The Whole Work Thing…

Ever since I found out I was pregnant with Maggie, and probably even before, I went back and forth with one of the biggest questions women of my generation ask themselves: To work, or not to work?

Initially, what I told myself and others was this: I’m just not the stay at home type. To be honest, when I think about this statement now, I’m not entirely sure what that means. The more women I’ve come into contact with that have decided to stay at home, the more I realize that there’s not such thing as a stay at home “type”. We all have factors that pull us in one direction or another. Sometimes necessity is the deciding factor, other times it’s ideology. Personality plays a role too; I’ve spoken to plenty of people that tell me the quality of their family time is improved because working causes them to miss and appreciate their kids and spouses. Needing that time away to do their own thing doesn’t make them better or worse parents, it just makes them who they are.

I had Maggie in October of my second year of teaching public school. Those of you who are teachers, are in relationships with teachers, or have friends who are teachers know that teaching isn’t a job– it’s a lifestyle. Along with the papers we haul with us back and forth to school, we also carry the stresses, anxieties, and joys of our responsibility for the children we teach each day. I teach seventh grade, which averages to about 120 students each year. Having a child of my own didn’t really diminish what I felt for these other kids, it just added to my load one more person I needed to please and care for.

Adding to the load was a forty-minute commute to work each day. I remember one particular drive home from work very clearly. It was about a month after I returned to school from maternity leave, and I was on the phone with my older sister Beth, who was pregnant with her son Howie. Even though I risked freaking her out about her own upcoming challenges, she listened to me cry as I told her, “I feel like I’m split into these three roles, and I’m failing at all of them. Almost every day I feel like a terrible teacher, a terrible wife, and a terrible mother.” There simply wasn’t enough time in the day to give my job, my husband, and my baby the attention that they needed. And even if I could, what about me? Where did my own well-being fit into all of  this? She reassured me that this was just my perception, and that I was surely doing the best I could. Later, she told me how surprised she was that I felt this way; to her, I seemed like I was balancing the different parts of my life very admirably. I, as always, was my own worst critic.

More than two years have passed since then, and while being a working mom has become a normal part of my routine, I still feel lacking in all three departments. It doesn’t necessarily make sense, since I have a happy working environment (closer to home), a happy marriage, and a happy daughter. I’m making it work. I’m managing. But not a day goes by that I don’t want to do or be more, and I often wonder if letting go of one of those roles would give me the time and energy to step it up in the other departments and maybe, just maybe, feel like I’m actually succeeding at something.

Change is terrifying, and one of my greatest fears surrounding this issue is that I will leave the teaching profession, which I enjoy, only to find out that I should have stayed. I’m afraid that, only one year into the position, I will have wasted a fantastic opportunity to teach at a wonderful school only ten minutes from home. I’m afraid that by choosing my family over teaching I will become isolated and lonely, stuck in the house without the companionship of coworkers. I worry that others will judge me for my decision, thinking me selfish or stuck-up, and I know that I won’t be able to help judging myself for giving up on teaching. In that sense, I will certainly feel like a failure.

In short, I can think of a million reasons to keep doing what I’m doing now. Sometimes, though, I hear a voice, a whisper, some sort of calling, saying, “Do the thing that is hardest. Let go.”

I don’t know where that leaves me, especially with baby #2 coming this summer. What I ask of you, friends, family, and fellow moms, is input. I would love to hear your words of advice and the experiences that you have had, because you help me remember that as much as I agonize over every decision, I’m not alone.

My Generation

For most of my life, I’ve pretty much just gone with my gut when making decisions and kept planning to a minimum. I applied to five colleges while many of my classmates were sending out ten applications, got into three of them, and picked Trinity College because the day I visited it was beautiful, sunny, and there were lots of cute shirtless guys playing frisbee on the quad. From there, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, so AmeriCorps seemed to make sense. I applied to programs in Chicago, Atlanta, DC, San Diego, and St. Louis. St. Louis happened to interview me first, and I made a decision later that day. I probably couldn’t have located it on a map, but hey, why not? It worked for me.

Even with my lack of planning, there must have been a divine plan at work, because less than two months into my year of AmeriCorps service, Matthew Pray walked through my apartment door, invited by a mutual friend to a party I was throwing. Our relationship fell into the same pattern of easy breezy flowing from one stage to the next. Exclusivity? That was never a question. After meeting him, I never wanted to date anyone else. We started talking marriage pretty early on, and less than two years after we started dating, he popped the question. I was twenty-three when we got engaged and about to turn twenty-five when we were married. From there, we both knew we wanted kids, so we celebrated our second anniversary quietly at home with our three-day-old daughter.

To me, the whole progression made sense. I thought each stage of my life, from becoming a wife to becoming a mother, was happening at a reasonable time- I certainly didn’t feel like a young wife or a young mother. However, it quickly became apparent to me that most of my peers weren’t on the same track. I was the first of my college friends to get married and the first to have a baby; in fact, I’m still the only one who has chosen to become a mom at this point, which makes me feel even stranger at times about having a two-year-old. Only one of my close friends from high school beat me to the delivery room.

I understand that there is a host of reasons why women now are having babies later than they used to; motherhood isn’t synonymous with womanhood the way it was in the era of the fifties housewife. A lot of the people I know have gone into careers that aren’t what they went to undergrad for, which meant that they spent time working after college, exploring their interests, getting their Masters or Law or whatever degree and then getting serious about establishing themselves in their work life. I get it, and I am blown away by the success of some of my high school and college friends. In addition, some of them just haven’t happened across Mr. Right, and even if they had, he was as focused on work as she was and in no hurry to plan a wedding or complicate things with children. I’m often jealous of these people because they have the freedom that I traded in when I had Maggie. They get to plan cool trips to exotic places or stay out late and drink too much without worrying about embarassing yourself in front of the babysitter when you get home.

At the same time, having a child has changed the dynamic of a lot of my friendships with those people from high school and college. It’s not because I don’t like them anymore or I disapprove of their life decisions. It really comes down to the fact that because I live far away from most of them, and the time I can spend on the phone is severely limited, it’s gotten harder to catch up with people. The less I catch up with my old friends, the less they know about my life now, and vice versa. And if you don’t know about my life now, then you really don’t know me anymore, because being Maggie’s mom has changed me. A lot.

So, I get nostalgic pretty often about all of those friends I used to feel close to who have kind of slipped away, and from time to time I’ll try to reach out and reconnect with them, but I’m also coming to the realization that the people who have stayed in my life, or come into it since Maggie was born, are a blessing. I have friends without children who made it a point to celebrate my becoming a mother and who buy presents for Maggie and who watch videos of her that probably aren’t all that entertaining. They do it because they love me and that automatically means that they love my family too. Facebook has become a totally different experience too, because there seems to be an unspoken rule that exists between moms: As soon as you have a baby, you start liking photos of other people’s babies, even if you didn’t know the mom all that well in high school or college or you had totally fallen out of touch.

I’ve started to lose where I was going with all of this, so I guess the important thing to end with is this: It’s okay to grieve once in a while for the parts of my life that have changed since October 7, 2010. As I get ready to do this all over again, though, I need to remind myself to give thanks every day for the support I get from the friends and family who are in my life. I also need to remember that those people I’ve fallen out of touch with will probably one day have families of their own, and the same things that were important to me– a phone call, a gift, a “like” on a Facebook picture– will become important to them, too. If I can be woman enough to make those small gestures, it’s possible that we’ll one day get to know each other again.

Day 881

To begin with, let me share the lengths to which I will go to reclaim my sanity. Sitting in my email are approximately eighty papers on World War I written by my 7th grade social studies students. And while clearly that is what I should be attending to right now, I find myself at home on my own, my little cherub in bed, my impressively busy husband (meant in the best way, I seriously am impressed with the number of activities he’s involved in) at church practicing with the Chancel Choir. So here I am, shirking my duties as a teacher in order to start the long process of feeling more like myself again.

Exactly when, you may ask, did I stop being “myself” and become someone else entirely? I’d estimate that the transformation began approximately 881days ago, when my daughter, Magnolia Joy, was born. As cliche as I know this description is, the concept of self goes out the window the moment that teeny, squirmy bundle is placed in your arms, and I think that goes for both moms and dads. There is just simply no other thing in the world that’s as important. Now, God or nature, whatever you choose to believe in, created this response in parents for clear evolutionary reasons; a species that fails to protect its children is probably not destined to be around for very long. But here’s the catch: 881 days later, that self I used to be pretty happy with — the one who walked around with poetry in her head instead of a to-do list, who stayed up past 10 pm and was easily convinced to sing karaoke, who could actually think of an answer when asked what her interests are — she’s still gone. And as I feel pretty thoroughly morphed into a frazzled stereotype of a “Mommy” (not to mention that I’m about 118 days from holding another teeny, squirmy bundle) I’m not convinced I’m ever going to be that other person again.

Trust me, I have a lot more to say, but it’s a week night, and time is in short supply as always. This is just a beginning, but it’s a good one- one I can be proud of, because I did it for me.

Day 881 Mommy Moment: Taking pictures of Maggie’s reaction to Beauty and the Beast. Annoying? Definitely. Can I stop myself? Absolutely not.