Picture a lunch conversation between two women, co-workers, on the verge of becoming mothers. Talking about plans. Plans for after the baby is born and the maternity leave is over and you have to decide. Do you want to work or do you want to stay home? Indefinitely, it is assumed. Because resume gaps become walls that box you in, become doors that close in your face.

Only two storylines are presented to us. Either you become the stay-at-home mom who gives up her career, gives up her security, gives up herself, to pour love and discipline into buzzing children with sticky hands and trails of toys and mountains of laundry, or you become the working mom who is the champion of feminism, fighting to have “it all” and prove she loves her child as much as the stay-at-home mom and is as deserving of her salary as the breadwinning man who sits next to her in the office. In one story you are fighting to have an identity, in the other you are trying to navigate multiple identities.

There are some women for whom the choice is clear. They throw themselves into their new role and embrace the challenges, because they know this is me. But for others, for me, this choice feels like attempting calculus in the fifth grade. The answer is… question mark.

I talked with my co-worker about choices, when really, I felt like I didn’t have one. I was talking about what I wanted, but I wasn’t listening to my inner voice telling me what I really wanted. I stopped listening to her long ago. I was listening to the inner voice telling me what I should want.

I should want to continue working, the inner voice said, because our family needed a dual income to stay in the city. I should want to continue working, she said, because I wanted to have impact and influence outside of my family. I should want to continue working because it would be easier to get another job without a gap in my resume. I should want to continue working because if anything ever happened to Matt or his salary, we would have a safety net. I should want to continue working because I am too intelligent to do laundry and dishes and nursery rhymes all day.

I couldn’t see that that inner voice I was listening to was operating out of fear. She sounded like wisdom. She sounded like respectability. But she was afraid.

I was afraid of being broke. Of looking like I failed. Of seeming unprepared or unwise, like I planned our family poorly, or didn’t plan it at all. I was afraid of living a small life. Of being stuck on an insular life path of no significance to the community, the world. I was afraid of squandering my talents and intellect.

I was afraid of putting “just” before my new title, “Mom.”

I had to practically be forced to quit my job. But it didn’t take very long. The stress of “shoulds” and burdens shouldered instead of shared became physically toxic. Doctors didn’t have answers for why I was sick. I had symptoms but my illness didn’t have a name. I left with suggestions to take vitamins and get more sleep.

Stress was stealing my health, and something had to give. I had to give up my plan for what my life would look like. I had to stop trying to control things I couldn’t control. I had to quit my job and move out of the city, back to my home town.

But I remained apologetic about my choice. “I never planned on being a stay-at-home mom,” I said, trying to absolve myself of the choice. I didn’t want to be assigned a team, be in Camp Working Mom or Camp Stay-At-Home Mom, partly because I don’t think they should be pitted against each other and partly because I was afraid of the criticism I would face from making either choice.

Time has given me the space to listen to the inner voice telling me what I really want. Now I know: I want to be home with my son. But I also know that I don’t want my life to be solely about him. I want to create space in my life for myself, for my own personal development. And I want to have an impact on the world beyond the four walls of my home. Maybe that’s for profit, maybe it’s volunteering, maybe it’s both. But as long as we can get food on the table and keep a roof over our heads, I don’t want to rush out and get the first full-time job I can just for the sake of appeasing my fear.

I doubt the fear will go away. It will always be rattling around in my head somewhere, asking me, “Are you sure you made the right choice?” But now that I’ve brought that fear to light and stared it down, I can live consciously. Part of my inner work is examining my life, past and present, and determining what actions are rooted in the true desires of my heart. That is not easy work. But hopefully along the journey I will find myself, and find meaning.

I’m endeavoring to stop thinking and saying, “I should” and start thinking and saying, “I want.” I’m afraid of looking foolish, or like a bad person. But I am going to go out on a limb and say I am neither of those things. I am discerning and caring, and I can give myself the permission to acknowledge my own desires and needs. I can give myself permission to risk failure, and I can change my definition of failure. Because how could I do better than to live with heart, mind and spirit fully engaged? And who says I can’t do that while vacuuming?