Sunday, July 25, 2004

To Be or Not to Be (a Stay at Home Mom)

Do you ever feel like you're balanced on the cusp of two very different realities? Like your life could take off in two different directions from here, each of them plausible and exciting, but mutually exclusive?

I felt that way when I was pregnant. My career was going very well, it was exciting, and I felt that I could really throw myself into it and make a name for myself in my company. And yet . . .

A part of me always wanted to be a stay at home mom. My mom stayed home with my younger sisters and me until the youngest was in school. She was really good at it. She always had constructive, fun, creative things for us to do. And she took on mothering like any other career. She read books, she prepared in advance, she worked hard. I have always wanted to provide the same kind of wonderful, magical childhood for my own children.

Which way to go? Either way, there would be guilt. Guilt at putting my children in daycare while I worked at a job that wasn't really "important" (in as much as that I wasn't actually saving lives or anything like that) or guilt at staying home, not being a "good enough feminist," not using my college degree, etc.

There were also dreams. I dreamed (and still do) of being an author. I want to make a living writing fiction. I'm not asking to be Sara Paretsky (though I think she's amazing) but maybe Dorothy Cannell? To make enough money that we don't have to worry about money, enough that I can call myself a writer and mean "as a profession" rather than as a "hobby."

I was further confounded when I learned that Ellie was going to have some serious health problems. I coped with the news much the way I usually cope with big things: I threw myself into the moment, working really hard and not thinking too much about the future. My boss always wanted to be a stay at home mom and asked me unofficially what I thought I'd do. At this point I was still really torn and told her that I was sure I'd come back to work because it would be too hard and too depressing to be home alone all day with a seriously sick and disabled baby.

After Ellie was born, I had a hard time imagining her sleeping in another room, let alone leaving her for an entire work day or - God forbid! - a business trip. I was still thinking of going back to work, somehow, even though Ellie wouldn't take a bottle and I hadn't found a sitter for her. Then, a month before I was to return to work, I learned that Ellie was going to need open heart surgery the week that my family medical leave expired. I asked for more time off, unpaid. No dice.

So in effect, the decision was made for me. In some ways, it was a real relief not to be responsible for making such a huge decision. I love staying home with Ellie right now. I also miss work. And if my company had been more flexible - if I could have had 6 months or a year off unpaid, I believe that I would have returned to work and that the company would have been better off for it.

I'm almost certain that I would have returned to work if my company had offered:
- extended leave (up to a year, unpaid)
- on-site daycare
- reduced travel
- the opportunity for job-sharing or part-time employment

Alas, none of those options were available to me and I'm still a little bitter. I know that I am fortunate in that I don't have to work in order for us to keep food on the table, although we have had to tighten our belts (figuratively speaking only). I know that I am fortunate in that my not working was a choice that we were able to make as a family. But I feel that - in my situation - I didn't have much of a choice. I simply couldn't go back to work while Ellie was having or recovering from surgery. I simply couldn't leave her during her first and most vulnerable months. And that was the right decision for us.

Hopefully my career will resume, or take off in an exciting new direction, when I'm ready. When we're all ready, as a family.

What I wanted to be when I grew up

When I was about 9 years old, I decided that I wanted to be a doctor.  This conviction held for about 13 years, although my direction changed from wanting to be a psychiatrist (ala Barbra Streisand in Prince of Tides) to wanting to be a part-time pediatrician: working in a clinic in the mornings and being home with my children in the afternoons.  I held onto this dream until my senior year of college.

I also always liked the idea of being a writer.  When I was very young, rainy afternoons might find me making books with my mom's help.  She'd create a book out of construction paper.  I'd tell her the story and she'd right it town, and I'd choose illustrations from the Sears and J.C. Penny catalogs.

When I learned about Michael Critchon, I thought, "This is it!  I'll be a doctor and use my knowledge and experiences to write fiction!"

Above all of that, the part that was never hard to imagine or seemed unachievable: I wanted to be married and I wanted to have children.

The fall of my senior year of college, I was well into the medical school admissions process.  My university, which I chose in part because of its high percentage of graduates accepted into medical schools, showed how it ranked so highly.  The dean in charge of pre-medical studies held a meeting for all of us senior pre-meds.  There were probably 100 of us there.  This meeting was ostensibly to help guide us through the admissions process, but ended up feeling more like a way to weed out those of us who were less than fully dedicated.  She stressed what the lives of medical students and residents are like, and how it's not so much different for a primary care physician in a managed care system.  I hadn't been enjoying my science classes for some time, and I decided that maybe this wasn't for me, after all.  I still loved medicine (and I was a state-certified Emergency Medical Technician, though I never worked in that capacity beyond my training) but I found myself unable to commit to 7 more years of intense work and study before being able to see the light of day again, followed by a life of living on a pager, being awoken in the middle of the night.  That's not how I dreamed my life would be.

So I threw myself into having fun my senior year of college and didn't worry too much about what would happen afterwards (my parents must have been beside themselves, but I don't remember them saying anything about my lack of direction).  After graduation I worked as a lifeguard for a couple of months until I landed a "real" job.

The Internet was still pretty new at this time, but shortly before graduation I sat down at my P.C. and typed "medicine, publishing, st. louis" into a search engine.  I was an English major and figured that publishing was a logical career direction for me.  I still loved health sciences.  And I had a new boyfriend with whom I was very much in love, and figured that it would be nice to stick around St. Louis for a while to see how things went with him (he was still an undergraduate).  To my surprise, I learned that one of the largest health sciences publishers was right here in St. Louis.  I applied, and my career was launched.

I was an editorial assistant in Nursing Editorial for 9 months, then I was a developmental editor in Allied Health, or Health-Related Professions Editorial for 3 years.  Developmental editorial involves working with the authors on submission of a manuscript "acceptable in form and content" to the publisher.  The acquisitions editor - my boss - found the authors and signed the contracts, then passed the project along to me.  I worked with the author on getting the manuscript in on time, making sure that all the illustrations were accounted for and in the right places, etc.  I also handled having manuscripts reviewed by professionals in the appropriate fields.  When a manuscript is ready, developmental editors pass it along to Production, including copy editors.  I was getting really bored with processing manuscripts, which involved a lot of numbering pages, so I moved over to the Health Professions Marketing department as a marketing manager. 

I loved being a marketing manager.  It was not what I had dreamed of doing, but it was fun work and I was good at it.  Still, I always thought, "this is a great job . . . for now."