Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Working Mom Guilt

Like a lot of Late Blooming Moms, I was established in the working world before I had my kids.

I thought briefly about becoming a stay-at-home mom when I found out I would be having twins, but I know myself well enough to know I'd go crazy if I didn't have at least some kind of professional existence outside of mom-and-wife-hood. I also knew my husband and I would need the money; where we live ain't cheap. So there wasn't really a choice to be made, short of moving to some small hamlet where housing is inexpensive, we wouldn't know anyone, and as confirmed city mice, we'd have trouble adjusting.

Even though I briefly considered this option -- and sometimes I still do, when I get a look at our monthly mortgage payment -- there are other reasons I stuck with the plan to go back to work. I'd had friends who'd been working women grapple with being at home with just one baby, only to find they longed for the validation of other adults, the mental challenge of interesting work, and the independence that comes from earning a paycheck. One mom complained to me that she'd go to a dinner party and as soon as she told the person making conversation with her that she was a stay-at-home mom, that person's eyes glazed over ... and then the person inevitably focused on her software-executive spouse, and ignored her the rest of the night. It was just assumed she had nothing worthwhile to say. Of course that was ridiculous, but she felt stigmatized, as a former professional (with an MBA to her name) now deemed not worth dinner table conversation.

I took a six-month leave of absence when my babies arrived, and surprisingly, I didn't go crazy. I felt fortunate to have time to get to know them -- and get some experience and confidence at mothering -- before I resumed work. And when I did, I was able to work three days from home, two at the office, which afforded me the chance, once the kids hit the nine-month-mark, to use lunch hour a couple of times a week to take them to music and gym classes, accompanied by a nanny who proved an invaluable help (though of course an added expense).

I had some guilt then about not being around for every diaper change, every bottle, every nap, every minute of the day when some developmental milestone might occur. But babies are extremely high-maintenance, and I gotta admit, I was also relieved at times not to be on duty at home all the time. About a year later, I shifted to working at home nearly all the time, save for a meeting every week or two back at the office. I missed my colleagues and the social interaction, but it sure made it easier to see more of the kids: I bid them goodbye when the nanny took them to the park, greeted them with hugs and kisses on their return, helped put them down for nap, visited them briefly during afternoon snack, and kept up the lunch-hour toddler classes a couple of times a week. Best of all, I had no commute and was right there when the work day ended. I was far luckier than most working moms because I did, in fact, see my kids part of the day.

I still felt guilty, but if work was slow, I was as likely to take a much-needed nap as to spend it with the kids. Slowly, though, my guilt began to grow. And now that the kids are in a full-day preschool, my guilt is great.

Knowing I have to work to help pay the bills doesn't really help. It only contributes to the feeling that I'm in a bind, a bind of my own (and my husband's) making: we chose to live here and do the kind of work we do, and make our lives far from extended family, where we have to pay for all the help we get.

Thankfully, the kids love preschool, and though parting is still tough in the morning -- separation and transitions are difficult for most preschoolers, my kids included -- they have a great time most days. When I show up, they are thrilled to see me, but I often have to coax them from the school, which is filled with stimulating toys and craft projects, boasts an elaborate outdoor play yard with a huge sandbox, a play structure, water tables, and all manner of outdoor toys and activities. Teachers are warm and don't hesitate to administer hugs. The kids' vocabulary has expanded exponentially, and their social skills, while in constant need of refining, are getting a lot of practice.

Still, there is guilt. Lots of kids get picked up earlier in the day than mine, and go to play dates at the park or other classmates' homes. Sometimes they just go home and enjoy being in their own space. My kids don't get nearly as much time at home as some of their counterparts, who leave at noon or three. And on some days, it takes a toll on all of us. If they're slow leaving school due to potty breaks, changing out of wet clothes, or an inclination to dawdle, we get caught in traffic and limp home by six, when I've got maybe half an hour to get some dinner on the table if we're to have baths or showers and all our bedtime rituals. And the kids are hyper from the ride and the carb-laden snacks I've had to give them in the car to keep them occupied. Plus they've had to hold it together emotionally to be without mommy or daddy for many hours, and they've been out of the cozy comfort zone of their own space.

Some evenings, they act out a lot; or they're cranky, whiny and tired. Probably the same is true of their peers who get home earlier, but I can't say as I don't see those kids. All I know is, the rare day when work is slow or I've managed to work ahead, I can pick them up a bit early, and they seem calmer, more rested, better behaved. They give me a little time to breathe when we get home, and I can spend some time with them before I turn into short-order cook, and start barking at them to eat, wash, change into PJs, etc.

Though I value my work, I miss being with the kids. They're only going to be this small once, and as a late blooming mom in her fourth decade, I ain't likely to have more babies.

Naturally, I overcompensate: I know I give them too many treats, trinkets, trips to restaurants, etc. I make sure there are plenty of hugs and kisses when I'm with them, and I devote nearly every minute of every weekend to them save when I'm asleep. Every couple of weeks or so, I'm lucky enough to have a babysitter for the night. But the latter circumstance brings on more guilt. Okay, not so much that I don't leave the house. Mommy and daddy need date night or mommy and daddy will be as impossible as a couple of whining toddlers. But the guilt is there, nonetheless -- especially if we've left one of the kids crying because they don't want mommy and daddy to go.

I don't know what the solution is, aside from a wholesale revision of our lives. And I don't have quite enough guilt to try to puzzle out how, exactly, we could make that happen, and make do somewhere else, with far less. My job isn't part-time, and we couldn't make do on a part-time income.

So I soldier on, a working mom, hoping the example I'm setting, as a woman who earns her keep via her expertise, will be a good one for my daughter, and will make my son realize that when he gets married, some day, his wife is entitled to a working life too.

My own mom was stay-at-home for many years, then went back to work, but always had a series of jobs, not a career. This bothered her. She was capable of much more than she was able to accomplish in the working world. I don't think she regretted the years she spent at home. But at the same time, she felt she missed out. It's some consolation that I won't have that regret.

But the guilt is there every day. Oh, to be like daddy, who blithely goes off to work without giving it a second thought. Thanks, society, for making expectations so different for men and women, even in this day and age. Or should I ascribe it to nature? The daddy gene is, surely, a bit different than the mommy gene.

All I know is, I hope I'm not doing motherhood half-assed. I console myself, like many a working late blooming mom, with the thought that I'm doing the best I can, given the circumstances. I suspect, even if I was staying at home, I'd find some other aspect of my mothering to make me feel guilty.

Hey, we gotta give them SOMETHING to go to therapy about in twenty years, don't we?


Yeuen (Kyungen's sister) said...

It's true; my friends and I talk about saving for therapy (for the kids, for us) rather than for college...
As another mom who works outside the home, I believe 1. CPS would be at my doorstep if I stayed home full-time b/c I find it so hard, and 2. it makes me a better working person to have the perspective of staff/collegues who also have kids and have to (or choose to) work, and 3. makes you realize that some problems are relatively minor (compared to family illnesses, etc.) That said, I still don't know the parents in my kids' classrooms and need to figure out how to do that better.

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