By Jane Kelly

Over the past four years, I have gone from being able to identify world leaders to being able to tell the difference between a front loader and a back hoe. Presidents and prime ministers have been replaced by Thomas the Tank Engine and Groovy Girls, and The Preschooler’s Busy Book has edged out The Economist on my must-read list.

Why the transformation? The easy answer is that I chose to quit my job as a news editor and stay at home with my kids. But the switch was anything but easy. I had toiled for ten years in a hectic newsroom, racing to meet quarter-hourly deadlines. I looked forward to gearing down once my first child arrived and viewed my 12-week maternity leave as an oasis of calm. Looking back, I never realized how serene my work life was.

After I had my first child, a daughter in 1999, my crazy, but neatly compartmentalized life was turned on its ear. Non-stop nursing took the place of round-the-clock news conferences, and sleep became a fond and distant memory.

As I planned for the arrival of my daughter, it never occurred to me to quit my job and stay at home after her arrival. My husband and I were living in Alexandria, Virginia, at the time and all my child-bearing peers continued to work after having their babies. When their due dates arrived, they would vanish from the office and return to work within 12 weeks.

My daughter’s entry into the world marked the end of my ability to control my days and nights. I was ill prepared for the rigors of dealing with an infant who seemed never to require more than a 40-minute nap, day or night. Whoever said infants sleep all the time was not talking about my sweet little girl.

As my 12-week maternity leave slipped away, sleep depravation began to settle in and I anguished over how I could get my brain back in functioning form before reentering the newsroom.

But go back I did. The daily routine was a rotten one. My husband and I would wake at the crack of dawn, dress ourselves and our daughter and shoot out the door. I would drop Ellie off at daycare at seven a.m. and rush off to work in D.C. Our evenings consisted of making bottles for the next day and trying to settle our little one down by 7:30.

This daily grind went on for several months, and I struggled to master motherhood as I had my professional life. But I felt a huge handicap because I was not in the trenches with my daughter 24/7, doing the basic dawn-to-dusk routine.

Weeks changed into months and before I knew it my little girl was a one-year-old. My thoughts turned to having another child, but I was gun shy. Working a 40-hour week and caring for my daughter was the hardest thing I’d ever done and it slowly dawned on me that I was not able to do both well. I was stressed out, half dead with fatigue and felt like a zombie.

Luckily, the decision to have a second child was made for me. It was a happy accident, and one that forced the issue of whether or not I should continue working once my son was born in early 2002. After his birth, my husband and I decided we would tighten our purse strings, and I would be the one to stay at home with the kids.

The development both excited and frightened me. I was happy to finally be a full-time mom, but quitting my job worried me. I had worked long and hard to reach the level I had achieved in the newsroom and worried I would be penalized for stepping out of my career to raise my kids.

My only consolation was in knowing that I wasn’t alone: millions of other parents have faced the same decision.

Nancy, mom of toddler Tommy, says her concerns kept her going to her office for the first year of her son’s life. “I was working from fear for a long time,” says the former marketing manager of a high-powered D.C. law firm. Nancy says after her maternity leave ended she felt she had to return to her job stronger than ever. “I had to go in and plug away and prove myself and show that it was not going to be a hindrance having a child.”

For Amanda, mother of 5-year-old Claire, the call to stay home became irresistible as her daughter changed from infant to toddler and then preschooler. “I felt it was important to participate in her early education and help her with the transition into kindergarten.” The former sales and marketing representative also says she felt forced to quit her job because telecommuting was not an option.

Nancy says in addition to concerns about the vitality of her career, she was worried that staying home with her son would change her relationship with her husband. “Before I quit my job I was making more money than my husband. It freaked me out to have to ask for money and I worried it might imbalance our relationship.” But she says her fear was unfounded. “What I’ve found is that we really planned for this and we are both just trying to be involved equally in our family budget.”

Once they’ve cleared the big hurdles to becoming a full time parent—quitting a job, figuring out how to make ends meet—many moms and dads find new challenges await them. One of the biggest is adjusting to the gratifying, but sometimes mind-numbing world of life with young children.

My 2-year-old son is obsessed with cars and walks around the house spouting the word “Car!” incessantly at top volume. It was cute the first 200 times, but enough is enough. And for a brief, but very painful period of time, my 4-year-old daughter would dissolve into tears every time she didn’t get exactly what she wanted.

Filling the void left by leaving your day job can be the key to survival in a kid-centric world. Nancy says she has tried hard to replace the sense of community she lost when she resigned. “I do a lot through my church. There are coffees, lectures, a babysitter, and I meet other people, really bright and outgoing men and women in the same situation I am in.”

Making the leap to staying at home with your child can be a huge financial burden as well as an emotional one. But the payoff is huge. Being home means you get to be the one to put that first Band-aid on your child’s knee when he falls taking his first steps. It means helping your pre-K child master her ABCs and going to the library to pick out that new chapter book.

And don’t worry, all the multi-tasking you learned on the job will not go to waste. As I wrote this article, I also lined up a babysitter for Saturday night and paused to take my son’s temperature. He has a fever. So I hope you will excuse me, I have to go to the doctor’s office now.

Jane Kelly lives in Charlottesville with her wonderful husband and two children, Ellie and Clay.

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