The mother of all life challenges
A brief memoir on becoming a career parent (and a precursor to Babies@Work, A career girl’s guide to surviving pregnancy and parenting ☺)
“Prepare for it like it’s war.” These were the words of advice conveyed by my husband’s colleague, just days before I went into labor.
The whole thing scared the living bageezus out of me. I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to have kids in the first place and struggled to take care of myself. Heck, we’d had nothing in our fridge for years other than beer, mustard, microwave popcorn, and frozen pot stickers. We rendezvoused at restaurants or bars at 8:45 after work, racing to get there just before they stopped serving food. We both traveled at the last minute to random cities and were like ships passing in the night for weeks on end. Besides all of that, how were we going to take care of another living being after failing to keep multiple plants alive? My mom called our house the plant cemetery— “They come here to die!” she said. We’d also failed as pet owners, returning an adopted dog from the shelter a mere 30 days after bringing it home and being unable to control it from biting multiple people, including our neighbor’s kids and several UPS guys. There was not a single shred of evidence that we could or should be allowed to have a child.
Meanwhile, the whole childcare thing was like a giant corn maze. I had no idea how to get into the whole process and felt completely lost and overwhelmed once I started. Was I better off going with an outside daycare or hiring a nanny? What would it feel like to have someone in my house all the time? What did I have to pay them? Did it need to be cash and under the table or above board with paying taxes? Did I have to cover health insurance? Was all the crazy expense and stress worth it? Most of my peers, women I’d known from college and graduate school and work, had decided it wasn’t and opted out. Why did I think I could be any different, particularly when my life skills and that of my husband had always been characterized as let’s say “bad.” His nickname was “Rain Man” because he seemed so clueless to everyone in law school but still managed to graduate at the top of his class. I’m infamous among family and friends for being completely disorganized and losing everything.
What would it mean to be a working mom? How would it all work?! Was leaving your child for the office selfish and tantamount to abuse or was it going to be good for the baby to learn to live without me? Was I going to be exhausted and evolve into a horrible employee? Would the things that made me care about work, that enabled me to get out of bed and stay energized by it, suddenly feel stupid and trivial and burdensome and boring and distracting? Would I care about work more than my baby and want to be with colleagues more than I wanted to be with him or her?
Beyond all of this neurosis, I’d just completed five years of the fertility gauntlet. Desperate meet-ups with my husband trying to make something happen, one negative pregnancy test after another, dozens of diagnostic tests trying to uncover the problem, all sorts of crazy drugs that torqued my system into the land of no perspective, hundreds of very uncomfortable and scary procedures that revealed way more about my body than I ever wanted to know, two terrifying miscarriages and everything physical, emotional, and social that goes with it, all sorts of things going in sterile cups, turkey basters, scopes, biopsies, surgeries, spinal taps, self-injections multiple times a day for months on end, intramuscular injections in airport “family” bathrooms on business trips, too few suboptimal embryos, false positives on Downs Syndrome, and now a seemingly healthy, full-term pregnancy and super porky me…it had all lead to this moment of truth.
Now that we’d made it through all that, could I/we hack it? We’d been married for 12 years, known each other for 15, and were great friends and partners, but could we do this? Could we be parents and professionals? How would it all go down?
Sometimes in life, things build and build and build until you think they’re going to blow and then suddenly, something happens that makes it all make sense. Something transpires where all of the stress and craziness of that stuff just melts away and becomes like a badge of honor. Sometimes, it’s like you suddenly go through some sort of portal and everything looks and feels different.
That’s exactly what it felt like the first time I got to hold my first son.
All the angst I’d had about being a mom and worrying that I couldn’t do it, that I wouldn’t want this thing once it was here, all evaporated. I felt like I’d always known him. During the first seconds of staring at him, my husband and I looked at each other and said we couldn’t remember what life was like before he was there. The whole thing was the most spectacular feeling of contentment and pride and clarity and hope that I’ve ever known. Suddenly, everything made perfect sense.
I’d hired a nanny a couple of months before my due date (which I hit on the nose with a spectacular water break), so I was glad to have that behind me. Particularly once my son was there, since my feelings of love and protection for him were beyond what I could have imagined, I was glad to have made the decision when I was more logical and rational. She started helping out periodically while I was still home and while I liked her and was glad to have someone that knew more about babies than I did around as backup, I couldn’t imagine leaving this thing that I loved so darn much with someone else. No one could do as good of a job taking care of him as I could or would. Plus, how could I choose to leave him for something as inane and soulless as work? Nothing could be more important than the time I would spend with him—both for him and me.
I really didn’t think I could do it, but I forced myself. Beyond all things, I am a stubborn, rebellious bitch and I don’t like to be wrong. I relish defying what other people think of me and what I will or can do. I was fueled by the fear of becoming a cliché story of the woman who goes on maternity leave and says she’s coming back and then doesn’t. I heard rumors that my boss was already looking for my replacement, that there were bets in the office among the guys that I wouldn’t want to return once I was a mom. I was further pushed (in a good way) by my husband who was encouraging but firm in his coaching that I should stay in the game, take things one day a time, and avoid getting overwhelmed or making rash decisions. He always says and does exactly the right things, damn it. ☺ Quiet and caring but strong and independent, he always pushed me to have a life of my own and create my own value apart from him, knowing it would be better for me, for him, and for us, particularly over the longer haul. He could see the whole picture, how the movie was going to play out, far better than I could at that point. He wasn’t clouded by maternal haze and the post-partum emotional roller coaster.
My husband and I kept wondering what his colleague meant by the “prepare for it like it’s war” comment because the whole parenting thing seemed like a piece of cake. Our first son was perfect—he cried only when it made sense, he was engaging, he hit every developmental milestone weeks or months before it was scheduled. I said to my husband as I high-fived him, “We were so darn good at this! Why are people so whiny about parenting?!”
Well, pride indeed go-eth before the fall and we were quickly reminded that it wasn’t so much about our skills but that anything can happen with babies. They come out one way or another or yet another and you just have to make the best of it, molding and protecting them as much as you can within their parameters and yours. The minute our second son emerged in the delivery room, I knew immediately that something wasn’t right. He came out screaming like he was on fire. He was all red and yellow at the same time and angry and distant and all out of sorts. He just looked off in a bunch of ways.
As my dad would say, “he looked like he backed into a hose!” One eye wouldn’t open. He was jaundiced. Something was wrong with his belly button. He failed his hearing and many other tests they gave him right after birth. He looked and acted absolutely miserable. There was nothing obviously fatal but the combination of all sorts of mishaps paired with a completely inconsolable infant who did not want to be in this world made for overwhelming stress. In a moment of desperate, dark humor, my husband said, “he’s like Buddy Dog but we can’t take him out back.” I felt like I was trying to bond with the Tasmanian Devil. I told the night nurse at the hospital, “Someone needs to put him back in or take him away!” In her beautiful Irish accent, she calmly said, “Oh dear, they’re all different. You’ll find your way with this one.”
Fast-forward to the pre-teen years and this kid has turned out to be one of the most extraordinary people I’ve ever known. He’s beautifully handsome, superhumanly strong and fast, wicked smart, profoundly kind, deeply thoughtful, and has empathy for others beyond measure. Ironically, he has a pitch-perfect, gorgeous voice, which I find funny because his screaming (which went on for hours and hours, then days and days, then years and years) was so blood-curdling and disconcerting to anyone that heard it. It ripped through every last nerve in your mind and body and made you want to run away and/or hurt someone. My amazing mom who raised five kids, parented many others, and is now a grandmother to thirteen, had never experienced anything like it. Nurses at the children’s hospital ICU who deal with crying day and night, night and day, had never heard or seen anything like it. At least I knew I wasn’t entirely crazy, but now what did I/we do?
We wanted to love him and knew we had to as his parents, but it’s hard to care about something that gives you nothing back while draining every last piece of you when you have absolutely nothing left in the physical and emotional gas tank. The challenges with him went on and on for years. Three weeks in the hospital for meningitis at three weeks old followed by major developmental delays, years of early intervention, physical therapy, occupational therapy, special diets, and more.
The endless screaming seemingly brought on by nothing that could be stopped by absolutely nothing was the most terrifying and maddening part of this little guy. We’ve all heard babies scream on planes, but how many of us have actually confronted the poor parents angrily saying, “You have to make that thing stop! Why aren’t you making him stop?!” as if I had a choice in the sheer chaos and horror of what was going down. Unfortunately, that’s what happened multiple times, usually as I was dealing with projectile puke and other bodily fluids that resulted from a kid that became beside himself in every last way possible.
At home, I discovered emails sent from our nanny on my computer talking about how taking care of him was a living hell. It might seem unthinkable that I could keep her on after learning she was struggling to love our baby and didn’t want to be with him. Seeing her notes scared the crap out of me but the hard, cold fact was that I sympathized with her. She’d been with us for more than two years and had a flawless record of raising our first son. Like Mary Poppins come to life, she took our oldest son on one adventure after another, writing me hilarious tales that chronicled their escapades and the people they met so I could feel like I was there and part of all the fun that I was missing in the office. Now this “Mary Poppins” had devolved into a sort of disgruntled prison guard that locked our baby into a dark room by himself screaming for hours because there really wasn’t anything you could do to console him. She couldn’t. We couldn’t. No one could. Unless you were able to squeeze him like a boa constrictor against your chest and do super deep squats for at least 18 hours a day, you lost him and couldn’t get him back. There were times you just had to let him go, put him in a safe place, protect yourself, and stay sane.
“Prepare for it like it’s war.” I definitely started to understand what my husband’s colleague was trying to tell us.
All of these trials combined with all sorts of guilt about working vs. staying at home and just feeling like I was doing everything badly, failing at it all, were the way things were for several years. If it weren’t for my husband, yet again, I never, ever, no way, no how would have made it—professionally or more broadly. The more torqued I became, the more calm and rational thinking he was able to muster. His generosity and patience with the problem child and me (and everything else for that matter) were superhuman in every way. I have so much admiration for single parents because I couldn’t have done it by myself. The whole thing took every last bit of intestinal fortitude that I had; that we both had.
Meanwhile, to stay in the work game over the years, we had to continuously strategize our childcare, evolving it from having someone at the house, to nanny plus daycare, to nanny plus sitters plus school, to just sitter and school. Childcare is expensive and the logistics around all of it are just hard. Getting babies and kids ready to hand off to a third party, whether they’re coming to your home or you’re taking your kids somewhere else, is nothing short of warfare. As this all played out with two kids under two, having to sit on kids to get them dressed, running after toddlers who escape out the front door in a busy city block nude and running down the street, getting puked and pooped and peed on just after getting all dressed up for work in a suit and heels. The expense of childcare is effectively like getting a massive pay cut for years at the same time that you’re hit with all sorts of obstacles that make you less competitive and effective at your job.
Compounding all of these challenges is that the whole thing can be pretty darn lonely. Chances are, you’re going to be surrounded by other women who are opting to stay at home. Chances are you have to figure out how to manage all of this on your own without mentors who have done it or peers who can support you. Chances are you’re going to wonder what’s wrong with you—why are you trying to make all of this work? Chances are you’ll feel guilty and wonder if you’re going to look back and regret how you spent your time and the choices that took you away from a job at home. Chances are that if something turns out suboptimal with your kids, you’re going to blame yourself, even if your working wasn’t a material factor.
My point in passing all of this along is because despite how difficult it was—and I say was because the hard years are behind me now that my kids are in high school—every last bit of the blood, sweat, and tears was worth it. I’m so overwhelmingly grateful that I’ve been blessed with a family and a career. I’m blown away by how they complement each other and one keeps the other in perspective and vice versa. I feel lucky to have my own interests and relationships outside of my core family. I’ve been pushed and rewarded in ways that I otherwise wouldn’t have been and became stronger as a result. I’ve gotten to do and see so many amazing things through work. I’m grateful to have earning power that contributes meaningfully to my family and can take care of us if something happened to my husband. I’m so excited to be looking at my best career years ahead of me now that my kids are independent. To be on the other side of the most challenging baby days, with a fulfilling career and a family that completes me, has made it all worthwhile. The feeling of pride and confidence it fuels in me, the strength it’s given me inside and out, is the best gift of all. The impact on my sense of self, my happiness, is beyond words.
I realize many women don’t have a choice in any of it—either with staying home or working. They must do one or the other just because of all sorts of constraints and obstacles. I realize that while I had some challenges, they pale in comparison to the daunting situations many women and their families have to face and overcome. All that said, in the event that you have choices and you’re weighing the pros and cons of career and family, I want to let you know that you can indeed make babies and work…work.
Beyond wanting all of us working women to get the most out of what life gives us, another broader thing to consider is the opportunity we have as working women to overcome what I’ve been calling “the supply problem.” We now comprise more than 50% of undergraduates in the best academic institutions as well as the majority of people coming out of medical and law school, and yet only 11% of executive roles and Board seats are occupied by women. There’s a great deal of talk about the lack of women in these “power” positions, and most of the discussion implicitly or explicitly suggests it’s caused by a “demand problem”—i.e., the challenge is that we’re being shut out of the opportunity. While those obstacles might exist in some circumstances, I’m seeing organizations desperate to find female leaders for their executive leadership teams and Boards of Directors but struggling to find candidates. I’m also finding that being an experienced woman with a few decades under your belt is a competitive advantage over men with comparable experience. Moreover, it seems like we’ve evolved to the point of having a “supply” challenge instead of a demand problem emboldened by bias barriers.
So, what’s happening to all of the amazing women entering the best jobs in their 20s right out of school and the best positions in pay and power that exist for people in their 40s+? For the most part, it’s babies and family that get in the way and/or lead to a fork in the road that forever takes us down a different path. While that can be a great path and might be the only path for many women, I’m hoping that for more of us we might figure out how to turn the journey into more or a slight detour that can ultimately put us even ahead of the guys who took the linear path vs. veering off the trip altogether and losing the ability to ever see the amazing destination that might lie ahead for us. Toward that end—our goal of solving the “supply problem”—we’re working on a multi-part series about how to stay in the game once you’re trying to balance work and kids. For the second post in this series, check out Why Stay in the Game? For You, Them, & the Greater Good :).