One Bad Mother

I have the video monitor on with the sound turned way up. I listen with one ear perked to her noisy, clogged breathing—such an adorable, pathetic, concerning sound emanating from our miniature person with a cold.  I glance periodically at the screen, whose camera looks like it is hunting for paranormal activity.  I flash on all the tasks that should consume the rest of my evening—the tasks left hanging from a never-ending work day.  It is 8:38 PM and I wonder how much steam I’ve got left before that heavy molasses feeling envelops my brain.  I am distracted momentarily by her flipping over, sighing a little and registering a tiny complaint.  My resolve begins to waver and now I’m considering the consequences of simply climbing into bed at this point with the monitor and a magazine.  Or better yet, scooping her up out of the crib and bringing her into bed with me.  In weeks like this one, there are days when I spend more time watching her on the monitor than I do holding her in my arms.

Even a generation ago, I am not sure women allowed themselves the luxury to think about work-life balance in the way that we do now.  Today, as I was frantically rushing home to catch 20 minutes with the baby before bedtime, I thought about how lucky I am to even consider such a notion.  How fortunate that I have the education, training, and capacity to work outside the home in the first place, let alone be daunted by how to thrive in two environments.  My work is meaningful to me, it is in a chosen field, and I have a large measure of control over my schedule.  I am not limited to an exclusive childcare role nor am I forced to work a job that is dangerous, unsatisfying or menial.  When I zoom out on my scenario, I realize how refined and esoteric my dilemma might seem to some.  In fact, in an ideal world, more women would face this kind of dilemma—one in which they are choosing among many good options for childcare and have the privilege of participating an elevating career.

It would appear that whether or not women (and many men) have had the consciousness or the language to describe it, this struggle is ages old.  I try to recall how my own mother dealt with managing work and home life.  I don’t ever remember noticing her being particularly tired, lacking the energy to make things happen at home or even seeming anxious about her responsibilities.  She consistently helped with homework, threw some hot meal on the table (albeit rarely cooked by her) and made it to all our games/performances.  Although she worked full-time, I always had access to her on the phone.  She arranged for school pickups and shuttling to activities with others if she was unable to coordinate her schedule.  We definitely reconvened each night as a family and this seemed to re-set the connectedness.  I do remember a general sense of wishing I could spend more time with my mother and vaguely complaining about this in moments.  But weekends were exclusively devoted to us and our needs and whatever else was happening during my parents’ busy lives, it was clear we were the priority.  Of course she had help, as I do, with housework and childcare.  Oh and did I mention she had five kids?

When I ask my mother these days about what it was like for her raising a brood and working full time, she admits to feelings of guilt, mostly about not being enough or doing enough at home.  She was always highly competent and effective at work—in her mind, it was home that suffered.  Although it was not our experience that she dropped any particular ball, I have more insight now into how she must have lived with powerful ambivalence.  It is also worth noting that my parents literally never took a single vacation on their own or did any individualized, enriching, adult activities.  This is the one area where I picture doing things a little differently.  As much as I can’t begin to process the demands on their time for all those years, I hope/plan to delineate more regular space for my marriage and more escape for myself.

Sometimes my mother says to me, “Oh, well, you know it was easier back then.”  I have some sense that she is right about that but neither of us can put our finger on exactly why this is true.  I think for one, it required less money and less time at work to be a solidly middle class family and achieve financial flexibility.  I also think there was more neighborly and community support built in to people’s lives.  Perhaps the expectations on adults and children were also more reasonable—not everybody was supposed to a “Super” anything?  The fact remains that we had soccer, art class, piano lessons et al and my parents were pulled in a zillion directions.  Still, I can’t access a single episode of a legitimate melt down—the machinery always moved fairly seamlessly forward.

The guilt I feel about missing time with our baby casts long shadows and tugs at me throughout the day.  I genuinely imagine that she might develop a greater attachment to the baby sitter during weeks when their time together is more enduring.  When I come home and she instantly lurches forward from the babysitter’s arms for me to hold her and proceeds to cling to me like a chimp for the remainder of the evening, it brings some secret satisfaction.  The selfish side of me is relieved when she demonstrates a touch of separation anxiety, howling when I leave the room.  I want her to be securely attached, but I also want to know she prefers me to anyone and won’t forget that during the many hours I am away.

I am proud of my work and know it is critical to my identity to have a holistic sense of self.  I recognize it is good for my daughter to establish her independence and be cared for by many different loving adults.  I reaffirm that I want to be her primary and central model of a woman with a career.  This doesn’t mean I don’t cry at my desk mulling the fact that she might take her first steps today and I could miss it.  This is the fulsome experience of the modern woman/parent.

In my view, it is not so much about figuring out how to have it all as it is being happily immersed in what you are doing at any given moment.  I think anyone who presents as having each domain of life under control is hiding something or is teetering on the brink.  I respect and appreciate the women in my life who admit to questioning their many roles and evaluating their health and sanity with respect to each of them.

By 10:17 PM I had done nothing but write this piece and pump 5 ounces of breast milk before I packed it in for the night.  Then again, I guess that is something.

Photo of Sarah: Buck Ennis for Crain’s New York Business.

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