I am a first time mom of a beautiful 9 month old little girl. I am also 1 of 3 moms in my entire company, and 2 of us got pregnant within 4 weeks of each other. The 3rd mom was hired 3 months before I was due, so the working mom/employer dynamic is new for all of us. I remember talking to the other pregnant mom when I was around 7 months pregnant about childcare. I had no clue what I was going to do. The idea of daycare depressed me so much and instead of researching childcare centers in my area I was putting off the decision as much as possible. My coworker on the other hand had her daycare picked out and her son’s spot reserved by the time she was 6 months pregnant!
Fast forward 5 months, my (generous) maternity leave was coming to an end and I still had no childcare plan in place. I looked at my sweet little baby who was so happy, but also so helpless and I just couldn’t imagine handing her to a stranger and walking away every day. So, I went to my employer and asked for some flexibility. I sent them a proposal replete with research on bringing babies to work and I suggested that I jigsaw together a work schedule that included working from home, bringing my little girl to work, and taking advantage of my husband’s academic schedule by leaving her at home with him. I never got a formal approval, but I also never got a formal denial. This is super important, don’t assume that your employers know what you want or what you need. If you’ve identified a way that you can creatively meet your needs AND your employers’ ask! The worst that can happen is they say “no”.
So, I started bringing my daughter to work. I LOVED it. For those months it worked out very well, she made everyone smile, she was mostly pretty quiet, and when she was noisy they were happy sounds. I would cover her stroller with a snow cover and she would conk out for 45 minutes to an hour. Truth be told, I also felt like Wonder Woman. For once my fatal procrastination had bought me something incredible, 3 extra precious months with my baby. Around the 5 month mark this arrangement became impossible. Highly social and easily distracted my little girl couldn’t sleep anywhere but at home and she wanted to be rolling from room to room which was especially impossible with our office undergoing renovations. I realized that I had to find an alternate solution.
Incredibly I found a mom just around the corner from me on a mommy listserv who ran an in-home daycare and was looking to take on another child. At first I was skeptical, until I found out that she watched our pediatrician’s children too! Then I met her and her beautiful family and I literally can’t imagine a better place for my daughter to go play. The older girls call her their “cousin”, and they squeal with joy when they see us coming down the street. At first I tried to keep it to just 8-15 hours per week. But, by January of this year I was approached about a promotion, and the official conversation finally came up. What was I going to do about my schedule and childcare?
At first I was panicked, I wasn’t ready to be away from my daughter for 40 hours a week! I love being a working mom, I really enjoy my job, but being in my daughter’s life is the most important thing to me. I sat down with my boss and proposed that I keep 2 mornings each week to work from home and be with my baby. They graciously accepted under the condition (of course) that it had to work. I needed to be effective in my position. So now I’m away from my daughter for 32 hours a week, and those first 2 weeks I hated myself. I have never experienced anything like that before. I am generally a pretty confident person, I examine my life decisions carefully before making them, and so I don’t often find times when I dislike myself or my actions. But, I kept asking myself over and over “If my daughter is spending most of her time with someone else, what makes me her mother?” I had answers, but none of them made me feel better. I nurse my daughter, that’s something that only we do, but still that wasn’t sufficient. I carried her for 9 months, but she doesn’t remember that. I thought about this over and over again. I cried at work while I pumped. I talked to coworkers who were parents and they mostly said, “yeah, it sucks”. I was so miserable I thought about quitting my job and getting a part-time job somewhere and totally derailing my career.
But, I couldn’t accept any of these realities as acceptable. I really didn’t want to quit my job, especially after they had been so supportive of me through a difficult pregnancy and then when I refused to put my daughter in daycare. I also could not imagine living with the guilt that my life choices were negatively affecting my daughter or our relationship. I kept obsessing over a way to find a solution. I may not have solved the whole working mom reality, but I did actually do something that made me feel better.
I decided to determine a measurable indicator of success. I sat down and I calculated the average number of hours my daughter was awake each day and each week. I then decided that I wanted my daughter to spend at least 60% of her waking hours with me each week. So, I figured out how many hours that was and what?! Wouldn’t you know, it turned out that the schedule I had made was already allowing me to spend at least 60% of her waking hours together.
I felt so relieved! She already was spending the majority of her time with me. But without that information, that wasn’t how I felt. I felt like a failure. When I decided to quantify my success as a working mom, suddenly I realized that I had already achieved the balance I was looking for.
The numbers made me feel better, however my greatest lesson as a working mom is that in order to survive and make the most of every hour of the day I need to be present in every moment. When I’m at work I need to be effective and present and enjoy the social and intellectual stimulus (which is one of my main reasons for continuing to work in the first place). When I’m at home with the baby, I try to ignore chores and spend as much time on the floor playing with her and making her my focus. Once I stopped stressing about the baby at work and about work when I was home with the baby everything clicked into place. I felt like my time with my daughter was quality and that her emotional needs were being met and I felt like I was contributing quality work at the office.
Our children come to us in a state of total dependence, but their growth is a slow and steady move towards total independence. I’ve found it healthy to remember that as long as their time away from mom is spent in a loving, caring environment that it can be a huge benefit to baby as much as mom. My daughter is so socially driven that she gets cranky when she’s stuck in the house with me all day. And for her that time with other kids is invaluable. It is so tempting to feel that as mothers we are everything our children should want or need. But we provide them with the foundation of unconditional love and care that allows them to feel confident in pursuing their own interests, even as early as 9 months.
Every mom has to define success differently based on her relationship with her children, her available support, and her own understanding of her family. What I want other working moms to realize, is we are probably doing better at accomplishing our goals than we realize. It can be easy to assume we are shortchanging our employers or shortchanging our children, all at the expense of our own sanity. We can’t ever do it perfectly, we all certainly drop the ball somewhere, sometimes. But, if we take a moment to look at what we are really accomplishing every week and every day, I think we’ll find that we’re actually kind of impressed with what we make happen. We also have to advocate for ourselves! The American work culture for the most part does not support our needs as mothers and women. We must demand that it change to accommodate our needs. For ourselves, for our families, and for our children who may one day be parents in this country too.