Career Shock

A new Jewish mother enters the mommy wars

In the third grade, 1976, I sit next to a boy named Rich. Like all the kids in my class, we work at “contracts.” Each week, we draw up a written agreement with our teacher for what we think we can reasonably accomplish that week. The faster students take on more. Rich and T work fast, but my motives for doing so are not entirely pure. It’s true, I’m a quick worker and easily bored. But I also want to beat him. Even close to three decades later, the memories of peeking over at his desk, of hurrying to finish, make my hands a little jittery. I want to win.

That was the starting gun in a race that has been going on ever since. My little racecar, painted on the side with bright colors, sometimes pulled ahead, sometimes dropped behind, but basically kept pace with the rest of the pack. Until now. Suddenly, as we zoom around the track, there is an obstacle smack in the middle of my lane. I don’t see it until it’s nearly too late. I grind to a halt as the other cars speed on around me. Jealous and exhausted, I come to a full stop.

I have had a baby. When I express my frustration and puzzlement to people, I think their snickers are nearly audible. Didn’t you know? Didn’t you know you might cut back on work, lose status, lose income, lose professional contacts, lose friends, lose speed? In fact I didn’t. I thought I could just take some time out while the little fellow got adjusted to the world, then get back to business, cutting back on my hours here and there, relying on my husband to do the same, adding day care, or nanny care, for the rest.

So into my seventh month of pregnancy, I was negotiating with my boss. I had been working 50-plus hours a week. I asked to work 30. My boss said no. I asked for 50, with two days a week at home. He said no. I considered taking my four months maternity leave and going back. I didn’t consider it for long. I quit, and in an instant put myself back at what felt like the starting line of the race to have it all.

Nearly a year later, I am in the bathroom. I am sick with a sore throat, about to get stomach flu. I am exhausted and weeping. My child, as sensitive as a nine-month old can be, looks worried, but he cannot suppress his baby needs, either. He crawls around me, whining lightly. My husband, working down our long, narrow hall, talks on the phone. He is using his business voice, and it goes on and on. This makes me nearly crazy. One phone call after the next, pushing, negotiating, progressing. A tight fury takes over me. How did it happen? I ask this over and over, tired, weak, envious. We do similar work—he is a self-employed writer who works at home—so I thought his flexible schedule would help us divide it down the middle, cut the career costs in half Instead, he is traveling full speed, while I am stalled, trying to pee before my kid crawls over and puts his hand in the toilet.

It’s not fair, I know, to live this competitively. It’s not a picnic for my husband either. And, as he points out when I complain, I have had every option. I could have returned to my job, hired full-time babysitting care to help. And indeed, having decided not to, I have found another situation that should be nearly ideal: I have a job, two days a week, working from home, with proportional benefits. Plus other freelance work and a sitter who comes three days a week. I can add more days when I’m ready, or not, as I like. I have Tuesdays and Thursdays to myself with baby to play, stroll, look for playmates and adventure. Even better, I have a husband who works at home. He stops at 6 every day to look after the baby while I make dinner. He gets on the stationary bike two days a week, and he spells me on Tuesdays and Thursdays for 45 minutes after lunch so I can do the same. Perfect.

And yet it isn’t going well. Nearly every work day, as I try to lock myself in my office, I am distracted by some baby-stage I haven’t encountered before, or just by my desire to go downstairs and give my toddling son a hug. When baby won’t nap, I can’t resist hovering in the hall to give advice to the sitter. When I hear him babbling away in full, incomprehensible sentences, I want to go babble back. When he cries uncontrollably, I know I can go hold him for a minute and he’ll calm down. In all this. during my work day my sitter and I are a team.. I mostly let her be, but I keep one ear turned toward the rest of the house, so I know when the baby slept and for how long, when he ate, and generally how his day went. The tidbits—what he ate and how much, for instance—I ask the sitter as she gets ready to leave.

My husband takes his daytime breaks by checking the stock market. I break by reading and posting to “mommy” list serves. One day each week, I work a full day, 9 to 5, out of the house. When I come home I ask my husband whether the baby took an afternoon nap. My husband tells me he doesn’t know, he was working. I don’t know how he does it. When our baby cries, it is almost as if I were crying. When he laughs, I wish I were there. I am shocked by all of it—my husband’s ability to tune out the baby, and my inability to. Difference feminism did have a point. I know that if my career has taken a hit, it is at least partly my “fault.”

But it’s not just the work days that are hard. Nearly every “baby day” is harder. Usually I start out full of beans, happy to give breakfast and set out on an adventure to Barnes and Noble or the waterfront. But work spills over from the other days, and I not-so-silently pray for my baby to nap easily and long. When he doesn’t, I am overwrought, sometimes enraged. My husband’s tap-tap-tapping on the computer down the hall only invites comparison and I fume. From time to time, during the work day, I notice that my husband takes a nap or a walk to Starbucks for a slice of iced lemon pound cake. This is indeed the icing on the cake. I tell him in a fit of anger one night that he must walk the dog, take out the trash, and wake up at 6:30 am with the baby one day a week so I can sleep in. He does all that, but it doesn’t help. Every minute of our Tuesdays and Thursday I count as his “freedom” and my enslavement.

My husband takes his daytime breaks by checking the stock market. I break by reading and posting to “mommy” list-serves.

It’s like me and Rich in third grade all over again, doing similar work side by side. But someone has slipped a caveat into my contract—”Sarah will accomplish these things in her career, with exceptions for the times she is changing diapers, getting up at 4 a.m. to breastfeed, preparing dinner, taking the baby to his doctor’s appointment—while my husband’s is unamended.

Basically, my complaints come down to this: How come my career has taken a hit and his, entirely, has not? Sometimes the answer seems like a societal conspiracy, sometimes an accidental byproduct of being around the house, sometimes a flaw in our relationship, and sometimes just a result of my own overactive superego. But then I look around and I know that the latter can’t be the whole story. Everywhere I look the moms are stopped on the track. I talk to them, or e-mail them, every single day. I joined the DC Urban Moms listserve and the Nova (Northern Virginia) Moms listserve; I joined DC Urban momies listserve, and the MOMS Club of Old Town and the Old Town Moms listserve. Hundreds of moms. Thousands of moms. One afternoon, I meet a stay-at-home dad. Once. I don’t know all these moms’ stories, but the very fact of them tells me that things aren’t as different as they were supposed to be. We women are still stopping our little racecars. Some of us for three months. Some of us for three years. And the men (and non-procreating women) in our lives speed by.

I read everything that’s written about “my” situation. And these days, that’s a ton. Every magazine, every publisher, is finally reflecting the ambivalent truth that has been dawning on individual women for a decade or two: The gains of the feminist revolution were massive—but incomplete. Women were making professional gains, but at too a high cost to their personal and familial lives.

I was of the next wave of working women, starting out from college in 1991. My friends and I don’t talk about being Wonder woman. We’re straight out of the pages of the new books and magazine articles. Nearly every childed woman I know is negotiating for part-time work, at-home work, something to keep the mind alive while keeping the relationships sane. Which means that when I am offered the opportunity to apply for a major office-based job, I let the deadline slip by, sending off a hopeful e-mail that “next time” they have a spot I’ll be ready to roll.

Those who are afraid of this new development call it a backlash. I think it sounds a bit like progress. But a part-time career —or even a moderately slowed career—^was never what I envisioned. I half suspect that if I had been better prepared for all the changes that come along with baby—if I had really learned to expect the arc of my professional life would include a gap for childrearing, I wouldn’t be so angry. What bothers me is not the “price of motherhood,” as Ann Crittenden called it in the title of her important book on the subject, but the differential between the professional price of motherhood and the professional price of fatherhood.

When I talk to older feminists about the way things were, they’ll tell you that no one expected women to do anything with their careers. It was great if you did anything at all. Born in 1969,I learned the opposite lesson. You can do anything a boy can do. Just listen to the words of 1974’s “Free to Be You and Me.” It’s full of the gender-rule bending that we now think we take for granted.

In my middle school and high school, boys and girls played sports in gym together, attended shop class (our choice of wood or metal) together as well as home economics, applied to the top colleges. In college, it was much the same. We took the same classes, graduated, competed for the same jobs. No one talked about babies. No one suggested to our 22-year-old selves that our ten- or 15-year plan include some time out— even four months—for child-bearing. No one suggested that we find careers that would be flexible when the time came for us to want to spend time with our families. And, quite frankly, we didn’t think about it.

Of course I’m not suggesting that better “preparedness” is the end of the story. I’m not going to line up with the difference feminists and say that because I hear the baby’s cry louder than my husband does, I—and professional women everywhere— are fated to accomplish less than our male counterparts. The difference might be biological, but I haven’t found a significant difference in my my intellectual capacity or in my ambition. It’s time for a revival of equality feminism—with a twist. What if we suggested that instead of women always trying to accomplish more, men might accomplish less. What if we acknowledged— finally—that child-bearing and child-rearing always slow a career, but that we can distribute that slowing more fairly. What if there was actual equality between the sexes—equal parental leave offered for mothers and fathers? And what if fathers, and fathers-to-be, learned to expect and accept that the birth of any child would impact the work they did over their careers—less money earned, one less book written? Yes, this would require the entire working world to acknowledge the existence of families more than it does today. It would spell the end of the mommy track and the beginning of the “family track”—which, since most people still have children, might over time become just the way work works.

In the end, these voices were too loud in my head. I couldn’t bear it.

After 11 months of not working and working part-time, I decided to get in the fast lane again. One good opportunity after the next came along, and I had been taught to say yes, take the bull by the horns. So I took on full-time work and hired just enough babysitting to cover: If I work every minute of every day that my sitters are here, I will have just barely fulfilled my obligations.

It is an impossible situation, trying to connect with baby and husband, work full time, do grocery shopping, make dinner, manage the “staff.” I often wake up at 5:30 in the morning— no alarm—and sneak in some work before the baby wakes. On Saturdays, my “sleeping-in” day, I sometimes manage to secretly turn on the computer while husband and baby are downstairs and work for two hours instead of sleeping. One recent Saturday afternoon, I dumped two pounds of string beans for that night’s dinner party onto my desk and snapped the ends off while I read through materials I was supposed to have finished days before. Right now, it is 3:30 a.m., and I am at the computer, loathe to waste the insomniac’s hour or two readjusting my pillow.

I am not happier, but I am less angry this way. I am back on track. I am again the person I was. But if I am less angry, there is a different tug at my heartstrings. It has only been two weeks, but I miss my baby, though I see him throughout the day. I even wish for an afternoon with him, loading the dishwasher while he pulls the spoons out and spreads them on the floor Full speed ahead doesn’t leave time for that. And so I find myself, at 4 in the morning, weeping again and agonizing about what I’ve taken on and what I’ve given up. No sooner has my little car started again than I want it to stop.