I've been spoiling myself with a few personal trainer sessions to jumpstart my post-pregnancy workout routine, and the woman who's been training me is lovely, and a working mom to two school-age children. So I was a little shocked when she expressed a rather unenlightened view of working momdom the other day. She had expressed surprise that my law firm's maternity leave and flextime policies were so generous, and I explained that keeping female lawyers is a challenge that large law firms are very concerned about; the ratio of male to female associates is usually about 50-50, but the number of female partners drops to something like 10-15 percent. She nodded and said that several of her clients are lawyers who work very long hours, and when they say that they have or want to have children, she thinks, you better get used to a nanny. And then why have children at all? She asked.
It wasn't so long ago that I thought that way myself. I cast a judgmental eye on female partners with children and wondered how they could do it. Their children were probably messed up by the neglect, I thought. When I got pregnant, figuring out how--or whether--I was going to balance work and family was one of my primary concerns. I had expected to have a few more years to think about it and get my life arranged the way I wanted it before children arrived on the scene. Finding myself unexpectedly pregnant after practicing law for just a year and a half and being married for just a few months, I suddenly had to figure it all out very fast.
I bought Leslie Bennetts' book The Feminine Mistake: Are We Giving Up Too Much? hoping it would help me think through the issues. As the title indicates, it's not exactly an objective look at the issue. Bennetts argues quite forcefully against staying home with the kids. I suppose I chose that book because I already knew which way I wanted my decision to go, and just needed help convincing myself it was right.
It's one thing to be young and childless and thinking idly about other women's choices. (And looking with momentary envy at the young mom having a leisurely morning at Starbucks during my mad dash to get to work.) It's a whole different ball game when you yourself consider completely abandoning a significant part of your identity in favor of a lifestyle that many look upon--however misguidedly--as easy and brainless. Except that last bit wasn't really what I stumbled on most. I'm definitely not above caring what other people think, but having had a stay-at-home mom myself, I know it's not easy and brainless, and I know it's a worthwhile thing to do. Besides, people judge you just as much for not staying at home. In fact, I think the pressure to stay home might be greater than the loss of cocktail-party status, at least initially.
Being pregnant gave me a taste of what it would be like. Suddenly everything revolved around my uterus. People assumed things about me based solely on my pregnancy. Of course I was thrilled to be an expectant mother, of course I would willingly chuck everything for the baby. And I was happy and excited, and I often did find it hard to think about anything other than the baby. But there were conflicting feelings too. I felt helpless and out of control, and angry about it. I looked at young women on the street, imagining them to be single and childless and carefree, and envied them. I was angry with myself for not being in better control of my reproductive organs, feeling stupid and incompetent. I couldn't stop thinking about all the things I still wanted to do, which now seemed out of reach with a small child in the picture. And the hardest part about all this was that I felt I couldn't express it, I wasn't supposed to feel it.
I guess what this has to do with the stay-at-home versus working mom question is that I'm afraid giving up my career would mean giving up my independence and individuality, and allowing myself to be defined solely in relation to my child. When people ask me whether I want to quit and stay home, I usually say I'm afraid I'd be bored, a way of pointedly referring to the fact that I am more than just a mom.
The current fad to wring hands over the "overparenting crisis" gives me strange comfort. By keeping my job, I'm making sure that I'm not stifling my child. He'll be better off if mom has her own life, I figure. Because I'm definitely the type to obsess and overdo it if I have the time and energy to devote solely to him. Home on maternity leave, I swing wildly back and forth from thinking I have to play with him every second, even if he just wants to sleep or stare at the shadows on the wall, to feeling guilty when I put him in his swing so I can surf the internet and write e-mails.
I don't have any answers yet. But I have a lot more empathy and understanding for moms of all kinds.