I gave birth to my son right as I approached a major professional crossroads. That uncertainty and stress — combined with my anxiety and sadness over the thought of leaving him with someone else — made it easier to leave my old job and look for my next professional venture, versus immediately prioritizing paid work. It's been a sacrifice for our family, for sure, but we're fortunate to have been able to even make that choice. However, since I don't fit the stereotype of a stay-at-home mom, I've had a number of people say they're "surprised" that I'd quit my job.
The choice to be a stay-at-home parent is complex. Some families run the numbers and realize that, once things like commuting and childcare costs are factored in, one parent staying home with the kids makes more economic sense than sacrificing that time with them and essentially paying to go to a job. For others, their current work isn't as personally satisfying to them as spending time with their families. So, if they can find a way to make it work, they quit. There are plenty of other financial, personal, and lifestyle factors that families consider when deciding how to meet all of their economic and social obligations, so it shouldn't really surprise anyone that there's considerable variety in who might end up quitting a job when they become a parent, and who may end up staying in the workforce.
If all this seems way too confusing, or if you're looking at this like, "Oh, God, another thing I never thought about before. How do I avoid offending my friends if I find myself in a conversation like this?" Honestly, there's a really simple solution. When people make choices that they’re happy with, be happy for them. If you're genuinely caught off guard — even if you can't take back your raised eyebrows or an exclamation of, "Oh, wow!" — you can avoid digging yourself into a further hole by not commenting directly about how surprised you are, or talking about how you'd never expect "someone like them" to make that choice. Just listen to whatever they're saying and be happy for them. Chances are, when people are "surprised" a mom quit her job, it's for one of the following reasons, many of which would make for really awkward conversation if actually said out loud.
They're Wondering About Your Financial Status
Finances are still a fairly taboo topic in most social circles, but that doesn't mean people aren't curious about it. So when someone makes a big economic choice like the decision to give up most or all of their paid work, a lot of folks wonder, "Wow. Um, can they afford that?"
(Friends who may also face that choice soon might be especially curious, trying to figure out how much sacrifice it might require to do the same. It turns out, most parents do not give up paid work completely even if they stay home, so there's that.)
They Make Certain Assumptions About Working Women...
Despite the fact that most adults need to do some kind of paid work in order to live in our society, a lot of people still hang onto the idea that women working is more of a lifestyle or political choice than an economic necessity. So when a "Working Gal" decides to quit her job, it genuinely surprises them, since they assume her previous choice may have meant something that it actually didn't.
...Or About What It Means To Spend Your Days With (Your) Kids
It doesn't get as much attention as other forms of social bias, but bias against children is a thing. As a result, many people look down on people who decide to spend their time with young children rather than adults. (See also: disdain for teachers, especially those who teach the youngest age groups. I also got plenty of surprised, "Wait, really?!" comments when I told people I was using my top flight education to be an elementary school teacher.)
People assume that because children think differently from adults, in some ways, that adults who spend all of their time with them are either making an intellectual sacrifice, or that they're less intelligent in general. But empathizing with kids, teaching them, and anticipating the physical, mental, and emotional challenges they will face throughout the day requires a lot of cognitive energy (hence why teachers and moms are among the most tired people on the planet).
...Or About What It Means To “Choose Kids Over Your Career”
I agree that the "can women have it all" conversation is silly and misguided, for a number of reasons. However, it's also limiting to think of "family versus career" as an all-or-nothing proposition, and it's downright offensive to assume that family life is inherently less respectable or meaningful than professional work. That's as offensive as assuming that everyone, especially women, needs to have children to be personally fulfilled.
People can take time to focus on family and still pursue their personal and professional goals, even if their path may look different than it might have if they didn't have children. There's more than one way to achieve success, and people all have different definitions of what success looks like for them.
They Privilege “Professional” Pursuits Over Care Work...
For a significant chunk of Western history, men have dominated paid, professional work and the kind of work they've done has been considered more prestigious and worthwhile than the care work that is often associated with women. So when a mom quits her job, sometimes people see it as a step "down," socially speaking. Honestly, though? That's pretty messed up. Professional work and care work are both necessary to make a society run, so they should both be valued.
...Or Make Certain Assumptions About Which ‘Type’ Of Person Chooses Which
If someone is surprised that "someone like you!" would quit her job, that's because they have a certain image of what kind of person stays home with her kids, and what kind of person doesn't. The truth is, many different kinds of people stay home with kids, and many different kinds of people go back to work. They all have various reasons and circumstances, so it really shouldn't be that surprising.
They Don’t Think It’s A Feminist Choice…
Unfortunately, there are people who identify as feminist, who look sideways at their feminist friends if they choose to quit their jobs after becoming mothers. That in itself is surprising, because picking apart individual women's choices for evidence of whether or not their sufficiently feminist isn't a particularly useful (or feminist) thing to do.
There are definitely oppressive, structural realities that make choosing to leave a job after becoming a parent something women are statistically more likely to do than men. For instance, since gender discrimination in hiring, promotions, and pay is still rampant, it can often make more economic "sense" for a mother to quit her job than a father. But if an individual woman weighs her overall situation and decides that she and her family will be better off if she leaves her job, that doesn't make her a bad feminist, nor does it automatically preclude her from being part of a larger cultural shift that makes society more free. Employment status has nothing to do with how feminist an individual person is.
...Or They Don’t Think That’s Something A Feminist Would Choose To Do
On the flip side, it's also odd when people still assume that choosing to do care work is something that avowed feminists don't do. Feminists are people, and people love and care about other people, including their children. It shouldn't surprise us when anyone decides to take care of their families full time. It should surprise us that this is still a necessary conversation, and that there's still so little support for care work and the people — of any gender or family role — who do the necessary labor of keeping children (and ill and elderly family members) alive and healthy.