When all you have to think about is yourself, work is a piece of cake. When you’re first married, work becomes a little more complicated as you mesh two work and vacation schedules. But when a baby comes into the picture, work can become a logistical, emotional and financial challenge.
That is…if you let that little bundle of joy take over your life. Some women—like Libbet Field of Washington, D.C.—are determined to find happiness and fulfillment in both motherhood and career.
Libbet had a good role model. Her mother worked throughout her entire childhood—retiring when Libbet was married and pregnant. To the idea that a working mother cannot be totally involved in a child’s life, Libbet would say “ridiculous”. A fully engaged parent, Libbet’s mother guided her daughter and son every day of her full-time career in the foreign service (when Libbet’s family lived in Morocco, Pakistan and Peru), and later as an office manager of a U.S. law firm. The most powerful statement is the very close relationship Libbet has with her mother today: each morning they talk during Libbet’s 30-minute walk to work.
Libbet and her mother are on the same page about working motherhood, but many women do have mothers who feel careers should stop when babies come along. Surveys overlook the fact that this kind of disapproval pushes many new mothers out of the workforce. Though Libbet did not have that obstacle, she still had to synch her personal and professional life when her son was born. I asked her to comment on the doubts and concerns women have as new working mothers:
Q. FOR MANY WOMEN “GUILT” AND “MOTHERHOOD” GO HAND IN HAND. HAVE YOU MANAGED TO FULLY ESCAPE THE MOTHERHOOD GUILTS?
A. It has never occurred to me to feel guilty about being a working mother–because I didn’t have a choice. Quite simply, we would not have been able to meet our mortgage payments without my paycheck. I would feel guilty if I didn’t return to work and left the financial burden of being the sole breadwinner on my husband’s shoulders. Even if our financial situation would have allowed for me to seriously consider staying home, my husband and I are in agreement that we want to be able to provide our son (and any future children) with the best life possible–tennis or piano lessons, summer camps, nice vacations–and in this regard, two paychecks are better than one.
Q. THAT ALL SOUNDS GOOD, BUT DID YOU FIND IT DIFFICULT TO ACTUALLY WALK OUT THE DOOR FOR 10 HOURS WHEN YOUR SON WAS AN INFANT?
A. In hindsight, I returned to work at just the right time. My maternity leave (cobbled together because I work for the federal government and they don’t give maternity leave) ended when my son was 2 months and 3 weeks old. At that age, he was still doing very little more than eating, pooping and sleeping. And while I adored him, I was so ready for adult interaction that I practically threw him to his father on my way out the door to work. Fast forward one month later, and he had become so interactive and flirty that it would have been much more difficult to leave him and return to the workforce. Inadvertently, I picked the perfect time in his development to start working.
Q. ARE YOU ACTUALLY ABLE TO FOCUS ON YOUR WORK—OR ARE YOU TOO WORRIED ABOUT WHAT’S GOING ON WITH YOUR SON AT DAYCARE?
A. To be honest, finding a daycare situation was the most stressful aspect of my pregnancy and my maternity leave. I wasn’t stressed because I was worried about the quality of care he’d receive; I was panicked because in my area, daycare waiting lists can be up to 18 months long! We didn’t have daycare locked down until he was five weeks old, and we ended up going with the daycare that had a spot for him, as opposed to picking the daycare that was the most “perfect” environment. That being said, I was happy with the daycare facility we chose – they loved him, provided us a detailed schedule of his daily feedings, diaper changes and naps, were happy to provide me with updates over the phone, and encouraged unannounced drop-in visits.
We recently switched to a nanny-share (for logistical reasons), and I couldn’t be happier with his care. I’ve had the opportunity to watch my nanny interact with my son, and I know he’s getting the best, loving care possible.
At the end of the day, here’s how I view daycare: it’s an opportunity for my son to interact with other children, be cared for by child-care professionals who have seen it all and can help him reach developmental milestones, and allows for him to have a different experience every day outside of our home.
Knowing that my son is well cared for, I consider work my “me time.” It is the one time in my day when it’s all about me. I am not responsible for my child, my husband, or my household from 8:30am to 5:30pm. I can focus on my own intellectual and professional development, and interact with other adults. It provides just the right amount of balance for my sanity, considering that at home I’m up at the crack of dawn to make breakfasts and lunches, get people dressed, dishes put away–and collapse into bed 17 hours later after a full day of work followed by cooking dinner, cleaning up and preparing for the next day!
Q. THERE’S THE ARGUMENT THAT WORKING MOTHERS MISS SIGNIFICANT MOMENTS OR MILESTONES WHILE THEY’RE AT THE OFFICE. DO YOU WORRY THAT THIS IS TRUE?
A. I don’t worry about it. You’re not going to miss the milestone – you may miss the first time it ever happens, but unless you’re hovering over your child every second of every day, there’s no guarantee that you’ll witness that “first” even as a stay-at-home mom.
And I think daycare actually helps babies achieve their milestones. When our son started daycare, he hated tummy time, so I rarely put him on his belly. As a result, his neck muscles were weak and he couldn’t hold his head up. We knew we needed to work on that, so we asked the daycare facility to make sure he had 20 minutes of tummy time every day (whether he wanted it or not), and within a few weeks he was able to lay on his belly and lift his head up! That wasn’t us – that was the ladies at daycare who helped him along.
Currently, I know my nanny is working on getting him to sit up by himself – and the other baby in the share is already crawling – something that he has started imitating (another plus of spending days with other babies). I know that his daycare situation is helping him achieve these milestones – and at the end of the day, it’s more important to me that he reach the milestones than that I see them happen at the first time.
Q. WORKING MOTHERS ALSO WORRY THAT THEIR BABIES WILL RESPOND MORE FULLY TO—OR FAVOR—CAREGIVERS. DOES YOUR SON GIVE YOU THE COLD SHOULDER AFTER DAY CARE?
A. My son grins when he sees me and my husband at the end of the day. He also grins when he sees his nanny in the morning – and that’s a good thing! I wouldn’t want him to be screaming when I drop him off – I want him to love his nanny.
I had nannies for all of my childhood. They didn’t make me love my mother any less. I have fond memories of the women who cared for me, and I’m sure that if you had asked me as a child I would have said I loved them, but I loved my mother the most.
I would also argue that you can’t – and shouldn’t – be all things to your child all the time – like a mother, nanny, and playmate. I feel I am enriching my son’s life by giving him exposure to other people who love him and care for him. I’m proud that he has his own schedule with people that he interacts with – adult and children alike. I cherish my moments with him in the mornings, evenings and the weekends, but I also know that I’m the best mother I can be because I’m working – I get the fulfillment I need at work, and that sends me home in a good mood, ready to focus on my son.
Q. DOES MOTHERHOOD MAKE YOU MORE OR LESS DRIVEN IN YOUR CAREER?
A. My career now has a new touchstone. Before our son was born, my career was filtered through a single lens: me. As a single woman, and even as a wife, I let my career develop organically, picking opportunities that interested me, without a lot of planning or forethought. Now, as a mother, I find myself considering my career options more strategically – making sure that my current and future choices set me up with the best remuneration possible and have built-in opportunities for advancement–while at the same time guarding that work/life balance. I still have my eyes set on the brass ring, but how I’m going to arrive at there has changed (probably for the better!).
My relationship to my work has also changed. My work life and personal life used to be meshed: I would socialize after work with colleagues, and take office politics and all the petty drama that every work environment has home with me at night. I find that having a child is incredibly grounding – it helps keep the stress in my job in perspective. When I leave my office at five, I leave my office – and all its trappings – behind. Home time is all about my son. Though sometimes I do miss the happy hours!! —KAS
You can read more about Libbet’s life and work on her blog, “Modern Femme“.
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