Thursday, February 10, 2005

in the ring...

Now that I'm seriously in limbo between being a stay at home mom and a work outside the home mom, I have one big question...

Why is there so much division between both groups? I just read a poll in a parenting magazine where one reader said that she couldn't see the point in having children if you were just going to hand them over to daycare to raise them.

Hand them over?!

I went back to work full-time when S was four months old because I had no choice. B was in graduate school and we needed at least one income. I knew before getting pregnant that I would have to work once my baby was born and it was worth it to me to be able to start my family, even though I would have to continue working. And to be honest, since I was living in a new city without many friends, no family, and because his graduate program was so intense, even B was spending nights in his studio at school, I absolutely appreciated having the support of S's teachers at daycare to help me figure out the basics of parenting. I mean, of course I read a lot and followed my instincts, but in the infant room, I had a built in community that otherwise would've been absent in my life. I missed my baby terribly while I was at work, but I was careful to separate work from home life and I was lucky to be able to leave the office everyday by 4pm. And I truly believe that children can benefit from a well-chosen, loving daycare environment that fits their needs and personalities.

When T was born, I also went back to work when she was four months old. B was new to his field and we couldn't afford to live off his income and stay in the city we lived in. Also, since by this time both my brother's family and my parents had moved up here, moving to another city wasn't a real option. I loved the idea of giving my children a supportive extended family environment and didn't want to move. However, this time it was much harder to go back because I knew I was missing a lot of T's babyhood and those delicious milestones, and it wasn't as easy to push the idea of staying at home out of my mind. I found myself mourning for my children and feeling resentful of my job because it was taking me away from them, even though on a day to day basis, professionally, I was doing something I really enjoyed. But coming home to divide the last three hours of my children's day between dinner, baths, bedtime rituals, and then try to give each of them a tiny bit of individual attention was beginning to feel impossible. And this didn't even include trying to buy groceries, put together a meal from those groceries, and pick up the house a little. And then once I put the kids to bed, I often had to get back online and do more work to keep up with my colleagues.

The whole thing was tearing me apart. Missing my kids was tearing me up, but also loved the satisfaction I got from my job. I felt guilty about pretty much everything.

I admit, I did underestimate how difficult it is to stay home full-time. And I am officially apologizing to all those SAHMs for either secretly or not-so-secretly believing that their lives were easier than mine. I know now that they're not easier. It's really hard to keep up at the parenting ideals I'd always strived for when I'm with my children all day. While adhering to the "No TV During the Week" rule was easy while I was working full-time and the TV wasn't a temptation, it is infinitely more difficult now that I crave just five minutes to myself during the day, especially now that S has given up his nap (Okay, okay, he is four and a half and truly ready to give up that nap, but I miss it!). My kids drink more juice and eat more sugar than they used to and there have been days when we're still in our pajamas at noon. But it's been wonderful, too. The kids seem calmer and less clingy. They've always been happy kids, but I know they're happy to be at home more.

But what is easier about staying at home is that I actually feel more like myself, even if I'm doing less that is about me. This is intensely freeing. When I was putting in long hours at work, I would rarely make plans in the evenings or on the weekends because I didn't want to miss a minute I could be spending with my family. I hoarded that time, but I'm not sure it was all that healthy of a thing to do. Our relationships with our friends suffered and I suffered. I could never enjoy an evening out because I missed the kids too much. I felt like it was unfair of me to leave them unless they were asleep. And because I never had time to myself, I was cranky and overtired, and I am absolutely sure it affected the way I parented. Now that I've got time with the kids, I love my time away from them as well. I feel calmer and I parent more calmly. At least sometimes.

All this is well and good. But it still doesn't work. And this is where I feel torn and in limbo. I cannot afford to stay home full-time unless we move to the suburbs, and B and I aren't willing to do that. We don't want to take our kids away from their family, from the theatre and cultural events we don't take them to often enough, and from the general hubbub of the city we love. B is an architect and his job is here. The work he wants is here. And so we're back to trying to figure out how to make this work. Right now, we're living as cheaply as possible, but we're still not making it. And I'm telling you, we are not the kind of people who live large. We've never owned a new car, we shop at consignment stores, we still have the $30 couch we bought in graduate school (at a consignment store) and we rarely eat out. We have savings, but they won't last forever (or for long) and I've just got to go back to work. Ideally, I'll find something flexible and/or part-time. I want to be able to keep S from having to go to after school care and I'd love for T to only have to go to daycare part time. But I've been looking for this perfect situation for a long time now and I haven't found it.

I read all the time in magazines, articles, blogs, and I even hear it from some of my friends, that being a working parent is a selfish and pointless thing to do. But I find that whole crusade pointless, too. There are people that have to work in this world. Healthcare and insurance are prohibitively expensive and if I'm having trouble mustering up the funds for these, I can't even imagine how low income families are managing it. And what about life and dental insurance? What about college? Or what about even extra-curricular activities? Am I having trouble financially because my expectations are too high? Should I give up city living and move to the suburbs? And really, how can it be pointless to have a working mom when the children are very much wanted, in a loving home where they're well-cared for, adored, and wholly appreciated as the blessings they are? Where is the pointlessness in that? And where is the pointlessness in showing my children that mothers can be both a nurturing provider and a powerful presence in the business world?

And you know what? I miss working outside the home. I really do. I miss the thrill of coming up with new solutions or ideas for projects at work, I miss the satisfaction of seeing one of my pieces go live, and I miss the intellectual comradery. I admit it, and I feel guilty. But I do know that a good balance between work and parenting would make me a better parent.

Going back to work feels a tiny bit easier now that my kids are getting closer to grade school, but I'll be back to where I started if we decide to go ahead and have a third child. This tug of war is endless and I'm exhausted by it, but the fact that some parents feel the need to pit one side against another is painful to me. Since I've been home, I've made it a point to support my working parent friends by taking their kids every once in a while or calling them up on the way to the store to see if they needed anything. I feel grateful that I've got a tiny bit more leeway in my schedule (shockingly, though, it really is only a tiny bit.) And I hope that when I go back to work, I can support my friends who stay home in some way, too, maybe by giving them a break on the weekend, or doing an errand for them at the same time I'm doing one for myself. Or just getting out together in the evenings. Something. The point is that parenting is difficult either way you choose to spend your day and we all need some help.

I think the choice to either stay at home or work outside the home is an intensely personal choice, and it's one that should be respected without judgement. Parenting is a glorious, yet exhausting profession, and I don't know a parent who couldn't use a break at one point or another. It's a hard job that is often thankless, but it's one to feel grateful for. And the only thing more shameful than passing judgement on another family, is teaching children that passing judgement on others who are trying to do their best is an acceptable thing to do.

(stepping off my soap-box. phew!)


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