Wednesday, October 12, 2011

One year ago - a crossroads

For several years I worked as a lawyer, and had two little girls along the way. Each time, I took several months' maternity leave, but felt compelled to throw myself back into the fray sooner rather than later. The story I told my older child (once she was old enough to start asking, regularly and in plaintive tones, why Mommy had to go to work) was that Mommy and Daddy had to work to earn money to buy all the things we needed to live our life -- food, clothes, her toys...  This, of course, was only part of the story. The truth was that I was ambitious, and competitive, and hungry for challenge, and I wanted to stay in an environment that fulfilled all these needs in me.

After having my second child, somehow it got harder to muster up the same level of ambition and drive that had come so easily to me before. I felt more guilty and sad than before about leaving my kids with a nanny. I felt more irritated than before at various tough and frustrating aspects of my job. I started to realize that a second income was probably no longer essential to our family's short-term financial security.

It was at this point, a bit over a year ago, that our family relocated overseas for my husband's work. I found myself unemployed, and at a crossroads. I realized, with sudden clarity, that I was completely free to choose whether or not to find another job outside the home, or whether to stay at home full time.

You’d think that any mother, feeling dispirited about paid work and suddenly given the choice to look after her two small children herself,would jump at the chance. No more reliance on daycare or nannies. Endless quality time with her babies, where previously that time had been scarce and longed-for.

To be honest, though, I found myself torn, and unable to decide what to do.

By this time, I had invested so much time and energy into my career — I had studied for years and worked my ass off as a junior associate; I had given up countless evenings and nights and weekends and holidays to my job. It was as though all these years I had been diligently putting pennies into a big piggy bank, and now, just as the piggy was starting to get satisfyingly heavy and full, I was contemplating heaving it into a deep gorge, never to be retrieved.

There were times that my work had, admittedly, been just plain hard and frustrating, and times when the work-life balance issues had seemed insurmountable. However, at other times the work had been challenging and intellectually stimulating, and moments of success had been exhilarating. Fundamentally, I had loved being an attorney. I had even become reasonably proficient at it over the years, and had regularly received confidence-building positive reinforcement from my colleagues and clients.

The thought of taking myself out of the game at this point was hard to swallow, to say the least.
For the first few months after our relocation, by default I was the one at home with the kids. We went to the park together every day, and played and played and played. I prepared all their meals myself. I washed and ironed all their clothes. I bathed them and got to put them to bed myself every night.

It wasn't very long before I found myself thinking wistfully of my office at work - of sitting in complete silence, alone with my thoughts. Without my children.

My office had hardly been a haven of peace and harmony - in fact, almost every day had brought multiple high-stress situations to be dealt with - but it had nevertheless been completely free of situations like: preparing dinner with one hand and holding/trying to calm a screaming infant with the other hand, while being shadowed around the kitchen by a preschooler with a runny nose asking an endless, whining stream of questions and pushing story books under my nose. I discovered that, for stay-at-home moms with small children, each day is full of moments like these, which stretch your multi-tasking skills to their limits, and try your patience to its very ends. I soon learned why so many stay-at-home-moms confessed to drinking quite a lot of wine after their kids were in bed.

And another thing - I’d never before felt so inadequate and incompetent at anything as I felt at being a full-time parent. I rarely felt that I’d managed to do something perfectly; I judged myself constantly and felt that I should be able to do better. Small children have a way of moving the goalposts just as you’re kicking the ball, but I felt as though I was the parent and therefore should still be able to predict which way the ball should be aimed. And every time I shouted at my kids for bad behavior, I felt so low -- because I was unable to control my temper, but also because I felt that their bad behavior was surely a direct reflection of sub-par parenting skills -- mine. I wondered if my children would be better off being cared for by someone else -- someone with more skill, more patience, and, quite simply, with more of all those admirable qualities that would help to turn my children into happy, grounded, well-behaved, balanced individuals. I started to think - am I selfish and deluded to think that having Mommy around is the be-all and end-all? Is Mommy-Trying-Her-Best in fact not even close to what they need?

However, spending time with my girls did also bring amazing, priceless moments (on a good day, multiple times), and each time I experienced one of those moments I would think, how on earth could I possible give this up? How could I go back to a life where for most of every day someone else gets to live these moments, not me? Those moments when my toddler climbs into my lap and kisses me fervently, and snuggles up for a long hug. Those times when I'm reading a story with my 4-year-old nestled beside me, and out of the blue she makes an innocent, highly incisive observation that startles me and fills me with loving pride and admiration. Those afternoons when I'm baking cookies with my kids, and their faces are lit up with happiness and total absorption in the task. Those moments when my older child whisks the younger one off to their shared bedroom and dresses them both up in unintendedly hilarious outfits, and they joyfully run out and start dancing around the living room, the 4-year-old confident in her skill as a prima ballerina, the toddler with all the grace of a hip-hopping baby elephant, both of them eagerly demanding applause and praise.

In small, perfect moments like those, I frequently felt their need for their mommy. I never failed to feel my own need for them.

Attorney vs Mother. At this crossroads in my life, I felt as though in choosing one life, I would have to give up the other, and I didn't want to give up either. Making myself available to my kids would make me unavailable to my clients and unavailable to satisfy any burning ambition inside of me, but making myself unavailable to my kids for large parts of the day would surely break my heart.

Put that way, the choice seemed like a total no-brainer. And yet, the decision still felt fraught, anything but easy. I sensed, perhaps accurately, that in choosing the door that in my heart of hearts I felt compelled to choose, I would be allowing the other one to slam shut, perhaps forever.

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