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Notes From The Life of An Accidental Stay-At-Home Mother

alec vanderboom

At age 24, I had the most amazing internship. I was one of six Law Students from across the country picked to work at an innovation Children's Legal Defense Firm in Boston. The firm was started by two social workers who fell in love with each other and then went to law school. They had a bubble gum machine in their law office and their little 2 year old daughter used to bring me purple gum balls while I chatted on the telephone.

It was a dream job. I had real cases with individual kids ages twelve to fifteen. My Mentor had endless knowledge and really loved to teach. He knew everything and everyone. It was one of these rare moments in life when I had endless resources to throw at a problem. With one phone call, I could get a troubled kid into best therapist at Boston Children's Hospital. I could ask to rewrite an IEP and direct a kid's education plan.

My Mentor was these kids "Guardian Ad Litem". After 20 years of excellent service in the Juvenile Court, the judges gave my Mentor a blank check. The legal hearings were a slam dunk. We'd show up, ask for whatever we wanted and it would be approved. My Mentor took the hard cases. These were young kids who faced huge psychological and environmental hurdles. Yet I really felt the whole City of Boston pulling for these kids. It was hard not to feel great hope.

The problem I ran into again and again that summer, was that I couldn't make a parent appear for these needy kids. I could get a needy kid new sneakers. I could get a housing voucher. I could get a doctor or therapist appointment. I could get a free admission to a specialized boarding school. I could get anything, except the one thing this kid really needs--a lifetime of loving support from one stable adult.

It was heartbreaking to have everything and to have nothing. To know that no matter how hard I worked, in September I was going back to school in Madison, Wisconsin. The best I could do was make some notes in a case file, and hand the file over to the next law clerk, the next therapist and the next teacher.

I learned something big at age 24. I learned that stability matters. That summer camp is great. A free afterschool art program is wonderful. All these "special" childhood initiatives are good. Underneath all the glitz there is a fundamental need for a kid to have stable, day in day out, emotionally available and nurturing "parents." A kid's "parent figure" doesn't have to be a biological parent, or an official adoptive parent. Yet every kid needs somebody there to serve as an emotional center. The little stuff matters just as much as being the contact person during an emergency psych eval.

I didn't know that at 24, I learned in the deepest part of  my gut that there is no replacement for the individual cell of the family inside the larger fabric of American Society, but that's what my hard to land public interest clerkship taught me.


I made the most minor course correction possible to become a Stay -at -Home Mother. At age 29, I took a 6 month maternity leave instead of a 3 month leave. It didn't seem like a big change. My husband and I were moving to a new state and I was 6 months pregnant with a second child. Instead of looking for a new law job right away, I told myself that I could wait until the baby was 3 months old to search for work.

While I was home first pregnant, and then taking care of a newborn son and eighteen month old daughter, a change happened to me. My husband, Jon, was starting a new graphic design business out of our living room. After weeks of hearing me talk about how much I wanted to switch to Art Law he told me, "Why don't you stop talking about helping other people and come help me!" We became partners.

It was like that Technicolor shift in the Wizard of Oz Movie. I discovered that I really loved being a Creative. I was really good at it.

Something happened to me as a little kid and I took a left instead of taking a right turn career wise. My money making career should have been something like Hotel Management, or Event Planning. Instead, I went to Law School. 

It was confusing because I was really good a practicing Law. I guess a lot of people need Tea and Sympathy while facing major legal trauma. But the law never "fit me."

It was crazy to start at age 30 and find work that "fit." I remember having a deep work conversation with photographer while I was pushing my kid swing at a Lake Side Park. I felt so confused. This relative stranger was giving me so much respect and giving  my thoughts real weight. I realized that the whole time I was a Lawyer, I tried to hide being a mother. It was an embarrassing fact, like a sudden breastmilk leak on a Anne Taylor power suit. As a lawyer, I felt the need to constantly apologize for my motherhood. "Please think I'm smart!" "Please take me seriously, even though I've got a nine month old baby at home."

When I did work as a Creative, all my life blended easily together. I was an Artist. I wrote short stories in coffee shops. I nursed a newborn. I helped clients come up with logos for their start-ups. It was no big deal talking business while a kid needed help on the swing. In fact, that sort of added something.

Finding the right work is really important because life stopped being these fractured moments and started knitting together into something whole.


10 years into a year by year decision, I'm finally realizing that I was made for this. My favorite jobs in High School were being a Camp Counselor and Directing a Play. That's all this motherhood thing is for me. Other Moms like organization and craft projects. I'm like "How can the Dramatic Arts help us eat all of our peas and be brave for our annual flu shot?"

I like teaching. I like learning new things. I like creative problem solving. I like this.

I'm back home in West Virginia after leaving the State at age 18 and swearing that I'll NEVER be back. It's ironic. I went to like seven thousand leadership conferences in High School. (West Virginia had this thing they called "The Brain Brain" where the smart kids soaked up all the expensive free educational services and then left the State never to return because of the poor economy in Appalachia.) I felt stressed during these weekend career counseling session. I couldn't settle on just one career. I liked almost everything.

I joke now with Jon that "Stay-at-Home Motherhood" was never on the table at the "What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up" Career Days. Smart, talented girls weren't supposed to want to stay home. We were supposed to "Do Great Things" and "Change the World!"

I'm grateful for this chance. It might not last long. Jon might lose his job or drop dead of a sudden heart attack. We're one major medical bill away from me working for pay again. It's a fragile kind of financial peace that we've got this month, but it's a peace never the less. I'm grateful to have another week of doing the hidden work that helps heal my heart and those hearts around me.