It was 13 years ago, but I can still clearly remember the day I told my boss that I would not be returning to my job after I had my baby.
The baby it took me almost two years to have–I was going to be a stay-at-home mom.
I was thrilled and excited. I was conflicted and scared out of my mind. Before I took this momentous step I read numerous articles on the “right” way one was to approach this subject with your employer.
The articles advised a woman to remain professional and confident in her decision. Always being careful to keep the door open should she choose to reenter the paid workforce.
My heart was beating fast.
The two women I worked with knew I was leaving, and they knew what I was going to discuss with my boss when I walked in his office.
I closed the door.
I looked at his corner office with the balcony overlooking Park Avenue.
Hard to believe I had been with Mike for seven years. I knew him before I got married, before I tried to have a baby, and before I traded my beloved, albeit small, one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan for a house in Queens.
He was someone I admired as a professional, and I liked working for him. As a boss, he was supportive when I decided to go back to school, even reminding me to study or work on a paper while I was at the office.
As my road to motherhood got more and more complicated with each miscarriage, I felt lucky that I worked for someone who would encourage me to take time off to recover after each loss or who never questioned when I needed to leave early or come in late due to a trip to the doctor.
But now I was at the other side of the desk for a happy reason.
I was seven months pregnant. Happier than I ever had been in my whole life.
I started my carefully crafted spiel just like all the articles suggested.
Completely sure of my decision.
Then I cried.
Exactly what every article said not to do.
Maybe I wasn’t completely sure this was right for me?
Truth be told, I had always assumed I would work with a have-my-cake-and-eat-it-too arrangement where I worked a few days a week and stayed home a few days. Mike had no problem with me doing just that.
I did not have to choose, I could have the “best” of both worlds.
Yet after having four miscarriages in a relatively short time, my whole idea of motherhood had changed. I wanted to completely embrace this new chapter in my life. I wanted every moment I could have with my baby.
What the heck was I doing?
I was 33. For my whole adult life, I’d worked in and enjoyed the corporate environment.
Plus, I had strong feminist beliefs. I liked the idea that I made my own money and had my own life. I wasn’t sure how I was going to like feeling financially dependent on my husband.
Joe and I had many talks about how our marriage was a partnership and my staying home and doing the daily care for our child was a vital part of the arrangement. I was still an equal partner in the relationship even if I wasn’t earning a pay check.
I wasn’t sure if I was really cut out for life at home. I wasn’t much of a cook, hated to clean, and had never been good at coupon clipping. I also didn’t sew or even iron very well.
After all, isn’t that what a good stay-at-home mom does?
We had just moved to Queens a few months before I found out I was pregnant. I knew no one that stayed home. What could I possibly do all day that would keep me interested?
I thought of my own mom.
She had stayed home with my sisters and me until my youngest sister went to kindergarten.
My mother admitted that for her it was a very stifling existence.
She came alive when she joined the “real world,” first with becoming president of the PTA and then a real estate broker.
My mother’s work brought her life meaning and purpose. Making her own money gave her a sense of power she never had.
Was I just picking a road to hell and 50 pounds by choosing to stay home?
I pulled myself together. Mike told me he thought I was making the right decision for me.
My last week of work Mike had a little retirement lunch for me that included the other four people in our small office.
On my last day I packed up my desk, said my goodbyes and went home and waited for my new job to begin.
Our son Tom decided to be born 10 days past his due date, so I had a few weeks home before my new job officially started.
I tried my hand at cooking dinner for my husband each night and did tons of baby laundry. I went to lunch with my mom and shopped for the baby. It felt like a vacation.
And then I had my beautiful baby boy.
Mike and his partner came to visit me in the hospital. They brought flowers and sent sterling silver gifts from Tiffany’s.
But that chapter of my life was over.
It was now official, I was stay-at-home mom.
Three weeks into my new job, I was sure I’d made a horrible mistake. I couldn’t figure out how to open up the stroller or put Tom in his Baby Bjorn carrier.
Heck, it could take almost an hour just to change his diaper and get him dressed some days.
And I was nursing.
All. The. Time.
I was exhausted. I was sure I was ruining my son for life.
I started making mental contributions for his future therapy.
To make matters worse, I knew I loved my beautiful and perfect son, but I wasn’t sure I liked him very much.
What kind of mother doesn’t like her own baby?
I envied my husband’s long commute and even longer work days.
I was lost.
I had no friends.
My own mother became very important to me.
I went to Dunkin Donuts so much in Tom’s first year that the counter people bought him a Christmas present. He still has the stuffed bear.
I was determined to not turn into one of those baby-obsessed women my friends and I use to make fun of, and I gave myself some rules.
I would read at least one new book a week fearing that my brain cells would disappear from watching all the children’s programs.
I joined the local gym and would bring Tom to the nursery and work out.
I joined mother’s groups, started mother’s groups, and took every Baby and Me class I could find.
I was not going to be sucked into the baby abyss.
But something happened.
I fell in love with the job.
And I fell into the abyss.
The more children I had, the more the carefully crafted balance of reading and working out got out of kilter.
There were days I longed for better working conditions and more accommodating people to work for.
But for the most part, I adored my job. It felt right for me.
And, I realize I was, and still am, so fortunate to have a choice when so many women do not.
Funny, but it never occurred to me that all these years later a string of articles would stir such heated debate about the “right’ way to be a mother.
Foolishly, I thought we had gotten past that.
Over 40 years ago, my mother fought for her right to make her own choices about the life she lived.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s she nursed all three of her daughters, although other people, her parents included, thought she was crazy.
Her best friend called her a barbarian.
When she decided to enter the paid workforce after my youngest sister started school, she was told she was wrong to want more than just the welfare of her family.
She saw the tide change from one of disapproval of moms who worked outside of the home to moms being criticized for choosing to stay home.
Then it was my turn.
I always thought that what my mom and others were fighting for was the chance for women to make their own decisions.
And, I think that’s where the problem lies.
If we are lucky enough to have a choice, it’s hard to choose. We never are sure if we are doing “it” right. We look for outside validation.
When our children are little how fast they walk or talk or how much or how little they eat can become the things dreams or nightmares are made of when talking to other moms at the playground.
As they get older, it’s the grades they get, or how many activities and sports they excel at, or what college they get into that can seem to be the yardstick moms are measured against.
But then our baby may smile at us, or our teenager gives us a hug just because.
They giggle and look happy and all of sudden, for one moment, it doesn’t matter what someone else thinks of our decision, it only matters what the child staring back at us thinks.
Because, we are the only mom they have, and for them, that’s enough.