Diary of a Working Mom

The last few weeks have been quite hard on Dave. Maya is going through another mommy phase where, as soon as I walk through the door, it’s as if Dave ceases to exist. I can imagine watching this little love affair between Maya and I must be difficult for Dave, who takes very good care of her all week long. I know that the fact that she is taking him for granted is a good sign; it means that he’s doing an amazing job with her. I also know that this intense bonding between Maya and I is necessary to make up for the five days out of every week that I am not there to applaud when she figures something out all by herself, to cheer when she learns a new skill, or to soothe her when she is hurt.

The mommy phase started on the Easter long weekend, which was the first time I had been able to spend four entire days in a row with her in months. Most of that weekend she spent playing with her cousin, who is about 8 months older than her. Being an only child, cousins are as close to siblings as Maya will have. As she hadn’t seen him in almost a year I wondered how well they would get along. They were inseparable, which made me very happy. It was the first time I didn’t have to hover in the periphery, ready to intervene should a conflict arise. Aside from the few times where he needed a break to play alone, they got along famously. I was in awe that these two toddlers could actually manage 3 days together without one volcanic eruption of “He/she won’t share with me!” or “That’s MY toy!”

That weekend, watching the joy on her face as she played with her cousin, made me realize how deeply I love this child. Although there were other adults around for me to interact with, what I wanted most to do was to watch my daughter play. Perhaps it is the fact that I’m a full-time working parent, or that I had been resigned to childlessness before she arrived in my life, or the fact that I am an older mother, but I find that I want to spend every spare moment I have with her. My time with her seems more precious. What broke my heart when I was struggling with barrenness was that I would not be able to love a child the way I had been loved. I wanted to be able to pass that love on. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t feel that Maya’s presence in my life is sacred. I don’t want to take a second of it for granted.

It’s for that reason that I often turn down invitations to be with my colleagues (aka other adults) after work. Truthfully, most of the time I’d rather be home playing with my daughter. Being the only parent out of my colleagues at work has left me feeling rather isolated. They likely think I’m incredibly rude. So I’ve tried to make an effort to meet up after she’s gone to bed. But by the time we’ve had our dinner, had our nightly bath, read stories, and I’ve spent an hour in a dark room waiting for her to fall asleep (I know, terrible parenting practice), the thought of putting adult clothes on again, getting into a car and driving somewhere seems like a punishment and not a pleasure. Of course when I force myself to do this very thing it is invariably enjoyable and I’m glad I pushed through the inertia.  But more often than not, the inertia wins.

Although being away from Maya during the week is difficult, work is very important to me (although I likely would not work full-time given the choice). At this late stage of my life I’ve chosen a challenging career, which is a perfect fit for someone like me who needs stimulation to feel human. I love my work and derive a lot of personal satisfaction from it. For most of my life it was my work that primarily defined me and it continues to be an important part of who I am as a woman. I think it would be difficult to give that identity up.  Despite this, however, the most memorable moment in the past few weeks was not my work accomplishments. It was the moment when Dave picked me up from the seabus after work. There was Maya in her car seat, holding a bouquet of dandelions tightly in her little hands, with the proudest smile on her face. “These are for you mommy!” she exclaimed, her face beaming with joy. It made my heart sing.

And it also made me ask the question, what would I be willing to give up to have more moments like those?


How to Mess Up the Weekend with your Toddler in 5 Easy Steps

As a full-time working parent, to say that I look forward to spending the weekend with Maya, who will be three in a week, is a massive understatement. I cherish the time I get to spend with her. Saturdays are special time just for Maya and me, so that Dad, who stays home with her during the week, can finally get some work done. Sundays are our family days. This past weekend, however, it was special time with Maya all weekend long. I should have realized, from experience, that it is not wise to place high expectations on things that are likely to fall far short, things like an entire weekend with your toddler. In hindsight, there were several things that I did that messed up my weekend. You can learn them too! Here they are, in five easy steps.  

1. Have ridiculously high expectations

It is difficult not to do this. I cannot help but look forward to the weekend and envision everything going perfectly well: a perfectly behaved child who listens and immediately complies with all commands and requests; a child who asks for nothing, but when given something remembers to say thank you; a child who is gracious and humble; and most importantly a child who gives me random hugs whilst telling me she loves me. We walk hand in hand, skipping along through the day like Mary Poppins. The sun shines a little brighter for us. Flowers bloom as we walk by. Birds and small animals come right up to us to say hello. That was my hope. I forgot to factor in two important things, however. One, she had just gotten over a fever a few days previous, and two, she was, after all, a toddler. High expectations are just a recipe for tears and disappointment.  

2. Go to places where they will legitimately expect treats, and then deprive them

As per Maya’s request, on Saturday we went to the Vancouver Aquarium. After perusing the fish on the upper floor, we went to where the real action is, the play area at the bottom, where Maya can take a large stuffed seal and pretend to nurse it back to health. After about an hour of this I dragged her away so that we could go outside. It was the first sunny day we had had in days and I wanted to take advantage of it. Being a weekend parent means that I am not as familiar with schedules as I should be. This is coupled with the fact that I have an organization deficit. If I remember to eat during the day it is a small miracle. I often come home from work ravenous and irritable, having forgotten that bodies and minds need sustenance to function properly. When I was the full-time parent, I was quite proud of myself that Maya and I had made it through a day, properly fed. It was quite an accomplishment. 

But I have not been her full-time parent for almost a year now, and my awareness of her routine has faded. By 11:30 she was starting to get irritable. She was probably starving. I sat her down near the beluga whales and took out the snacks that Dave had prepared. I forgot, of course, that the last two or three times we had been there she had had a slice of cheese pizza. And a juice. What did I have with me? Water and slices of cheese, apple, and ham.

Maya has amazing recall for an almost three-year-old, and remembers every single pattern of behaviour. These become her routines. If we deviate from these routines, she will protest. Loudly. “Mommy I want cheese pizza and a juice!” “Maya, mommy brought nice snacks that Daddy made us. Look we have cheese slices! And ham! You love ham!” I reply. She ups the volume. “Mommy I want cheese pizza and a juice!!!!” After several minutes of this, with the pitch of her whines getting higher by the second, I try the scolding tactic. “Maya we are not having pizza and juice. Now I want you to stop this or we’ll just go home right now.” This was followed by howls of despair. When your toddler is having a mini meltdown in public, it really is difficult to ignore the fact that people are watching you. If you don’t calm your child down immediately, you can hear the judgment “Look at her! She doesn’t even know how to be a parent. If that were my child well let me tell you…”

I ignored the real or perceived judgment and took her in my arms. I used the tactic that works best with me. A calm voice and a dash of creativity. “Look Maya!” I said excitedly, “I bet those seagulls over there would love your ham and cheese snack! Why don’t you show them how good it is?” And she calmed down and started eating her ham and cheese, while the seagulls watched from a distance. I was quite pleased with myself. Which leads me to step number three.

3. Ensure your toddler returns home wounded

Just as Maya was happily enjoying her snack and wondering when we would give the seagull some of her cheese, a gull took flight and flew right towards her. I stared at it in shock as it swooped right in front of Maya and tried to take the cheese right out of her hand, biting her finger in the process. I was so shocked that I barely reacted, except to say, “Maya watch out!” which was completely and utterly useless. It was another parent who had the sense to shoo the gull away. Maya, of course, burst into tears, with the cheese still in her hand. I did my best to comfort her, but I knew, immediately, that I had lost. I had lost all credibility as a person who could make things better. If anything I was the one who invited the gull to attack her for her cheese snack in the first place.

I took her into the line for the cheese pizza. The only battle I won was that she settled for water instead of juice. Wound or no wound, I wasn’t paying $4.00 for a juice for the love of god. I asked an employee if they had some kind of bacterial wipe or handwash. The gull had broken the skin. I was pretty sure that gulls beaks were teeming with all kinds of exotic bacteria that were now making their way into my child’s bloodstream. I may have made it sound worse than it was. Two first aid attendants rushed over with a gigantic first aid kit. Seeing that there was no blood, they got on the walkie-talkie, “It’s not a Code Two, just a Code One.” One sighed, with relief or disappointment I couldn’t tell. But in between bites of her cheese pizza Maya got two bandaids and a sticker. I wondered if they had a sticker for “worst parent ever.”

4. Only visit playgrounds where no one will play with your toddler, no matter how cute she is

The next day I couldn’t decide what we should do. It was going to be a beautiful day and I wanted to go to the beach. I had hoped to go to Crescent Beach, where I had spent my summers growing up, but we had quite a late start to the day and it was a long drive. We settled on a beach closer to home that had a playground. Maya LOVES playgrounds. I love watching her interact with other kids. Her eyes light up when other kids play with her and she smiles the most wonderful smile that is reserved for the pleasure she gets from playing with new friends. Knowing she will be an only child, watching her can be an emotional experience for me. I am always so happy when other kids play with her.

But this time, no matter how hard she tried, the other kids ignored her. It didn’t help that she tries to play with kids a bit older than her, or that all of the kids seemed to come to the playground in pairs, not needing or wanting a third. I watched with distress as Maya’s attempts to join in the play were rejected. She is so good-natured that she kept following these kids, scampering after them, saying “I’m coming!” so that she could go down the slide with them, never noticing that they weren’t really interested. For whatever reason, that day, watching her broke my heart. I felt like weeping. I am weeping now as I write about it, and wept earlier today as I told a male colleague about it. He was mortified that my tears just kept coming. I couldn’t stop them.

I struck up a conversation with one of the moms of the child that Maya was following and lost sight of her. I peaked around the corner to where the stairs were, and saw her. Her mouth was open in a silent cry. I ran towards her and saw an indent in her forehead. Within seconds it grew into a terrible, giant lump. It made me wince just looking at it. As I held her and walked to the bench, one of the dads told me that she has slipped on the metal steps. It looked like she hadn’t even the time to brace herself. I held her and did my best to soothe her. She cried and cried. But, being a toddler, within a few minutes she was fine and wanted to go back and play. Luckily all of the older kids, that I now wanted to throttle, had left. There was a little girl with her mom. Maya went right up to her, and she looked up adoringly at Maya. Maya took her hand and led her to the slide and we all went down together.

It finally looked as I might have turned the corner on the weekend, but no! Any semblance of redemption was eliminated by the fifth and final step.

5. Make sure your toddler does not nap under any circumstances 

We have been experimenting with Maya and her nap schedule. There was a period of time where she wasn’t going to bed until 9:30 or 10:00 at night. I would put her to bed, then walk from her room to mine and go right to sleep. No time to myself. It was intolerable. That is when Dave and I had “the talk.” His eyes widened in horror when I told him we should take away Maya’s afternoon naps. “I’m not ready for that yet!” he exclaimed.

So we experimented. The days she didn’t nap she went to bed at around 7:30 and wasn’t all that grumpy. But there were some days where she still needed it. Desperately. Saturday was one of those days. Of course because we were out for the entire day doing fun things, napping was not part of the schedule. We had recovered from the seagull incident and had relocated to Second Beach, with the best playground in the city. There were lots of kids there, and Maya found friends easily.

On the way home, Maya fell asleep in the car. I had asked Dave to meet us at the shops so that we could pick up a few things. I figured he could use a nice walk. He found us in the parking lot and got into the car. Maya woke up. She was not happy to see her daddy. She screamed the entire way home. She screamed and thrashed when I got her out of the car. She screamed when we got into the house. She wanted juice. Dave brought it to her and she almost kicked it out of his hands. She screamed for juice again, and again thrashed wildly when he tried to give it to her. She struggled to get out of my arms but then screamed if I wasn’t holding on to her.

Normally, in situations like this, I would use my super powers and have the situation immediately under control: super powers being my boobs (see Bye Bye Num Nums for a more detailed description). But my super boobs were out of commission. Dave and Maya had gone to Ontario for 10 days and when they returned, I had tried, as gently as possible, to let Maya know that mommy didn’t have num nums anymore. That first night she arrived home was terrible. After a long day of flying and time zone changes, she settled into my arms all set to nurse. I tried to remind her that mommies don’t have num nums forever, and she wailed in reply, “I don’t want to be a big girl mommy!” After several minutes of her hysterically trying to withdraw my boob from my bra, we both sat in the big chair in her room and cried. She finally fell asleep with me stroking her hair saying, “You’ll always be my baby sweetie pie. Mommy will always be here. You’ll always be mommy’s baby.” The next morning she protested slightly, and that was it.

But that Saturday, I would have given anything for those super powers. I had never seen her like this, completely unable to calm down. I was at a loss. Then I remembered how terrible it is to have feelings like these that are completely out of control. I had felt like that before. It was an awful experience. I felt a deep sense of compassion for how horrible she must feel. I contained her thrashing as best I could and cooed to her “I know it’s really hard to have these yucky feelings sweetie. It’s really hard to feel all of these yucky feelings. I know. Mommy is here and we’ll just wait for all of these yucky feelings to go away. I know it’s hard sweetie. We’ll just wait.” This seemed to do the trick. She quieted down and eventually drank some juice. Then she was back to my loving child. Sundays “no nap tantrum” was thwarted by the arrival of my friend Jeremy, who Maya adores, particularly because he drives the same Triumph Bonneville as her Uncle Jason.

As I took the sea bus to work this morning, I couldn’t figure out why I was in such a terrible mood. It was a gorgeous sunny day. Flowers are blooming while the rest of the country is under a thick blanket of snow. I should feel good. But I felt miserable. It was when I started weeping while talking to my mortified colleague about the playground rejection incident that it hit me. The weekend I had so looked forward to wasn’t perfect. There were some terrible moments in there, moments where I felt like a failure as a parent. There were moments that were heart wrenching. I know that part of it is that I’m not there for her the majority of the time. I need to grieve those bad moments. Because when I do, when I look at these moments with compassion, the magical moments appear. As we were driving home Sunday, after a weekend of emotional highs and lows, a part of my dream weekend did come true. Maya said to me, out of the blue, from her car seat in the back, “Mommy I really love you.” I really love you too Maya.

Surviving an Attack of Working Mom Guilt

Yesterday as Dave and Maya and I were having dinner, Dave told me that Maya had said this to him on their way to pick me up at the sea bus. “Daddy I don’t want Mommy to be a lawyer. I want Mommy to be a Mommy.” All of the good feelings I had built up while writing my last two posts about successfully challenging the guilt of being a working mom came crashing down. Thud. Heart starts breaking. “No!!!” I said and covered my face with my hands. Dave shook his head. “I shouldn’t have told you. I knew it.” Maya looked at me “Are you crying mommy?” “A little it.” I peer at her between my hands. She smiles. “Cry mommy!” she says with glee. She is laughing. “You little scampy scamp!” And the moment passes.

That night, as I helped her get ready for bed, my love for her felt like it was going to leap out of my chest. I desperately wanted her to know how much I love her. The tinge of desperation in that desire was reminiscent of me as young woman and the agony I felt when I would fall crazily in love with a man and frantically want him to know how I felt. It should not have come as a surprise that the most common reaction was for him to run, quickly, and as far away as possible. Thinking about it now makes me cringe. Desperation is really not my most attractive quality. Understandably so. So I reined it in. Maya and I had several tickle fights and read some Christmas books together and I MAINTAINED CALM within myself.

This morning I felt a familiar dark weight in my heart as I thought of those words, “I want mommy to be a mommy.” In my past that darkness could be, and often was, invasive. It would take weeks out of my life with its suffocating presence. It reminds me of when I visited Australia and a guide on one of the excursions I went on described the introduction of a new species of toad to Australia. Cane toads were brought from South America to Australia for the sole purpose of ridding the sugar cane they were trying to grow of a particularly destructive bug. What seemed like an easy fix, however, turned out to be a disaster. The bugs and the toads didn’t share the same sleep cycle; when the toads were awake the bugs were asleep. They didn’t share the same habitat either. The bugs lived on top of the sugar cane and the toads lived on the ground. The toads were very poisonous, but the animals, not having experience with these particular toads, ate them and died. The toads, having no natural enemies, proliferated, and are now threatening to destroy the entire ecosystem. So it is with this darkness. Originally I’m sure it had a valid purpose. A cue, a warning that there was some loss or sadness that I should pay attention to. But like the cane toads, it had no enemies, nothing to limit its growth. Left unchecked, each day it would grow just a tiny imperceptible bit until suddenly I would be paralyzed by its murky weight.

I am well aware of the toll that darkness can take if I allow it. It can take weeks, months to climb out of that hole once one has fallen in. I used to be terribly judgmental of that woman who allowed herself to be sucked into that hole over and over again. I judged her mercilessly, that dark and angry girl who held all of my sorrows. I hated her. I wanted her imprisoned, locked up in a cold, black place with her misery and her pain. It took me a long time to be have the strength and courage to face her. To look into her angry eyes, unafraid, and give her permission to release all of her grief and rage and to love her anyway. It was me that had locked her there, left her there alone with her pain. No wonder she was angry.

Now, when I feel that tinge of heaviness in my heart head, I know that I must face it head on. But I take more of a Buddhist (my version anyway) approach to it now. I name that weight. It is grief. I give it permission to wail all of its sorrows. “This isn’t fair! I don’t want to work anymore. Why are we so poor? Why do I have to work? This is too hard! Maya will hate me. She will think that I have betrayed her. She will think I don’t love her. She will feel abandoned by me. She will love Dave better.” I listen, but not with judgment, which only made the weight in my heart dig its claws in deeper in defiance. Instead I listen from a position of curiosity and compassion. As I listen, there is a part of myself who notices, “So this is what I do when I feel grief and guilt about working. I think this. I feel this. How old is this part of me? Quite young. Interesting.” And there is a part that observes all that is being released with compassion, what I would feel if a small child was in pain. You love them even though you can’t take the pain away. And then, I move on.

I have found that this stance of curiosity and compassion is the best way to melt the heaviness, lessen the guilt, and get on with my day, as I must. I have found that as I nurture compassion within myself, I feel more compassion for others. I laugh more. I don’t take life as seriously. My mantra is one that I learned from a speaker at a conference I attended. His name is John Briere, a psychologist who specializes in working with people who have been profoundly traumatized from war, torture and abuse. He described humanity and our connectedness like this: “We are all just bozos on the same bus.” His humour and irreverence were endearing. My favourite line at this conference, however, was when he was explaining to a room full of “experts”, mostly doctors, psychiatrists and psychologists, how important it was to have compassion and not judgment for their patients. He said “If you had lived through the same experiences that these people have, you would be sucking that guy’s cock too.” I loved that. Years later he came out as a practicing Buddhist. His brand of irreverent compassion is what I try to emulate.

Now, I feel back to myself again. All of the empowering messages I wrote about in my last two posts come flooding back, and I am calm, resolved and knowing that it is Friday and I have two full days with Maya. And that is something to be grateful for.

The Four Guilts of the Apocalypse – Working Mother Guilt Part II

The second of my Four Guilts of the Apocalypse of the working mom is guilt in relation to work. I have worked since I was 14 and have been accused of being very driven and having a ridiculously high work ethic. I read with horror not too long ago that a recent trend with some American employers is to purposefully not hire or promote mothers for the simple fact that as mothers, so the argument goes, their work will suffer, their productivity will decrease, their loyalty will be divided and as a result, their value as employees, such as it was prior to childbirth, will now clearly be greatly diminished.

 Why these same conclusions about working mothers are not applied to working fathers is just another part of the mystery that is gender discrimination. I suppose that in a “traditional” family fathers were not expected to, nor did they participate or particularly value the mundane routines of family life. Here is my idea of the perfect (from an employer’s view) “traditional” (perhaps mythical) working father. Father would come home from a long and difficult day at work. He would regale the family with his heroic antics at work, his children and wife listening with rapt attention and awe. Father would then devour his meal, lovingly prepared by his wife, play with the kids for a moment or two, and then retire to the study to work some more while mother would get the kids ready for bed. He would greet another working day well rested, with a good breakfast in his belly, ready to work some more. Father was the star of his own movie; the king of his castle. His life had importance and his achievements had meaning. As my ex once explained to me (in the way one explains difficult concepts to a small child), “My time is more valuable, Julie, because I make more money.” He may have actually patted me on the head.

But there is a potential downside to that traditional/mythical father. When he is older, and his children are all grown, and his achievements, viewed with hindsight, are, perhaps, not so heroic, a sudden realization will hit (often categorized as a mid-life crisis). He has missed out. Perhaps he will realize, with a jolt, that his relationship with his now grown children is superficial at best, or, at worse, nonexistent; he may even recognize that he doesn’t actually know his children nor have a clear idea of who they are as human beings apart from what they have achieved. He may, as a result, experience intense grief and say to himself “What have I done?” But the beauty is, being a man, he can try again; he can marry again, have children again and embrace a second chance to be the kind of father he wished he had been the first time around, had he known then what he knows now.

Women, clearly, are not physiologically equipped to give it another go. If we miss out on it all the first time, that’s it. There is no second family, no second chance unless it is with another mother’s children, which comes with its own set of unique challenges. Women, as such, don’t have the luxury of ignoring their children to promote their careers. Mothers, when they work, juggle competing priorities. If one is going to trump, I can almost guarantee it will be their children. Does this mean that employers are right when they say that women’s work will suffer once they bear children, but not men’s? It is an interesting question.

I believe that today there are both women and men who are shrugging off the traditional script of the working parent. They are changing the way things have always been done. No longer are many women and men content to make a forced choice to sacrifice their families for their careers. When that invitation is offered to them, they calmly but defiantly turn it down. Work-life balance is not a new catch phrase, it is a reality. Without it, I believe, we all suffer. I don’t think it is a coincidence that as the stresses of balancing life and work have increased, so have the rates of mental illness, marital breakdown, etc.

I, interestingly enough, have recently entered a profession in which work-life balance is an inside joke. When I attended a panel discussion on how to be successful at interviews the panelists all agreed that addressing work-life balance in an interview was professional suicide. In one of my classes on employment, in which work-life balance was discussed, a female classmate pronounced definitively that “Women just can’t have it all. They can’t be a good mother and a good employee. It’s not possible.” To be fair, when I decided to take the leap of faith and enter this rather challenging profession, it was partly because I had been informed that I wouldn’t be able to have children, so it made sense to enter a profession that had a reputation for being all consuming. It’s not like I had anything better to do. 

Then Maya, my little miracle came along. Oops! What had I gotten myself into? Perhaps it is the fact that I entered a new career with another one under my belt, or perhaps it is my history of irreverence, but I decided that when I looked for a job I would not heed the panelist’s advice, I would break those rules. I would not take any job that came my way, but I would search until I found a place of employment that matched my own values, one that recognized that promoting work-life balance actually produced better, happier and more productive employees.

When it came time to look for a job, I was lucky to have several interviews. Going into these interviews I felt a bit like a woman dating in her 30’s who wants to settle down and have a family. She can’t any longer biologically afford to date someone for a couple of years here and there; she needs to know, within the first five minutes of meeting a prospective mate if they are on the right page. Men who are not are given short shrift. In each interview, therefore, I asked the forbidden question. I asked how their organization supported working mothers. I expected a standard formulated response. What surprised me was that the question was so unexpected that they didn’t even have a standard reply. And because they hadn’t a standard reply, I actually received some honest answers, most of which sounded a bit like this: “That’s a good question. We haven’t quite figured that one out yet.” Yikes.

The one place that had an excellent answer to that question was the place I chose (luckily they chose me too!). It is not as prestigious or glamorous as some of the other places I considered, but from what I can tell thus far, it is real. The people are authentic. They work hard and do excellent work, but not at the expense of their families. I had heard that when they started many people predicted that they would fail; that there was no way an organization in this profession could succeed if work was actually balanced with life. What I love about my new employer is that they have proven the establishment wrong. They stuck to their vision and instead of failing, they have been quite successful; a fact that is ultimately threatening to the established order because it is evidence that promoting work-life balance does not equal failure, does not create less productive employees.

Instead of being filled with dread at how I will manage work with a family, I am excited. I can see myself having an amazing and fulfilling career there. The opportunities for personal growth in my career are both expansive and exciting. But, unlike many of the organizations I visited, I also envision a future for me with my family, a future in which I grow old being connected with my daughter and my husband, and knowing that with the right support from my family and my workplace, I really can have it all, or at least mostly all, without sacrificing either of them. And if I can have it all, so can Maya. 

The Four Guilts of the Apocalypse – Working Mother Guilt

While mommy's at work

Being a working mother of a toddler, I’ve started to read a lot about working mothers. Here is what I have gleaned thus far; mothers working will be the death of civilization as we know it, and, on a side note, when mothers work they are not just terrible mothers, but terrible employees too. It reminds me a bit of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse; pestilence, war, famine and death. I wonder what horse working mothers would ride? Would it be pestilence or war? The women’s movement has often seemed like a war over who will wield power in public and private life. The gains women have made to have a legitimate voice in our homes and our communities are countered with a backlash of opposition. The ridiculous notion of “legitimate rape” and attempts to revive the abortion debate are just recent examples. But I have also seen the phenomena of working mothers described as a type of pestilence; we are the plague that will destroy society as we know it.

 There is no doubt that the women’s movement has impacted society in remarkable ways. The average age of mothers at the birth of the first child has increased by almost a decade in one generation. The number of mothers working (by necessity or not) has increased dramatically, with the numbers of stay at home fathers increasing as well. These changes have had ripple effects on private and public life. On the public side, employers have, by necessity, had to adjust or risk losing a significant portion of their workforce. The profession of law is a good example. The research suggests that after five years of working in private practice, where the culture expects an 80 hour work week, women, and increasingly men, leave in droves. There are committees that have been created to try to quell this exodus. So far there have been no workable solutions proposed, because to work it would involve restructuring the entire firm’s method of making money.

 On the private side, both women and men have had to create new scripts and modify gender role expectations. What does it mean to be a mother when she works full time and is not fulfilling traditional gender roles? What does it mean to be a father when he is a stay at home dad and also defying traditional gender roles? I had not realized how powerful gender role expectations were until I challenged them. One side effect of that challenge, however, is guilt. It’s not just the guilt of being a working mother. Instead of the four horses of the apocalypse, I suffer from the four guilts. The first is the working mother guilt in relation to my family, that I am missing out on the mundane routines of everyday life with a toddler, minutes and hours that are irrecoverable. The second is the working mother guilt in relation to my job; I am not able to give as much to my career and my employer as I should. The third is the older mom guilt, that I will likely be dead by the time my daughter is my age; I will be too old to appreciate and know her children, if she has any. The fourth is the guilt that she will be an only child, and will truly be orphaned when Dave and I are both gone, having no siblings with whom she has a shared history of our family.

 My four guilts, if I let them, would likely suffocate me with their combined messages of how terrible a person I am. How do I deal with them, you may ask, and prevent them from sucking the very life out of me on a daily basis?

 I strongly believe that a lot of our personal misery is as a result of the meaning that we make of our lives, our choices, our roles etc. There are powerful messages all around us that try to influence how we make meaning, but it is possible to defy them – I like to engage in small acts of protest whenever I am faced with a meaning that is soul sucking, instead of life affirming.

 In relation to the first guilt, today’s topic, the meaning that I have made out of my life and my role as a working mother is this. Maya’s introduction into my life was a miracle. I was told by specialists that she would not be (without heroic and expensive efforts), and I spent two years mourning her loss. The whole time I was in mourning, however, that message did not make sense to me. Since I was a young child and envisioned my future, I had always envisioned a child. One child. In this future my job was unclear, the man with me was unclear, but the child was a certainty. “How could this be? How could I be childless?” I wondered. I had trusted in that future. And then, when I least expected her, when I had come to terms with my barrenness, she was created in a relationship of love and healing. She was created after I took a stand for myself, by leaving my husband after being told “You’re too masculine, too driven, too much like me. (I think his exact words were – “You’re me with a cunt. I don’t like it”) I know plenty of women who can raise children, work full time, make the meals and clean the whole house without any help. My time is too valuable to help. What is wrong with you?” I told him to go find a woman like that, if they were so plentiful, and he did. And I was freed.

 I have noticed that every time I take a leap of faith into the unknown in order to be true to myself, it has been acknowledged. By what, I’m not sure, but I believe that somehow we are connected to an energy, something undefined, unknowable. It is important to me that Maya see her parents being true to themselves. My truth is that I have always believed that I have something I am supposed to do in this world beyond being a mother. I have something to offer, even though I’m not entirely sure what it is.

 Maya is growing up seeing both her mother and father follow their dreams. She is in a family where dreams are supported, even if it results in a non-traditional looking family, where mom works outside of the home and dad works inside. My life, despite my honest efforts, has not been traditional. Why would I expect that I would be a traditional mother? I actively protest the socially constructed meaning that by working I am a terrible mother. Yes, there are days when I feel tremendous loss and grief when I’m not with her during the week. There are days when I believe that if I won the lottery I would quit my job tomorrow and never work again.

 But the truth is, working is who I am just as much as being a mother is who I am. I have worked in some form or another since I was 14 years old. When I was a child, the women in my family told me I could be anything I wanted to be. They hadn’t had that choice in their lives, theirs had limits. Although they all went to university, it was with the understanding that the most important degree was an MRS. I grew up understanding that work increased one’s personal power. I once told my mother I wanted to have lots of money when I grew up. She responded with “Well you had better marry someone rich!” I responded with “Why would I do that? I’m going to make my own money!”

 I am increasingly aware of the millions of shoulders I am standing on, the shoulders of women who sacrificed and who fought for the choices I have the freedom and support to exercise. I honour those women by being the best mother I can be, and the best woman I can be. The best woman I can be involves work. I don’t believe the two are irreconcilable. Maya will grow up not just knowing in an abstract way, that women can dream without limits, and their dreams can be realized, she will see it in action. And this, perhaps, is the best gift I can give her as a working mother. 

The Ambivalence of a Working Mom

Today I missed one of my most favourite moments of the day. For Dave, it is likely the moment that morning cup of coffee meets his waiting lips… but for me it is the moment that I go to wake Maya up. Dave and I have had our morning coffee and I’m awake and ready for the day. I go into Maya’s dark room and whisper “Good morning Maya. Good morning sweetie pie.” I reach over her crib and rub her back. Eventually she turns over and I will unzip her sleep sack. She helps me to pull one arm through the armhole, then puts Pinky Bear in the other hand to get the other arm out. All of this is done without a word. Then I pick her up and she wraps her arms and legs around me. This is the moment. I feel her little legs around my hips and feel her sleepy head nestled on my shoulder. As I carry her into the living room I breathe in her little girl smell and savour the experience of holding her in the sleepy silence of early morning. I whisper to her “That’s my big girl” as we walk into the living room to say good morning to Daddy. Until quite recently I used to be able to croon “That’s my little baby” but now even in that sleepiness she will remind me by mumbling into my hair “I”m not a little baby anymore mommy!”

I missed this most treasured of morning rituals because I had to work early, so as per my “dreaded commute” post,  I took the dreaded bus. The night before I tried to explain to Maya that mommy wouldn’t be there in the morning, but I could tell that she wasn’t listening. She was focused on her mission to avoid going to bed at all costs. While she was waking up, I was likely standing in the cold, dark morning, waiting for the bus.

About an hour after I arrived at work I received a text from Dave telling me that Maya was not at all happy to wake up and discover me gone. My heart sank. I pictured her crying “I want my mommy! I want my mommy!” and the ambivalence I feel about being a working mom hit me with its fullest force. I usually ignore it, avoid looking at its sad little face because the reality is that I have no choice. Unless I suddenly win the lottery (I very occasionally will buy a ticket despite my cousin Gavin’s warning that lotteries are taxes for people who are bad at math), this is my life.

It was simple math that made the decision for Dave and I about who would need to work full time. If we wanted to move back to Vancouver, and we both did, it came down to two choices. Either I would work full time, or we would both work full time. It seemed ridiculous for Dave to go to work full time just to use that money to pay a stranger to take care of our child. We decided that one of us would stay at home with Maya. As Dave was the only one who could do some work from home, there was no stay at home mom option. Dave is the stay at home Dad. Not a role, I can safely say, that he ever imagined himself in. And not a common role either, it seems, at least in the neighbourhood we live in. He is the only Dad at the parent participation pre-school, the only dad at ballet lessons (also parent participation to Dave’s chagrin).

I, on the other hand, have joined the ranks of the dads. On the weekends when I would take Maya to parent/tot swimming lessons (before she joined the big girl class), I would have the opposite experience. I was almost always the only mom in a rather large class. I thought maybe the dads were all weekend-access divorced dads, but no. Their wives were waiting for them after class.

Full time work as a mom has been a tough transition for me. When Maya was born, I was just finishing my first year of law and was working full time. Because of that, I was able to take a year off work (thank you Canadian socialism), be paid half my salary (by said socialist government) and go back to school full time in the fall. Full time school, however, is not full time work. I was able to work my schedule to be home at least 2 days a week, sometimes 3.

But once school was done, I knew the real world was waiting. The transition was not easy. When Maya and Dave would drop me off at the sea bus Maya would glare at me in silence and not give me a kiss good-bye. When I left the car I would hear her wailing as Dave drove off. When they picked me up she would cry and whine and Dave would say “Maya you’ve been good all day why are you doing this?” I knew why. How do you explain to a 2 year old that mommy has to work?

In our process of making sense of this,  one conversation stands out in particular. One weekend we were driving together and she started talking about feeling sad. It came out of the blue and I guessed that it might have something to do with me being gone all day. I said to her “Mommy feels really sad when she leaves you and goes to work Maya. Mommy misses you all day. I”m so happy to see you when I get home.” I could hear her in the back repeating this to me and talking to herself. As weird as it sounds, it felt like we made a connection from that conversation. The tears at drop offs stopped.

Our current routine is that I must kiss and hug her, then Pinky Bear, with instructions to “Take good care of my Maya when I’m gone and give her hugs if she is sad please Pinky Bear”, and then Daddy.

I realized today that I have been so focused on helping Maya through her 2 year old grief, I haven’t acknowledged my own. Today, it hit, with full awareness that the job I am doing now still isn’t the real world. I will be going into a career where workaholism is considered a necessary mindset. It was a tough day.

But when I got off the sea bus and into the waiting car all was well. Maya ordered me to turn the music up on the CD “Mommy I want this louder!” (Black Betty by Ram Jam) and told me about her ballet lesson with Madame and Miss Brittany. When we got home we played together and it warmed my heart.

While we were having dinner she said to me “Mommy if I go to work with you and you get a little bit sad or angry I will give you a hug and that will make you feel better.” And that did make me feel better. Image