I took one semester off from my job as a high school English teacher after my son was born. Well, one semester plus summer plus the rest of the quarter that I could not finish when he decided to roll in ten weeks early. I was lucky to have that long stretch to bond with him, to go on those early morning summer walks, to nap next to his crib while he napped, to learn how to care for his special needs and attend his therapy sessions. When he was seven months old I felt comfortable going back to work with his care placed firmly in the hands of grandparents and close friends. I did not regret one moment I was home. Because there was a ticking clock counting down until my return to the work force, every moment mattered more. Those months were an anomaly, a gift. They were one long Sunday afternoon, the last tastes and deep breaths of the weekend before it all begins again.
Then I went back to work and cried…a lot. I cried during faculty meetings and when my mom would call to give me reports on my son’s new moves in physical therapy. I cried when I had to stay late for parent-teacher conferences and missed our few hours together. But over time, as all things go, I transitioned and we began to thrive. We still had our walks, now in the afternoon, and we still had our time, just the two of us before my husband came home. It was workable.
And then I had twins. Talk about a smack to the forehead. It was a whiplash life change. With three kids under three, we would not be able to afford childcare. Suddenly, after navigating and successfully sailing the waters of working mom with a special needs son, I was adrift with three. I said goodbye to teaching and entered the world of the SAHM…an acronym I did not wear well. It was itchy and the wrong shape, like somebody’s borrowed sweater. Suddenly productivity was about all you didn’t do. At first I was confused by the pictures on Facebook of piles of dirty dishes and unwashed laundry and the selfies with toys like mountain peaks in the background. And then I understood: you can either play with your kids because they’re only young once or you can do the laundry and pick up the mess. You can’t do both.
When the kids got a bit older and I began to work from home as a freelance writer, I wasn’t sure what the feeling was, hard like a peach pit just below my sternum, whenever I sat down with my laptop while the kids ran circles around the living room or me. Until I clicked on those Facebook feeds again. My writing was my proverbially pile of laundry and I was getting it done. Which means I wasn’t “mommying” which means I wasn’t doing my other job which means I was succeeding and failing spectacularly at the same time. To win at work was to lose at motherhood. Or so it seemed.
Until one night, not long ago, my daughter crawled up on our bed and squished herself next to me. I was balancing my laptop on my knees and typing out the end to an article that was due the next day. She bent her knees like mine and began whispering to herself. Because kid whispering is actually louder than their normal voice, I stopped typing and asked her what she was up to.
Her response: “I’m making up stories like mommy.”
Mine: “Oh yeah, what’s yours about?”
Her response…a very long tale about the Gruffalo.
It seems I am still mommying. It seems that you can in fact work both jobs, the mom job and the paying one. My kids get me 75% of their waking hours. That’s a pretty good deal if we were negotiating. I do not want the other 25% layered with guilt because I have to work. It shouldn’t be. We can do laundry and dishes and all the other work and still cherish their childhoods. And we can set aside the work and play instead if that’s what our family needs from us in the moment. It’s about balance. And it’s about a continual re-evaluation of your family’s course, to make sure you’re sailing in the right direction. I want my children to respect what I do, not just as their mom, but also as a human with talents to share with the rest of the world. You can’t live an all-or-nothing life as a mom. You just can’t.