Identity crisis of a stay-home mum

ST ILLUSTRATIONS
Tee Hun Ching.
Tee Hun Ching.PHOTO: ST FILE

While filling out the immigration card enroute to a family holiday last month, my pen hovered over the box marked "occupation".

Since I began working as a journalist more than 15 years ago, I've always paused at this section. On one of my first work trips, I was told not to come clean if I wanted to avoid trouble because people tend to be suspicious of the press.

In my attempt not to bend the truth too much, I settled for "publishing executive" and have breezed through passport checks all these years with a clear conscience.

This time, however, I was facing a different internal struggle. I left full-time work about two years ago, when my husband began clocking longer hours and travelling more frequently for work. We were averaging less than an hour of face-time each day with our two kids then and decided something had to give.

So I left my job as editor of Urban, the fashion and beauty magazine of the pre-revamped Straits Times, and began copy-editing for the Life section on a part-time basis.

The arrangement, which allowed me to work from home, was a godsend: I could fulfil the myriad mummy duties and still earn my keep. But I chose to give that up too a few months ago after other domestic changes.

The sense of loss didn't hit me until a friend, when introducing me to another mum recently, said: "We are all stay-at-home mums."

My first instinct was to protest. "But I'm not," the words were at the tip of my tongue. "I'm...I'm..." I drew a blank. What was I without my job? Nothing. At least, nothing that I was comfortable with.

There on the plane, for the first time in my life, I wrote "homemaker" under occupation and felt like a fraud. I grapple with the term because I'm useless around the house and can't be trusted to make anything - cake, origami frog or even peace between my kids.

I'm hardly helping to put food on the table or pay off the mortgage either, with what I make as a freelance writer.

"I have an identity crisis," I moaned to two friends from the newsroom when we caught up over breakfast last week.

Where once my son had a ready answer when asked what his mum does - "She's an editor" - he now struggles to understand what "freelance" means.

"It just means that you don't go to the office and don't work most of the time, right?" my eight-year-old summed up after a long and futile explanation from me.

I paused, thought about it and nodded. Yup, that was essentially it. Who was I trying to kid?

Where once I sometimes had people asking if I wrote for The Straits Times after seeing my name in full, I'm now just known mostly as Daniel or Lauren's mum.

My blazers, blouses and office-worthy bags lie neglected, supplanted by tank tops, shorts and a trusty carry-all with fraying straps as I dash about each day doing pick-ups and drop-offs.

My days are packed, but with what, I can't really say. It's a sort of flimsy busyness knitted from the minutiae of everyday life.

When I stop and take stock of my life, a whirlpool of insecurities churn within me.

It's a worthy sacrifice, surely. But why do I wonder if my staying home with my kids would pay off in any significant way 10 or 20 years from now?

I've willingly hit the pause button as I wait for them to outgrow their need for my constant presence. Yet I worry that when they finally do, I can no longer just press play and waltz back into a meaningful job. Worse, I fear that I would no longer want to, having grown lazy and rusty.

And while I'm glad that I now have time to volunteer at my son's school, join a church ministry and work out regularly, I feel guilty about not making more out of this seemingly idyllic life.

It's uncool, even pathetic. But I can't help pegging my self-worth to having a job. Maybe it's because I know I make a far better corporate drone than I ever will a stay-home mum.

I have friends who thrive in this role and I admire their competence and contentment, their ability to clean, cook, craft and dish out cuddles with equal aplomb.

But I don't like not working. I don't like not earning my own money. I don't like feeling alternately apologetic and defensive when asked what I do for a living. Most of all, I don't like being seen as irrelevant in the world beyond my doorstep.

I feel pangs of wistful envy whenever I hear about girlfriends who are making great strides in their career. Then I wonder which rung of the newsroom ladder I could have reached had I agreed to work in bigger sections where late shifts and weekend duties are the norm.

My inner turmoil leads me to lash out at my kids sometimes.

After I'd shouted, at the end of a trying day marked by unceasing squabbles, that I wished I could go back to work and deal with things more meaningful than their childish spats, my son asked in a stricken voice: "Mama, you don't like staying home with us?"

The thing is, I do. I like being mum to them. I like being able to read their moods instantly. I like knowing the names of all their friends and making friends with the mums of their pals. I like being privy to every little peak and valley of their daily lives. 

Is that enough? Not always. But for now, I take comfort in the fact that I'm doing my best for them as a mum, even if that doesn't seem like much sometimes.

Perhaps one day, I would be able to proudly declare that I am a "homemaker" and feel like I deserve the title.

•Send your views to stlife@sph.com.sg

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 26, 2015, with the headline 'Identity crisis of a stay-home mum'. Print Edition | Subscribe