When my first daughter was born, I was in the enviable position of being able to decide whether or not I wanted to return to work. Sleep deprived and oscillating between the awe of having created the most beautiful creature ever and the sheer terror that this little entity needed me 24/7, I was in emotional turmoil.
As days wore on, I was plagued with questions. “After my maternity leave, do I return to my exciting job as a magazine editor? Do I reinvent my career as a mompreneur? Do I dedicate my life to the selfless pursuit of raising my child and volunteering on the side?”
The Challenge of Trying to ‘Have It All'
For full disclosure, I realize these choices are first-world problems. There were – and are – women around the world whose children die due to starvation, a lack of access to vaccines, or even a lack of clean drinking water. Yet here I was, lying in bed, propped up by pillows, with my newborn comfortably ensconced by my side, debating my career and lifestyle. How dare I?
For many well-educated young mothers, the emotional stress of balancing a career and motherhood is real.
For me, my 12-week maternity leave could not end quickly enough. Sure – on Facebook, I uploaded pictures of our blue-eyed cherub. But in my “real” life, the demands of a colicky baby – one who would only sleep in total silence, with the baby swing running constantly – well… It wore on me.
Generational Differences of Opinion on Parenting
The insidious parental pressure did not help. My mom reminded me how grateful she was – when I was a child – to spend two years as a full-time stay-at-home mom. For my part, I felt isolated. How could anyone possibly enjoy this?
My dad gave me mixed messages. On one hand, he applauded what I had accomplished professionally, but on the other, he wanted what he thought was “best” for his granddaughter: a present mother.
I was lost on a sinuous journey that many women face in silence.
It didn’t help that my husband remained neutral. “Do what makes you happy” – a time-tested message that always gives a man a safety net.
I lurked on mommy groups online and often found intense vitriol as women judged each others’ choices. In the end, I bit the bullet – I returned to work a week before my entitled maternity leave was due to end. The escape energized me. My colleagues, the commute, even the routine 20-minute trips to the back room of the nurse’s office to pump breast milk were a welcome escape.
Yet I was still plagued by both guilt and exhaustion. What was the financial sense in returning to work when – at the time – I was barely earning enough to cover the cost of a sitter? Why was I paying a stranger to raise my child? It felt selfish and nonsensical.
Making a Financial Investment in Myself- and Our Future
But what I did know was that for those brief few years when it made no economic sense for me to work, it made a great deal of practical sense. In hindsight, those years were a financial investment in myself. That investment has translated into me having more economic freedom today.
Fast-forward 10 years, and these emotions still rankle me. I have two daughters who rock my world. Every school play, every back-to-school night, every softball game marks a priority in my calendar – as does devouring them with kisses and listening to them when they need guidance.
I respect my daughters, and in many ways, they are my greatest teachers. Indeed, the joy of these moments outweigh the occasional frustrations — sibling fights, sickness, tween stubbornness — many of you know them well.
But I also have a demanding career as the co-founder of a financial wellness start-up. I can safely say that I am able to manage about most of the time. The rest, I have to let go and trust that life is unfolding as it should. No point in sugar-coating it.
To those women who wonder if motherhood and a career can coexist, I say yes – as long as you don’t mind the unpredictability and the mess (both metaphorical and real). And to women who can stay at home, you have my deep respect.
If my daughters decide to become mothers one day (I am taking for granted they will pursue careers) here’s what I’d like to tell them:
1. Find Your Tribe
I have the support of my children’s dad, my partner, and my colleagues. And other working moms are often my greatest supporters, too. This is key, and I am deeply indebted for their belief in me.
2. Remain Flexible
Every Monday, I leave at 2:30 in the afternoon to pick up my youngest daughter. And I have a similar arrangement with my older daughter on Fridays. This means that I also make up work late at night and on weekends. I don’t want to be seen as getting “special treatment” because I have kids.
While I love my job, my children will always come first. Have I sometimes missed important business meetings to meet their needs? Yes. Do I regret it? No.
This is a work in progress. In 2013 I ran the NYC marathon to prove to myself that I could. Since then, I’ve faltered at taking time to smell the roses. When you find yourself balancing work, children, and an aging parent, it’s hard.
I will never know how my children would have turned out if I’d stayed at home. Nor do I impart the slightest bit of judgment on women who make this choice. In fact, I admire them for putting their children's interests ahead of their own.
What I do know is that today I have two smart, well-adjusted girls who are not only talented, but who believe in themselves. One is a science nerd who loves music and softball, and the other is an activist fashionista with a heart of gold. (She even volunteers at an animal shelter!)
Every day I have with them is a blessing. But, still, I wouldn’t have done it any other way. I’m glad that I chose to be a working mom.