Exhausted at the end of a day spent chasing my two-year-old son around the park and nursing my three-month-old baby every two hours, I collapsed into bed. Just as I was drifting off, I heard the sound of dishes being shifted on the table. My eyes shot open and my head jerked up. “Honey, I’ll do it,” I called out to my husband, home from his thirteen-hour work day.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ll just stick ’em in the dishwasher and crawl into bed with you.”
I should have felt grateful, but what I felt was guilt bordering on panic: I should be doing those dishes. That sinking feeling has become a common one in my new life as a doctor turned stay-at-home mother on what the New York Times and several recent books dismissively refer to as the “mommy track.”
Several months ago, I was working full time – actually, more than full time. I had an eighteen-month-old son and was slowly rising in the ranks of doctor-hood. I worked sixty-hour weeks, often evenings and weekends. I wasn’t happy. In fact, I was miserable. I felt extremely guilty for not being home more with my son (even though he seemed happy spending his days swinging in the park with a very loving nanny). I was stressed – constantly struggling to keep my home life afloat. But I was on a secure path to a high-flying career and had figured out ways to keep my life organized: order groceries on Tuesday to be delivered on Friday morning, work on my research project at night after everyone else had gone to sleep.
Nine months into my first year of fellowship, I was embarrassed to be wasting an undergraduate degree from M.I.T. in chemical engineering and a medical degree from Cornell. I unexpectedly got pregnant again. Instead of being overjoyed, I felt overwhelmed. With the pregnancy test in hand, I turned to my husband, tears blurring my vision, and asked how I could keep doing what I was doing with another baby at home.
He wrapped his arms around me, and said, “You don’t have to.”
On that cloudy April evening, I decided to quit my job. There wasn’t even a debate over who should stay home. My husband made more money than me in his finance job, loved going to work and never felt guilty leaving our son.
I wasn’t completely comfortable quitting my job, so I told people that I was “taking a break.” In fact, I was embarrassed to be wasting an undergraduate degree from M.I.T. in chemical engineering and a medical degree from Cornell. Before my son was born, I read the “Opt-Out Revolution” in the New York Times and saw a Sixty Minutes segment about highly educated and successful women who gave up their work to be home with their kids. At the time, I vowed never to sacrifice my career.
Five years later, I found myself doing exactly that. The first few weeks at home were a series of adjustments. I went to the playground and tried to become friends with other stay-at-home moms. I beamed as my son played his mini guitar better than all the other kids in his music class. I loved that I once again had time to read novels.
But I was also very, very bored. I would spend hours each morning trying to get my son to sit on the potty. I would answer his endless “why?” questions. By the end of the day, I was dying to talk to anyone who could complete a sentence.
To fight the boredom, I began to apply my Type-A personality to motherhood. If I was going to be at home full time, I figured, I would be the best damn stay-at-home-mom ever. I started watching the Barefoot Contessa daily on the Food Network and bought Martha Stewart’s home-keeping bible. I made daily trips to buy antibiotic-free, locally raised, free-range chicken. I created a spreadsheet to compare all the Upper East Side nursery schools.
And while I’m not quite as compulsive these days, I continue to feel, every day, the weight of the brainpower I’m not using. Whenever I talk to former colleagues, I wonder if I can still read an EKG or diagnose pneumonia. I look forward to trips to the pediatrician because it gives me a chance to discuss the latest research on autism and vaccinations.
Books like Leslie Bennetts’s recent The Feminine Mistake, which criticizes women for staying home, fuel the flames of the so-called “Mommy Wars,” but I don’t see any battle between stay-at-home moms and working moms. All I see is a war we’re all fighting with ourselves. Before I had kids, I was great at my job. After having kids, I felt mediocre at everything: doctor, mother and wife. I wasn’t willing to be middle-of-the-road, so I made choices.
Judith Warner, in her book Perfect Madness, says that “‘choice’ is the fetish word of our generation.” We are the generation that took pride in the fact that we could break the glass ceiling or devote our lives to our children; society would accept anything.
But it won’t. It’s very difficult to work overnights when you’re breastfeeding. There’s always pressure to work more. So we have to give up something. And if you’re an educated woman, that usually means neglecting your kids or your career, and feeling guilty either way.
I have no doubt that I made the right decision to leave my job. But I miss being a doctor. My new plan is to go back to work when my sons are in preschool, but not on the ambitious track I was on before. With luck, I can find a more reasonably paced job. I expect that will mean retiring the fancy cookbooks, missing some of my son’s music classes and not always washing the dishes, but this level of compromise I can handle. And that’s what I think about in those moments when I think I can’t face another sandbox, another diaper: one day, I’ll be part of the working world, and still able tuck the kids in at night.