When my daughter was 4, I traded a freelance career – flexible schedule, no dress code, easy commute to the back bedroom where I worked – for a “real” job that required dressing like a grownup and driving across town to an actual office that was run on somebody else’s timetable.
I thought, frankly, that I had everything figured out. The night before my new job started, I explained to my daughter where I would be going and where she would be going and what we would each be doing. No problem. The next morning we got up, got dressed, talked about where we were going – me to my office, she to a babysitter her dad would be driving her to. I picked up my briefcase, headed to the door and waved goodbye. Everybody was smiling, especially me. Piece of cake, I thought. People make this harder than it needs to be.
The next morning when I picked up my briefcase and started toward the door, she began to cry. “You mean you’re going to work again?” she asked, incredulously.
So, OK, maybe it wasn’t going to be easy. But, 25 years later, I’m happy to report everybody survived – and thrived. The days of juggling carpool and after-school activities and doctors’ checkups and trips to purchase science fair project materials have receded into the background and are actually a very pleasant memory. I don’t miss the science fairs, but I do occasionally long for the energy I was always able to summon up to keep everything running.
Of course, I had a pretty good role model. My mother worked from the time I was 6 until she retired nearly three decades later. She was a single mom – my dad died young, quite unexpectedly, and she resumed the working life she had traded in for full-time motherhood. I don’t recall that she did much complaining, although she was certainly a few years ahead of the safety-in-numbers working-mom curve. I think there were aspects of working that she enjoyed and some that she didn’t. I don’t remember resenting her having to work. It made sense to me that somebody in the household had to earn a living; and since I was still in grade school, she was the likely candidate.
I had friends whose mothers worked and friends whose mothers didn’t work and others whose mothers worked sometimes and stayed at home sometimes. I don’t believe I ever missed out on anything because my mother was not always available from nine to five.
Still, I have come to understand that if she managed to make being a working mother look a lot easier than it was, she also showed me how to do it well.
Every now and then, when I make a quick week-night run to the grocery store on my way home from work and see a suit-clad young woman pushing a cart with the help of a couple of kids, I remember what it was like when multi-tasking was a daily fact of life, and work deadlines and family commitments all blended into one impossibly full schedule. (I also remember that I never had trouble falling asleep in those days.)
It’s tempting to believe that things have eased up for today’s working moms, but I suspect that even though they may have some conveniences and concessions that I missed out on – cell phones, laptops, more workplaces with flexible schedules – those things can’t completely resolve the built-in conflict. There simply isn’t always enough time and energy to cover the demands of the “working” and the “mom” roles at the same time – at least not every day.
I make the assumption that most working mothers, at some point, wish they had the luxury of not working and that most stay-at-home-moms, at some point, would like the opportunity to claim or reclaim a career. And everybody is grateful for a little help.
What I valued 20 years ago as a working mother of a young child and still cherish today are people who are sympathetic rather than censorious, kind rather than judgmental, supportive rather than critical.
I still hold a grudge toward the pediatrician who diagnosed my daughter’s ear infection with a barbed suggestion that my working was somehow responsible and the prospective employer who wondered aloud during an interview whether my powers of concentration might have been adversely affected by motherhood.
But I retain a soft spot in my heart for carpool-driving husbands, babysitting grandmothers, understanding teachers, flexible employers, good neighbors and people everywhere who keep their child-rearing advice to themselves.