When I decided to work part-time, I was convinced I was doing it for my kids. Isn’t it best for young children to have at least one parent present in their lives at least half of the time?
But let’s be honest. I wasn’t thinking only about my kids. (Let’s put the financial issues at play aside for this one – though they are critical). I was thinking about myself, torn in two, wanting everything. Wanting to be the kind of mother Marilyn Robinson describes in the first, breathless chapter of her first novel, “Housekeeping,” a mother whose bread is “tender and her jelly tart, and on rainy days [makes] cookies and applesauce…[and] in the summer [keeps] roses in a vase on the piano, huge, pungent roses, and when the blooms ripen and the petals fall, [puts them] in a tall Chinese jar, with cloves and thyme and sticks of cinnamon.” AND wanting to be the kind of woman who changes the world, makes a difference outside the home, pursues her dreams and realizes her potential. I’m trying keep up both fronts. And I’m exhausted.
“There now exists a nationwide ‘mommy war,’” writes Caitlin Flanagan, in her book “To Hell with All That,” “…between the working and nonworking mothers of the middle and upper classes.”
The people raising their eyebrows and analyzing my decision, judging it, are not my kids. They’re other moms; and we’re all judging each other: How can she work full time? Doesn’t she ever see her kids? And how can she stay at home all day? Doesn’t she go mad? And her. She’s stuck at “intermediate.” One foot here, one foot there – but never totally present in anything, never excellent.
Flanagan writes: “For many women the decision to abandon – to some extent – either their children or their work will always be the stuff of grinding anxiety and uncertainty, of indecision and regret.”
One of my colleagues at work, who has built her own successful consulting business and who has twin boys, now in their early twenties, never took any time off at all. She told me that she carries constantly an indelible, heart-braking image of her twins when they were young, their noses pressed against the window pane, watching her leave the house.
My mother, who completed med-school in three years at a time when women, and especially observant Jewish women, didn’t go into medicine, and who has worked as a physician all her life, says that she’s ready to retire into grandma-hood. Bring on the ballet lessons, finger painting, and cookie baking. And her friends, who stayed at home to raise their kids, driving them to ballet lessons and baking cookies, are now completing Ph.Ds and going back to law school.
Maybe it’s time for us women to celebrate the kaleidoscope of our choices. This may help the broader world do so. And let’s remember that our children, with their wide eyes and generous smiles, admire us, respect us, celebrate us, and love us, no matter what, and, especially, when we are fulfilled and happy. Let’s be as kind to one another, and, dare I suggest it, to ourselves.