Monday, March 1, 2010

Questions

I just read a fascinating book of essays, all written by mothers. It’s called Mommy Wars, edited and compiled by Leslie Morgan Steiner. If you haven't read it, I highly recommend it.

As the title predicts, Morgan Steiner sets out to understand why this ongoing, societal battle regarding mothers’ choices continues. She wanted to gain perspectives from women in each place: those with paying careers and those without, and all the places in between. Are there mommies who truly love staying home? Are there mommies who are so happy working? Yes and yes. Are there some that fall somewhere in between? Yes. I thoroughly enjoyed reading each of these women’s stories about their entrees into mommyhood.

Why do you work?
Why do you stay home?

It is my question. It is your question. It is our question. But my answer is really none of your business. And your answer is none of mine. Nonetheless, our overall question prevails—answers and decisions instigate friction and all-out-war between otherwise civil, smart, level-headed women.

The only constant in these scenarios is this: A woman has a baby. (Even the arrival of the child varies vastly...by adoption, sex, in vitro, foster care.)

I always knew I wanted to have children. Always. I was also certain I wanted to stay home with them. While
I was growing up, I thought that every woman would want to stay home and raise their children but only some, with the right financial resources, housed the ability to do this. Now that I’m more seasoned, I realize how na├»ve my beliefs were. Some of us have no choice and have to work. Other moms have no choice and have to stay home. There are some that have financial independence and choose to continue their careers after their children are born. And there are moms who choose to stay home.

When I was 19, I was diagnosed with endometriosis. After treatments and two surgeries, my doctor told me to start having children by the time I was 25.

“Sure”, I thought sarcastically, “no problem.”

So my twenty-fifth birthday arrived. I was single, living in Chicago and couldn’t figure out why this birthday felt so, well, poignant. It really wasn’t until recently that I realized the impact of that birthday’s passing with not a single possible father in sight.

Four years later, twenty nine comes along and so does my future husband. Strong, independent, tall, funny and tender-hearted. (I didn’t visualize stubborn, but then I’m sure he didn’t check the “anal-retentive” box on his wish list….) We married when I was 30. After several very deep and tearful conversations about when we might start our family, we decide to start trying. Based on my history, we knew we may not get pregnant for years. I purged my body of bad things and he was a very, VERY happy camper.

Four months after we marry, I’m pregnant. I couldn’t believe the stick. I took at least four more tests (ok, seven) between the first one and my doctor’s appointment.

I did not want to go back to work after the baby was born but knew our financial landscape might force me to return. After many more very deep conversations, we decided I’d stay home (or, more accurately, I convinced hubby that I should stay home). I would’ve loved to work part-time, but advertising clients are not part-time.

Abby finally arrived and life was sweet. I loved being home with her. But three months after quitting I was surprised by pangs (ok, earthquake-like jolts) of jealously when my only other “equal” in the agency was promoted to our (I mean her) next level. My thoughts danced, “If I still worked there, would I have been promoted? Was I even in the consideration set?” I was happy for my colleague (I still truly like and respect her) but envy oozed out of all my pores. I didn't even work there and I still mentally vied for the promotion, while covered in breast milk, drool, spit-up and an extra twenty pounds.

Two years later, hubby and I decided to go for number two. Two weeks later I stared at another positive pregnancy test. Hubby joked and said I made-up all this infertility stuff. Hardy-har-har.

I went from thinking I might never have children to having two, each when we wanted, give or take a couple of days. Absolutely miraculous--a blessing I still acknowledge daily. After Henry was born,
I became a stay-at-home mother of two. Yikes. Hubby, six months into his MBA program, traveled to school every-other weekend. All while working full-time. Even on my worst of worst days (and, my dear readers, you know how bad some of those days have been), I’m still glad that I’m at home with them. It was the right answer for my family and me. I love not having to rush out of the house to get to work. I love supporting them and helping them grow, watching their inquisitive minds catapult and synapse. I love watching their golden hair shine in the midday sun.

Do my counterparts who work enjoy these things any less? Or more? Puh-lease. We all sort through the gifts of our children at our own pace and through our own individual filters. I respect women and their families for their choices. Even when they are different from my own. Not better, not worse. Different.

Should I be awarded for my sacrifices and desire to stay home with our children? YES. Does it make me a better person than many of my dear friends who continued their careers and make their own sacrifices? HELL NO. Are moms with careers better because they set a sound example for their children, showing them that women can and should pursue and enjoy ambitious careers? NO. Are they gaining joy from their careers as well as from their children? YES. (Am I very thankful that those women highlight the diversity of women’s choices for my dear daughter and son? YES.) Are we all fabulous for the mundane, exhilarating, painful, joyful, messy things we do for our children and the contributions we make? Ab-so-stinkin-lutely.

Although I contribute my time, guidance, sweat, energy, patience and love to my kids, my husband, my dog and all their schedules, I do not contribute financially. This strikes me as odd. Especially since I enjoyed financial independence for a decade before I married. When I wanted to stay home, my husband and I carefully navigated those financial waters and ultimately mapped a route that worked for us. Now that I earn a bit from my writing, it feels great to contribute monetarily. But I wonder why it is important to me. Is it truly essential or is its importance dictated by our society? In the past, I could mark my success with a raise and a hefty bonus. Now, my only barometer is my own equilibrium. Am I happy with my choices? Am I doing a good job? Are my children thriving? Does this feel right?

Will I ever have the answers? Will I ever stop asking the questions?

No. But I know that my questions, your questions and our questions are eternal; garnering different feelings, nuances and responses with the shift of a boss, an age, a season or even a mood. I’m just glad we’re asking. May your answers be forthcoming and fruitful and may they resonate truthfully within you.
(Edited, reposted from Oct 2008)