It’s funny, but after all these years, Smartmom still hasn’t worked out the work/motherhood conundrum.
She still feels guilty about blogging at the computer when the Oh So Feisty One is getting ready for school (even though OSFO doesn’t really need her help anymore).
“Do you want French toast?” Smartmom says while typing a blog post. “How about some Raisin Bran?”
Smartmom jumps up and fills a glass with orange juice. OSFO doesn’t really want it, but Smartmom insists.
“You need some breakfast. It’s good for your brain.”
Sure, Smartmom values her identity as a writer, blogger and producer with a long list of projects. But she also feels guilty when she devotes herself to anything other than her children.
What’s a smart mom to do?
Back in September, 1991, when her son was only three months old, Smartmom returned to her full time job as a video producer in Manhattan. Weekday mornings, she’d leave Baby Spirit (the future Teen Spirit) in the care of Hepcat and their wonderful babysitter, Beautiful Smile. Hepcat and Baby Teen Spirit would wave from their fourth-floor window on Fifth Street, and Smartmom felt very blue as she slogged up Fifth Street in her black Joan and David pumps. She knew she was missing out on a day of play, naps, feedings and fun.
When she got on the F train, she’d think about her adorable little blue-eyed baby and feel sorry for herself. But once at the office, she’d get swept into the hyperactive pace of a production company and get to work.
During the first year of Teen Spirit’s life, she’d use her Medela Breast Pump at lunchtime and put a sign on the door that said “Please Knock” and just prayed no one barged in.
Smartmom’s co-workers were fascinated with her tales of motherhood. Every day was a new episode of “The Baby Spirit Show” rife with cute stories of his adorable baby antics. Still, they didn’t always understand how important it was for her to leave the office promptly at 6 pm so that she could relieve her babysitter.
“Half-day?” they’d joke when she left the office. It was a business where people frequently worked until late at night. Sometimes she felt like a slacker, but she knew she had to go.
As Baby Spirit got older, Smartmom would hear about his life at home and pre-school and feel like she was really missing out on a special time. And of course she was. Buddha knows, she was extremely conflicted. She loved her work, but it didn’t leave enough time for her to be with her boy. She and Hepcat talked heatedly about switching roles. But Smartmom was the one with the full-time salaried job with health insurance. Their situation felt intractable at the time.
This conflict was difficult on their marriage, but things changed a few years later when Smartmom got pregnant with OSFO and decided that she was going to be a stay-at-home mom. Magically, her pregnancy coincided with Hepcat getting a full-time job as a software developer at a dotcom — with health insurance.
The gods were shining down on them.
Smartmom loved being a stay-at-home-mom. Music for Aardvarks, Music Together, playgroups, Gymboree, she couldn’t get enough of child enrichment activities with OSFO. But after about two years, she found herself longing for something else — a creative outlet, a part-time job. She knew she didn’t want to go back to work full-time, but she needed to do something in addition to being a mom.
Smartmom talked about this with the other moms, and most were grappling with the same issue. Gluten Free formed a monthly discussion group called Manifesto Mamas for mothers who wanted to talk about the work/motherhood conundrum.
“You said you were feeling like you’re “failing some feminist test” by staying home to care for your child, but that you’ll know you’ll look back and cherish the time you’ve spent with your children,” one of the mothers wrote in an e-mail to the others. “[You said] you look at me and feel like an underachiever. … And I, on the other hand, look at you and am haunted by the terror that I’m missing my daughter’s babyhood by having a full-time caregiver. Missing it all. Who’s going to remember her childhood and tell her what she was like when she was a baby? Who’s going to be there when she says her first verifiable word? I already was third on the list of people to see my daughter’s “first” steps. … I have the nagging feeling that I’m missing the most important thing in the world, and that it’s right in front of me.”
The group also talked about how important it was for women to have careers. This subject was rife with conflict as well. As one woman wrote in an e-mail:
“I don’t feel as though I can (or want to) step out of the labor force. I don’t feel as though I can count on my husband’s business to be as economically viable as it was last year, and even if I could, I wouldn’t want to let him be the primary wage-earner anyway. I don’t feel secure enough in the relationship to want to ‘bank’ on him entirely.”
Smartmom felt lucky for Manifesto Mamas, which was a safe place to chew on these important issues. Over time, Smartmom did become a freelance writer. She got an office in the neighborhood so that she could be close to home and school when she worked. She worked hard to balance the demands of work and her desire to be involved with her kids in a multitude of ways. Still, work has a way of capturing one’s attention and taking us all away from the family. It’s a constant push and pull. The bottom line is the absurdity that this world asks us to pretend that 1) mothering is a hobby, a sideline, something to squeeze in at the end of the day and 2) mothering is everything, the only thing, the one true calling, the fulfillment of one’s womanhood.
You can see why the debates between the so-called working mothers and the “stay-at-home-moms” are so virulent. When you don’t see any way out of a paradoxically and unsatisfactory paradigm, you become frustrated and angry as would any caged creature.
How can we step out of this paradox? What kind of new world can we invent?
Smartmom wishes she knew.