“I can give up my life for six months.”
Those are the now-laughably classic words I uttered to my husband midway through my pregnancy nearly a decade ago. This ridiculous surrendering crept through my memory recently as I read a piece in the New York Times, promising to finally assuage the guilt of working moms.
Count me thrilled that my hard-working peers finally get some of the attagirl action that stay at home mothers have too long monopolized. Count me deflated, too. I stayed at home and here comes data backing the long-running hypothesis that I have screwed this whole feminist mom thing up.
The new study is part of a shift away from focusing on whether working mothers hurt children and toward a richer understanding of the relationship between work and family. A 2010 meta-analysis of 69 studies over 50 years found that in general, children whose mothers worked when they were young had no major learning, behavior or social problems, and tended to be high achievers in school and have less depression and anxiety.
So the kids are fine. There are any number of articles talking about the effects of working mothers on the children. What about positive effects for the working mothers themselves? A quick search yielded this article and this research. The prevailing question: what if both child and mother benefit from a working mother?
All in and wrung out
Knowing what I know now about myself, my child and my years as a stay at home mom, I wish I had kept working. Yes, I had a choice; many women do not. There are moments when I question the choice I made. Some of the reasons seem dumb now. I bore the brunt of the No Sleep for Anyone months. All 10 of them. Some of my reasons aren’t so dumb. Earning nary a penny for close to a decade has stretched the already tense gap between Ideal Feminist and Ideal Mommy into a hot, tender fistula.
Classic parenting one-liners pepper the early years of my marriage. In a middle of the night frustrated rage, my husband spiked an unfitting infant hat on the floor with an unsatisfying thwit – still no chance of eclipsing the desperate howling coming from our now possessed infant child – “no way can this be a full time job for the both of us!” But parenting is exactly that. A full time job, for as many adults as live in the house.
It’s an incredibly demanding full-time job, too, so I kept up my declaration and gave up my life. Job. Hobbies. Writing. Six months passed, and while I knew something was not quite right, I was terrified of not being there for my baby. Somehow I didn’t recall that my mom was around plenty, but never really there. Simply doing the exact opposite of what our parents did doesn’t necessarily yield success. Hindsight, that. So while my kid got me for her formative years, the bonding and joy that Attachment Parenting promised was canceled out by the identity crisis it catalyzed when practiced by yours truly.
How to B a good mommy
Attachment Parenting posits that by following the The Seven Bs, the result is healthy, delightful and secure children. I followed the Bs religiously. We birthed at home [birth Bonding], and the sling was the only way my girl traveled [Babywearing]. We co-slept [Bedding close to baby] until she was six-months-old and much to my surprise, chagrin and eventual relief, our daughter slept better in a crib than she ever had in our bed. I Believed in the language value of my baby’s cry, and we never Cried It Out. Unless my own frustrated sobbing counts. Stubbornly convinced that only the Bs would brand me a good mommy, I Breastfed until she was three.
I hit every damn one of those Bs. All except Balance.
Balance stumped me. I rarely drew boundaries to protect and care for myself. I did not neglect my child, but practiced abandonment every single day until I found that I had transitioned seamlessly from neglected child to neglected mother. More isn’t always better, time with children included. Staying at home meant that my child had me all to herself. But it also meant I was left with no self to myself. The sad irony is, if I had kept more for me, I might have had more for her.
Clearly I was doing it wrong.
Modeling more of the right things
The problem with abandoning yourself for six months is the habits that winnow ruts into your psyche. By the time I was ready for more life in my life, I had forgotten how To Life. Daddy’s Day on Saturdays left me wandering the house listlessly at first. On weekdays, I started with the time I had, instead of taking the time I needed. Time away from parenting hinged completely on my daughter’s fickle morning nap, but I began to write again. I started a blog, and wrote most days for an hour. Once she dropped the morning snooze, though, I dropped writing again. My husband did everything he could to serve up more time and space, but I clung to those old habits hard.
Around that same time, I saw a social media post from a friend, another stay at home mom and Montessori teacher, who declared that she never felt guilty reading a magazine or book when her very young children were awake and about. Reading alone quietly without succumbing to play-with-me? interruption serves as an important model for children. The adults that read alone in the presence of young children are teaching them the value of reading, and taking time for one’s self. Absorbing those words, I felt both slapped and reborn.
Working while raising a baby is hard, and some will take issue with my likening it to ‘time for myself’. I am sure that there are some working mothers that even hate that they have to work. Plenty of working mothers have lamented working full-time.
‘Oh, my kids are going to be so much better off if I stay home,’ but what we’re finding in adult outcomes is kids will be so much better off if women spend some time at work,” said Kathleen McGinn, a professor at Harvard Business School and an author of the study.
Still, all the focus is on the children. Adult outcomes of the children. I propose that work outside the home provides perspective on our personhood. It demands that we see ourselves as more than mothers, which is a healthy reminder. Even the happiest stay at home mothers I know have maintained or carved out something for just themselves. Hobby jewelry. Part-time lawyering. A really engaging book group. Anything that, if you made a contact card, would not have to name your children on it.
Everyone must thrive for anyone to thrive
The only advice I give soon to be moms, especially if they plan to stay at home, is “be sure to keep something for just yourself.” They might glaze over all “mmm-hmmm”, and pass an absent hand lovingly over their very round belly. It’s a lot like the proclamation I made, willingly surrendering my life for six months. Without fail when I later encounter those same mothers, their earlier romantic glaze has galvanized into something darker. We exchange the knowing gaze of veterans who might shudder at shared memories of the battlefield, but prefer not to talk about it.
The thrust of the NYT article might be summed up in a single sentence: “kids thrive when their parents do.” Whatever that means. Whatever leaves you feeling productive, worthy and more energized than you might feel following a day-week-month of playgrounds and cheddar bunnies. Thriving means all sorts of things. Maybe it’s a commute with a podcast or NPR as quiet company. Maybe it’s simply the paycheck. I poured myself into motherhood in a way that, both at the time and in retrospect, I regret. Bygone pediatric language captures my situation perfectly: failure to thrive. Maybe I was a good mom, but I became a really depressed, boring person.
The bloodiest front in the mommy wars
Before I had a child, I accepted the expectation that I should stay home with my child. Raising a female child has me questioning that choice. Maybe I should be working. Maybe I should have been working all along. I should be able and want to and support myself, or at least contribute to our household. I fret about credibility as a feminist role model, for me and my daughter both.
I’ve never been particularly ambitious, but I wonder now if staying at home was a response to a life-long socialization to do what moms should do. But anytime you get backed into a corner by guilt, fear of judgment, failure or some phantom should, the outcome is generally miserable. Let’s not should all over ourselves. Let’s model resilience, not resentment.
My obsessive self-flaggellation and second guessing I could attribute to the fact that, oh look…I am not a product of a working mother either. Maybe I’d be better adjusted if my mother worked. Or maybe women have so deeply internalized cultural attitudes and criticisms about our choices we don’t even need someone to poke an accusing finger into our chest anymore? Sisters! Doing it to ourselves.
I don’t need even an opposing mommy to draft myself into the mommy wars. The bloodiest front in the mommy wars is within.
Now that my daughter is older, the motherhood identity crisis has subsided. Some. She watches me struggle with the deflating reentry into working after nearly a decade. It’s a long time coming and we are hungry for it, this data tip toward support of working mothers. Edging back into that space myself, it’s helpful to know the territory isn’t as hostile as I once imagined.
I’m careful to take the time I need now, but I still struggle to find time to write. Old habits. My daughter has even suggested that I write about what it was like to raise her. I doubt this is what she had in mind, but it might be useful someday. Someday she’ll be a woman, possibly a mother, certainly a fragile human. When she’s pondering the texture and depth she wants to create in her own life, we’ll have plenty to talk about.
Patti Carlyle is a Cleveland-based writer, activist and recovering perfectionist. She writes about gender, vulnerability and transformation at pardonmyfringe.com. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter @pardonmyfringe.