly, volunteering etc) or teaching in a paid capacity, you have a great opportunity to show the love of Christ to those you come into contact with. I had to ask myself these questions when I moved to the farm and had no job initially. We get this house rent-free and we COULD survive on one income, but I chose to work part-time because I wanted to meet those who do not yet know God. We don't have kids (yet) so that isn't an issue, and I was repeatedly told by Christian women I respect that I should just stay home and enjoy being a 'kept woman'. To me this did not feel right as it wasn't a good use of the gifts God has given me when I am healthy and able to work. Yes, the extra income is a bonus, but also a challenge to give generously. Even if you stay home, that time could still be used for inviting others to your home and sharing with them. I guess whatever we all choose, it's about balance and using our time well. I'm sure God will guide you in this. Blessings :)

Meredith said...

Amy, I think you are spot on in saying that, whatever is decided, much rests on whether or not I am able to keep caring for the family in a godly way. And also, that my relationship with God doesn't suffer either, for that matter. Which is why I was careful to tack on "bearing in mind my own capacities and circumstances" at the end of my $64 question. Because I know my capacities are not what they were ten years ago!!

And Sarah - it is a great observation that being in a work place does open out a new mission field, which is always a good thing.

It just all shows this is SO not a black and white issue. I may need to do another post to summarise all of these wonderful comments and draw out some more of the issues because yes Jenny, it isn't a straight forward thing. You will now understand why my opening comments on your blog were so effusive because I was so pleased to find a fellow traveller.

Thanks friends.

And thanks be to God for the blessing of options and for your fellowship.

Meredith said...

May I also add that we almost own a humble home in a humble suburb. We expect the mortgage to done and dusted late next year. This is one of the miracles of God's good provision for us, especially in our student years, that we could keep the mortgage ticking over.

I guess my focus on the financial aspect is about being able to offer our boys a few choices down the track in terms of schooling opportunities other than our local high school which may or may not be an OK choice at the time, one big holiday in their childhood and so on. We (the adults) are quite happy with the simple life but our decision has an impact on our offspring and the lifestyle we choose for them too. Which is why I liked Jean's quote so much because I need to ask myself how much I am being seduced by the world and how much is the reality of modern day, first world living.

mattnbec said...

No words of wisdom. Merely thanks for articulating the dilemma that I feel coming in a few years and am glad to hear others thinking through.