The Most Important Decision I Ever Made

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I have three daughters; I call them my cubs. I am a mother bear running on instinct, teaching them to forage, hunt, and protect themselves. My duty is to help them survive the wild life of the schoolyard and then the real world. I started what I call our “talks,” when they were very young; the conversations back then were, like my audience, small: “You are safe.” “You can do it.” “Don’t touch the hot stove.” The act of mothering, of course, flooded me with memories of my own childhood. Some memories were blurry, others as vivid as a Technicolor movie. The common theme in all was loneliness. My mother wasn’t terrible; she was neglectful and left me to figure things out on my own—I’ve spent my life repairing the damage done. Hence, becoming a parent made me fierce: I wasn’t going to make the same mistakes my mother did. With a library of parenting books, a daily practice of yoga, and commitment to really care for my kids, I was armed for the mission of motherhood. This mama bear would give her children my undivided attention and love so that a child would never think she was weird, bad or wrong—she would know without a doubt that she was a divine gift.

The single decision that changed my life came about at the 11th hour. Well, maybe the 12th.  I was 32 years old and in the midst of a star rising career. I had a prestigious position as an international tour manager for an iconic attraction, which was gaining world -wide exposure.  I was flying from Europe to Australia to Mexico and Canada.  I had been married for seven years and although I longed for a family, three miscarriages had thwarted my dreams.   And then, one decided to stay.  I carried her in my belly as I flew around the world and when I couldn’t strap in the airline seat any longer, I landed, nested and waited for her arrival.

My husband and I had the opportunity to visit my meditation teacher at this time.  My heart was very heavy with the decision I felt I had to make.  Should I leave my career and stay home with her?  Or support my family and put Sara in daycare?  My husband had a new career, we just bought a little condo and the math said it would definitely take two incomes to keep us going.

As a waddled up to my mediation teacher she broke out into a grin I will never forget.  I would have been smiling too, but my face was frozen with indecision.  She laughed and pointed at my belly and said, “ Baby or Briefcase?  Baby or Briefcase?”  I closed my eyes for a moment, and felt my heart beating with joy.  “Baby”! I exclaimed. “Yes!” she returned.  And that was that.  The choice I wanted so dearly was dislodged from my heart like a dam breaking and the flood of good fortune began to flow in that moment and continued for years to come.

Sara Grace arrived. We were in love. My 6-week maternity leave was a blur.  I was exhausted, watching Oprah in the middle of the day, drinking prescribed beer to let my milk down, and was isolated from my work life.  One day my boss came to see me.  As luck would have it, she had given birth 3 weeks before me.   I’ll never forget how she made me a tuna sandwich and shared her wisdom as an experienced 3-week mother.  I had a sinking feeling while she was speaking because I was about to give my notice.

“Marianne, I can’t come back to work.  Sara and I want to stay home together.  We finally found each other and we can’t be apart. I can’t bear to leave her even for a day.  She needs her mom and I need to be her full time mom.”     Marianne just laughed and said she already knew.

The next day my husband’s employer called him in and gave him a huge raise saying, “you have a family now, and you will need this to support them.”   I went to the mailbox and there was a check for $600 for a tax refund in the middle of the year.  And so the small and big fortunes began and continued.

I had my first daughter at the age of thirty-two and my last at age thirty-seven.  During this time I was privileged to be friends with child psychologist, Joseph Chilton Pierce, author of The Magical Child and the Crack in the Cosmic Egg.

At this time, Joe was a world-renowned expert in child development and his books spoke to the way to preserve the heart of the child, which was my mission. The ability to speak with someone with his breadth scientific knowledge was an incredible opportunity.  I thought I could raise the most perfect, well adjusted, and enlightened children, if I only knew the big cosmic universal secret that I just knew Joe could teach me. So one morning over coffee, I asked Joe “How can I raise the most perfect, happy, enlightened child?” I waited anxiously for him to impart the knowledge. His answer wasn’t what I expected: “Just relax and take your signals from the child. She will always tell you what she needs and wants. Then respond.”

Joe’s advice became my mantra, but waiting for my children to articulate their needs wasn’t always easy. I had to learn to be patient. I had to learn to listen. I had to learn to shut up. None of these things come naturally to me, or probably, to most parents. The dominant paradigm in parenting is that the adults do the job—we are the instructors, teaching our children the ways of the world, what’s right and wrong, which fork to use when, and how not to get pregnant (or get anyone else pregnant). But what I found was that if I sat back and watched, listened, and learned from my girls, I was better equipped to give them the advice they really needed rather than the advice I thought they needed. And so, to the best of my ability, I allowed our relationships to be dynamic, taking my cues for our “talks” from them, rather than using my authority to determine what they needed to learn. This switch kept me from talking down to them. Maybe that sounds simple. It wasn’t.

That maternity leave extended to 13 years and two more daughters.  My cubs are Sara Grace, Kimberly Rose, and Bonnie Faith.   We just celebrated 3 college graduations and have an upcoming backyard wedding for Kimmy.

These young women are magnificent.  The most important decision I made in my life was to stay home with my children and to give 100% of my talent and love and look into their eyes each and every day and show them they are loved, wanted, special, and treasured.   Over the years I have empowered and supported many women to stay home.  Hold your ground, make the decision, and watch how beneficial circumstances meld themselves around you and your child.  An unexpected boon will arrive, a friend will help, an opportunity to work at home will present itself.   What seemed like the worst possible timing and career to walk away from turned out to be the best decision of my life.

Oh, by the way, 13 years later after completely leaving my career, I was hired back at nearly the same salary level, promoted and now have a successful career that reached beyond my wildest aspirations.  When I returned to my industry after a decade of absence my colleagues said, “Wow. That was incredible. I wish I would have had the courage to leave.”

It wasn’t the courage to leave that I needed after all. It was the courage to believe that everything would be all right if I followed my heart.  And so it was. And so it is that my cubs have now been empowered in their own lives to believe this is so.

Maureen McElroy
Mo has secret parent diaries and stashing away thousands of lessons and experiences raising three daughters. Since they are college graduates, married with great guys, and are superb human beings she felt it was safe to call herself an expert, a successful mother or someone who may be worth listening to. Mo says, “If I can save one night’s sleep, one argument, one sneak out, or moment of insecurity, or increase the number of hugs in a family, my mission will be accomplished.”
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