Re-Entry: On the Razor’s Edge of Work/Life Balance

Full Moon and Stars

(Photo credit: MarkGregory007)

This week, I went back to work.

I started a terrific new job as Legislative Director of a progressive union of nurses, National Nurses United. It was as good as it could be — welcoming colleagues, a job with real meaning and opportunity, and even based close to home in Silver Spring. It is the position I was hoping for all along.

It is also an incredible luxury to be able to keep what I believe aligned with my paycheck, which is something only a few of us get to do. And it was delightful in many ways to feel that sense of autonomy from leaving the house behind, to get dressed in the morning with purpose, to eat lunch in a restaurant without asking them for crayons, or to read something without interruption and be able to form a thought. In short, it was nice to be out again in the world, beyond the solipsism, exhaustion and solitude of caring for a child.

And yet, it was still hard as hell to leave my girl. All week, in keeping with the turmoil, she’s been angry at me. She’s lashing out physically, hitting and kicking in the intense manner she only uses when she actually intends to hurt someone. She’s also withdrawn at times, not even letting me read to her, but insisting on doing it herself, as though she’s drawing on her own reserves, thank you very much. And I’ve been short-fused as well, my normal responses to her misbehavior infused with guilt, sad understanding and my own small heartbreak.

On Wednesday night, or Day Two of the new job, she and I were snuggling in bed, everything cuddly again, and she started pleading with me to “stay home.” She incanted it over and over again, until, in desperation, I called to her dad to come in and distract us. I would have given her anything, but could not give her that.

On Thursday night I had a dream. I was exploring a beautiful, sun-dappled orchard with a friend, talking about grand topics like whether plants communicate to one another. Then, all of a sudden, I remembered I had a child, and she was nowhere to be seen. I panicked. I ran, panting hard, to the edge of the field only to see her small body under the wheel of a stopped car. “Maya,” I screamed, then broke into pieces and woke up in a cold sweat.

She was snuggled up next to me. I went to the next room and stared out the window, unable to get back to sleep for the rest of the night.

In an uncannily timely way, I had two wonderful friends from college over last weekend for brunch, both my age, and these subjects were on the menu alongside the eggs. One is married and does not want children, but spoke with genuine anger of the toll that time out to have kids took on her female peers in the academic world. Another is unmarried, and always assumed she’d have a family, but works at a law firm and has too many long hours to meet someone or to have a child on her own. She sounded sad, and not a little surprised, to find herself in her 40s without children. Knowing her, it surprised me too.

It struck me that me and my peers are really the first full generation of women to be able to work hard enough to make something of ourselves in the professional world, and to have widely internalized the expectation that we would do so. At the same time, many of us — though certainly not all — also want children, a family, and want to be good at all that as well.

I’m not the first one to notice this tension, of course. As I wrote with regard to the Anne-Marie Slaughter piece last spring, the institutions in which we work have a lot of work left to do to accommodate this balancing act, and women are equally bewildered by it much of the time.

I do know many women who seem fulfilled by not working, some of whom are home with children. I know many more who, like me, want a career and a family too, and live with the ambivalence of these half-measures — at work with an undeniable sadness in her heart, or home but stuck on the Blackberry or computer.

Talking with my dear friends, it became clear that some agonizing may be unavoidable. Women need and want to work, to be useful in the larger world. We have ambitions, and we have a right to them. But creating a life that includes the incredibly meaningful act of caring for children, should we so choose, is also so important that for many it ranks as a necessity. How to reconcile these imperatives? No one really knows, and the penalties and suffering in both directions are steep.

We can hope that someday, the political system will catch up a bit, and provide better supports for working families, including Slaughter’s proposals for more accommodations and the ideas I suggested here. But even with paid family leave and affordable universal preschool and paycheck fairness and an increase in the minimum wage and all the other things I dream about, there will be women like me and my friends:

Women who would have been amazing moms but forgot to work less so they could meet someone. Women who might have been moms if the professional penalties were less — or yet might not. Moms who give up a brilliant career to be where they are needed more.

And moms who want to work — who love their work — but love their children just as much. Those of us who live with a small but constant betrayal of some part of our heart, yet bear up under it, smiling through our confusion and loss, comforting our child however we can, and facing the nightmare of our inattention, late at night, alone.

7 thoughts on “Re-Entry: On the Razor’s Edge of Work/Life Balance

  1. I realize this is an old post, but I just came upon your blog and I wanted to thank you for it — I will definitely be reading your writing regularly! I am a part-time RN and full-time mom to an 11-month old girl, and I fully relate to all of these thoughts and musings on balancing work and motherhood. I feel like I’ve found a good balance — I currently work 20 hours a week, and my husband cares for our daughter when I’m away, which is a luxury, I know — it is so much easier knowing she’s in his loving care. I feel like I’ve found a good balance, where I feel both involved at my work, which I love and look forward to, and also like a full-time mom. But it is hard, and my heart breaks for the many women who long to be with their children more than they are financially able to. I loved your suggestions for ways to improve our system. We are seriously considering moving to Canada within the next few years (my husband is Canadian, so this would be fairly easy) and their more humane systems play a big part in that decision! I also wanted to say I so appreciate your accessible, informative posts on environmental health, as I strive to educate myself on these topics and live as non-toxic a life as is possible in our very toxic world. Thank you so much for writing this blog, and I look forward to becoming a regular reader!

  2. Pingback: ISO: A Truly Healthy Toddler Snack | Laura's "Rules"

  3. “How to reconcile these imperatives? No one really knows, and the penalties and suffering in both directions are steep.” … But if you are a parent, isn’t the default *always* the best interest of the child? Aren’t we the ones called upon to make the sacrifice?

    And if the child’s wants and needs aren’t satisfied in infancy and childhood–aren’t they carried forth, unresolved and destructive, into later life? I don’t think one asks small children to “understand,” that’s not their job. The development of empathy happens over years.

    “… even though your daughter is very little, you can start telling her how very important your work is, and eventually she will understand.”

    I’m sorry, but that is utterly bogus. I know it must seem very evolved, but in reality, who is being asked to suffer, for how long, why, and on whose behalf?

    What you are “telling” the child is that your “very important” work is more important than her needs–expecting a child to “understand,” now or later, is asking them to not be a child, but to be the quasi-adult–one who gives you the approval you need.

    “You’re more than just going out to “flip burgers” to put food on the table, you’re doing something important and meaningful. (not that we don’t need people to flip burgers, but you get my point)” Oh, that will make a *big* difference to the small child who wants her mommy or daddy home with her. You people are just not willing to be grown-ups at all, are you?

    We all inflict pain and suffering on those in our care; the idea is to minimize it, yes, but to also be responsible for the result. Playing upon the malleable psyche of the child is just so bloody narcissistic …

  4. There’s a book called Equally Shared Parenting that I found really helpful when trying to find the correct balance. (It helps to have flexible employers though.) I work 30 hours/week as a medical writer/editor, and my husband works 32 hours/week as a budget analyst, and we try to split everything as much as possible. (Having said this, neither of us is trying to climb the career ladder — might need full-time to achieve that in today’s world.) I love that I can still work but also have a special day alone during the week with my son. Baby #2 is supposed to arrive in early July — not sure how we’re going to handle things. I wish my husband and I could both go down to 24 hours/week, but that’s wishful thinking — someone needs to work sufficient hours for our health insurance. Love your blog!!! Thank you!!! (I’m saving up for a non-toxic sofa and working with our preschool to try reduce whatever toxins the kids might be exposed to in the school environment.) Take good care and congrats on your new position!

    • Thanks Cindy, for your encouragement and kindness. It’s so hard, isn’t it? It sounds like you have managed to find a nice balance. I never can seem to get enough hours in the day… Congratulations on #2! Very exciting. I’ll have to post soon on my “protective approach to pregnancy” ideas, which I’ve had in mind now for a while, and that way you could share your tips and insights as well. Thanks for your support! Laura

  5. Laura, it’s a tough balance, and a tough choice to make. I worked full time when my first two were little and I was unemployed when my 3rd was born (the other 2 were in elementary school). I was lucky to be able to go back to work part-time eventually. I also find a lot of meaning in my work – I work for a City and I’m the Energy Efficiency Coordinator – I do exactly what the title says, and it’s wonderful. Now I’ve been asked to work full time – to take my boss’s job as the Departments Director. Imagine, being essentially the sustainability director for a City, how awesome! But I’ll have to give up my one day a week with my preschooler and 2 afternoons a week with my older two. It’s hard, but even though your daughter is very little, you can start telling her how very important your work is, and eventually she will understand. You’re more than just going out to “flip burgers” to put food on the table, you’re doing something important and meaningful. (not that we don’t need people to flip burgers, but you get my point)

    Good luck!

    • Hi Alicia, Thanks so much for writing, and yes, I do find some solace in the fact that my work is meaningful. Like you, I feel lucky. I suppose it might even be unseemly to complain, but nonetheless, the sense of loss is real from leaving Maya, as it’s also a loss of control, isn’t it, over the influences in her life. At any rate, I deeply appreciate your perspective on the issue, and can’t wait for the day, really, when she might understand better what kept me away from her and why it was also worthwhile. All best, Laura

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