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.

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