When I read a discussion title, “Would you choose your baby over your career?” I bristled at the question.
To me, it implies there are two choices: your career or your child.
I obsessed about this when I first became a mother because I wanted both, to be successful at my career and to be a great mom. I needed to believe it was possible, albeit extremely challenging. I wanted a full range of options without feeling like I couldn’t truly be a good mother if I wanted more.
I was under no illusions that staying home with my baby would guarantee I was a good mom. However you manage your life, motherhood is hard. My mother stayed home with my three sisters and me. She had a successful career as a teacher for ten years before my sister arrived. Those were the expectations of her time; I don’t think she had the same choices available. When my younger sister was 7, my mom planned to return to her beloved vocation. As she got re-certified, she exuded joyful anticipation. But then she became unexpectedly pregnant. Even at ten, I felt palpable disappointment mixed with her bubbling excitement of welcoming another child.
Later as a teenager, I pushed back hard against my mother when she called me ungrateful. I vividly recall saying, “I didn’t ask to be born. I didn’t ask you to make sacrifices for me. If you are unhappy about either, it's on you.” I feel almost sick inside thinking about it now. I found out years later from my dad how much I hurt my mother. At the time, she silently left the room. I can almost feel the sucker punch I dealt with those spiteful words. My mother may have expected more of us because of what not having choices took from her, especially when we pushed for our independence. She also had an extremely challenging experience as a teenager herself.
Having gained these perspectives made it easier to transition back to a job I loved when my first was four months old. I had anguished moments when I questioned my decision and read about other moms who had those same doubts. I also saw an article describing how working and stay at home moms often spend similar amounts of quality time with their kids that acted as a counter-balance. Using my mother as an unscientific sample of one, it seemed about right. And to be honest, I wanted to believe it.
I cherished one on one time with my mother when I was young but don’t recall lots of it. Times were tough. She cooked three meals a day, cleaned and managed our extensive garden including freezing and canning. She sewed many of our clothes and stretched every last penny. I am in awe of her now although then I had little appreciation. I recall when I was 9 and home ill. She made a special box with me out of discarded greeting cards and left over bright orange yarn (I still have it). The day stuck in my heart in bright detail because it wasn’t something she had the time or energy to do often. Also, I witnessed a joyful, creative side of my mother. That memory inspired me to try to create these types of special moments with my kids.
When I returned to work again after adopting my youngest, I realized my barometer is less my mom now and more my earlier motherhood experiences. My eldest and I have a special bond even as he is transitioning from a teenager into a young man. He is an open, caring, funny "kid" I adore. I get more and more glimpses of the mature man he will become. I hope to be friends with that person. Sure, I missed times with him as he was growing up. But he, and his siblings who joined him, were always my heart and I sure hope he (and they) know it.
I adore my little girl with every fiber of my being. But I knew I would return to work before she joined our family. I had much less anxiety about it because of my experience with her brothers. I realize what a gift it was not to carry that burden. We have an amazing connection. I look forward to helping her grow into her larger than life personality.
I wish I could tell my younger self not to fret so much because doing so robbed me of joy right in front of me. I wish I could share the same with struggling young mothers. I don’t think there is a right answer. I do believe "having it all" is uniquely defined for each mother. I needed to be happy and fulfilled to be the best mother I could be and that included pursuing a career. I communicate to my children often and passionately, no matter what I do for a living, they are always my first priority.
When I allow guilt and uncertainty to creep in, they steal my ability to live fully with my kids in the fleeting moments of their passing childhoods. These unproductive emotions are spawned when I let others' judgments make me question my decisions. I do my best not to allow them to pull me into their dark undertow. I try instead to hold onto the light and good in my life. I believe I can “have it all” if I chose and work for it.
Working Mother is mentor, role model and advocate for the country’s more than 17 million moms who are devoted to their families and committed to their careers. Through our website, magazine, research, social networks, video, radio and powerful events, we provide women and moms with the community, solutions and strategies they need to thrive.
Author Ellenore is a happily married, working mother of three kids ranging in age from college to grade school. Being a member of the working mom club for the last eighteen years produced many stories. They range from the profound to the ridiculous. Entering middle life led to the desire to make a bigger difference and raise children to the same. Ellenore also blogs at www.balancingmotherhoodcareer.blogspot.com, www.ethiopianties.blogspot.com and tweets at @ellenorea.