I’ve just finished placing two carefully packed backpacks by the front door as if the act of organizing can somehow ensure a happy school year ahead. Tomorrow, for the first time, I’ll send both my kids — ages 5 and 7 — to the same school on the same full-day schedule. It’s a motherhood milestone. And one that also marks the official transition out of my career downshift and into a chapter of work outside of the home.
But tonight, I’ll stay awake, deep in mostly motherhood thoughts. I won’t worry about my kids’ new teachers or my growing workload. I’ll think through all the things I could have done differently. I was primarily a home-parent for five years. I loved it and I preemptively miss it. But sometimes when all is quiet, I think I got parts of parenting wrong.
Here’s what swirls around my mind at midnight: Did I put too much pressure on myself to “ace” parenting and use my kids’ behavior as my barometer? Did I invest enough in making mom friends? Would my kids have been better off with less time at home with me and more time in social environments with caregivers and other kids?
It doesn’t help my overthinking that I talk about this all day. I’m the founder of Mother Untitled, a community for modern moms who paused or downshifted their careers to focus on family life for a chapter. I get to hear about other women’s wins and worries, which helps me reflect on my own. So here, in a reflection on my own lived experience, is what I wish I’d known from the start.
Your kids’ behavior isn’t a fair measure of your success as a mother.
For the first two years of stay-at-home motherhood, I reveled in it. The baby stage was delicious. Sure, there were breastfeeding issues, sleepless nights, and so much laundry, but I relished meeting new women in the baby classes, tinkering with new projects during long nap times, and the fascinating nature of watching a child grow. Then I had a second kid, and three-year-old meltdowns, clinginess, and pushing on the playground began. I questioned my competence as a mom. I wondered how, after all I had done to make room in my life to really be there, I could be failing. But I wasn’t actually failing. I was just parenting. I didn’t know this, so I got mad, mostly at myself, but sometimes, more than I like to admit, at my kids, too. Expecting little kids to perform as a metric of my own success was a recipe for feeling like a constant failure – and for developing a difficult relationship with my children. Neither I nor anyone else can control the very normal stages of growing up and who these kids are or who they will be.
My children are picky eaters and slow to warm up to new people. My son is a problem solver who can fix a broken dock; my daughter can sing and dance better than I could dream to myself. I can’t take credit for those gifts, so by the same logic, nothing I did or didn’t do resulted in their growth areas either.
Mom friends are a lifeline.
When I felt totally alone in my inability to control a handsy three-year-old and a gassy infant, I stopped going to the shared playroom in my family’s apartment building. I was on high alert at the playground for squabbles about slides. I cried as much as my toddler at my one attempt at a group brunch. I hated people seeing me messy. But motherhood is messy. And truthfully, I feel more comfortable around a little mess. I trust the honest, down-to-earth, imperfect people more. I wish I’d let more women into my mess back then. It would have helped me. It would have helped my kids. I wish I’d pushed past my discomfort and shown up in real life…even with tearful toddlers and spit-up stained sweatshirts.
I deserved help.
A recurring anxiety loop that often hits at night: Imagining who my kids would have been if they had had one of those social nannies seen in the NYC parks, ensconced in a crew of kids and caregivers, or if they had gone to daycare two days a week. Those options seemed off-limits for a mom like me who didn’t need childcare to work, but did know that her children and her own mental health would benefit from an experienced, outgoing childcare provider and more time spent with other kids. Over the years I’ve invested in childcare hesitantly and guiltily, typically striving to use the bare minimum for my needs or to get through a very challenging rough patch, like the postpartum anxiety I experienced when I became a mother of two. Like too many women I speak with through Mother Untitled, I falsely believed I didn’t “deserve” consistent or bountiful help, even though I could afford it. Looking back, I wish I’d allowed more people to help me care for my kids — not only for my benefit, but for my kids’ sake. With just a little more childcare in our lives, my kids would have had a more supported mother with fresh energy. They also would have experienced new playmates, and new ways to move through the world. Childcare isn’t an investment in the mother; it’s an investment in the whole household.
I wonder if my children would have been different if I’d done it differently. But thinking about that is both painful and futile. My children are thoughtful, creative, witty, loving, and the best travel buddies I could have hoped for. My children and I are precisely who we are meant to be, and we are learning (including from our mistakes) side by side.
Tomorrow, I’ll drop my son and daughter off at school and then walk six blocks to an office where I’ll keep building on my mission to update the perception of stay-at-home motherhood, infusing it with ambition, dignity, growth and potential. It’s work I discovered because of my time focused on my kids. I may have made mistakes, but I’ll never really regret them. It was the privilege of my lifetime to choose to watch my children grow into exactly who they are. And I grew up right alongside them.
Neha Ruch is the founder of Mother Untitled, the leading platform for ambitious women leaning into family life, which she founded in 2017. A thought leader, writer and speaker on parenting, women, work and identity, Neha worked for a decade in digital and brand strategy and earned an MBA from Stanford. Mother Untitled recently released part one of American Mothers on Pause, a proprietary study about modern stay-at-home mothers. Neha’s first book, The Power Pause, will be published by Putnam/Penguin Random House in January 2025.