By the time I graduated from college, I knew that in my future I would “have it all” just like the feminists promised — a balanced life with a fulfilling career and a happy family.
I never pictured myself like my mother–ironing and folding clothes while watching soap operas or spending hours making homemade bread, canning fruit or sewing dresses cut from Butterick patterns.
My generation was different from my mother’s. We knew we could have more.
I went to college determined to become one of the liberated, smart and savvy women of the future. I worked as an intern in the U.S. Senate and became even more convinced of my modern woman destiny. I spent the next 12 years building a career in Washington, D.C.
Then I married and had a baby.
“Are you going to quit now and be a mom?” someone asked me.
My thoughts were something like, Sit around the house all day washing dishes, wondering whether Nikki and Victor on The Young and the Restless are going to stay together or get another divorce? Never. Successful career women don’t do that. They hire nannies and then go to work and do important things.
So after I had my first child, that’s what I did – hired a nanny, went to work, and did important things. I was a press secretary for a U.S. Senator.
One night in January of 1991, I came home late from work, turned on the news and watched the Gulf War unfold on national television. Reporters jammed my phone line.
“What is the senator’s reaction? Are you going to have a press conference? When can we get an interview? Do you have a statement?”
I immediately called the senator and started planning our response. Right then, my husband came into the room carrying our six-month-old baby girl, Sara, who had been with the nanny all day. Sara giggled with delight when she saw me and threw her chubby little arms around my neck.
Covering the phone, I said, “Take her away. This is important!”
I looked at my baby’s disappointed face, and my heart sank.
What am I doing? I thought. Not even a war is more important to me than my child.
Still, I had to go back to work. I left home, drove back to Capitol Hill, talking to one reporter after another on my clunky 1990-style cell phone the entire way. Even though war was the topic of conversation, in the back of my mind all I could think was that I sent the message to my daughter that my work was more important to me than her.
I spent the night answering phone calls, sending out news releases, and organizing a press conference. I arrived home to a dark house, climbed the stairs to Sara’s nursery and looked at her sleeping soundly in her crib holding on to her Raggedy Ann doll. I kissed her soft cheek, brushed back her bright blonde hair, and silently apologized for pushing her away.
Standing there looking at her in the late hours of the night, I knew I had to quit. My job was not compatible with my new priorities. I loved my job. I loved how it made me feel – competent, in control, and fulfilled.
It took a couple of years to wean myself from the job. I negotiated a four-day workweek, then a consulting arrangement, and then quit all together. I had long talks with several friends who questioned whether I was doing the right thing. Most of them were living the dream of “having it all.” They were excelling in their careers and successfully managing their families.
I wanted to be like those women, but I knew it wasn’t going to work for me.
I didn’t adjust easily to my new role as a stay-at-home mother. My ego definitely suffered. The first blow was when I met someone new and she said, “What do you do?” I told her I had just quit to stay home with my daughter. Without hesitation, she said, “Oh, then what does your husband do?”
That was the first time I’d been dismissed so summarily. Clearly my new life was not worth discussing. Somehow it was more interesting to talk about my husband’s life because mine had suddenly become so mundane, lackluster, and oh, so very 1960s.
It took time to find a new rhythm in my life that centered on more meaningful things than diapers, dishes, and dusting. I had another daughter, and then enrolled in graduate school to bulk up my answer when people asked, “What do you do?” It sounded better to say “Oh, I am getting my masters AND taking care of my kids.”
I did things I never imagined myself doing like creating elaborate scrapbooks, planning ridiculously excessive birthday parties, and holiday celebrations, going on countless field trips, and dancing with a group of fourth graders to the Macarena. But I also taught my girls to read, Rollerblade, ride bikes, and swim. Eventually, I was having so much fun that, believe it or not, my time as a stay-at-home mother started speeding by too quickly. My girls grew up in the proverbial blink of an eye.
Now Sara is a senior in college, and Annie, my younger daughter, will start college just days after high school graduation this June. I can’t believe it’s over. (Believe me, I know how trite that sounds.)
As I approach Mother’s Day 2011, I wonder about the choice I made in January 1991.
Did I do the right thing? I’ll be an empty nester soon and I have no career to gracefully prop me up. I have no answer for the question, “What do you do?” So, was it a mistake? Did I lose an unrecoverable part of myself in all those years?
In the end, those seemingly ponderous questions are really just perfunctory because I know the answers without even thinking about them.
I did the right thing.
Funny that I used to think I did it for them. I quit working thinking it would be best for them if I stayed home. Now I know the truth is I did it for me.
I needed them.
They probably would have been fine with a nanny or in after school day care. Many of my friends chose the working outside the home route and it worked out beautifully for them.
All I know is that for me, on this mother’s day, this year, I will celebrate that I had a choice and that for me, it was the right one.