Meet the New Boss
By Carrie Zuberbuhler Kennedy '90
Photo Illustration by Nancy L. Ford
Glancing at the clock, I realized I was running out of time. I had been working for more than two hours to meet a deadline, and at any moment my boss would come into my office and expect me to give her my full attention on other projects. If I could just finish up the outline and make one more phone call....
That's when I heard her coming down the hall. She pushed open my office door and stood there, staring at me. She held a stuffed monkey in one hand and rubbed a sleepy eye with the other. With her pigtails askew from her afternoon nap, she whispered, "Hello, Mommy."
The boss is here. Where are the Legos?
This scenario played out over and over again during my early years as a stay-at-home mom. I had earned a master's degree in special education and taught for 10 years before our first daughter was born, and my husband and I agreed that I would stay home at least until our younger daughter was in school. In the meantime, I was balancing mommying with freelance writing and was learning to accept the frequent interruptions of my two "bosses."
Stealing time alone at my desk, though, with a doll at my feet and a blotch of baby food on my shoulder — Eww! What is that? — I often thought about what other women were doing. Professional women with briefcases and expense accounts, jetting off to meet with important clients. Wearing clean shirts.
My daughters are a little older now and my clothes no longer smell like pureed peas, but I still stop to consider the choices I have made as a parent, a spouse and a well-educated person of the 21st century. And apparently, so have many other women — and men — from my alma mater. So I welcomed the opportunity recently to share experiences with several other alumni who have chosen to spend time at home to raise their children: the Rev. Larry DeLong '78, Liz Finegan Menges '84, Margaret Carpenter Jones '88, Bonnie Jones Shugrue '90 and Susie Szeto Price '92. I also spoke with two alums who have professional experience working with parents and children: Carrie Contey '93 and Ward Halverson '92.
Taking the Leap
"Parenting is arguably life's biggest step," says Contey, who earned a doctorate in 2006 and is a nationally recognized leader in the field of prenatal and perinatal psychology. "Billions of people have parented before, but the experience is so life-altering and personal that new moms and dads often feel isolated and ill-equipped. And after working hard in school, earning degrees and job titles, parents who choose to stay home face a huge adjustment when they have to completely redefine their role."
Jones, for example, earned a degree from Albany Law School and practiced law for seven years before moving to Indiana with her husband Jeff and their first daughter. They now have four children, and while Jones maintains her license back in Massachusetts, she has not worked since the move.
"Jeff and I discussed it," she says, "and we both agreed that it was what we wanted for our family. But when my children were little, I remember asking Jeff how it was possible to feel lonely and sometimes overwhelmed when I was also as content and fulfilled as I had ever been in my life."
Shugrue also faced a tough decision when she became a stay-at-home mother. She had earned a master's degree in English literature and taught in Connecticut for almost 10 years before she had her first child. She had taken a year's maternity leave, but as that deadline loomed, she was torn.
"I adored teaching, I loved my students, and not working was going to be a real financial strain," she says. "But one night my husband Chris was watching me with our son, and he just said, 'Don't go back.' The relief was immense, and we both knew we were finally making the right decision."
In talking about choosing to leave the workforce, Contey observes, "When parents have decided to stay home full time with their children but they feel the need to justify that decision, I tell them to refer to themselves as 'brain architects.' It's a big job to build and support a new life, and a very important one." She detailed the elements of a movement called Slow Family Living, which she and a colleague founded after teaching classes for new parents. "We noticed that these new mothers and fathers were already feeling such stress because they thought they weren't doing enough or weren't doing things perfectly, and we knew that those same fears were present in parents with older children, too."
The manifesto for Slow Family Living warns against families allowing themselves to be "hijacked" by the speed of modern society, and it reminds parents to slow down and make a conscious decision to set priorities that benefit the family as a whole. Often, Contey says, that is easier when one parent can focus on home and children, especially while children are young.
The Benefits of Flexibility
DeLong, a music major, exemplified this manifesto. He had met his wife Valerie while they were both serving as Navy chaplains, and after he returned to civilian ministry, they adopted twins from the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan. Not long after, Valerie was assigned to work in Alaska, and their nanny quit with no notice.
"I joined Valerie and the two kids in Alaska," DeLong says, "and while at first I planned to find full-time work there, I immediately realized that our 2-year-olds needed me more than I needed a job." So he did some part-time work and used his music degree to direct a choir, but he was his daughters' primary caregiver for almost six years. "I did what was necessary for my wife's success and for our family's well-being while we were in Alaska."
The DeLongs have been living in Arizona for a year now, and Larry serves as senior pastor at Valley Presbyterian Church while Valerie stays at home. "We've found that many of the skills of being the at-home parent are not contagious," he says with a laugh. "She's had to go through the same learning process that I did six years ago."
Price was also able to respond to an unexpected situation because of the flexibility of being a stay-at-home parent. When she and her husband, who live in Altadena, Calif., had concerns that the local public school was not meeting their daughter's educational needs, Susie researched an online program and homeschooled for a year.
"Our daughter always learned a little differently," she says, "and homeschooling suited her need to mix experiences up a bit. One day could be just about history, and another day we'd spend time just on earth science. We could study in the morning, at nights or on weekends, and we saw that learning became more meaningful for her." Price's daughter is now in the third grade at an innovative charter school, but Price is grateful that she was able to help her through a difficult time, and she feels homeschooling was an opportunity for her family to grow and learn together.
The Need to Readjust
When Menges decided to stay home with her children, she could not have foreseen just how much she would be needed. She had married fellow Hamilton grad Pete Menges '85 and had worked for five years in the advertising industry before having their first of four children. She was already balancing the kids and doing a great deal of volunteer work when the unthinkable happened: Their youngest son, Bobby, was diagnosed with cancer.
"It turned out to be even more important than we anticipated to have one of us not working," she recalls. "Pete's job required him to travel, and the strain of caring for Bobby while raising three other children ... it was a lot." But Menges also found a way to channel her expertise and her energy while supporting Bobby through his successful treatment. She had already been volunteering for their local hospital, but after her son's diagnosis, she began doing work for its affiliated pediatric cancer center. She developed an extensive parents' referral resource binder, which is now given to every new family at the center to help them stay organized so they can focus on their child's needs.
Halverson, a certified child and family therapist, applauds families who seek to find a balance, and he gives even more credit to those who can successfully re-adjust that balance when new or difficult needs arise. He runs his own practice in Herkimer, N.Y., and deals primarily with veterans and with children who behave defiantly.
"Keeping the needs of the family in check is the biggest job for a parent," he says. "I often see moms and dads who are just going through the motions, parents who are stuck in expected routines and don't recognize how much they must adjust in response to the changing needs of their children."
Major adjustments must be made when there's an illness in the family or when there are other events like a move or a new marriage. But Halverson says that some of the most important adjustments that parents need to make are ongoing and much more subtle. "The first 18 years of life are just an incredible time," he says. "At every stage, parents need to find appropriate ways to guide their kids, support them, without becoming hovering helicopters. Of course, both working parents and stay-at-home parents can do this successfully, but it requires a conscious effort to remain effective. It requires high expectations, a unified front, lots of modeling and lots of love."
Taking Care of the Caregiver
All of these alums said they felt fortunate to have had the choice to stay home, and all were grateful for the full support of their spouses. But these hardworking "brain architects," to use Contey's term, said that when they made the decision to stay at home, they also had reservations about missing out on professional opportunities.
Luckily, however, the 21st century offers growing flexibility for those parents who want to stay involved in the world of work. Menges, for instance, not only answered a need by creating a resource binder for parents of young cancer patients, she also sets her own schedule to care for a neighborhood baby and to work as an office manager and editorial assistant for a local doctor. Over the past two decades, she has also served as a fundraiser for schools, volunteered as a literacy tutor, helped out at a safe house for abused women, and served Hamilton as both a HART admission volunteer and a Class Notes correspondent.
The other alums have also stayed active. Jones is a volunteer with her church and her children's schools and would like to become a Guardian Ad Litem for children involved in the family courts. DeLong maintained his professional status as a minister while he was raising his children and also developed skills as a writer and wood artist. Shugrue kept her teacher certification active and plans to return to teaching.
And although Halverson's wife is the primary caregiver to their children, he can make adjustments to his schedule in order to spend more time at home when he needs to, and he and his family also work together to run Ward's Pond Bed and Breakfast in Dolgeville, N.Y. "We live in a historic, five-story house that has been in our family for six generations," he says. "My wife and I have restored it and now run it as an inn. And I make a great soufflé and a really mean crêpe!"
Contey notes that such alternatives are not as elusive as they once were for career-trained men and women. "It's definitely easier now for parents who stay at home to not lose sight of themselves professionally," she says. "There are more part-time options, more options to do consulting or freelance work. There are online classes and limitless volunteer choices, and careers have a flexibility they've never had before. Parents can ride both rails, so to speak, and be ready to embrace professional opportunities when the time is right for them and for their families. And this is healthy because intensive, hands-on parenting is just one stage of life."
If I were to ask myself some of the same questions that I asked my fellow alums, I would say that despite the stained shirts and occasional doubts, I would not choose to do it any differently.
I have loved holding a front-row ticket to watch my girls grow, and I am grateful for the flexibility that staying at home has offered my family. And since becoming a parent, I have still managed to put my English degree to good use by teaching classes, running workshops and writing, and I have recently published a book on classical mythology. I have done most of my work late at night, long after my girls are in bed, which suits me just fine because I have always done some of my best writing in the wee hours.
Come to think of it, the powers that be at Hamilton must have known this because they never scheduled my English classes until at least 10 a.m.