Friday, May 26, 2006

On being a working mother

Ah, the Mommy Wars. They rage unabated in my little patch of suburbia, let me tell you. I went to a friend's card party last year and someone asked sweetly, "And you're still working?" This, I hasten to clarify, was before Madelyn was even conceived. I instantly felt like a second-class wife because I had not quit my job the instant I spoke my vows, in order to create and manage a picture-perfect home for Ward. Er, for my husband. I wonder what they'll say when I show up at the next soiree with an infant, and still admit to the crime of full-time employment. Probably: "Child abuser!"

Not that I care. To me, the Mommy Wars are a social annoyance: I don't like putting up with condescending folk who make thinly veiled slurs at those who work or those who don't. I don't like feeling like I have to justify my life choices to anyone. But, nosy Parkers aside, the real issue is whether I believe I'm doing the best I can for my child, and what exactly "my best" means.

I'm not one of those who works for self-worth or identity, nor do I feel that changing diapers and wiping spit-up is a waste of my talent. I see nothing wrong with feeling that way, and making choices along those lines, if your career is part of who you are -- but that's not me. Even though I enjoy what I do and am reasonably skilled at it, my job is something I do to fund the rest of my life. I suspect this is why I had such a desperately hard time accepting donor egg as my path to motherhood. I saw my genetic children as my legacy in this world, and never imagined making my mark professionally or artistically.

Back in the day, my husband and I had talked about me staying home for a few years while "the kids" -- ha! -- were small, since we blithely assumed we'd have no trouble adding two or even three to our family. But then, in this game of pick-up sticks that I call my life, the straws fell awry. Anybody who says, "You could afford to stay at home with Madelyn if you were willing to make sacrifices" has not experienced two years of unemployment for one spouse concurrent with infertility for the other. At the same time our expenses were skyrocketing, our income was halved.

So what did we do? It's the American Way: We borrowed. We have a huge infertility loan, not to mention a special-needs child's medical bills and other assorted obligations. When I catch a whiff of scorn -- or worse, pity -- from someone who learns I have a spina bifida baby and yet have kept my job, I want to snap, "I'm not buying lattes and having pedicures with my paycheck, sister!"

I tell myself that digging out from under this avalanche of debt is part of being Madelyn's mother; I'm helping to take care of her, and of our family, financially. But I'll admit to feeling like a fraud as I write. Madelyn doesn't know that diapers are twenty-four cents each at Wal-Mart or that it's past time to start her college fund. She only knows that she wants her Mommy. And God, I want her too; every precious minute I can get with her.

Could we survive and inch our way to solvency on one income? Maybe. Probably. About twenty years after it came time to retire, and on a shoestring, house-of-cards basis. Last week at spina bifida parents' group, I learned that the special shoes these kids need as toddlers can cost up to a thousand dollars a pair. Both kids would be on their own for college. And I have real fears about the toll it might take on our marriage. We already have stepfamily issues and special-needs parenting issues; what would it be like if we shouldered again the financial strain we just emerged from?

I think being unemployed left scars on my husband. A guy puts in ten years or so on the job and he tends to take that paycheck for granted: If I get in the car every day and drive there, they'll continue to fund my life. Then one day his company says good to know ya, don't let the door hit you in the ass on the way out, and suddenly his family's survival is in doubt. How many of us really have six months' worth of expenses in the bank, like Suze Orman insists we must? Involuntary unemployment shakes a person (and a marriage) down to the core; it leaves you with a profound, Depression-era sense of insecurity, especially if you have children to support and a heavy load of medical bills. It was a wretched, dangerous time for us.

And right now I have the sweetest of all deals. Four days a week, my commute is twenty seconds up the stairs, because I am privileged to work from home. I have a full-time babysitter who has learned to catheterize and who does a great job with Madelyn's "play" therapy. Her memory of when it's time for Zantac is better than mine, and I can run downstairs almost anytime I want for a hug and kiss, or if there's a problem. I only go in to the office one day a week, and -- guilty little secret here -- I like it. I know Madelyn is well cared for, and I get to dress in something besides baggy sweats, make lunch dates, and talk grown-up talk, one day a week. I am deeply grateful to have this option; there are many mothers out there for whom the Mommy Wars are as far removed as the Civil War...they have to leave their kids with someone every day and go to work. Period. The choice itself, to work or not to work, is a luxury too many women overlook.

So, much as I would love to chuck my job and hire myself as Madelyn's babysitter, right at this moment my gut tells me that would be a selfish choice. My child is happy and safe, and her needs are met. I am not "missing" anything. I admit to a twist of unhappiness at yesterday's physical therapy appointment, when it seemed like my babysitter's smiles were more attractive to Madelyn than mine. But if I quit now, I'd be doing it more to serve my own needs than Madelyn's, not to mention putting a crushing load on my husband and placing our future in jeopardy.

The future may bring different choices, as Madelyn's needs change. I'm toying with the idea of going part-time so I'd have one day a week to do her various appointments without stressing the lost work time, and still bringing home most of my current salary. We'll see what happens.

Happy holiday weekend, everyone. Weight loss report: 8 lbs down, and stuck! Got to get some exercise.


Anonymous said...

What a great commentary. Thank you for writing it.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your post and can totally relate to it. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

I think a lot of these sahms are just jealous of the extra income that us working moms enjoy.

To be quite frank, my husband and I go on more vacations than the one-income families that we know. We're also not as stressed out about money.

Also why on earth would a woman not work, if she didn't have kids?

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apa essay example said...

Wow. What a great story. I've been looking for fertility blogs and I'm excited I've found yours. I started one a couple of weeks ago to cope with my infertility adventures. said...

I like the first point you made there, but I am not sure I could reasonably apply that in a postive way.

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