Ever since Sheryl Sandberg advised we lean in two years ago, the conversation around working moms, equal pay, work-life balance, and “mom guilt” has reached a crescendo. In a recent MSNBC interview, senior editor at The New Republic and new mom Rebecca Traister, spoke about the Hillary Clinton email scandal. But what raised some eyebrows was not any revelations about Internet security. Instead, what many focused on was that Traister held her sleeping baby on her chest throughout the conversation.
“[H]ere was Traister, in front of tens of thousands of viewers,” wrote Randye Hoder in an opinion piece for Fortune.com, “demonstrating that you don’t have to hide the balancing act — that it is quite possible to have a baby and a brain at the same time.”
“A baby and a brain at the same time” is a sentiment that makes me want to jump for joy and weep rivers of sadness all at once. Hoder’s truth shouldn’t have been an epiphany, and yet it’s a concept that is just now becoming more widely accepted, even if it’s, unfortunately, seven years too late for me.
When I was pregnant with my older daughter, who is now 6, instead of enjoying nine months of peace before being admitted to the parenting amusement park (Tower of Terror included), I fretted about what I was going to do after she was born. I didn’t want to stop working (nor could I have afforded to), but I also didn’t want to put her in daycare. I worked out a deal with my employer to allow for this. Instead of taking three months paid leave and coming back part-time at half my salary for three more months (which was the company’s maternity leave policy that I actually got to write), I took six weeks off, then came back to work part-time at full pay with baby in tow.
As many new moms find, infants do lots and lots of sleeping. Mine wasn’t very different. She occasionally needed a diaper change or to be fed. Sometimes she fussed. But mostly she cooed or was quiet while I held her to my chest and worked, or she slept in her stroller. When I wasn’t in the office, I was working at home, even though that wasn’t part of my deal. I even got a BlackBerry to remain as available as possible at all times. I did everything I could to become exponentially more productive with even more responsibility and I probably accomplished three or four times more than I had pre-baby.
Yet, my co-workers couldn’t stand it.
One had kids in high school and one had a young child, but his wife pretty much did all of the rearing. The others were all single and childless. They not only didn’t get it, but what they thought they got in their narrow minds was that they were getting less than I was. They resented that I had a special deal, even though it was neither taking away anything from them nor putting any additional work on their plates. They projected an attitude on me that simply wasn’t there. Becoming a mom who worked meant I had a big target on my chest, and while she had a name, she barely ever uttered a sound.
Shortly after my daughter’s first birthday, the tension and acrimony were so palpable and untenable that I had to leave. Now I see that it ended up being the best thing ever. I ended up making a real life for myself, one that I often dreamed of while assuming it would never be possible: I work from home doing what I love (alongside not a single nasty co-worker, unless you count my younger daughter when she’s told it’s time to take a shower), and my children are not left in anyone else’s care when school is not in session.
But man, the time leading up to my departure and immediately after was tough. I questioned my own choices, commitment, and sanity. Was I actually being selfish without realizing it? Did I feel entitled to more just by virtue of being a mom? Was I, in fact, contributing my fair share or were others left picking up my slack?
By attempting to be a full-time mom and full-time employee, I was made to feel as if I had lassoed the sun, hoarded all of its Vitamin D, and emitted nothing but the harmful UVA and UVB rays. Now, of course, with the benefit of hindsight, it’s painfully obvious to me that so many workers without baggage could never account for eight full hours of work each day. Ask most people with jobs if they don’t take coffee breaks, troll their social media accounts, watch TV and movie clips online, send personal emails, text their friends and loved ones, and chitchat idly during daylight hours.
I didn’t do any of that when I was working the first year after my daughter was born. Yes, I burped a baby on occasion and rocked her as she napped, but I didn’t take lunch breaks or even the time off to which I was entitled. While I had the advantage of being home more often, my baby was mostly stuck in a playpen or booster seat next to my desk while I plugged away so no one would think I was just lollygagging at coffee shops or parks. But the scarlet letter I was branded with — my daughter — made it abundantly clear that despite my high level of integrity and dedication, my goals and values were highly suspect because I had another human being to keep alive.
Power to Fly‘s Katharine Zaleski gave a public mea culpa earlier this month on Fortune.com about how badly she mistreated her co-workers who were also moms before becoming a parent herself. To many people, though, including me, the apology was weak. After all, she never acknowledged or explained how she made it that far in life without developing the ability to empathize and act decently towards others. It shouldn’t take age and birthing a baby to be an honorable person, after all.
I know that becoming a mom motivated me to be more efficient and better at many things (not to mention more tolerant). However, balancing acts are usually just that — an act — as nothing is ever really even and something usually suffers — although the end result is hopefully a happy and good one. People like Traister, who not only bring their babies to work but kick ass and take names while doing it, are trailblazers. While it doesn’t really directly benefit me anymore, on behalf of other women like the me of seven years ago who want to at least try and have it all and are confident they can, they ultimately need the buy-in of others to make it happen.
Having it all is possible, it just doesn’t always look and smell so pretty in the process. Although who’s to say (besides memes and cheesy greeting cards) that the journey needs to matter as much as the destination? Having a career and family doesn’t necessarily look these days the way it it did two, five, or ten years ago, but that doesn’t make it wrong, either. Everyone can suffer while a working parent attempts to have it all, or they could open their minds and focus on results instead of fixating on the process.