Fluid. This is how I sum up my life as a working mother. I’m not talking about the actual fluids that fill our lives as moms—apple juice, breast milk, tears, urine, projectile vomit—though it’s surprising, now that I think about it, how well those liquids can sum it all up. Like the time I reached up from the couch to take a just-fed baby from my husband’s arms and said baby spewed everything he’d just drunk into my face and mouth. Lessons: expect the unexpected, kids can go from adorable to disgusting in an instant, and it takes a long time to wash away the taste and smell of baby throw-up.
But that’s not the kind of fluid I mean. I mean ever-changing like a river that begins as a stream high in a mountain and makes its way, eventually, to a wide flat delta where it joins the ocean. And it’s not just the scenery that’s changed along the way. As I’ve traveled along this river of parenthood, captain of a sometimes jolly, sometimes mutinous crew, I have made them switch boats practically at every bend.
Before I had kids, I thought the decision about work was a straightforward one—whether to work for pay (full- or part-time) or stay home. Don’t misunderstand. I did not think it would be easy to decide, or completely satisfying whichever way I went, but I thought that was the basic choice. I would weigh all the usual considerations: income versus cost of childcare, desire to spend my days with my children versus desire to continue my professional life, and so on. I would make a choice and be done with it.
As I prepared to have my first child, I chose to take a long maternity leave and then return to work. I assumed I’d do the same after the births of any other children I would be fortunate enough to have.
That’s not how it worked out. In the eleven subsequent years, I have revisited that choice six times. I stayed home for a year. I worked part-time. I stayed home again. I worked full-time and then part-time and then full-time again. I have worked from home and from an office outside our house. I’ve also done a considerable amount of volunteer work.
I have had no help, a little help, and a lot of help with childcare. I have scheduled my life around pick-up and drop-off, and I have refused to schedule my life around pick-up and drop-off. I have used day care, babysitters, au-pairs, housekeepers and after-school programs. I have my share of war stories from the clashing home and work fronts like the day of a critical, impossible-to-reschedule interview when one son had pneumonia and the babysitter had the stomach flu. (Fortunately, and unusually, my husband was able to come home early that day.)
For the record, I am a journalist, able to work on a freelance basis. I have three boys, all school-aged though the youngest is only in kindergarten as I write. One is hard of hearing and uses a cochlear implant and hearing aid. My husband works twelve-hour days; he is usually gone by six a.m. and home after seven p.m. He travels for work and often entertains clients in the evening. His comfortable income and inflexible schedule have affected my working life in two ways: I don’t have to earn much, but I do have to be available whenever necessary. As a result, I have avoided having a boss or colleagues in an office expecting me to show up daily.
All the stopping and starting and adjusting of hours and help can sometimes put me in limbo—somewhere betwixt and between the stay-at-home and working mothers. Occasionally, I crave clarity, assuming it will sweep away all perceived problems and leave me feeling proactive, rather than reactive, and more in control. But I also recognize—when I’m feeling self-aware and forgiving—that each recalibration of our familial balancing act made sense. I changed my mind in accordance with whichever of the conflicting emotions and obligations familiar to every working mother dominated at the time.
When I quit work the second time, for instance, I had spent most of the previous year overwhelmed by the demands of a toddler, an infant and too much outside work with too little help. I was sure that I was doing neither my parenting nor my writing well. I thought the solution was more help, but then my third pregnancy came along unexpectedly quickly so I went the other way—less work. A year and a half later, when our son’s hearing loss was diagnosed, the hearing tests and doctors visits went on for months and took up several days a week. Although I had been eagerly looking forward to getting back to work right around that time, the fact that I didn’t have to was fortunate.
Like many children, mine don’t handle change all that well so it’s not surprising that the transition from one work routine to another has always been difficult. After more than three years staying home, my first step back into the working world was a journalism fellowship that consisted of two four-day sessions a few states away. It’s a sign of how hungry I was for intellectual nourishment that the idea of sitting in conference rooms listening to Powerpoint presentations for a few days was as tantalizing as the smell of baking bread.
But then you might say I got burned taking the bread out of the oven. As the taxi waited to take me to the train station and I was double-checking my lists of instructions for the relatively new au pair, my youngest son, then two and a half, became hysterical. He ran to get his own shoes so he could come with me, then he struggled to get them on before the taxi could leave. Finally, with tears streaming down his red face, he stood forlornly on our stoop holding the shoes out toward me as I got into the taxi and wailing, “Mama. Mama. Mama.”
Experts on separation anxiety say I did the only thing I could in that situation: I left. Drawing out the goodbyes only makes it harder for everyone. But telling that taxi driver to pull away was almost physically painful and I was crying too. Hours later, when I got to my conference, I was still shaken.
Even so, I knew in my gut that it was my turn to do something for me. I had devoted the last three and a half years of my life to my children. I adored them, but I was eager to return to work. Resentment and frustration had been building up in me over the last year, leaking out in my raised voice or lack of energy for playing. Four days away from them was not going to sever the bond between us. They would survive just fine—and did. And I would too. (That new au pair, on the other hand, didn’t last three months. Ah well. She wasn’t cut out for three boys—or what I jokingly call Xtreme Parenting.)
The truth is, I’ve missed very little of my boys’ lives. I know their friends and their teachers. I am able to attend just about every school function or performance (even if I’ve had to change plane flights to do it.) Except for a one-year period when I often didn’t get home until after they’d eaten, we’ve had most of our meals together and I’ve put them to bed more often than not. They talk to me about their hopes and fears, about fun and frustration, about best friends and “worst friends.”
In those moments of craving clarity, I wrestle with the question of why I work at all if we don’t absolutely have to have the money. Let’s face it, if something has to go, giving the children back isn’t an option. My answer is that I work because I like to work. At the risk of over-stating the case, I even feel called to work. I write about subjects I believe are important, and about which I feel I have something to say. My volunteer work has centered on issues like education and community that I think are essential. I like to be engaged in the world in a more intellectual, professional fashion than day-to-day childcare allows. I like the challenge and sense of accomplishment that work provides. I found that when I went for stretches without working I really missed it. And, to be honest, I was bored silly by playing the same game for hours with the kids when they were young. (As a friend put it, I’m not a great ‘floor mom.’) I believe the satisfaction I get from working makes me a better mother—less organized for sure, but happier.
As the mother of boys, I also feel a heavy responsibility to raise them to be good men who respect women. I want to be an example to them of all that women can do. Almost nothing satisfies me more than succeeding in that. When my oldest son was in second grade, he chose to interview me for his article in the class newspaper. At that point, I was president of our neighborhood civic association. His article began: “My mom goes to a lot of meetings.” Oh boy, I thought. Here we go. But I was in for a pleasant surprise. The message of the article was that I was doing good work by contributing to my community. Even better was the day my first book arrived in the mail. The boys danced with joy in the kitchen, each hugging his own copy to his chest like it was treasure and saying wide-eyed: “Wow, did you write every word!”
Very little has gone as I imagined it would back when I embarked on my first maternity leave. Working for yourself, for instance, does not always mean you are in control. I planned a maternity leave after the birth of my second child, but magazine articles I’d written months earlier went into the editing and production process literally the day I got home from the hospital.
Working from home has its advantages, but it has real disadvantages too. I always assumed it would be hard for the children if they knew I was in the house, but I found it was as hard for the babysitter and for me. If I could hear them arguing or crying, I felt duty-bound to investigate the problem. I’ve never forgotten the image one writer described of exiting her house in a suit and heels as if going to work, then sneaking around back to her office over the garage. Unfortunately, we live in the city and don’t have a garage.
When I began writing that first book, I knew it would require copious research and considerable travel (back when I came up with the idea I rather blithely figured I would figure out how to do that). Furthermore, I had never written anything longer than a few thousand words. I couldn’t imagine how I could fulfill my contract without renting an office and hiring a lot of help. That strategy worked in that I did the research and got the book written. Much about the arrangement was easier. I left for work in the morning with the kids and returned in the evening. When I was at work, I was at work. When I was home, I was home. But I found I was uncomfortable with both the expense of this way of working and with the level of outsourcing required.
In addition, I’ve found that children need you more when they’re older. Those were the wise words of a friend who is about five years ahead of me as a parent and she was absolutely right. Yes, they are gone for longer stretches of the day and don’t need the same minute-by-minute caretaking, but the things with which they do need help feel bigger and more critical. A loving and capable caretaker can watch over a toddler in the playground, but who do you want to have on hand when a ten-year-old is upset about something he heard about sex in the schoolyard or is mystified by math?
So here I am, at a bend in the river when I would have predicted I’d be full-steam ahead in work mode—kids in school, one book published, another on the way, new teaching responsibilities—and I’m switching to a slower boat. Although I know it will be harder to get work done, and the economy is such that my income is increasingly important, I gave up the office and much of my help. Am I working fulltime or parttime? I couldn’t say. I work when and where I can. I meet my deadlines either by being efficient or by staying up all late. I’m with my kids when and where I can be. How delightful that they find Costco delightful!
I’m recalculating how to make it all work for the next school year. Some days the boys will go to after-school, some days I’ll pick them up, and some days, they will be shuttled to and fro by some new, as yet undiscovered and therefore still idealized babysitter. Making it work requires discipline and that’s something I wish I had in greater supply, but I have to believe I’ll figure it out, mostly because I have in the past.
Between the last paragraph and this one, my cell phone rang. It was my oldest son, the very one who’d thrown up on me ten years earlier, now finished with his trumpet lesson. “Can you pick me up?” He was one block away—a block he travels by himself every day. “Do you need me to?” I asked, looking longingly at my computer. I was able, for the first time in days, to envision the end of this essay, and suspected that what he really wanted was for me to buy him a cookie at the coffee shop across the street. “No, but we’ve been having such nice conversations lately,” he said. I closed the computer and walked up the block to meet him. He wouldn’t have asked me if I hadn’t been working at home; but then again, I wouldn’t have been able to go.
Moments like that allow me to look back upstream and realize that perhaps I haven’t been such an indecisive riverboat captain after all. You take on shipmates when you need them. You set sail when the wind blows. You can drift on a raft when the water is slow and shallow. In the rapids, you paddle like hell. The lessons are the same: Expect the unexpected. Embrace fluidity. Perhaps what matters most is that you’ve got a boat at all—and time to enjoy a conversation in it as you travel.