Mother Lode: Working mom vs stay-at-home mom
So, get this: Two women are sitting in the Town Court in Bedford Hills, N.Y., waiting for their hearing on speeding tickets. No cell phones are allowed, they appear to be around the same age, and they get to talking.
“I got stopped doing 35 in a 30 mile-per-hour zone. I can’t believe I am here,” the first one groaned.
“I was at 38 mph, and had three screaming children,” said the second. “I couldn’t even see there was a police officer behind me for a good mile, which didn’t help things.”
Both were mothers, both with young children. Immediate bonding ensued. OK fine, I was the 38 mph mother, why hide it.
We wound up chatting for more than an hour about challenges in parenting, from discipline to social pragmatics to sibling dynamics. At some stage I let loose about how hard it is to be a mother. Why didn’t anyone warn us?
Then she dropped the bomb.
“It’s overwhelming,” she said. “I don’t know whether to be grateful I work full time or to run for the hills sometimes.”
She worked full time.
Now I am no stranger to the stay-at-home mother vs the salaried working mother debate. When I worked at Random House, mostly before I had children, we published numerous books on the subject. As a know-it-all, 30-something executive I rolled my eyes at all of them.
Obviously, every woman should work outside the home, especially if she has children, I felt. That’s what the women’s movement and equal opportunity was partly about, right? That’s what made us different from our tradition-bound, chained-to-the-stove pioneer foremothers. Not working was only for rich women who overlooked critical self-fulfillment in exchange for pampering their spoiled children, I thought.
But after the financial crisis hit, many publishing imprints folded and half our company workforce was laid off, including me. I was three months pregnant, had a 9-month-old baby at home, and my husband and I had just closed on a house in Greenwich, a 45-minute commute from Manhattan.
I already hated coming home from work each night to a nanny’s reports of all the milestones I had missed that day. Suddenly, John Irving seemed less important than my son’s developing baby babble and eye tracking.
Going back to work was impossible to imagine. If we could financially swing it, staying home with my kids made the most sense for me. For many women this is not a choice, of course. But we could make it work.
And then, within a Malcolm Gladwell blink of a moment (the very same Gladwell who used to come to dinner at my crappy apartment in Long Island City), eight years passed. I was enjoying life as a full-time, stay-at-home mother with three much loved children. I had become exactly the kind of self-indulgent mother I used to roll my eyes at. As a “spoiled rich woman” (living in Greenwich didn’t help here) I even had a live-in au pair to help.
Then why was I constantly complaining and feeling overwhelmed? Talk about a Mother Lode.
“You work full time. Wow. Tell me how that works. Like for example how you are here right now?” I asked my new friend at the Bedford Hills speeding ticket place.
“A great boss, a good day care, a husband who can be flexible. But honestly, on most days it’s a mess,” she replied.
And this got me thinking; when is life not a mess? I’m home with my kids all day and our house is a mess of coloring books, puzzles, dirty clothes, clean clothes, leftovers and who knows what else. Everyone’s life is a mess in places.
“Yes, but at least you can go to the bathroom by yourself,” I point out.
And then there’s the lunches — gosh, how I miss those expense-account lunches in elegant mid-town restaurants. I will never forget when an old boss took me to lunch the day I returned from maternity leave. It felt like such a treat. I asked her if I could order anything on the menu, like a little kid. I missed it all so much.
“But Claire, you get to see your kids so much more than I do,” she said. “I sit at my computer and look at pictures of them for a big chunk of the day” an old friend points out.
“And I look for ways to escape,” I countered. “Plus, you negotiate peace treaties on behalf of the U.S. State Department. I make birthday party invitations.”
“Well,” she said, smiling slyly. “Are they good invitations?”
“They really are,” I admitted.
When is it ever the right balance? I suspect it never is. It’s a balancing dance we do, all of us, all the time. Whatever path you take there will always be regrets. I suspect I will always wonder at the path less taken. But here’s the thing: we are all in this together, despite the wide ranging circumstances we may find ourselves as moms. And the more we can share our stories, laugh and embrace our challenges side by side the better. Speeding ticket and all.