Opinions: What defines my career?
Opinions are like butts and everyone has one! You know the saying… and as another school year begins, I feel the pressure once again not to succumb to the stupidity that exists among judging adults.
Whether I’m on the playground or at the grocery store, I cringe when people ask, “What are you going to do with your free time now that your kids are back in school?” I try not to imagine them thinking of me in a bubble bath eating candy.
I’ll be the first to admit that as a recovering workaholic and high achiever with four kids, it’s nearly impossible to strike a work-life balance and be successful as a mom. I want to wear a shirt that says, ‘I’ve worked full time, part time and been a stay at home mom, and I support your choice.’
I was relieved to move to another part of the country last fall where no one knew what I was capable of working and volunteering, giving me time to breathe and adjust my children to the huge transition. The big relocation and subsequent legal issues with our new home also earned me the sympathy and patience of those who inquired about my job prospects and volunteer abilities.
I am thankful for Cindy at the local grocery store who last saw my heartbreak on the first day of school last year after dropping off my older children at their new high school. I burst into tears when he asked me how it felt to have my kids in school instead of what I was going to do for work. I instantly felt a connection with this empathetic mother of grown children, who had also chosen to stay home while raising her own children. Tears of gratitude and tears of anxiety for my children in their new schools melted together in a whimpering mess at Cindy’s cash register. Cindy immediately did what no one else had ever done for me before… she stopped everything and yelled at the barista at the latte counter, “I need a double latte soon, to go!” She took care of my needs, without judging my situation, a first for me as an experienced middle-aged woman. I quickly retreated to the picnic benches in the parking lot to collect myself before biking home, but I have never forgotten Cindy’s kindness and we still smile together as we remember our first meeting in line to checkout.
I was raised by a mother who values society’s impressions of her and her family, always behaving in perfect public conduct. “Kristen is a merchant banker in Chicago,” was a proud line she uttered when I graduated from college. Banker, lawyer, doctor were all justifiable professions in her mind, but she never stayed home as a mother with a college degree. A woman who was unhappy staying home during my childhood due to career goals and financial needs, my mother always asked me what my next project would be as I volunteered countless hours as a community activist, with four babies in tow. Satisfied, but extremely busy making a difference in my hometown, I never felt good enough to look at the viewers, let alone my mother. I was constantly struggling to keep up with the demands of children, home, and community projects, while dealing with insurmountable physical pain, no doubt the result of intractable stress. You can imagine how perplexed I was to hear my mother say, “You don’t have to get a job with four kids,” when I got a part-time job after the birth of my fourth child. Needless to say, I worked my way up to my second part-time job, with hours sometimes exceeding 40-60 a week, unable to pick up my kids from school on time, and struggling to manage a small meal. in the pantry, I began to wonder who I really wanted to please when my health and personal life began to suffer.
In retrospect, it was my decision to have four children; It is true that I had fallen in love with the sweet fragrance ‘Eau de Nouveau Bébé’ before some romantic getaways with my husband. (In an ironic twist of fate, we no longer have the time or money to take trips together alone!) I live with no regrets and am desperately in love with my family. I am also lucky enough to have a certain privilege of being able to choose the title of ‘household economist’, looking after a busy household, getting paid in whining, crying, stubbornness, with a sprinkling of hugs and kisses. Honestly, the hours are long, the pay sucks, I’m not earning retirement anymore, but the benefits are numerous for my family when I’m balanced. Sometimes I miss making a difference outside the home, and judging by history, I may go back to work for an income after I catch my breath. It seems to me that nowadays it is easier to ‘Lean In’ as Sheryl Sandberg put it, when you have prepared meals, a babysitter and a house cleaner in the budget. However, based on my experience and social observations, when two spouses or single parents have demanding jobs, balancing work and personal life seems impossible as parents.
I have met mothers who describe themselves as ‘better mothers because they work outside the home’, mothers who are satisfied with their careers, moving up the corporate ladder or owning their own business, mothers who have no choice but to work to support their their family, and mothers who prefer to stay home while raising their children. I have struggled with realizing many of these shared experiences. I salute all mothers in solidarity as we do our best despite the demands!
The spouses behind successful mothers are often themselves irreplaceable. I’ll never forget the time my twelve-year-old son exclaimed at the dinner table last spring, “Mom has time to do it, she doesn’t work all day.” My husband responded immediately without hesitation, “Who does the whole house scheduling, volunteers at the school, and manages every detail to ensure this home runs so smoothly?” I choked on tears of gratitude or sucked in my drink in shock, I honestly can’t remember, but my children and I will never forget the impact of her simple statement.
There will always be detractors, ‘the opinionated ones’, who form their own conclusions from their point of view, albeit with cloudy lenses. For those adults, I’ve set myself the challenge this year to be empathetic to their own personal statements, made in reflection of their lives and not mine, and try to keep my self-preservative sarcastic retorts to myself.
The single mom who confided in me: “I hate when young moms with strollers parade through my house in exercise clothes while their husbands are at work making six figures.” The nail technician at the salon who asked if I was “staying home” and replied “lucky,” to which I must admit, I felt an embarrassing pang of guilt in front of my daughter. The moms who exclaimed, “I could never let someone else raise my kids” when I dropped my four-year-old son off at full-day preschool or who heard I had child care for the summer. And of course the small business owner who asked me what I would do with all my free time now that my kids are in school. Even my own mother… These are her stories, not mine.
Yesterday, I saw Cindy in the checkout line, a week after the start of the new school year. She smiled and said that she was thinking of me the other day and wondering how I am enjoying the neighborhood and if the children are well adjusted this year. Cindy commented that when her children were at school, she would hardly drop them off and have to go around to pick them up, the hours would go by so fast that she could hardly finish anything, and now they are gone! “Enjoy this time if you can and don’t look for a job outside the home if you don’t have to” he advised with a warm smile. “Thanks Cindy, I think I’ll work from home”, I replied and reflected… Cindy, the world needs more of you!