When it comes to the “mommy wars” about working versus staying home, I have a hard time promoting a single viewpoint for everyone because I have seen both sides of the issue. About 2.5 months after my first child was born, I was already back to work a few days a week. By the time he was 4 months old, I was doing four 10-hour shifts per week in exchange for one precious weekday off to do what all my friends did every single day — hang out with my baby! To be honest with you, I was never much of a career woman even before I became pregnant. My job as a programmer let me work from home and, although the hours were sometimes long and irregular, it was somewhat flexible. We had a nanny who came to our house to watch Little Sir while I worked. She even took him to activities, parks, and the mall — exactly the things I’d be doing if I were “staying home” with him. When she left for the day, my husband was home to put my son to bed at night.
The hardest part of being a working mom (at least, for me – I can’t speak for all working moms) was not the physical work, but the constant, nagging internal conflict. Guilt that I was not balancing work, spouse, and kids, the stress of that balancing act, and more guilt that I wasn’t giving my kids the advantages that the kids of SAHM’s are getting.
The guilt of balancing
For a working mom, there is not a lot of wiggle room for creative play or just relaxing, especially in the evenings. Sure, that’s when I got to play with the kid(s), but those same hours are also filled with preparing dinner, feeding everyone, cleaning up from dinner, and baths. As soon as the kids go to bed, the race is on to prepare for the next day! Fix lunches, wash clothing/diapers, do whatever cleaning I can fit in, and pre-prepare the family’s meal for the next day. Lay out clothing, pay bills online, answer personal emails…I usually had 1-2 hours to accomplish all of this before it was time to go to bed. It left little time for my husband, and even less time for me. If I spent even one evening out with a friend or at a bible study, it put me so far behind in household tasks that I couldn’t catch up. It is absolutely true that the most “me” time I had was the 8-10 hours I was at my full time job every day. As we all know, that time was not truly “mine”, but belonged to my employer.
The burden of stress
My employer, however, was also a source of guilt. At work I often felt guilty that I wasn’t doing my best due to my choice to become a parent. Since my son never did sleep through the night, I was writing code in a fast-turnaround environment on several 2-3 hour chunks of sleep per night. Seven months after my son was born, I was unexpectedly pregnant again and added the first-trimester pregnancy exhaustion to the lack of sleep. I admire women who are able to function and excel at their jobs under those circumstances. All I was able to do was feel guilty and helpless when my job performance suffered. I don’t think I’m alone in feeling like I had to choose between my home and work life. Recent Pew Research Center studies have confirmed the stress factor of the working mother:
When asked in general how they feel about their time, 40% of working moms said they always feel rushed. This compares with 24% of the general public and 26% of stay-at-home moms.
The guilt of comparison
I know that it’s wrong to compare myself to others. You know it, I know it… but it happens. Maybe it’s just Dallas, or maybe it’s my particular community within Dallas. Whatever the reason, out of my giant network of local and online mothers (probably 50 local, and another 50 online at least), I did not know even one other mother who was also working full time. I was completely weird and alone. My Facebook and Twitter feeds were full of my peers’ pictures of playdates, mornings at the museum, days at the park, and mommy-baby time. I was surrounded by the message that the best place for a mother is in the home with her young children, not at work, and that I was weird for working. And it wasn’t just my personal viewpoint, the Pew Research study also backs this particular impression:
Most working mothers (62%) say that they would prefer to work part time, and only 37% say they prefer full-time work. By contrast, most working fathers (79%) would prefer to work full time, while only 21% say they would prefer working part time. The reality for today’s working moms does not reflect their preferences: 74% work full time while only 26% work part time. Only about one-in-ten moms (12%) say having a mother who works full time is the ideal situation for a child.
I can tell you that I have a background of overachieving and attempting to do too much and to do everything too perfectly. The constant, impossible balancing act of working full-time is what got to me, in the end. The life of a working mom is constant re-prioritization, and an ongoing feeling that your kids might be at an emotional or educational disadvantage if you get the balancing act wrong. I love this post from Kelle of Enjoying The Small Things with the analogy of a horse race: different aspects of parenting, keeping up with the house, and being a wife, all leading the race at different times.
Now that I am staying home with my kids instead of working full time, it’s a whole different kind of hard work. Staying home is physically difficult, emotionally challenging, and very draining sometimes. But to me, it’s not nearly as hard as dealing with the emotional and mental difficulties presented by the balancing act and the constant fight not to feel guilty. Having done both, I have to say that for me, no matter how difficult staying at home gets (and it’s been difficult with two high-needs babies not-quite 16 months apart), it’s still not as difficult as being a working mom.