“I … just don’t know if I can do this,” I confess. I’m sitting in my coworker’s office cube, eyes rimmed with tears. It’s 9:30am, and the fluorescent light is jarring.
She looks at me kindly. “Girl, you just got back to work, “ she said, handing me a tissue. “You’re juggling a lot of stuff.”
I look sideways and blot my eyes, willing myself to stop crying. Last night my son cried for me at 11pm, 2am, and 4am. Each time I’d shuttled to and from his bedroom to nurse him, falling asleep in the rocking chair twice. I should be with him right now, I think, feeling resentful. I mentally tick-off my to-dos — emails to answer, invoices to file, stories to edit, and I’ll need to pump in an hour. What I crave more than anything, however, is a nap. I sigh.
“I am so tired,” I muttered. “I think I got 5 hours of sleep last night?”
“I think you need a coffee,” she said, gesturing toward the kitchen. I stand up, legs wobbly, and seek out caffeine — the only thing that will keep me from face-planting from exhaustion.
I went back to work on a warm day in early April, when my son was three months old. Jack was a pleasant baby and a great sleeper, with the cutest little cleft chin and dimples. I loved being his mom, and I savored the slower pace of life maternity leave offered us. I hated the thought of leaving him — I’d grown accustomed long days filled with feedings, tummy time, lullabies, and euphoria-inducing baby smiles. Maternity leave had also been bewildering, draining, lonely, and mundane, but as my return-to-work date approached, the prospect of working motherhood seemed far more challenging.
I went back to work because I had to – maternity leave was over, and our family needed my benefits and paycheck. My working mom friends warned me my transition back would be brutal; I braced myself for impact. What I didn’t see coming was my son’s reaction.
I went back to work before I was ready. He wasn’t ready either.
Standing at my desk hours later, I cannot seem to focus. I tip my head back and drain my cold coffee. My mind wanders to my son and if he’ll take a bottle today. Two weeks at daycare and he’s still outright rejecting bottles or sipping small amounts, then stays up all night breastfeeding with me. Although he took bottles fine from his dad just a month ago, I guess I can’t blame him for this strike. We’d been practically inseparable for three months.
Now everything is different, and our once easy-going baby seems to be acting out his frustration. The thought of this makes my knees buckle. I feel like the world’s worst mom.
The tears start again and I worry I’ve made a mistake.
Going back to work was supposed to feel different.
Before my husband and I even broached the topic of having kids, I’d envisioned myself as a working mom. I was raised by a strong, independent woman who could beat the boys in baseball and solo-parented my brother and I while my dad was deployed. Though she’d stayed home when we were preschoolers, she went back to work when I was in first grade. My mom juggled teaching duties with her church organist job, half a dozen other commitments, and put hot meals on the table while maintaining composure and grace, rarely (if ever) raising her voice.
When I finally became pregnant after months of trying, my husband and I were over-the-moon excited. A journalist at heart, I dove into baby research. I devoured Mommy blogs, The Bump, and What to Expect When You’re Expecting. I also read up on working moms, learning from one series in The Atlantic that neither stay-at-home moms nor working moms felt content with their career and childrearing choices. Part-time moms seemed the happiest, and they too dealt with discontent. The revelation was unsettling.
Flash forward to the present: Is this how I’m feeling now, unease and guilt? Did my mom ever feel that way too?
In June, my son turned a corner. At 5 months old, he’s finally drinking milk at daycare, dropped a late night feeding, and we’re both getting a little more shut-eye. I’ve also become more efficient washing bottles and pump parts and schlepping us out the door at a reasonable hour. I think I’m on the verge of finding my working-mom rhythm.
One Wednesday, I open the door to my son’s daycare room and his teacher barely glances at us – it’s clear she has her hands busy with a couple of wailing babies. I slip him onto a fuzzy yellow boppy, then hesitate. Why am I leaving him here? Should I just turn around and drive us home? I shake off the thought, kiss my son’s fuzzy head and tiptoe toward the door, ridden with guilt.
Most days I work through lunch, slamming leftovers at my desk as I scan initial drafts of articles and essays. This day, I take a chance and join the office moms’ group for lunch. We sit across from each other at a wide, gray conference room table on the ninth floor, the veteran moms trading stories. Molly regales the group about the time she forgot her son in the house when he was strapped in his infant car seat carrier. I laugh so hard I nearly spit out my salad. Soon the attention turns to me, “How are you doing, new mama? How’s Jack?”
“He has so many issues with sleep,” I groan. “It takes forever to put him to bed, he won’t nap for us at home, and I’m exhausted.”
The suggestions pour in: “Have you tried co-sleeping?” “Starting solids?” “Cry it out?” “The no-cry sleep solution?” I nod, listen and take furious notes on my phone as they talk over one another. My mind spins.
“I feel like I’m doing an awful job at this working mom thing, I don’t understand how you ladies do it,” I finally blurt out.
The conversation comes to halt. I cannot meet their eyes, so I stare at the remains of my lunch.
Finally Heidi speaks up, “I know it seems hard now, but it will get easier.”
“Some days, I still feel like you do,” Molly added, packing up her lunchbox. “Being a working mom is really tough.” The others nod in agreement.
“Everything in motherhood is a season,” Andrea said, rising to leave. “The next one will be here before you know it.”
“Thanks,” I said, feeling dubious. I glance at the clock – 1pm. Gotta head to my next meeting.
Summer crawls on, exacerbated by chronic sleep deprivation and the lopsided balancing act of life ruled by deadlines and diaper changes. Work has been feeling positive, and I’m starting to feel like my old self again. On the other hand, I constantly forget things – web articles to schedule, lunch on the kitchen counter, breastmilk in the lactation room fridge, pediatrician appointments. The worst yet was a $100 check request, filed twice to the same writer. My new boss sat me down that day and issued a warning, urging me to pay closer attention to the details. Despite the encouragement I received from my office moms’ group, I can’t shake the sinking feeling I’m doing it all wrong – working and motherhood.
The worries, the doubt, the anxiety – shouldn’t they be gone by now? I have loads of mom friends who, like my mom, make working motherhood look easy, and moreover, they seem so assured in their choices. Working should make me happy, right? Isn’t that what our feminist forebears worked for? I feel conflicted.
In the U.S., we worship work but criticize the working-mom. In the same breath, we turn around and criticize the stay-at-home-mom (who is also working). Child-rearing is hard work, whether you’re with your children full- or part-time. Pop culture so often characterizes stay-at-home-mom as sweet and devoted (good), working moms forgetful and selfish (bad).
Even though my head knows this is a false dichotomy, my heart worries I’m letting my son down. At home, I try to soak up all my time with Jack, even overextending myself caring for him – by handling every late-night wake up, letting him take long naps on my shoulder, and rarely getting a sitter.
Embracing joy, releasing guilt
In November, I interview a lifelong philanthropist for a story I’m writing. After we wrap up, we walk toward the elevators and MaryAnn asks me about myself. I mention my 10-month-old.
“I’ve been back for a while now, and I’m still having a really hard time with this working mom thing. I’m not sure I’m cut out for it,” I admit, immediately realizing I overshared. MaryAnn tells me she has a daughter my age – she also just had her first baby. I congratulate her, my voice catching with emotion. “My daughter is a professor,” she said. I nod and smile, trying not to cry.
She stops, then looks at me as though I am her own daughter and whispers, “You don’t have to choose, you know. You can have more than one calling.”
Her words stay with me long after she steps into the elevator.
I replay this encounter repeatedly in my head. What MaryAnn said was literally wrong: moms do have to choose how they spend their time, whether it’s prepping meals and playing make-believe with their kiddos or putting in time on the job. In recent months, while I’d been writing and editing articles, my son ate his first serving of solids (he snuck some fruit from the toddler table) and started crawling — both at daycare. Whenever my son’s teacher would excitedly exclaim he’d done something new, it felt like a gut punch. MaryAnn meant to make me feel better – instead I felt frustration.
The holidays come and I take my first long vacation since returning to work. Christmas with our son is everything I’d hoped for and more. Under the twinkle lights, I bask in our family’s togetherness, feeling no mom guilt or shame for days on end, only love. Then, in the new year, a belated gift from Jack: he starts sleeping through the night consistently! I start to get my mojo back at work. I’m hitting all my deadlines, even working ahead, and my boss is noticing my efforts.
A couple of weeks after our son’s first birthday, on a lazy Saturday afternoon, we are relaxing in the living room while he plays with wooden zoo animals at the coffee table. Light streams in through our bay window and we giggle together as we slide the giraffe into its holding truck.
Later, as I lean back into the cozy couch and observe, something miraculous happens – Jack steadies himself on the coffee table, looks at me, then lets go. He takes one shaky step, then another, and walks right to me.
“Oh my gosh!” I squealed, wrapping my arms around Jack when he arrives. “Your first steps!” And we saw them.
“Good job, buddy!” my husband said, patting him on the back.
My heart is so overloaded with joy and love and pride, it feels like it could explode. One milestone for us. One milestone I didn’t miss.
This April will mark two years since I returned to work after baby. These days I’m proud of my career, and everything it has afforded our family. Occasionally, I wonder if it was the right choice, if my husband and I could have found a way to make our household run on one income so I could stay home with my son. Working mom guilt comes and goes, but for the most part I’ve ditched it. Importantly, I no longer worry if working makes me a bad mom. If anything, it makes me more grateful for the limited time I share with my son.
Each day when I kiss him goodbye at his daycare, I join countless mothers and fathers in making sacrifices to provide a better future for our children. Isn’t sacrifice the core of motherhood – whether you work, stay home full-time, or do something in between?
That day in November when I spoke with MaryAnn, I might have misunderstood her. Maybe she said something I was so thirsty to hear, I missed it. I think she actually meant, “You don’t have to choose between working and being a good mom.”
She’s right. You don’t.
Today I know this is true: I am a good mom because I work.