“I love you Mom, but you’re a mess,” I famously told her once as a child.
It was true. She was a working single parent, so she really had no time to clean. Not that she probably would have chosen to anyway. I can’t say I blame her. There are just too many better things to do, she often said, and in my adult life I’ve found more and more that I agree. It’s not just cleaning, but cooking too. Why waste your evening when take-out tastes better anyway?
Nature or nurture, I don’t know, but women in my family are not exactly domestic. And it’s probably largely for this reason that it never occurred to me to spend my working hours at home.
Cook? Clean? Look after children? No thank you. I didn’t play house as a kid; I dressed up in my mom’s work clothes and marched off to some imagery but highly important job.
They say having kids changes you. I hate clichés, but I must reluctantly admit that this one, like so many of them, turns out to be quite true.
Now that I have a kid of my own, I find that I don’t really have much of a desire to put on fancy work clothes and head off to a job, no matter how interesting or important. When I’m at the office, I miss my son. I can’t imagine any job feeling as important as being with him.
And that other stuff that comes along with staying at home? Well, suddenly that doesn’t seem so bad either. Much to my surprise, I find myself longing to spend afternoons cooking. I daydream about passing an hour at the market, baby strapped to my belly, and then another whipping up some colorful creation.
It hasn’t gotten to the point that I’m having romantic notions about cleaning. (One can only change so much.) But I might even be willing to endure some of that in order to spend hours staring at Flynn. Sleeping. Smiling. Even screaming. (He’s found his vocal cords these past few days and isn’t afraid to use them.) I’m not forgetting what it was like to take care of him full-time. I know that it was — and would be — hard. Yet I still find myself in my office sneaking glances at pictures of him, wishing I could just be home.
What’s a working mom to do?
Let me be clear about one thing: this isn’t about what I believe is best for my son. For the record, I don’t really think it particularly matters whether a parent works or not. If she stays home, kids certainly benefit from the extra quality time. If she works, kids certainly benefit from the close-up example of professional success. I’m of the mindset that if you love your kids, well, that’s really all you can do. They will become who they’re bound to become despite your best intentions.
Hopefully my son will grow up happy, but it’s not his happiness that’s troubling me right now; it’s my own. Selfishly, I want to be around him. Being around him would make me happy. Happier than I can imagine any job would. But how long would it make me happy? When he’s off at school will I grow restless? Will I want to return to the workforce?
For many parents, taking a few years off and then returning to work is an option. As an entry-level Foreign Service Office, this, as many of you know, isn’t really possible. If I were to leave now I’d have to go through the whole application process again. The State Department might not even be hiring when I was ready to return, and even if they were, I might not make the cut the next time around. Even if I did, my career would start all over at the bottom.
Largely because of the finality of walking away from my job, it’s not something I’m seriously considering at this point. But still, it’s there in the back of my mind, tempting me to a degree I never thought it would.
If I could peak at my life five years in the future, I honestly don’t know what I’d see.
Maybe Flynn will be saying, “I love you mom, but you’re too stressed.”
Or perhaps, instead, “I love you mom, but you need a hobby.”
Either way, I’m fairly sure the house will still be a mess.
(P.S. See the comments of this blog post for some interesting observations from a member of the Canadian diplomatic corps about the difference in maternity leave policy between Canada and the U.S.)