|Amy Bowman: To Work or Not to Work?
|When I was in college, I wrote more than one essay about how unfair it is that women are often expected to stay home and let their careers take a back seat when they start having children. I cited all those commercials where Mom is serving pizza rolls to flocks of kids and "choosing Jif" all day long. Haven't things changed, I asked. Don't mothers deserve the same chance in the workplace as everyone else? Isn't it awfully old fashioned to assume a mother is going to be doing loads of laundry and driving a minivan to the grocery while everyone else carpools to the office to sit around conference tables sipping coffee and collecting paychecks?
Then I had a baby. I was only a year and a half out of college and making strides in my career as a technical writer for a well-known software company. When everyone from my boss to my grandmother asked what I planned to do after the baby was born, I repeated time and again: "I'm going to keep working. I just started out in my career; I don't think I can leave now." I ducked my head when my mother said, "Do you have to work?" and blushed when a coworker said she would never have babies until she could commit to staying home with them. Neither of them was 25 years old as I was. Times had changed. I wasn't Donna Reed. I brought home half the bacon in the family and my career aspirations were just as important as my husband's.
But as the months passed, I kept putting off looking for daycare. I never even called around to see what was available, much less toured centers or interviewed nannies. My belly grew and I began wrapping up affairs at work "just in case" I didn't return. I started saying "I'm not sure" when people asked when I was going to come back from maternity leave. I gave a blank stare when anyone asked me what daycare centers I was considering.
My maternity leave was exactly twelve weeks long. Around the middle of the second month, I started looking for a nanny, despite the fact that every time I looked at my baby, grief washed over me. The idea of leaving her, even for only 24 hours a week as I planned, sent me into a spiral of depression. But I had read that leaving her would get easier as time passed and I'd actually enjoy the time away, interacting with adults at work. And as my husband reminded me, if I left the software industry now, it would be very difficult to keep up with technology enough to reenter the business in a few years.
I hired the second nanny we interviewed just one week before the end of my leave. During the working interview, I had to bite my lip to keep from crying in the nanny's presence. As soon as she left, I called my husband, unable to hold back the tears, and asked him how I could ever leave my baby. She had screamed the entire time she was in the nanny's arms, and once I had reclaimed her, we held each other for the rest of the afternoon, nursing and sleeping, recovering from the three-hour separation.
It will get easier, they will warm up to each other, I thought as I left for work well before the nanny was scheduled to arrive that first day. I asked my husband to greet her and hand over the baby so I wouldn't have to see her in the nanny's arms. At my office, I tried to smile whenever anyone asked me about my little girl, but I couldn't answer their questions. "Please, I can't talk about her right now," I said, my eyes welling with tears. This was a normal way to feel the first day, I reassured myself. It will get easier.
The plan looked ideal on paper: I would work in the office as little as possible and work at home whenever I could while the nanny cared for my baby. However, I found I couldn't get any work done at home while the nanny was there. I just sat in the office with the door closed and watched the clock. I had to turn up the radio to block out the sound of my baby crying because I wasn't "supposed to" go to her - it would interfere with the nanny's ability to bond with her and cause confusion.
By the first day of the second week, I had decided I couldn't live with the situation for a minute longer. It was Valentine's Day and I came home a half hour early. My baby was lying on the floor surrounded by toys, crying. The nanny was in the kitchen warming a bottle of expressed breast milk. There was an air of frustration and irritation floating heavily in the house. The nanny rushed to my baby and picked her up, looking haggard and explaining that someone had told her that if she plopped the baby on a blanket and gave her a bunch of toys to play with, she would entertain herself for a while and stop crying. This was in stark contrast to the way I wanted to parent my daughter. I nodded politely, snatched up my baby, and took her to bed, where we cuddled and nursed away our loneliness for each other.
I did a lot of thinking that afternoon. Was it fair to my daughter to hand her over to a caregiver who was simply tolerating my baby day after day because it was her job to do so? A caregiver who spent her days trying to find ways to teach my baby to self-soothe so she could read a book or watch a soap in peace? Didn't my baby deserve to wake up every morning knowing that someone who thought the world of her was going to spend the next twelve hours doing nothing but soak up every smile, every "goo," every "wah," and that it was going to be her mother's breast that nursed her to sleep when she was drowsy, not the cold plastic of a bottle?
It was much easier to decide to quit my job than it had been to decide to go back to work. I gave my boss - and the nanny - two weeks notice after only two weeks back on the job. When I was working, I had convinced myself I wasn't missing much being away seven hours a day, and that I could make up for time lost by sleeping with my baby and bathing with her, nursing her, and spending mornings with her. While these were great ways to reconnect, it wasn't until I was back home with her full time that I saw first hand just what I'd been missing. You can pack an awful lot of cuddling, cooing, bouncing, and giggling into seven hours.
But what about my career, my goals, my pursuit of success? Whenever I wonder if it was worth it to give everything up to be with my daughter full time, I just think of my own mother. I call her at least once a week to talk for at least an hour long distance. If I have a dilemma or a crisis or a big win in my life, she's always the first person I ask for help or praise or encouragement. I can count on one hand the number of times she was away from us overnight growing up and I remember every instance clearly. I remember the smell of her makeup when she got ready to go out for my dad's corporate Christmas party every December and I remember missing her until she woke me up for a kiss goodnight when she returned later that evening. She is one of the most important people in my life. Now I am that to my own daughter. The feeling is powerful, knowing that I can have the kind of impact on her that my own mother had on me. I want to be there for every tear and giggle. It's a priceless gift, sharing this time with her, and I am grateful every day that I made the decision I did.