Before I had Henry I was impatient with the world, critical of myself and sometimes of others.
I thought stay-at-home moms had it easy. Worse yet, I thought they were devoid of interests beyond the confines of motherhood. I pictured them schlepping kids from Gymboree class to play dates, dressed in yoga pants and a pained smile. I pictured them chained to the kitchen, the SUV, the laundry basket and the obligatory spin class. I pictured them dutifully scheduling time for mommy pep rallies that celebrate the pleasantries of breastfeeding, cloth diapering, baby wearing and holistic nutrition. (Dear Earth Mamas: I see nothing wrong with these things. As topics of discussion, however, I find them boring.)
I thought I’d lose my identity as a stay-at-home-mom. I thought I’d compromise my self-worth and freedom. I thought I’d be resentful of my husband and pissed at myself for having failed at being a working mother: the ultimate wonder woman. I thought I’d be considered a disgrace to the radical feminists who came before me and a quitter to the overachieving, have-it-all multitaskers of my generation.
Leaving my job at the newspaper would mean I’d dropped a significant ball in the heroic juggling act that is regularly executed by the modern working mother. I’d be forced to rethink everything I thought I’d do or wouldn’t do as a parent, as if you really know these things before you bring a tiny, demanding, Bambi-eyed being into this world.
I was wrong about working mothers AND stay-at-home mothers. (As an aside, I was right about yoga pants.)
Motherhood is at once delicate and powerful. It’s an undertaking that no woman can steel herself for whether she opts to stay home or return to work. Each path has its perks and pitfalls. No path is better than the other and the circumstances that dictate who stays home and who goes to work are far too complex to compare. The choices we make in this department are so personal that often stay-at-home moms and working moms feel as if they’re pitted against one another by society, by the media and by each other.
You tackle the uncomfortable pregnancy. You rally through difficult childbirth. You spend 12 beautiful (and harrowing) unpaid weeks with an infant and then one day the honeymoon is over. You hand your kid off to somebody else and you march your post-baby bod back into the office, where you’re greeted with a warm welcome and praise (“The pictures on Facebook are adorable!”) and one coffee cup later life unceremoniously moves on.
A baby is born every eight seconds in the United States. It’s only special when it happens to you.
When you’re pregnant, you field a lot of questions – both internal and external. How long is your maternity leave? When will you return to work? Will you do daycare? Will you hire a nanny? Will you work from home?
These are all loaded questions of course. Even when asked innocently, you’re never quite sure if there’s a right way or wrong way to answer. I used to answer yes to all of the above and since most people are kind and well-meaning, I’d get a reaction that would always reaffirm my decision.
(Conversation No. 1)
Me: “Not only do I plan to go back to work, I plan to fit into my pencil skirts by August. I’m touring preschools tomorrow.”
Well-meaning stranger: “Good for you. Daycare has come a long way since my kids were little. I hear they’re teaching toddlers long division now. And besides, who can afford to stay home anymore? It’s smart to stay in the workforce, especially in this economy.”
(Conversation No. 2)
Me: “I’ll probably stay home full time, bake cookies, make pot roasts, host play dates and clean the house.”
Well-meaning stranger: “That’s the BEST thing you can do. You’ll never get these years back. I stayed home with my children and they all grew up to be such perfect, well-adjusted adults. Three of them are doctors.”
(Conversation No. 3)
Me: “I’m taking my maternity leave and then I’ll work from home. It’ll be a seamless transition.”
Well-meaning stranger: “THAT’S ABSOLUTELY PERFECT! It’s the best of both worlds! Amazing what women can do now thanks to computers.”
The moral of this story: there is no right decision.
As some of you already know, I ended up returning to work, which meant returning to Working from Home. I hired a babysitter — a lifesaver disguised as a 28-year-old environmental campaign organizer, whom I now consider a friend and confidante. On the days I had interviews in Sarasota, my tireless mother-in-law would watch Henry for eight hours so I could suck in my gut in a pencil skirt and pretend like I had it all under control. In reality I was floundering; partly overwhelmed by motherhood, partly underwhelmed by my job and partly motivated to do something else. What that something else was is hard to articulate, as it’s hard to articulate for all women who feel torn between careers and children.
Women today are blessed. We can have it all, even if it makes us crazy.
Unable to afford full-time child care, I spent most nights working while Henry was asleep. For the first six months of his life, I’m certain I operated on adrenaline alone. There were some nights I put Henry to bed at 7, worked until midnight, then woke again at 3 to nurse him, then again at 6 to start the day.
During this time, people continued to tell me I had the best of both worlds, and like most great pretenders I smiled and agreed. I was lucky! I was a work-from-home mom! What an enviable position to be in! No daycare! No guilt! No separation anxiety!
What I wanted to say was: I’m exhausted. Daycare sounds like a dream. Give me an office where I can conduct a phone interview and not have to cruelly ignore my son as he wails in his crib and I’ll give you five stories written three days before deadline. Give me a lunch break that doesn’t involve diaper cream and dishes and I’ll give you a three-part series on game fishing in Florida.
A year into this arrangement I buckled under the pressure. To add further weight to the situation, I was offered a semi-promising career opportunity in Sarasota that would require more work, more commuting, more in-home child care and less time with Henry.
My heart felt like it was splitting in half.
I had five million conversations with Joe, five million conversations with girlfriends — some who have children and some who do not. I stepped back from my little world with its little struggles and little triumphs and I tried to picture it in bigger terms. I placed importance on things I never thought were important. I wanted to write a letter to every mother I knew (working or otherwise) and say, “I get it now. This shit is real. And I respect you whether you’re in the trenches at home, at work or at both. You’re doing the best you can do.”
After weeks of consideration, I made my move. I followed my heart. I retired my heels. I slid my skirts to the back of the closet. I quit yoga. I canceled hair appointments. I canceled massages. We budgeted groceries and dinners out. Joe refinanced our mortgage and tolerated my (brief and stubborn) Save-A-Lot experiment. I was never a big spender, but there’s always fat to be trimmed.
I never really quit “working,” in the sense that I spent the first few months of stay-at-home mom-dom pitching editors at magazines, booking photo gigs and rebuilding my website. Without a paycheck to show for these efforts however, I felt like I was doing busy work.
“If you can get work, get work,” Joe said. “But please. Just spend this time with Henry.”
So that’s what I did … what I’m currently doing, living off little, working when I can, spending most days with Henry.
It’s not always easy, but it’s never as hard as it was. My persistence and drive is finally starting to pay off. April will be my busiest month since leaving the paper last summer. The deadlines are further out, the grind is less wearying and thus far my primary focus has remained intact.
Some people say motherhood is a thankless job. Some people say it’s the most important job in the world. I’ll let Henry be the judge of that. That’s really all us moms can do. Working, not working, partly working, whatever your situation, your children are the barometers of your success. And that’s the great equalizer.