Being a working mother feels like a constant compromise. When I’m at work I’m distracted by my kids. When I’m with the kids, I always have work at the back of my mind. I’m never fully in one world or the other. Working and parenting are a tightrope walk: give too much to either, and the other will fall apart.
As a writer, I work at home, at a job with flexible hours. I can work at 1 a.m. if I need to, and I often do. I can work for fifteen minutes and then take an abrupt break because the kids are fighting over whose turn it is at the piano. I can work while they eat a snack. I can do some parts of my job while hanging out with them at the playground.
In some ways that makes my job ideal for working motherhood. In others, it makes the juggling act even harder. When I can always be working and always be parenting, the line between the two blurs. It’s hard to show up for either work or parenting with my undivided attention.
I’m sure it’s all worth it though. This conversation with my daughter explains why.
This post was originally about ignoring my kids so I can work, and how benign neglect is good for me and them. I wrote:
I don’t play with my kids much. You won’t catch me coaxing them down a slide at the playground, or building a scale replica of Versailles in the sandbox. I’ll push ‘em on the swings if I have to, but I’d rather lounge in the shade while they run around on their own.
This isn’t an accident, or pure selfish laziness. It’s my idea of good parenting.
I think one of the most important jobs I have as a parent is to model the kind of life I want my children to have as adults. They’re not going to grow up to be the people I exhort and cajole them to be in childhood. They’re going to grow up to be a lot like the person they see me being. For example, if I want them to keep a clean house, I figure I need to keep the house clean, not spend the next ten years nagging them to clean their bedroom.
With that philosophy in mind, I give my kids a healthy dose of benign neglect every day.
I’m ignoring them right now to write this article, in fact. They’re playing fairly happily in the next room while I focus all my attention on the computer screen in my office.
Then things went in a new direction. My six-year-old came into the office and stood next to me, watching me work for a few minutes like she often does. She said, “It’s hard for a woman to have a job. Unless that job is like cleaning laundry or taking care of kids. It’s hard for a woman to even get a job.”
“That used to be true,” I said. “Most women work these days. You can have any job you want.”
“There are still some jobs it’s harder for women to get,” my daughter said. “Like being a scientist.”
“I’m sorry you had to find that out,” I said.”I hope that when you grow up you can have any job you want, and that no one will ever say you can’t do something because you’re a woman.”
I have no idea if I said the right things. One of the problems with parenting is thinking on your feet. Sometimes, and this is one of them, you wish you could hit the pause button and come up with something really good to say before you have to respond. But that’s not how it works. Sometimes, this time, you have to respond on the fly and hope for the best.
In this exchange with my daughter, I think I’ve captured the heart of why being a working mom is good for my kids. They see me having not only a job, but a job that I love. They see me at work every day. It’s not a mystery what I do or how I do it. I hope this helps them grow into confident young women capable of doing the same thing for themselves.
It’s not simply the fact that I work that I think is important for them. I was a stay-at-home mom for years, and I don’t regret a moment of it. But working at home like I do now is better for me, and by extension for them.I’ve sacrificed some other things that were good for them in exchange for the balancing act of having my career. They really do get less of my attention than I used to, and while that can be a good thing it can be challenging, too. I can’t be every good mother, or do every good thing a parent could ever do. I’ve given up some kinds of perfection in pursuit of others.
Here’s what I think I’m doing right: it’s good for them to see me living my dreams. It’s good for them to see me thriving in a career I love. It’s good for them to see me having boundaries, and prioritizing my own needs and desires along with theirs. I hope they’ll learn from my example, and fiercely claim the lives that they want as adults, whatever shape those lives take.
Photo: Sierra Black