Last year, I decided to work less in order to stay home with my son. It was a big decision to make. At first, my parents were wary of me doing so. I think that, initially, their logic was that they didn’t work hard and sacrifice so much to send me to school and watch me “end up a housewife” (their words, not mine). They got over this fear after we sat down to have an honest conversation. My husband was also supportive, but nervous about the reliable chunk of money that came with my salary not showing up in our bank account every month. We decided to give it a try anyway. I felt like I needed to; so, I did it.
The almost-two years with my son has quickly come to an end. In three days, he will be returning to school and I will be heading back to campus to greet my undergrads in full force (which I am really excited about). I’m not going to lie. I’m excited. I miss them. I even miss their lame excuses and funky e-mails.
Knowing that our time together is coming to an end has put me in a reflective mood. I keep thinking about my childhood and his. Staying home with him has given me a deeper appreciation for the women who took care of me: Auntie Chai, Auntie Beck, and my paternal grandmother, Vicenta. Not only did they care for me when my mom was working hard to earn her education and hold down a job, but they usually watched me alongside other aguaguat first-cousins (AND they did it free of charge)!
When I talk with other Chamorro women my age who are raising little humans, they also recall being taken care of, in large part, by other Chamorro women in their family. Elderly aunts, their mothers’ younger siblings who were of babysitting age, and their grandparents were the go-to babysitters throughout their childhood. Weren’t the 80’s and 90’s on Guam fun? But nåna daycare is quickly becoming a thing of the past for Famalao’an Guahan. We have a new breed of nåna running around. They’re working full-time, going to zumba, and tagging pictures on facebook.
Many of us are finding ourselves awkwardly transitioning into this new era of Chamorro motherhood. It can be hard to leave your child with a paid care provider that isn’t related to you. For me, day care just couldn’t compare to Auntie Chai, my grandmother, or Auntie Beck’s house. Those women made me three home cooked meals a day, showered and bathed me, weren’t afraid to discipline me, took care of me when I was sick, and my play mates were not random classmates, they were relatives. They also kept our culture alive by passing on bits of Chamorro wisdom, our oral histories, prayers, traditional practices, and they used our language fluently on a daily basis. Those are things that a regular day care won’t be able to provide for you. The few day cares on island that actually do make it a point to keep our culture an integral part of your child’s every day life can be expensive or hard to get into.
Your nåna or your biha aunt was, for the most part, the perfect day care! You could move through the day without worrying that your child was not being treated with the same love you would have given him yourself. My son was in a good day care when I first had him and returned to work, but no matter how amazing they were, they just couldn’t compete with the kind of care I received from my aunts and grandmother. It made me feel bad. At first, I felt like a horrible mother for not giving my child the same kind of care that my mom made sure I received when I was a little girl. It took me some time to make peace with the fact that times have simply changed and things would be fine, whether I chose to send him to a day care or not.
Right now, FIVE of my friends are getting ready to give birth. They seem to be feeling many of the same things I was. They have expressed guilt over possibly handing their baby over to a child care provider instead of to their mothers or aunts. A really interesting thing has been the way some of them even feel ANGRY or disappointed by their mothers for not being the kind of grandmother theirs was. They feel “ripped off” for not being able to drop their kids at nånan biha’s house every morning and returning to see them bathed, with dinner on the table for everyone. Trust me, I understand the nostalgia you might be feeling for the days of free nåna day care, but we can’t be mad at our mothers for being who they are. They are women of their time, and so are we. We should be proud of them. They’re accomplishing things, they’re running things, and not being the same as our grandmothers doesn’t make them “not as helpful.” It just makes them women of a new era. It’s part of life; it has to happen. In all seriousness, you’re probably going to end up a new kind of nåna too.
My friends asked me how I made things work to stay home. I guess they’re considering doing it and are feeling unsure of themselves. It’s a personal choice. There is no wrong or right decision. All families have different needs. I also realize that some mothers don’t have a choice at all. I acknowledge that I am writing from a place of privilege. But I do want to say that at first, I didn’t think staying at home was an option for me either. I thought we couldn’t afford it. I thought it was an unrealistic thing to hope for, but I was determined to make it happen; and the list below explains some of the ways I got by.
- Make your choice independently, but talk to other moms: Before making the decision to stay home with Vicente, I spent a lot of time talking to other mothers. I sought out women I had a lot in common with, who had personality quirks similar to mine. I asked what it was like for them, how they managed, and what they felt on a day-to-day basis. I asked myself, “do I really want to do this?” I wasn’t trying to “copy” them, but it was beneficial in helping me to make my decision independently. Don’t let anyone tell you that you “should” or “shouldn’t” do it. Don’t let anyone tell you that “it’s the best and you won’t regret it.” You are your own person. You might very well regret it. It might not be the “best” thing for you. For all I know, it might end up being the most depressing thing in the world for you! It can get depressing staying at home. It can take a lot of effort and determination to keep it feeling like an empowering decision. Nobody knows what you need to be happy more than you.
- Make a plan, steal produce from your uncle’s yards, and make sacrifices: Before I left my job, I sat down and carefully studied my finances. Don’t assume that you can’t stay home just because you think you can’t afford it. The truth is, there are a ton of things you don’t need. The cable, the data plan on your smart phone, and the little snacks in your pantry…you don’t need them. How often do you eat out? Are you driving places you don’t need to? What kind of shampoo are you using? Another thing that really helped me was turning to relatives and friends who farmed and planted vegetables to fill up my fridge. I can’t believe how much money I saved that way. This is something I will continue to do even as I return to work. I got my eggs, occasionally my fish, vegetables, and lots of my fruits this way. Not only was I cooking healthier food for my son, but I was able to shave off a good chunk of money from the grocery bill. We’re on Guam! If you can, take advantage of this.
- Find out what you are good at: You’re an amazing woman. You have a talent; I know you do. Figure out what it is and capitalize on it. What can you do from home to put a little spare change in your pocket? For me, it was taking on editing jobs, selling flash cards here and there, and teaching one class on weekends. Just because you are staying at home during the week doesn’t mean you have to abandon your skill-set. Make it work for you. One of my girlfriends has a knack for baking desserts. She’s not a formal pastry chef or anything, but she can pump out simple cupcakes for kids’ birthdays like no one’s business. She takes on jobs when she needs to or wants to, but turns them down if she’s too overwhelmed with the kids.
- Don’t buy new toys or clothes: While I was working, I made it a habit of picking up something new for my son at least once a month. I now realize that I did it because I missed him. When I was at the store to buy something we needed, I would throw in a little car or train to offer him when I returned home (especially when I was late). The whole time we stayed home, Vicente didn’t really get anything new from me. Kids will play with anything. Yesterday, Vicente spent three hours outside playing with huge plastic bowls my dad uses to mix potato salad in for fiestas. He also inherited toys or clothes from his cousins that outgrew things. The hand-me-down clothes looked just as nice on him, and the toys were just as fun as new ones. Not buying him anything did not leave him deprived or wanting for anything. I’m pretty sure he still loves me.
- Develop a thick skin and do what feels good for you and your child: Guam is small. This means that there are going to be a lot of people talking about you, giving you advice, or criticizing you. My friends and I often talk about how critical our community can be. It is hard to rise above it sometimes. It’s hard not to let it get to you. No matter what you do, you have to remember that people will have something to say. Half of the time, they think they’re helping you by throwing in their two cents. In one ear and out the other, ladies! (Especially if it makes you feel like you aren’t a good mom.) Most of the time, these people are wrong or simply speaking from their personal experience. Their experience doesn’t have to be yours, but if you’re not careful, it could end up that way. I really have a hard time tuning out the unsolicited advice in my life. On a small, traditional island like ours, when you do anything differently, it can raise eye brows. Keep moving.
- Fight for time away from your child: I know this might sound weird. You’re supposed to be leaving work to be with the kid, right? But for the sake of sanity, find it! I really struggle with this. Trying to do this can actually be a little depressing sometimes, because it’s so hard to make happen. Between my husband’s job and the busy schedules of relatives around us, it can be tough getting away. It’s important though. You don’t have to go out or get dressed up. I am very much an introvert, so getting away for me doesn’t necessarily mean getting out there to socialize or a night out with friends; it means finding solitude. Sometimes, I just lock myself in the room so I can have time to breathe, read, or be away from my husband and child. I’m trying to do this more, but it isn’t easy.
- Have a sense of humor and a cup of coffee: I never drank coffee before I had my son. I didn’t understand the big appeal coffee had for my parents in the morning. Sure, it smelled good, but why did they NEED it so badly? Now, I know. It’s magic. Waking up before Vicente and having coffee can completely change my day. I also have this funky collection of kitschy mugs that I drink from. My favorite is a mug that says FML. Strangely, my FML mug puts me in a really good mood. I’m a little more motivated to march into battle after quietly sipping from my ugly little mugs (because let’s face it, it’s a freaking battle sometimes). In addition to the coffee, make sure you laugh. When you’re home with your child, you will realize that your spawn can do lots of things to raise your blood pressure. If you let it happen, you could probably yell and scold your kid all day. Sometimes, I want to pull over and leave my son at Mr. Wusstig’s Sweet Corn stand on the side of the road in Barrigada. I imagine asking him to sell my child for me. I can even give him a sign that says, “sweet baby” that he could put beside his “sweet corn” sign. But most of the time, the things that tick me off are just really funny. By finding the humor in the na’bubu things he does, I cut out a lot of the stress and remember it’s not that bad.
Staying at home wasn’t easy. In many ways, I’m glad to be moving on from it; but I don’t regret it. I was there for the first two years of my munchkin’s life. I got to see all the new things he was doing on a daily basis. We had adventures! How can I regret that?
I know that for my friends who are carrying children, it’s a tough decision for them right now. I’m writing this because I want them to know that whatever they decide, it will be okay. AND if they REALLY want to stay at home, it can happen. You just have to figure out what you are and are not willing to live without. If you want to give it a try bad enough, things can be rearranged in your life to have the experience.
Now, I’m heading back to work and starting the next chapter of my motherhood journey. What I learned from taking this past two years off is that if I want something for my son and I, I can get it, no matter what anyone on this island (or off of it) says.