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?

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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.