I went to a mellow birthday brunch this weekend for a friend’s 2-year-old. While Ruby picked out “Happy Birthday” on the piano and Jake pretended to drill things to the Christmas tree, I sipped coffee in the kitchen with a few other moms. As usual, the conversation turned to the questions that seem to plague all American mothers of young children (or at least the ones who have the luxury of asking these questions):
Should I quit my job? Can I afford to go part time? If I quit, will I be able to get back in later? If I don’t have a career, what will I have when the kids get older?
One of the moms had recently convinced her boss to let her do a job share so that she could reduce her hours.
“I told everyone it was about having more time with my family,” she said. “But it was also about having time for me.”
I was so glad she said that. When people heard I’d quit my job, several of them said things like, “You should be proud! You’re doing the right thing for your kids!” As if that was why I’d done it. For my kids. What I did wasn’t nearly so noble. I did it for me.
The job share mom said that when she was breastfeeding her twins, her doctor told her what foods she needed to eat to keep healthy.
“What happens if I don’t get enough of something?” she asked. “Will my babies get sick?”
“Oh no,” the doctor said. “The babies will get what they need. They’ll suck it out of you. You’re the one who won’t get what you need.”
She said that’s how she felt about working full time. Her kids got what they needed. She got the leftovers. In other words, she was getting sucked dry. That was my experience, too. Strangely, it was a relief to realize this. I wasn’t a bad mother, as I’d feared. I wasn’t ruining my kids’ lives by giving so much to my job. I was only ruining mine…
~Pssst!…Speaking of getting sucked dry, did you vote in the poll yet?~
After the birthday party, we stopped by an ornament-making party at another friend’s house. Jake napped in his stroller while Ruby, rather than decorate the styrofoam balls provided, ground one to bits and sculpted a beautiful snow scene. (That’s my girl. Transforming her destructive impulses into art.)
Meanwhile, I hung out in the kitchen with a whole different set of moms. After we’d talked about Obama and devoured the homemade fudge, the conversation, inevitably, turned to the work dilemma again. (OK, maybe I devoured the fudge. Everyone else was very ladylike and had only one piece.)
One of the women had once been a hot shot vice president of something or other. She’d managed the job stress by eating Tums by the handful, until she finally quit and had kids. She took a few years off of work to be home with her babies, and was just starting to freelance part time.
She told us her daughter came home from kindergarten recently, starry-eyed about another kid’s mom who told the class about her job making robots and sending them into outer space. The class was so inspired that they did an art project involving robots and outer space.
So my new friend was trying to think of what cool thing she does that would impress her 5-year-old.
Honey, did you notice what a great grocery list I make? I put it on the refrigerator and update it EVERY DAY.
I joined in with my own version:
Honey, do you know how clean the laundry is? Have you noticed that we never run out of milk or clean underwear anymore?
But instead of getting quietly snarky, as many of us might be tempted to do, the grocery list mom did something very open-hearted. She emailed the robot-making mom, told her how impressed her daughter was, and how jealous she was that she didn’t do work that was nearly as impressive.
And the robot mom wrote back saying how jealous she was that the grocery list mom was able to work part time.
So, the grass is always greener…
We keep talking about it at every gathering, about this mommy work dilemma, because it’s a puzzle we’re trying to solve, a Rubix cube we keep turning around in our hands. The solution seems tantalizingly close, but one colored square always seems to be on the wrong side.
I don’t understand why we can’t have both things. Why can’t we make robots that go into outer space, and do it in less than 30 hours a week? Why can’t we put in a good day’s work in six hours, instead of eight, or 10 or 12? Why does work have to suck so many of us dry?
I’ll leave you with a statistic, because you know how much I love statistics:
Americans work longer hours than workers in most other developed countries. Whether we have kids or not, we’re all trying to live on leftovers.