So what’s a working mother to do?

I’ve recently discussed on a gifted woman’s blog about changing my path due to life circumstances – in my case, and in many other women’s lives, that would be having children.

So what happens to the woman who does manage to find herself in a fulfilling career, only to have to put on the breaks when she realizes there isn’t enough room for both a satisfying career and a full family life? This is a question that is at the core of a lot of heated debates. Motherhood has inspired a lot of emotions and intense opinions- just google “the mommy wars” and find out for yourself.

In searching for my own truth, I spent a little bit of time reading those opinions. I’ve also have found a little helpful information along the way. I’ve been on both sides – I’ve been a working mother of two for 3 years, but I have been a SAHM of three for slightly longer. What I’ve discovered is that the only one who can determine the “rightness” of such a life-altering choice is the one making the decision. After some time of reading other’s viewpoints, I realized my self-esteem rose or sank depending on which side the article I read was slanted towards.

The funny thing is, having done both, I could see the value in both staying at home, and also staying at work. Neither is without challenges or rewards. Your choice to stay at home is a good one if it works for your family. Your choice to remain at work is a good one if it is good for your family. Unfortunately, there are some real limitations to both, at least here in the U.S. Among them (and this list is by no means complete): if you work, there is limited time with your family, and you usually have to come home to the “second shift”, as mothers still bear the brunt of home-keeping and childcare after the workday is over (though some men are carrying more of their share than their fathers ever did); if you don’t work, but once did, you may sharply feel the absence of intellectual stimulation, a paycheck, the intangible rewards and praise that comes with being in a job you are good at (raise your hand if you believe our society extols the efforts of the at home mother? Anyone?). If you’ve never worked at all, you may be made to feel like you have had very little to contribute all because you never put your dues in.

I’ve recently read that in Sylvia Ann Hewitt’s Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children, the American woman’s feminist movement failed to consider one thing: what to do when children come along. Yes, great strides have been made in the work front, but little thought had been given to creating adequate support and flexibility for working mothers and fathers. American women wanted equal rights of women in the work force, but failed to consider the issues of working mothers (who so often have at least two jobs – the one at work they are paid for, and the one at home that they are not). Since it wasn’t lobbied for, adequate provisions for sufficient work leave for parents, flexible work options, and childcare was all but ignored. So whereas American women have a mere 3 months maximum of job-protected maternity leave (but typically most only have 6 weeks of maternity leave – and no provisions for companies under 50 employees), other countries have much more generous parental leave. Sweden, for instance allows 18 months of parental leave shared between the mother and father.

So what about delaying marriage and family while you are getting settled into a career? In Ms. Hewitt’s book, she points out that while highly successful men do seek the intelligent, high powered, career oriented woman to date, many would rather not have their wives’ careers eclipse their own.

Fortunately, I wasn’t one of those high-achieving women, and my husband wasn’t one of those highly successful men. We were both equally matched in intelligence and drive though – and very supportive of each other in our career goals. We weren’t for money or prestige, just for something where we were able to use our intelligence and support our moderate lifestyle.

Still, after having 2 babies in 2.5 years, and I tried to strike a balance between the work and family, it soon became clear that there wasn’t one to be had. I had my last day of work when the youngest one was 9 months old. I felt, finally, after 12 years of continuous work (starting from my junior year of college), I’d be able to have the time to be introspective and carve out a new path. My husband was very supportive of the idea, and together, we felt we could work out the details if I was willing to make the leap.

While never once asking me to quit my job, he was really happy to have more time to see me (with me being gone 11 hours a day, and him working a rotating shift, we rarely got to see each other). He was also glad I was at home to take care of our girls and keep our home running a bit more smoothly than it had been (I had little time and energy for housework between work and taking care of two little ones). But I want to point out, lest you think he’s a hairy-knuckled Neanderthal in disguise, that he also has always expressed the feeling that if I’m not happy being at home, he would support me if I chose to go back to work. He really gets the idea that “if mama ain’t happy, nobody’s going to be happy”.

Shortly after I quit my job and was starting to adjust to at-home mothering, and interested in some serious introspection, life had other plans. Just when I was becoming comfortable with myself at home, and making some other friends at story times at the local Borders bookstore, I conceived my third child. So much for critical self-analysis. I spent the next 2 years and 9 months simply trying to survive pregnancy with toddlers, then juggle three children. My oldest was 3.5 when my third was born. It wasn’t until my third child was about 2.5 when I started feeling the call to define who I was and where I wanted to go. She is now 3, and I figure, I have 2 more years to find out what I want to pursue.

I have no idea if I will be able to re-create the work life I had. But sometimes I also think that since I’ve been there and done that, now it’s time for something else. I’m really at peace with trying something new. As long as I feel that I’m creating a work life I choose, how can I be settling for less?

But then again, I’ve been fortunate to get most every opportunity I’ve wanted, and on my terms. I knew I was going to college, no matter where that turned out to be. I had applied to a private university I wanted to go to, and got accepted – though ultimately, I chose to go to a different one because of the stipulations my mother placed upon going (I had to live at home and commute – it wasn’t something I wanted to deal with because there was too much family drama going on). I applied for 3 jobs that I wanted, and one that I only sort of wanted. I was fortunate enough to receive the three jobs I really wanted. In fact, being rejected by the job I only sort of wanted, opened the door for my “dream” job – even though it’s true I walked away from that dream job because of work/family imbalance. I really don’t have any idea if anyone would want me when I’m gone from the work force for 6 years. I could be rudely awakened at that point.

For now, I have no urgent need to work (we are managing to live on my husband J’s salary), so I have time on my side. Though if you asked me 3 months ago I would have been almost beside myself with anxiety about it. I’ve come to realize that even more important to me than money (though money is necessary), is to be able to put my mind to good use. I was more upset about not feeding my brain for 3 years, than I had about a missing paycheck. Now that my brain has come out of a long hibernation, I am feeding it daily thanks to the library and internet, and I feel pretty confident I can create something for myself I’m satisfied with that will actually work well with a family and bring some income too.

While I’m in this period of transition, I’m doing all that I can to learn about myself, and learn about my girls. I feel confident when the time is right, I will have the direction I’m looking for.

I hope to leave a positive legacy to my girls: that when they will look to me one day and evaluate my choices, they will know that it was with careful consideration that I chose to stay home with them. I really didn’t give up who I was, because who I was in the work world was only a part of my self-image. The essence of who I am is still the same even though my job title has changed. I now feel confident that I’m as smart as I once was when I had the paycheck to prove it.

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2 Responses to So what’s a working mother to do?

  1. joanna says:

    I could have written this post (only minus one child)! I have worked with a baby at home, I have stayed home with one, then two, and now I am working part time. It wasn’t until I left the work force did I realize that I was capable of pursuing something I loved.

    I admire you for leaving your “dream job” to raise your girls. I was lucky enough to have fallen out of love with my job by the time I left to be home with my daughter 🙂

    “I feel confident when the time is right, I will have the direction I’m looking for.” – I truly believe in this philosophy too. Open yourself to all the possibilities and they will present themselves when you are ready.

  2. raisingsmartgirls says:

    Joanna – I was starting to fall out of love with my boss – that is for sure! Though she was a mother herself, she was less than understanding with regards to some things, and she wasn’t letting me train on some things I wanted additional training in. Largely because I felt no loyalty to her, I found it easy to leave. What I didn’t find easy was the fact that I actually liked being in the lab and being productive.

    I tend to romanticize the past, so even though I was struggling in areas, it is not that difficult to re-write some of the past, you know? Every time I think about returning to the lab, I think about all the things I would miss out on teaching my kids.

    Occasionally I get tugs to do something, but ultimately, I haven’t been really on fire for anything than teaching my girls things and doing experiments them and writing.

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