Tuesday, April 27, 2010

To the playground or the board room?

Many of my mommy friends have left behind high-powered but high-stress careers to be home with their children full time.

Sometimes, like when the highlight of my entire week has been the Infant Sing Along at the Boston Public Library; or when my son melts down halfway through the supermarket, when the cart is too full to abandon but not full enough to feed us for the next couple of days, I think these women must be nuts.

But then my son laughs out loud for the first time on the swings, or gets all excited about seeing the park police on their horses, or actually behaves long enough for me to grab a coffee with a friend, and I think, if I'm working in an office, someone else will get to do all the fun stuff. What if my kid did the innocent, yet unthinkable, and called the sitter Mommy? What then? Would I need to spend my already nonexistent "me time" in therapy?

Some women have chosen stay at home motherhood with total clarity of purpose and huge enthusiasm. We all know these women - they literally glow when they're with their kids and they cannot imagine outsourcing all the tiny mundane joys to even the most capable sitter. I am in awe that a friend of mine, an Ivy educated thirty-something, never tires of singing The Itsy Bitsy Spider (my personal limit is about four dozen times in a day). She wears spit up with the grace of a princess sporting Harry Winston. She worries aloud about how she will endure the heartbreak of sending her oldest to college, even though the child in question was recently admitted to preschool. She seems genuinely eager to spend a rainy day playing with finger paint, even in her recently redecorated living room.

I envy her ability to give every moment of herself so selflessly.

More often, though, educated women seem to find themselves home full time because Having It All has turned out to be an illusion. A cruel joke.

They took their maternity leaves, and rejoined their finance houses, law firms, consultancies and even non-profits, only to realize what they already suspected but hoped to deny: these kinds of careers, the ones so many women spent their twenties and early thirties securing, are not remotely family friendly.

Then there's the guilt. Guilt at work about not being home. Guilt at home about not giving a hundred per cent at work. Guilt about a stranger raising your kid. Guilt about taking shortcuts even though they're necessary to survive with one's sanity at least partially intact. Guilt over an IMAGINED lack of contribution, because our society grossly undervalues women who choose to stay home. Guilt is a whole separate discussion for another day.

Clients demand round the clock availability. Bosses are not amused when you come in late because Junior had a doctor's appointment. Assignments that previously seemed fascinating feel much less so when you haven't had more than two or three consecutive hours of sleep in months. Co-workers grumble, or worse, at any attempt to stick to a predictable schedule. 40 hours a week turns into 60, and the guilt about being away from the baby multiplies exponentially with each meal scarfed at the office. Last minute travel, once expected, now becomes unthinkable. Client dinners get postponed. Conference calls involving both Europe and Asia conflict with family time. Costly mistakes happen, for no other reason than old fashioned sleep deprivation.

Self-help books offering suggestions in the vein of, "Explain to your boss that you need a half hour at ten, and another at two, to pump," or "Schedule conference calls during nap times," do nothing but inspire anger at the authors. Clearly they never worked in a real office with real clients, real deadlines, and real coworkers who do not give a damn about anyone else's leaky boobs.

The junior person the new mommy spent years training eagerly steps in to pick up the slack. She's been gunning for a promotion since the pregnancy became public knowledge, and now she figures she is one missed board meeting from closing the deal.

When colleagues go home to recharge, the mommy relieves the nanny if she's lucky, or schleps to day care pick up if she's not. She often faces a pile of work brought home for after bedtime, a night filled with wake ups, and a crazy morning trying to get everyone out the door.

She starts to think that something has to give.

For some women, particularly those most well established in their fields, and/or those who possess some specific, hard-to-replace skill set that renders employers more accommodating, the answer seems to be outsourcing the household. With some time and effort, competent people can be hired to mind children, clean, cook, walk the dog, run errands, wait for plumbers, plant flowers along the front walk, attend clarinet recitals and coach soccer. A friend of mine who is high up in a Fortune 50 company says when she goes away for a week long business trip, she hires six people to replace her at home. No, she is not joking.

But for a much larger number of women with young children, the answer is to opt out of the career world. Which is wonderful, if it works for them, but I know a lot of women who aren't sure what they'd do if they suddenly found themselves needing to work. Their contacts fade, their skills grow rusty, and in many major industries, once someone steps off the track, it's nearly impossible to step back on. Those who manage to transition back in often return to less interesting work and less money.

Those who decide to stay home wrestle with the awful angst of abandoning, or at least stalling, significant careers they've given their sweat and tears to build. Because of the division of responsibilities in most families, this angst is something most highly educated, highly compensated men will never experience.

One lawyer friend recently told me that whenever her heart said, stay home, her head said, stay at the firm. And then the next day it would be vice versa. Ultimately, she decided to leave her partnership in the firm after a grueling trial (in the middle of nowhere) took her away from her 14-month-old daughter for six weeks. Her moment of clarity came at 8:45 on a Friday night when the airline cancelled her connection, thereby making the 36 hours she had planned to spend at home more like 24.

Women like this lawyer friend of mine aren't just quitting a job when they decide to stay home full time. It's been a few months now, and she is still quietly grieving the loss of a major part of her identity. Which doesn't mean she doesn't feel good about her choice. But still. She was raised to believe she could Have It All, and now a part of her feels like she is failing.

At some point, every formerly career-centered stay at home mom I've discussed these issues with has wistfully speculated about working part time. As if.

I REALLY hope someone can prove me wrong on this point, but I have come to believe that intellectually engaging, reasonably lucrative, career advancing PART TIME WORK simply does not exist. Honestly, most part time salaries barely cover the cost of good child care. Yet it's the holy grail so many women spend so much time seeking. I keep hoping to hear about someone actually finding it, but I'm not holding my breath.

In the meantime, I'll see you by the little kid swings at the playground.

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