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 She’s also withdrawn at times, not even letting me read to her, but insisting on doing it herself, as though she’s drawing on her own reserves, thank you very much.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