The other day I was talking to my mom and she mentioned that one of my cousins who had a baby six months ago has returned to work full time. To that, she added, "You're not the bad guy anymore!"
"Huh? What do you mean I'm not the bad guy anymore?"
"You're not the only working mom in the family now."
When I went to work after graduating from law school and having a baby, I just assumed working was expected of me. Ever since I can remember, my entire family has encouraged all of us to obtain the best education possible. Education became not just the top priority, it was the ONLY priority. My parents. My grandparents. My teachers. My adult role models. The same chant rang through my ear, "All that matters is getting a good education."
Well. I did. I did what everyone freaking told me. I tossed away my application to that film school in Montana (which was pretty much my dream and, in addition to my fondness for hot men in kilts, explains why I saw Gladiator seven times in the movie theater) and sent in applications to the highest ranking liberal arts schools that I thought I could get into.
And then guess what? I did pretty well. And I loved it. And I wasn't ready to be done when I graduated in three years. I spent a year interning for a local government agency and then I applied to law school. My parents LOVED to tell their friends that their daughter was in law school. I didn't know if I was on the right track, but I loved to be the source of their smiles.
"Cool," I thought. "I must be doing something right."
But then something strange happened. I had a baby in my last year of law school. Then I graduated. Then I got a job. Full time. As an attorney. "Hey proud family! You must be REALLY proud now!"
What? Didn't you hear me? I'm finally USING that education you guys wanted me to get so badly. I'm finally working in the field that you all were so proud of me to study in. Isn't that fantastic?!
One thing I didn't count on was a weird sort of mutated double standard. According to what my world was telling me, it seemed, women should be educated and smart. But how dare they want to use their education in a work environment once they became moms. Initially, most of the pressure I felt was from my own stay-at-home mom. She kept insisting that I didn't have to work. That I could find a way to stay home with my baby. Even though she was gracious enough to watch my baby while I was at work, she would very adamantly insist in overly-judgy gazes that my baby needed ME not her. When I would pick my son up from her house she would say, "I can't replace you. You're his mommy."
I can't tell you how many tears I cried over the immense guilt I felt that first year. It was nearly unbearable at times. The criticisms around me compounded with the own insecurities I felt. I loved being an attorney. But was I sacrificing my child's needs for my own career?
When my son was 3, I tried to wean him from his binky. But every time I tried, my mom would sabotage me. "He needs his binky. It's his security. Because you're not there." Ouch. It was a struggle. Those first couple years. There are a handful of very vivid memories I have of me staying late after work, trying to catch up on my billable hours, sitting in front of my computer, gazing at the picture of my baby, and letting fat, wet, warm tears spring from my eyes. I cried silently. Alone. In my office. Wondering if I wasn't making the biggest mistake of my life.
Then one day, I overheard my grandma and my mom talking. My grandma (also a stay-at-home mom) was giving my mom an earful about how horrible it was that I would leave my baby to work all day. How horrible it was that my mom was raising my son.
Listening to my grandma talk, I couldn't help but succumb to the wave of self-pity that washed over me. But at the same time, I started to understand a little bit of what my own mom was up against. When she was criticizing my choice to go to work, she was projecting a little bit of the harsh judgment of the world in which she, herself, was raised. She was reflecting on all the broken homes that my childhood friends grew up in, a cause of which she always attributed to the fact that there was not a parent at home. She was projecting the voice and concerns of her own mother (my grandmother). This was new territory for her. This was a world she did not understand.
As my mom was about to respond to my grandma's harsh criticism, I expected another heavy blow. But when she opened her mouth to the telephone, I didn't hear what I expected. She told my grandma how proud she was of me. How well I'm doing juggling everything. How much I love my baby. How hard I am working for my family. How well my husband and I work together. The breath that had been squeezed out of my body just moments before, returned and filled my lungs once again. I felt hopeful.
At first, my mom was my harshest critic. But over time, she became my biggest fan. Even though I lived a life very different from hers and was trying to survive in a world that she could not even imagine, she learned to support me. This year on my birthday, she stuck a handwritten letter in the diaper bag. I found it after I pulled up to the house and parked the car. I sat there and poured over every single word. It was so uplifting. As I read each sentiment, I felt, for the first time that she finally understood. She finally appreciated. It was incredible how accurately she described my personal challenges and worries and addressed them head on with encouragement and support.
The other day when my mom said, "You're not the bad guy anymore." My family's long-lasting criticism made sense. I've been fighting a lonely uphill battle. Until then I didn't realize that, out of a very large family with 50+ cousins on both sides, the majority of whom are married, that I was the ONLY full-time working mom. Up until this summer, when my cousin returned to work after having her baby girl, I was it. Taking the criticism on my own. (Some of my aunts were working moms but I don't remember my grandparents ever criticizing them- I haven't figured that one out yet).
All this time I was the only one trying to change my family's very traditional definition of the term "mom." I wish I had worried less about what they thought and focused more on being happy with my own decisions. It's easy to feel unsure about your mothering choices, to let the feelings of the outside world chip away at you, when you yourself won't come to peace with your own insecurities. Ultimately, for me, finding a job that was a good fit for my family and having my mom on my side was the key to feeling secure about my choices.
While I've slowly come to terms with my own insecurities and developed a small little support team (my mom and my husband), my jobs have played a very critical factor in how I feel about my choice to be a working mom. And yes, it is cliche, but everything really does come down to balance.
My first job offered a great career but was bad for family. The second job was great for family but boring and a waste of my lawyer skills. The third job was a part time (30 hours) version of my first job. That still didn't work. The private law firm atmosphere plus my commute was just not family friendly, even for part time (omg, the stress! the billable hours, the commute!). My new job, and where I hope to stay for quite some time, combines the best of all my prior jobs- interesting and challenging work, without the crazy private law firm environment. My commute is amazingly short and I have just the right amount of family time. For the first time since I have embarked on my law career, there is not the faintest hint of mommy guilt associated with working.
On top of all that, I feel like my own kids are showing me that having a working mom is not a black mark. It turns out that having a working mom is just one of a series of possible positive and healthy experiences. The way Jacob gregariously approaches new people in an effort to turn every stranger into a friend, the way he bravely tries new things, and showers us all with hugs, smiles, and his laughter; the way Ryan is a brave and tough little bulldozer who is selective about his "friends" but showers those select lucky souls with boundless cuddles and loves, the way Ryan wants to sit at the big boy table like his brother, carry the grocery basket at the store, and bravely climbs the big toys to frightening (for his mama) heights. My boys are like any other boys. They are smart, adjusted, secure, loved and loving. They, above all else, are proof that this whole thing is working. And they are the best reward after a long hard day at the office.