When you hear about mothers going into labor, you may think of a woman panting rapidly and screaming in agony, but for many mothers the hardest pain to confront is laboring over the decision to work or stay home with her kids.
For many years, I considered myself lucky that I got the best of both worlds by working part-time in the career I loved and staying home the rest of the time to be room mom, girl scout leader, soccer coach and hands-on playmate.
But for quite a while, I second-guessed my situation, because I hadn’t planned it all out before my kids were born. It had happened, and I accepted it. It took a comment from a mom friend who made a completely different decision for me to realize that I had to rejoice in my choice for me to truly embrace it.
My mom friend lived in a big, beautiful, new, luxurious, organized home that smelled like vanilla and sparkled like diamonds. My kids looked up to her kids (who were older), like my husband and I looked up to their parents, who were successful in a way we hoped to be. Would we ever get the custom-built McMansion on a large plot of land like this couple had? And if we did, would we be just as down-to-earth, generous and fun to be around as they were — the kind of people who make you feel happy to know them but a bit envious because they seem to have so much?
It’s what I thought one day many years ago, when we went to their house for their youngest daughter’s birthday party. The mother was the quintessential host: ponies for the kids to ride, amazing appetizers for the moms to try, plenty of beer for the dads to drink. They always invited lots of family and friends to their soirees, and we all relaxed as the birthday girl opened her presents. The 7-year-old shrieked with delight as she opened fun little kits to make bead bracelets and glittery sun catchers. Her mother sighed and responded, “Sometimes I wish I could do those kinds of crafts with you. But I know you’ll have fun putting them together with your babysitter.” And with that, she had moved on to the next conversation, not burdened with any of the guilt or second-guessing of the mommy wars: stay home and be hands-on with the kids all day vs. work and let someone else take on those joys and frustrations.
She owned her decision to work full-time. She embraced it; she relished in it. She knew what it brought her, and she knew what she was giving up.
My friend Gina had a great career as a surgical nurse, and was very well respected and well paid. Her husband had a successful business, but it took both of their careers and incomes for them to live their high-end lifestyle. They were clearly happy with their choices.
It made me ponder mine. I didn’t necessarily own my decision to pause my career and then stick it in neutral while I worked part-time. I viewed my decision to work two days a week as an opportunity that fell into my lap, and now I was stuck with it — for better or worse. Of course, I had so many mom friends that envied me: the working moms said their life would be SO much easier if they worked two days a week instead of five; the stay-at-home moms said they would feel SO much less frustrated if they had just a couple days a week to wear work clothes and be praised for their intellect and contribution. I prided myself that I had been lucky enough to stumble into this happy medium that everyone else seemed to crave.
This part-time arrangement, which I suggested to a former boss after taking off a year to breastfeed my first child, gave me great satisfaction: chasing down news stories as a television reporter two days a week and coordinating endless stay-at-home mom adventures the other five days of the week. I was the one sitting down on the floor with my kids making bead bracelets and building Lego sets, and I loved it. So month after month, year after year, I let my career stay in neutral. I was very fulfilled in my job, but it stayed the same. I didn’t move onto the bigger market I always thought I would.
Although I would have liked to move up and make more money, I always felt if I even attempted to push hard to try to achieve a more prestigious and lucrative position, I would be conflicted about wanting to accept a career move that would likely be so demanding that I would be away from my family nights, weekends and more than 50 hours a week.
While I knew I didn’t want that, was spending every day making clay animals what I did want? My friend convinced me that I needed to own my decision, so I could be at peace with it one day when I realized 10 years had passed and I was in the same place in my career.
As I watched my friend’s daughter opening up the rest of her presents, I wondered if my situation was a gift or a curse. I rolled around the scenarios in my head: Missing the choir concerts and having someone else cover the boo-boos with band-aids, but landing the high-profile and high-paying job of my dreams. Or being at every soccer game and reading stories every night, but maybe not reaching my ultimate career goal or being able to buy my dream house before the kids went to college.
I knew I didn’t want to look for a full-time job in my field, for fear I’d be offered one, but I kept re-examining the reasons why. Did I resist pushing ahead in my career because of someone else’s expectations? No, my husband and family and friends would have supported my choice if I opted to work full-time. Did I do it for my kids? In one sense, yes, because I thought my hands-on parenting was better than any daycare or nanny. But did I think they needed me to be home to thrive? No, kids whose mothers work full-time are just as well-adjusted and happy as those who don’t work at all. Did I do it for myself? That had to be the reason. If that wasn’t the real reason, then I needed to make a change.
I knew the answer; it tasted sweeter than the chocolate in the birthday cake. I thought about how much I loved teaching my kids hopscotch, leading my daughter’s girl scout troop and making up silly games for my son’s school parties.
I wanted those experiences for me. It’s the kind of motherhood journey that I always dreamed of, and the kind that fit my personality and desires. I wanted to be there after school to help my kids with homework and take them to their activities, so I could watch them blossom in karate classes and piano lessons.
That was the day many of my doubts scattered like fairy dust. The more time went on with my career in neutral, the more I recognized that it was a conscious decision. I thank my friend Gina for a lesson she didn’t even know she taught me.
My teenagers don’t remember the nature walks we took when they were preschoolers or the endless games of Junior Monopoly in elementary school, but I do. And I relish those memories. Did I give up something for that? Yes, I did. I worked part-time and contributed enough to our family’s income for us to be able to pay the bills, but not get ahead. I clearly wanted those experiences with my young kids more than I wanted my dream house. I have no regrets. My friend’s comment reinforced that I was not letting life happen to me; I chose my path. Could I still get my dream house? Now that our kids are teens, my husband and I are both focusing more on our careers and building up a business to generate more income. But it doesn’t happen overnight, especially when others recognize that you have not been on a fast-track for the past 15 years.
My friend also made her decision fully aware of what she was giving up. She knew at the time that she wasn’t doing all those hands-on activities with her kids day-to-day. She had a wonderful babysitter who shared those experiences with her three children. And while it seemed like a nice, wistful thought to imagine doing it herself, it was fleeting. That kind of mundane playtime wasn’t important enough to her to give up her desire for a successful career and a high-end home.
I believe both of our decisions were the right ones. Both of us have teenagers who seem to be happy and healthy and are doing well in school and extra-curricular activities. All of our children are on track to go to college and find their own successes. Both of us have strong marriages that have weathered the storm clouds of parenting. We both know we made the right decision that worked for us, because we were conscious of the decision we were making. It wasn’t out of guilt or necessity or pressure or expectation; it was knowing what we wanted in our heart, and going for it in spite of the external pressures — not because of them.
I just heard recently that my friend got a wonderful promotion and is achieving great things in her career. She’s got a close relationship with her teenagers and will have an empty nest in a few short years. I just took on some new projects that I hope will lead to my goal of creating an OverAchiever Mom TV show for working mothers, but I’m not there yet despite my new commitment to blog (almost) daily about a lesson learned from another mom. I will be enjoying my daughter’s final awards assembly in her elementary school district next week, an annual highlight of my parenting that I’ve enjoyed for 10 years despite the event being held during daytime hours.
We’re just two moms who decided we could “have it all” in our own way, knowing that our “all” included a few sacrifices along the way. My mom friend taught me as long as you are aware of the sacrifices, and you know in your heart they won’t impact your kids’ or your own happiness in the long run, then the decision won’t turn into a regret.
Thanks to our experience, we can both tell our children with conviction that when you come to the fork in the road, the path is as clear as the Dr. Seuss words I’ve read to my children hundreds of times: “You can steer yourself any direction you choose… You know what you know. And YOU are the one who’ll decide where to go.”