This morning, I left my house in my typical “uniform.” That’s sweatpants, a T-shirt — my “good” one today, a gift rather than freebie promotional swag — and dirty hair clipped back off my face. I’ll shower once all of the kids are where they need to be.
It hit me while jogging down the stairs, repeating my usual “hurry up! we’re late!” refrain, that my snow boots made a clomping sound on the steps where heels once clicked. There was a time when my preferred “uniform” was skirts and rope necklaces and cute sweaters. I had a fleeting thought that I should donate the string of blazers in my closet that have been hanging there, untouched, for the last three years.
Three years ago I went from being a working mom, a role I loved, to being a stay-at-home mom, a role I’m still adjusting to. I wonder if I’ll ever fully adjust.
I’m far from alone: Women left the workforce at higher numbers than men in 2020, whether due to layoffs or to provide essential child care. Women are still dealing with the fallout, as the childcare industry continues to struggle and battles continue over remote work. Lots of moms found themselves at home in sweatpants, and lots of them are still there.
All things considered, my family has dodged the major bullets of COVID fairly well: No one close to us has died or gotten seriously ill, and we managed to avoid getting sick ourselves until October 2022. But it nonetheless dramatically changed our lives: I was laid off almost immediately, brought back when my employer received PPP money, then laid off again.
For the first year of lockdown — and our family did indeed lock down, taking every precaution until vaccines were available — I had to do a job I was utterly unfamiliar with: stay-at-home mother. I was good at being a working mom. Each day pre-COVID, I went to a place I enjoyed, a place I felt I was contributing to the world, and my kids went to daycare and school — places they were stimulated and cared for. Suddenly, we were together all day, every day, and I was no longer a magazine editor. I was a teacher and playmate and activity coordinator and cook and maid. I am a bad teacher. I have no interest in make-believe games. I have no idea what activities should fill a 3-year-old’s day. I do not enjoy cooking. I certainly do not enjoy cleaning.
I went from one job I loved to five I … did not.
I recognize how lucky we were to be in the circumstances we were in — healthy and (somewhat) financially stable enough to be able to stay at home as much as we did. My husband’s job was largely unaffected, and he was able to work from home for two years (although I don’t envy him working a full day in a small house where one child or another is always laughing or yelling or crying).
But it wasn’t the life I had chosen for myself.
A lot of therapy helped, and eventually, I embraced the new role. What choice did I have?
I declared last summer The Summer of Fun and forced my non-crafty self to make a wall calendar with blank days for June through August. We filled it in as we went, and when fall came I was pleased to see nearly every day had been brimming with some activity: new playgrounds across the city, zoo trips, Kennywood amusement park, and a long-awaited beach vacation. I looked at the calendar and realized I had truly enjoyed a summer as a stay-at-home mom.
Today, with three fully vaccinated children in school — two in elementary school and one in half-day preschool — my days have a routine again. I drive my two older children to school, come home, refill my coffee, and take my 3-year-old to preschool. I shower. Eventually, blessedly, my previous employer brought me back part-time, allowing me to keep some of my sanity, although that has brought its own slew of issues, from finding time to work with children underfoot to configuring a budget on a significantly lower salary. I now work alone in my bedroom, which has doubled as an office for nearly three years.
But I miss seeing co-workers in person. I miss ducking out for a quick lunch with grown-ups, where no one is spilling their juice or whining that their chicken nuggets have “too many crumbs.” I still communicate with my co-workers regularly, but it’s not the same. Nothing is the same. And getting a full-time job seems impossible between the increased cost of daycare and the fact that someone always has just enough of the sniffles that require them to stay home in this post-COVID world.
I miss my old life. When I walk out my front door every morning in tennis shoes and with no makeup; when I miss an office happy hour because I no longer have child care; when I settle in bleary-eyed with my laptop after the kids are in bed, I feel a pang of longing. I feel cheated. And I spend a lot of time wondering if those feelings will ever go away.
Lauren Davidson is a Pittsburgh-based writer and editor focusing on parenting, arts and culture, and weddings. She has worked at newspapers and magazines in New England and western Pennsylvania and is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh with degrees in English and French. She lives with her four energetic kids and one affectionate cat. Follow her on Twitter @laurenmylo.