A few years ago when a new colleague started in my division, I was trying to be friendly, trying to make small talk. He was around my age and I thought we might have some things in common, so I asked him what his wife did. “Her job is to take care of my kids,” he told me. He was jovial enough about it, not in any way condescending his wife’s role of stay at home mom, but implying instead a hint of, “and who’s going to take care of your kids?”
It should come as no surprise that this colleague of mine has seen a lot more professional success than I have since I went out on maternity leave last year. It’s something we all experience as mothers going back to work after having a child, the sudden understanding that your job is not your life, and the urgent requirement that you find a new balance while still keeping up with a job that continues to require so much. Some days I feel the challenge of juggling so many competing priorities makes me a better mom and a better manager (I’ve never been so productive in my life! Who knew the human body could function so effectively with so little sleep!). On other days, of course, this competition between work and family just makes me feel like a failure at both (multitasking is so often just a euphemism for across the board mediocrity).
It’s easy to boil this conversation down to the dichotomy of work versus family, but the reality of the situation is so much bigger – I see it framed more accurately as modern beliefs versus biological truths: My modern beliefs tell me that I can have all of the freedom I want (so long as it falls within the gains won through the women’s movement, I suppose), I can believe with every little fiber of my overdeveloped female brain that I am beyond equal and worthy of all the same opportunities open to men, but that does not mean that I can outsmart my own worst enemy, also known as the biological imperative to reproduce. I may be smart, but I’m no match for evolution.
I’ve heard rumors of women who seem to have got it beat, who seem to have suppressed the mother gene to the point of 1) choosing not to have children and to live long, fulfilled, wrinkle free lives in pursuit of other dreams, or 2) choosing to have children without batting an eyelash when it comes to choosing career over kiddy. In my experience, though, I’ve met only one of these mythical creatures – a power suit powerhouse of a woman, like a character plucked straight out of a 1980s career woman identity crisis movie (like this one, or this one), only the identity crisis never hit. At the time I met her, she had two young children, chose to take abridged maternity leaves following both births, and was more than happy to let her husband handle the lion’s share of child rearing. And even though this was years before my own path to motherhood had begun, I understood that what she had achieved was more than rare – she was, for all intents and purposes, a freak of nature! What about the mother-child bond, what about a mother’s instinct to protect her spawn? What about that desire that’s beaten into all of us women from the time of birth that we are destined to be mothers just as our mothers were mothers? I can complain all I want about the gendered house play they’ve now started up at my daughter’s day care, but even I catch myself on this last one sometimes, what with all of my tender whispering to my little Koukla about how someday she will have her own daughter, and only then she will understand how deeply I love her.
Another, newer, colleague and I were talking one day about our career paths. She is a working mother who feels like she may stall out on the job ladder because she’s just not willing to spend any less time with her daughters than she already does. She asked me if I would feel as comfortable and knowledgeable in my job as I do now if I had already had children when I started – absolutely not, was my answer. Had I been working then the schedule I work now, I never would have learned what I needed to learn and fix what I needed to fix. I worked ten hour days Monday through Friday, I brought work home with me when I did not go in on Saturdays. I know the time involved in trying to make your mark in a new job, and it makes me think twice about whether I would really want that promotion or that other job I’m interviewing for (interviews in which, I have been instructed by multiple people, I should by no means mention I have a child).
Men, on the other hand, do not experience this. Their biological imperative is quite different from ours; rather than birthing and raising, men are driven to plant their seed and get back to work – there is hunting to be done, and there is not much to hunt for in the family tent. The modern equivalent of hunting and gathering happens in the workplace; man’s imperative is simply to bring home enough bacon for the whole family, so much so that having children can actually be good for their careers. Put a few pictures on the wall, make conversation about how his little girl is a shortstop in fastpitch little league and he will certainly get further ahead than the single guy with nothing but an autographed baseball on his desk that he bought off of eBay. Even I, in all my feminist motherhood glory, respond more favorably to married men in interviews, even more favorably at times than I do to the new mother who I know, like me, will likely be less committed to the job than she should be.
To at least not lose the ground I gained in my career before having a child, I’ve found a secret weapon: baby videos. The boss is less likely to look down on leaving a few minutes early after seeing a video of the koukla taking her first steps. Stressful meetings are made more fun by videos of Koukla laughing (nothing relieves stress like giggling babies). The staff look more kindly toward me when Koukla comes to visit and they see my softer side. It’s cute when dads bring their kids around the office, but it’s no competition for a mom bringing the baby they all saw growing in her belly for nine and a half months.
Even so, I know that the baby will not be so interesting to a new employer if I ever decided I wanted to move, and that at a certain point, the work simply will need to get done, either by me or by someone more willing.
I want to believe that we’ve progressed further along our evolutionary timeline than what’s currently on display at the natural history museum. How does a woman get around this?
I know from friends and from the comments I have received on this blog that I am not unique in my struggle (and sometimes success) to find balance. I want to hear that there are more successes than we sometimes believe. I want to hear stories of the men who have become experts at wiping poo and folding tiny little pieces of laundry, or of the women who work late so they can secure their next promotions without crying in the car on the way home. What about that couple you used to know who moved off into the woods so they could raise their children together in a new egalitarian, pastoral utopia? Or the attorney who somehow seems to juggle all of it without ever getting even a hair out of place?
PLEASE! Inspire me! You can comment here, or send me your story at MomAtWork.ASpanos@gmail.com.