Friday, December 19, 2008

An Article I Wrote A Year Ago

I never submitted it anywhere... But I liked it a lot after a year, so here it is.

The Mommy War

It's Thursday evening in Boston, Massachusetts. Molly is disheveled after a long day at work. Her makeup is smudged but her hair is holding up well, as if she's recently brushed it. Her suit jacket is wrinkled and carelessly thrown over the back of her chair and she's feeling grateful that her husband is home doing the evening shift with their toddler and preschooler. She waves to her friend Meg who has come in the door wearing a pair of high waisted butt-enhancing jeans. Her sweatshirt is smeared with a day's worth of other people's boogers, red sauce and is that eggs on her arm? There is green paint in her hair. She wears no makeup and it the ends of her 2 day old ponytail are raggedy and split. Both women look exhausted. The women embrace and the wine begins to flow.

“You can't believe the day I had.” Moans Meg the stay at home mom. “Both kids were up half the night and they were so unbearably whiny all day. They couldn't entertain themselves for a minute. They were exhausted and neither of them would nap. And it was raining. I spent all afternoon playing hot wheels. All I ate was three french fries and about a gallon of coffee. I thought I would kill them by the end of the day. But then Ted came home, almost an HOUR late... I handed him a naked red-sauce encrusted toddler and ran for the door before he could argue.” The friends giggle.

Molly says, “I spent my day doing a presentation for my senior VP to get funding for a project that I really want to do. But half way through I got an emergency phone call. My preschooler broke a tooth at daycare and I had to rush him to the dentist. My VP was not amused. His kids are like 30 and his wife stayed home with them until they started high school.” She chuckles bitterly. “What could I do? Dave was at a meeting up in New Hampshire. It would have taken him an hour and a half to get down there. He needed to leave school NOW, you know how they are.”

But as the wine starts to flow, the women become more animated.

“How can you be fulfilled by wiping butts all day?” Meg demands “You've got a degree for God's sake and ten years IT of experience. You worked hard for that. It's your duty to all women not to throw that away!”

But Molly counters, “It's not about fulfillment, it's about what I think is best for my family right now. And don't you feel selfish to want to enrich your life beyond those adorable little moppets you are so blessed to have. Ted makes enough money that you could quit. They NEED you right NOW. You've got the rest of your life to work. Just give them five years.”

“But in five years, I'll lose 75% of my earning power!” Meg, the working mother is practically shouting now. “What if something happened to your husband. God forbid but what if?”

The stay at home mom shudders because she has no answer for that, other than “Let's knock on wood on that one.”

“No seriously,” Meg says. “I don't think he'll leave you. That's not what I'm saying. But if he got hit by a bus and you'd all lose your health care. And possibly your house if you were trying to jump start your career when you needed to versus when you have tho opportunity to.”

Molly becomes defensive. “It doesn't sound like you have it so great either. I mean your employers are always pissed at you because you need to bolt at five sharp to make your daycare deadline. You leave in the middle of important meetings to attend to your sick kids. And your family is living on frozen pizza and convenience food. At least we're eating well at our house. On the days I get around to cooking at least.”

Then the two friends laugh and together put their heads down and cry.

These two friends don't exist. They're the mommy war that takes place in my head on a daily basis. I quit my job in Information Technology a year and a half ago after my second child was born. I planned to stay at home at least until my older child starts kindergarten in 2009. You see, I'm one of those women that the New York Times loves to mock. My husband is (just) affluent enough that we are meeting our bills on one income. We're not talking vacation homes and full time Nanny's and cleaners alla Caitlin Flannegan, but we're not going into debt doing this. So technically work is a choice for me. After my second child was born, I opted out. The cost of daycare didn't justify it, and my daughter was colicky and fussy and wouldn't stop crying for anybody but me.

My husband's career simultaneously took off after my daughter was born. When he got his last promotion, I congratulated him and he said “You're allowing me to do this because of what you're doing at home.” And it's true. Men who have wives on the home front are more successful than women who don't have a spouse keeping the home fires lit.

I'm educated, have a bachelors degree at least. I had a successful career pre kids. Now with a four year old and an eighteen month old I am starring in my role of butt wiper, chauffeur, negotiator, cook, cleaner, playmate, nose wiper and all other things mom. I'm tired and frustrated much of the time, but I am not particularly stressed out.

Then last week a Great Job has come a knocking and Meg and Molly are having at it in my head. I haven't been able to sleep, they're yelling so loud. It's a job that I would be awesome at. It's within walking distance of my house and my kid's preschool. I'm not awesome at staying home with my kids. I'm certainly competent, but I don't enjoy playing legos and hot wheels for hours on end. Nor do I generally enjoy keeping 2 siblings from breaking and taking each other's things. But what I'm doing feels so important right now. Somehow I'm building a foundation with them that will last us forever and that feels much more critical than any job. Plus, it's not stressful, and being a working mom is incredibly stressful. I went back to work for two and a half years after my son was born. I always felt like I was letting somebody down. When he was two, my son spent a week in the hospital with his asthma, I was letting work down because I would not leave his side. I spent the next week at work, of course I was letting my son down because shouldn't he be with his mom after he had been so sick? Now, my worst problem seems to be that we trash the house on a daily basis. If the house is a mess? Meh. Whatever.

But my brains are slowly turning to tapioca. The longer I wait to go back to work, the harder it will be to find a job at a comparable level to what I had. If I take this job (assuming they offer it to me), will I be able to do both my mommy role and my job competently? Or will I always be shortchanging one or the other? My husband doesn't have such stresses. He is completely present with them when he's home and trusts me to keep them safe when he's not. I'm here all the time, but I'm much less present. I'm always trying to get them to entertain themselves so I can check my e-mail, start dinner, make a phone call or switch the laundry to the drier. The thought of turning over some of the daily tedium of caring for my children to a paid professional is appealing to me. But the thought of the stress alone is making my teeth ache. But the idea of going back to work like I did for 2 ½ years when my son was a baby has a certain appeal. Somehow with two children, it seems much more daunting. Perhaps living with stress is the price we pay to raise children in a 40 hour a week world.

But there is no mommy war outside of my head, nor outside of the heads of people trying to market books and articles to mothers. I know of nobody that would be critical of my decision either way. Not in a way that matters. There are women who might say, boy what your doing sure wouldn't work for me. But I'm glad it's working for you. This is not a decision that I would ever judge another woman for. The Mommy Wars really only exist in our own heads and hearts as we struggle for balance between being people with our own needs and desires and being mommies who are allowed neither of those things, but are supposed to exist on hugs alone. There aren't women out there fighting each other over this, just women who are fighting in their heads about what is ultimately best for themselves and their families.

Now, one year later, I took that job back in 2007 and with the exception of a few very absurdly stressful days (and a few nights) I have not regretted it. A mish mosh of public pre school, family daycare and a nanny take care of the kids when we're working. And I don't work quite full time. I have Monday and Friday afternoons off and that helps a lot. My job is interesting, challenging, frustrating and stressful. In other words, it's a typical job. But there's a good paycheck, adult conversations and I'm pretty good at it. In this unsteady economy it is about as stable as jobs get, and for that I am grateful. My husband is still doing great at work, but these days that isn't always enough. It's nice to know that we have a safety net. And that almost cancels out the stress of being a working mom.

My daughter, now two and a half has a pink toy diaper bag that she calls her purse. She swings it over her shoulder and says “I'm going to work now!” I don't think that's a bad thing at all. The mommy wars are still softly raging in my head. But they stay there. I would still never judge another woman's choice.


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