Am I Doing Enough? This Scientist Turned SAHM Reflects on Meaning and Motherhood
Hannah Phair has worked as a climate researcher, a high school science and math teacher, and an ESL instructor. She is now at home taking care of her two children. While she always intended to keep working after having children, a combination of the pandemic, distance from family, and limited part-time work and childcare options led Hannah and her partner, Nathan, to decide that Hannah should stay at home with their children. Through the daily work of caring for her two-year-old son and infant daughter, Hannah continues to develop her mind and talents: volunteering with her church and the law school spouse association, qualifying herself as a foster parent, and reading a book a day. In our interview, we discuss how stay-at-home moms are often left out of polite conversation, how the government and community could better support families like hers, and her vacillating feelings around work and family.
Editing credential to Bethany Bartholemew.
Please introduce yourself to us and your experiences leading up to and including motherhood.
Hi, my name is Hannah. I am 30 years old. I was born in the San Francisco Bay area of California, I lived in Connecticut for a few years, and I moved to Utah last year. I’ve lived abroad for several years in Hong Kong, Tahiti, Finland, Australia, and South Korea. I speak Korean and enjoy hiking, SCUBA diving, exercising, and traveling.
My partner, Nathan, and I have been married for five years, but we’ve been together for over a decade. We have a two-year-old toddler and a new baby who was just born in November. We love being a family of four, although we are remembering those early sleep-deprived nights as we experience them again with our daughter.
I have my bachelor’s degree in environmental science from U.C. Berkeley and my MS in biology from Brigham Young University. I worked as a teacher and always intended to keep working [after having] kids, but when we moved to Utah in the middle of the pandemic for Nathan to start law school, everything was shut down so that wasn’t an option. Now that I am home with my kids and able to teach and spend time with them, I can’t imagine going back to what I did before.
I am still able to work part time writing curriculum and teaching English as a Second Language [ESL]. It allows me to work in the morning for two to three hours before my family is awake and be home with my kids all day. We are also currently licensed foster parents. We don’t have a placement right now, but we did earlier this year when I was pregnant. We plan to pick back up with that when we get a handle on being a family of four.
What made you want to have kids?
We planned on having kids before we were even married, but it became clear to us when we were both working full time that we wanted something more than our jobs, hobbies, and our marriage. We liked our jobs. We loved our marriage. But it felt a little empty to us–working all day, living for our hobbies. We wanted to grow and experience a completely new side of life that being parents could afford us. We decided to take that leap when we felt like we were both ready to put our children’s needs ahead of our own.
What are some things you love about being a mom? What are some things that are hard about being a mom?
I wasn’t prepared for how much I would love these tiny humans. When my son started to get a personality, I just fell in love with him. I genuinely love spending time with him. He has the funniest facial expressions, loves to talk, and likes the same foods and hobbies as we do.
Now that I’m home with my kids I think the hardest part is just feeling like I need to be “on” the whole time. I feel like I can’t have bad days or bad moments because my kids are at an age where I can’t use logic to explain my feelings to them. If I am going to leave the workforce and dedicate myself solely to my family, I feel like I have to justify that choice through domestic perfection. I also feel a lot of guilt that I am no longer contributing my skills and time to the larger public through a full-time job. Even though I am actively involved in volunteering in my community and church, I often worry that it is not enough.
Before you had kids, what was your hope for work-life balance? Did that change after you had kids?
Before kids, I filled my schedule with as much as I could squeeze in. I worked full time teaching high school math and science, worked in a climate change lab at Yale, taught ESL classes in the morning, and volunteered in an urban greening project and our church community.
Now that I am a mother, I realize that a schedule like that is unsustainable, and a lot of the careers that I was prepared for wouldn’t really work with kids. I would have liked to work part time, but I couldn’t find quality options that would give me the time I want to spend with my children. So I’m still teaching ESL because I can do that from home while the kids sleep, but I haven’t figured out how to do more while still being around for my family. [One thing I do know is that] I don’t want to work crazy hours away from my family for a job I don’t feel absolutely passionate about.
What were some of the biggest obstacles for you in trying to find the balance you wanted?
The biggest struggle for us was finding a balance between being old enough to be established in a career and have financial stability [and] being so old that it was difficult to get pregnant, find parent friends, and have the energy to give to young children. I was worried about trying to re-enter the workforce with outdated skills, especially with job training not being that common and with my background being in science, where technology and methods change quickly.
Most of the mothers I know who are able to work or be in school while having young children have family who watch their kids during the day. Most of the mothers I know who are able to work or be in school while having young children have family who watch their kids during the day. That is ideal to me because our kids could develop their relationships with grandparents who love them and will be around them consistently from year to year. We don’t have that option in Utah, so we felt the next best thing for the kids and [me] was for me to be home.
Is your work-life balance working well for you?
I am still trying to figure out how I feel about my current work-life balance. I usually vacillate between two thoughts: (1) I love being home with my kids and being able to provide support to them, and (2) I can and want to do more to contribute more to the outside world.
There are times when I am so grateful to be home with my kids. At my son’s 18-month appointment, the pediatrician recommended an early intervention program to meet with a speech therapist. I did all the work communicating with the speech therapist, making goals for [my son], and [creating] a plan to help him reach the verbal milestones that the pediatrician recommended. In just six months, he went from the sixth to ninety-ninth percentile in verbal communication. His frustration about his lack of communication is almost gone, and I’ve seen him confidently and emphatically tell us exactly what he wants. I know that a daycare wouldn’t be able to provide this support, and this level of research and care is a lot to ask of a nanny. We could only do this for our son because we are able to have me home with him.
On the other hand, I feel a bit holed up at home; I’m doing good work, yes, but really only for my immediate family and a small outside community. I feel like I have more to give and more of an impact to make. So I’m a bit unsettled at the moment.
Despite working part time teaching ESL and financially supporting our family, raising our children, maintaining our home, managing the rental property and tenants where we live, being treasurer of the law school spouse organization, volunteering with donation centers to sort and place items with families, and being a foster parent, I still feel that I don’t contribute enough.
How much did institutional support—or lack thereof—factor into your decision to stay home?
I feel like when we had our son, the railroad switch was pulled and we were immediately redirected to another line on the track. It felt automatic: there was an expectation that even though we had a child, we shouldn’t need any support and should be able to perform in our jobs in the exact same way as before. If we needed help or couldn’t keep that same schedule, then we shouldn’t have had a child in the first place. I feel like there’s this underlying message: whether it’s financial help or help with child care, there shouldn’t be any programs in place to support you, because you knew what you were getting into. I feel like people say, “It takes a village,” but nobody wants to be that village.
We noticed this lack of structural support early on in our first pregnancy. I wanted to transition to an environmental consulting job, but, like many of these positions, it is contract-to-hire, so I wouldn’t have had health insurance for the first six months. I was pregnant, so I couldn’t just forgo health insurance for half of a year (but, really, should anyone?). The fact that insurance was tied to my occupation meant I was stuck at a teaching job I wasn’t planning to continue after the baby, but I couldn’t leave because of the stability and benefits my teaching job offered.
Once my son was born, I got six weeks of partial pay through government disability because I had worked full time at my job for over a year. But that was it. I had a C-section and a dangerous labor and delivery that had us in the hospital for 10 days. I chose to take another six weeks of unpaid time off to recover and be with my family. If I had returned to work after just the six weeks of disability, I wouldn’t have even been off my blood pressure medications from preeclampsia and HELLP syndrome. We still had nurses visiting our home and frequent doctor’s appointments. The time I was expected to return to work was literally before I was medically cleared to do so.
What was your experience like once you returned to work?
After 12 weeks, I returned to work at the private school where I taught. I had back-to-back classes with not enough time to pump in between. I pumped in the morning before the drive to work, pumped at lunch quickly before meetings, and pumped at 5 or 6 p.m. before driving home. I [couldn’t] pump during classes because most breast pumps are loud, visible (as are your breasts), require both hands to operate, and preclude you from doing anything else. And as a teacher, I wasn’t able to just miss classes or meetings to go pump. My bosses were women and incredibly supportive, but encouragement doesn’t change the fact that I couldn’t feed my child and still hold my job given the school structure.
I was honestly so grateful when Covid-19 forced a lockdown and I had to work from home. I cut out my hour-long commute; could do lunches holding my child; could pump at home in a private space without students knocking on my door or during staff meetings with my camera off; and had quick, ten-minute passing periods to see my family. It was such a blessing, which sounds terrible because it was a terrible learning environment for my students. However, it was the only way I was able to continue teaching for as long as I did.
Do you feel supported at work and in your communities for your decision to stay at home and work part time?
I think my community in Utah is really supportive of stay-at-home moms in a way many other communities are not. Many of our neighbors are stay-at-home moms after getting advanced degrees like myself. Many of them do work, but it’s predominantly stay-at-home moms who are highly educated with highly educated spouses. We have a playgroup together, and there are moms around ready to help. There is a culture of being an aspiring, educated stay-at-home mom that I fit into. Whether they feel happy with that choice or want more of a balance, I don’t really know, because my relationships with these women are still not very deep as we navigate Covid safety precautions.
[This community] has been a source of strength as I’ve transitioned to being a stay-at-home mom. But with some friends and family, I do get the sense that I should be doing more with my life and having a more traditionally impressive job. [The idea I get from them is,] “You could be doing something better. Why are you staying at home? Anybody can stay home with their child, but not anybody could go do something world changing.”
What do you think society could do to better support mothers?
I think we don’t really know how to communicate with moms. Honestly, among my husband’s colleagues [I feel sidelined] all the time because they’ll talk to Nathan and they’ll hear things that I did and the places that I’ve traveled for research and some of those educational and occupational successes. . . . And then they’re like, “So what are you doing now?” And I feel this awkwardness that since I don’t have a career [right now], there’s not much else to discuss. Being a mom, nobody knows what to ask me about.
Being a foster parent helped because people were interested in that, [and that] was like 35% of the reason I did foster care. Nobody respects you for taking care of your own kids, but taking care of somebody else’s kids like this in foster care gave people things to talk about with me in a way that taking care of my own kid didn’t. And it’s shocking because I’m doing the same thing I was always doing: school drop-offs, feeding people, cleaning up after them, disciplining. But it was suddenly valuable because it wasn’t just my kids. It sounds ridiculous. But otherwise nobody knows how to talk to stay-at-home moms except other stay-at-home moms.
I’ve tried to stay interesting and have things to talk about. I’ve met my goal the past two years to read a book a day. I take a Chinese class and am learning to do linocut printmaking. Maybe I need to be more confident in these situations and provide people with conversation topics, but I also think we could get better as a society about talking to mothers.
Have you felt supported by the government as a mom on the state level and federal level?
We moved to Utah so my husband could start law school. We are on Medicaid while he is a student, and it is such an interesting experience. It has been eye-opening to see the difference between what is covered when you are pregnant and when you are not. When we got pregnant with our second child, suddenly I had dental coverage, mental health counseling, and nurses calling to check in on other services that I might need. That, of course, ends when the baby is born, despite postpartum moms still needing these services.
Being pregnant, bearing children, and then raising those children changes you. I am going through this “fourth trimester” phase right now and am reminded of just how difficult it is. My hormones, body, and sleep-deprived brain don’t feel like my own, yet I am expected to function like nothing has changed. We applaud moms for all they manage to do and ignore their pleas for help. We tell them we can’t believe they can do it all as they proclaim they can’t. It would help if the government recognized that mothers need support outside of the nine months that they are literally housing an unborn child.
If you could change our country’s policies surrounding parenthood, what policies would you implement?
Our family would really benefit from universal health care, a more comprehensive parental leave policy, and more options in the workforce for parents who want to balance work and parenting. These aren’t just women’s issues. I think women have most of these burdens placed on them right now, but these are issues that men face as well. Finding a way to support parents and enable them to contribute to the workforce while raising the future generation seems like an issue that all Americans should be able to get behind.
What words of encouragement do you have for young moms trying to figure all this out?
That’s a tough one, and I am still trying to figure that out for myself. I think I would tell moms that they are doing great. They are at the table, dealt into the game, and playing even though the deck is stacked against them. Play the best hand you have, but don’t be surprised when you don’t win. The game isn’t designed for mothers to win. Hearing myself say that sounds discouraging, but it is honestly how I feel.
When I was working full time, I missed my child. Now that I am home full time, I miss working. I don’t think it is a case of “the grass is greener on the other side.” I know the other side and how green that grass is. For me, it’s the frustration that I can’t seem to do both. I am a good mom and a good employee. I have a lot to give at home and at work. I think if we could recognize the skills of mothers and desire those enough to make the workforce work for us, we would have a better economy, happier women, and more emotionally resilient, well-rounded children.