I don’t regret for a minute deciding to stay home with my daughter almost 20 years ago. I didn’t plan it that way. In fact, when I became pregnant, I was working as a trial lawyer for a small firm in downtown Manhattan. It boasted an elevator that could hold six adults as well as a newspaper and candy kiosk in the lobby. I regularly bought Almond Joys and Dentyne from the owner who was legally blind, but always tilted his head and gave me a kind smile.
Back then, cell phones were as big as bricks and texting had not yet been invented. Although I made my share of phone calls to the office from tall phone booths with squeaky sliding doors, no one from my office ever checked up on the status of the case I was sent out on, as they couldn’t possibly get a hold of me. I whiled away hours in courtrooms, reading through files or magazines and chatting with acquaintances when no trials loomed.
Nannies were a big topic of conversation among the women lawyers. We spoke about schedules and rates of pay, and how to broach the subject of cooking for us, the parents, as well as the children. Going immediately back to work after a short maternity leave was my confident decision at the time. My salary was equal to my husband’s, and we had just recently bought our house in the suburbs in a pricey enclave just north of New York City. I wasn’t exactly passionate about my job, but I was fond of my co-workers, and I expected to remain an attorney—picking jurors, settling cases, and billing hours for the foreseeable future.
Then the baby came.
I had found a wonderful nanny, originally from Trinidad, who was more than happy to cook for my husband and me, and to clean the house from top to bottom. I believe she took care of our daughter as an afterthought, and this worked just fine for all involved. I was nearly as entranced by Ruthie, her curried chicken, and “cook-up rice” as I was by those tiny fists and feet waving in the air when I entered a room within view of her bouncer which was placed squarely in the middle of the mostly empty living room.
After a couple of months, though, it became harder and harder to leave home. One day, about eight months into my return to work, I was hanging on to a center pole in the subway car, sharing sweaty hand space with another woman. We stumbled into each other as the train jerked to an unexpected stop. Not an emergency, just another sick passenger. We rolled our eyes toward each other, but mine soon filled up as I thought about my daughter at home.
“Are you OK?” she asked.
“Yes, just that my baby is at home.”
She gave me a vague stranger smile which in my self-pity I interpreted as encouragement. I reached into my big leather work tote and pulled out a picture of my chubby baby, angling it toward the woman.
“Very cute,” she said. She smiled, but her eyes moved to the middle distance above my head, attracted by an ad for a dermatologist screwed to the metal wall of the subway car.
A few more discontented weeks later, I had a heart-to-heart discussion with my husband, and we painstakingly worked out a budget.
By forgoing vacations, most restaurants, and our lovely nanny, we could swing it. Finally, I quit my job and called my husband to meet me in City Hall plaza, which back then was open to the public—no barriers to pedestrians anywhere, just some benches and pretty potted trees.
“Well, I finally did it. I quit,” I told him.
“You did it!” He gave me a huge hug, and it was one of the surest moments of my life.
That big, leather work bag sat for many years on a shelf in my basement, exactly where I placed it when I arrived home that last euphoric day. A few years later, I placed the strap over my head, squared my shoulders, and tried to conjure up that young professional.
It felt bulky and outdated and a ghost of the same elation passed through me as I once again lifted it off my shoulder.