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 She’s also withdrawn at times, not even letting me read to her, but insisting on doing it herself, as though she’s drawing on her own reserves, thank you very much.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.

Take Half My Heart, It’s Yours

Any parent who is honest will tell you that you live with that ambivalence. You just have it! You look at the face of your beautiful, lovely child and you think two things at the exact same time: I love this kid so much that it’s changed my whole life. I love other people more because of how much I love her.… She’s completely given value to life that didn’t exist before, and I regret every decision that led to her birth.

Louis CK in Louis, Season 2, Episode 1 (via johndeguzman)

A true dilemma is a choice between two mutually compatible and equally desirable ends.

Professor Michael Brint, via my memory circa 1991

The more options there are, the easier it is to regret anything at all that is disappointing about the option that you chose.

Barry Schwarz’s TED talk (author of the Paradox of Choice)

In part spurred by Elisabeth Badinter’s simplistic brutality about the choices women make, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about parental ambivalence, the place of choice in parent’s lives, and the challenge of achieving a rough balance between the demands of work and home.

Maya is 19 months and, right on track, is dealing with a bout of separation anxiety. She has begun to identify and need the people around her with more specificity and direction than before, and transitions – going to bed, leaving for work – must be handled with a tedious slowness and gentle series of stages to avoid upset. Time feels both stretched out, and highly limited, both marked with utter precision in days, weeks, months, and as though its strangely slipping by me, faster than I could possibly reach to catch it with both hands.

Maya’s insistence on attention, however long it persists, also poses the question to me daily in a newly acute way about why I choose to work, and to leave her in the care of relative strangers. I question both my absence during this highly compacted developmental time, in which each week brings new skills and discoveries, and the inescapable risks associated with having someone else care for her, however caring they may be. I miss her terribly during the day, and ponder what new phrase or hilariously goofy new dance move I may be missing, too.

Yet at the end of a long weekend, I relish the idea to going to work with an almost-giddy mix of relief and excitement. I enjoy the rigor of working, and the attempt to make things happen in the world. Even small things accomplish my own pleasant transition – wearing nicer clothes, having lunch in a restaurant. I join a world in which I can complete my thoughts, or even, sentences, and in which I am listened to, at least some of the time. What freedom and luxury it seems after three days at home, running around after a defiant toddler.

So I don’t actively regret my choice to work. But it still isn’t the life of fulfillment I envisioned, either, when I was sold the bill of goods that I could “have it all.” Exactly who peddled that promise is hard to say – some mythic emissary that conveyed the idealistic excesses of growing up in the 1970s, when women were entering the workforce in badly tailored man-suits? Perhaps it was Free to Be, You and Me, when the princess Atalanta chooses to travel the world, not needing her fair-minded suitor? Or that Enjoli commercial I can still hum the tune to – you know, the one that goes, “I can bring home the bacon…”

The notion was, you can be with a partner or not, work or not, be sexy and economically powerful, or – well, about that one it was clear that working and economic independence was the more aspirational choice, at least in my own emotional history. (I never considered not working with any seriousness, until perhaps this very moment.) And the promise was that our ability, as liberated women-worker-warriors, to make these decisions for ourselves would set us free to lead a life of economic empowerment sans regrets.

Of course, it’s indisputably true that many of the financial and economic supports for families that would make these real choices have never been put into place, particularly in the U.S., as I point out here.  But it’s also clearly the case that women my age – based on detailed research among my embarrassingly few current friends – feel let down, and that it’s not entirely, or even mostly, about the financial penalties for working families.

A world of choices also, as Barry Schwarz points out forcefully, means a world beset by known opportunity costs. Sure, we make our decisions, but we remain painfully aware of their downsides. And the particular costs shift over time, as our child’s needs for attention and our focus also shift, making them hard to measure, and even, some days, practically immeasurable.

In the comments to this article on the Rosen-Romney baloney, for just one example, or one this week from Dahlia Lithwick and Jan Rodak, moms (and a few dads) defend their choices as the right ones for them and their families. And I certainly believe them, both the working moms and stay-at-home dads alike. Which is more than many of the uncharitable other commenters could say.

I wonder if all the finger-pointing at the other people, over there, who made or are making a different choice, would lessen if we acknowledged that, in our relatively new experiment in trying to maintain a double-income middle class, most of the available choices are actually so painful and difficult that at times, even those with certainty about making the right ones are nonetheless agonized by them.

Having a child you love more than anything is hard enough, as Louis CK makes clear. Balancing all of this judgment on top of that enormous undertaking should be enough to give anyone pause.

And lest I be misunderstood, I am not asking for a world with fewer hard choices – read: opportunities – for women, or for anyone else. We are better for throwing off the constraints, which is perhaps why women don’t complain about this more. It seems ungrateful, somehow, given all the sacrifices that were made to achieve the gains in women’s ability to work, to be taken seriously, and to construct our lives.

But we also have a long way to go for true equality. And it strikes me that we can’t get there if we pretend that all of this is easy, and that the choices we’re making are among a wide range of peachy options. For me at least – and anyone who wants to join me – I’d like to drop the pretense that my mere decision to make the choices I have means I have to like them, all of the time. The truth is, I make them and regret them, sometimes even at the same moment.

So: less stridency, more poignancy; less moral high ground, more candor on the playground? It just seems to me the Mommy Wars are too important to fight them with each other.