Do you know what I think should be added to the list of “Do not discuss at holiday parties”? Women and work. Namely, women and work and parenting. I think most women who are parents will agree, you find out who your friends are once you make a decision on how you will work, not work, or sometimes work after you become a mother.
Sometimes dubbed “The Mommy Wars”, I have yet to find a topic more divisive than working outside of the home while parenting. It’s a luxury war, for sure, of the middle and upper classes, but a hot topic to say the least. It’s a luxury because to be put in the position to make that decision, there are at least few things working in your favor.
1) You more than likely have a spouse who is employed and earning a salary enough to provide for basic needs.
2) You are in good enough health to consider working.
3) You live in a society where women’s work is valued, inside and outside of the home.
Growing up, while I knew fair number of women (my own mother and mothers of my friends) who worked outside of the home in some capacity, I felt that the message was still sent to me and my peers that once a woman became a mom, staying at home was the best choice. When it came time for me to quit with the arrival of our daughter, however, I resisted. (That is an understatement. I completely freaked out.) A happy medium was met when I started working evenings, when my husband could care for our daughter in my absence. A few months later, a closer-to-full-time position became available, and I took it in a heartbeat. I took it partially because teaching had become a huge part of who I was. I also took it because I was eager to make some real money to contribute to our family, instead of always just spending it. I felt no guilt, only excitement to get back into the classroom and teach. I did stress over childcare arrangements at first, but those fell into place as well (nearly six years later, the same center is caring for our son). Over the course of the past six years, I’ve worked full-time, stayed home full-time (for summers), worked part-time and freelanced. None of it is an easy mix, although I’m not willing to make lifestyle changes that would permit me to stop working all together. Nor do I want to stop working outside of the home all together, because that work is mine. That work keeps the part of me that doesn’t know all of the lyrics to every song on every Dora DVD going. That work contributes to my family’s bottom line, and I like to be able to do that. That work teaches my daughter that yes, in fact, women and men do all kinds of jobs.
On the flip side, my time at home delicious. I love spending my days playing with my children, but it’s not all play. Unless you hire domestic help, there’s a lot of work to be done around the house, and the more time you spend at home, the more work there is to do. It’s exhausting in a way you can’t appreciate until you’ve had the stomach flu yourself, but are caring for two kids who also have it. You can’t appreciate it until you realize you haven’t gone to the bathroom by yourself in three years.
Here’s the thing that judgmental women forget — being a mother is hard. Hard, hard, hard. It’s hard when you are there, all day long, being the sole adult and voice of reason. There is no lunch break, there’s no vacation time, there’s no performance review or chance of a pay increase. It’s hard when you aren’t there, and hear about your daughter’s milestones from a caregiver, and when you look at your calendar an hour too late realize you’ve missed the school play. It’s hard regardless, at 9pm, when you really want to sit down but have dishes/laundry/freelance work to do because there are only so many hours in the day and the next day starts when your toddler wakes up at 5:52am.
It’s hard enough without getting looks or sighs or the sense of being dismissed because what works for your family is being discounted by another. Do you know what makes it easier (besides an awesome spouse like Mr. Sally J)? Having friends who have been there, and friends who support you even if they’ve chosen a different path. Friends who can do an emergency kid pick up, friends who drop off a coffee, friends who don’t mind a phone call amid baby cries and children’s banter are worth their weight in gold. I’ve found the best way to get a friend like that is to be a friend like that.
Where are you in navigating the fields of work and family? What’s worked for your family? What hasn’t?
(I should add: being a mom is amazing. I love every day, but I don’t always like it. For the sake of this post, I’m focusing on the challenges, not the irreplaceable moments I treasure in my heart.)