Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Mommy Back To Work

M & H before work this morning

Today was my first day back to work after a nice, long, heavenly maternity leave. It is unusual, and I feel grateful, for such a long time off. Because of some intricacies of academe, the timing of Meera's birth, and a progressive FMLA policy at Lehigh, I was able to be "off" from May 28 (the day Meera was born) until now. It has been 7 months of bliss. Sincerely. Some women probably say that sarcastically. I do not. It has been bliss for me. Which has made going back to work even harder than it might otherwise be. Yesterday, at just the right moment, I said to the boys, "Kyle and Owen, tomorrow I have to go to work. Do you remember what my job is?" Owen said, "No, I don't remember." Kyle thought about it a second and then he said, "I do remember!" I said, "What is it Ky Ky? What is my job?" He said, "Your job is to take care of us and keep us safe." It took me by surprise. And it was so perfect. "Yes!!!" I said, trying to hide my surprise (this was not the answer I had been looking for). "Yes, you're exactly right, that's my most important job! Do you remember my other job -- my job when I go to work?" "Yes," he said, proudly, "my mommy is a professor!" Owen jumped in, "Yes! Oh! That's right! My mommy is a professor!!!" When I explained that I wouldn't be picking them up from school because I'd be "working at my Lehigh office," they acted totally unfazed about the change in routine. If anything they were excited. I figured that's how they'd be. That's just how they are. But me, well, I'm another story. I feel a deep sense of ambivalence about going back to work. Never before in my life have I felt so profoundly ambivalent about anything.

ambivalent (ām-bĭv'-ə-lənt) –noun 1.) uncertainty or fluctuation, esp. when caused by inability to make a choice or by a simultaneous desire to say or do two opposite or conflicting things. 2.) the coexistence within an individual of positive and negative feelings toward the same person, object, or action, simultaneously drawing him or her in opposite directions.

K, H, M this morning, before work

On one hand, I know for certain that I do not want to be home full-time; that I want to work beyond my family. On the other hand, I am not thrilled (at all) about returning to work and being away from home. I am committed to the work I do. I am committed to the family that I've made. I want to contribute to the world in a meaningful way, using my gifts and privileges as best I can, maximizing upon the opportunities I have. But still, I can't help but want to be with my babies while they are still young and wanting to be with me. Like many people, I imagine, I want it both ways, but am all too well aware that it doesn't work that way. You can't have it all. You can have part of each, but you can't have all of both. What I always come back to is this: I believe that every person has the right to have their personal potential unconstrained. What does that mean for me, as an individual, at this point in my life? How do we balance all we can be with what we want to be? How can we be mothers with empowered careers and not feel like we're short-changing ourselves, our kids, our work? How can we be good mothers without feeling like we're short-changing the rest? I could go on and on and on. But I won't. Whole volumes have been written on it. Many others have already gone on and on. I've thought so much about it that I bore even myself with it at this point. Plus, the truth is, it is all too complex to do it any justice in a blog post. So, I'm left... with the internal personal private ambivalence. And I'm left... feeling judged by everyone out there --- the high-powered-career-working-moms and the working-because-they-have-no-other-choice-moms and the stay-at-home-moms and everyone else in between. I dread even posting this because of the reaction I'm sure to get. And it is hard to take. But the personal ambivalence, deep within me, is even harder than the judgements that I feel swirling around me. Regardless of all of it -- the personal and the public, the intimate and the overt -- here I am. Back to work. After seven months off. The day has come. The boys are back to seeing Mommy dressed for work in the morning ("Why does my mommy look so beautiful?" Owen asked this morning as we sat together at the breakfast table), and they are back to being two of only a handful in their classes who don't have mommy there every single day to pick them up at 1:00 when school's done. It is familiar for them, I'm sure. And familiar isn't necessarily bad. But my baby girl... she is, for the first time, facing the reality that she didn't even know was hers: the reality of having a working mother. A mother with a pretty demanding career. Over the next couple of weeks she'll have to adjust to what she didn't even know was coming. That, to me, feels like a loss of innocence. I have known it was coming, but she didn't. And it feels painful for me. The thing is, though, that ultimately I do know that my three kids will be great. I'm absolutely sure of it. I know because I can see it in them. They all three love life. They are fully engaged with life. They are happy, self-confident, grounded children. And I'm fortunate to have a husband who is just as deeply committed to me working as I am. I'm not worried about the four of them. But what is left is me. And down at the core of all of my ambivalence lies the simple truth that actually, mostly, I'm just sad to have to miss out. I'm sad to have to miss out on a whole day's worth of slubberly sloppy drooly kisses all over my baby's face. I'm sad to have someone else pick up my bambinos at school. I'm sad that I won't hear every one of the boys' stories first, that I won't put Meera down for every nap, that I won't get to laugh at every single one of K & O's antics, that I won't hear every coo and babble from my girl, that I won't make every afternoon snack, that I won't change every diaper, that I won't give every time-out. It isn't so much that I'm worried about my three sweethearts. I'm more just selfishly sad for me. And jealous of whoever gets to do all those things with them. At the same time, I have a career that I've been building for over 15 years. I have a PhD, I do work I believe to be important for the world, I have tenure. I have things to do. Things that are larger than what lies within my self, my children, my family, or my home. In my heart I know that I cannot quit. I know that I need to do. So here I am. And here we are.

Meera this afternoon, taken by Braydon

I figured the first day back would be emotional. It was, a little bit. I cried, of course, when I had to leave my baby this morning. I figured that it might feel good to get away from home and caught up in the workday without being tied to an infant all day. It did feel good, of course, a little bit. Mostly, though, what I've been thinking about today has caught me totally off guard. It isn't what I expected at all. I hadn't anticipated it. Mostly today what I've been thinking about is how grateful I am.
M, H, O this evening, after work

Grateful that I got the time I did. Grateful that Meera gave me this gift. Grateful for the time spent with her -- and because of that time "off," the time I got to spend with Kyle and Owen too. I'm grateful to have been witness firsthand the the early development of the beautiful sibling relationships between my three children. I'm grateful for the sweet and gentle spirit of my baby girl and the peaceful addition she is to our family. I'm grateful for the seven months I've spent just sitting and watching as her life begins to unfold. I'm grateful for the cuddles, the moments sitting still together in the family room, the hours in the rocking chair, the months of nursing, the days of summer and then of fall and then of winter -- able to be "just a mom." I'm grateful to have played so many hours with the boys, to have watched them ride their bikes and dig in the sandbox and shovel snow. I'm grateful for all the play dough and painting and baking and I'm grateful for every single new development of the first seven months of Meera's precious little life. I'm grateful for all that I've learned during this time. I'm grateful for the time. I'm grateful to have felt what it feels like, at least for seven months, to just sit back and breathe and enjoy. Most of all, I'm grateful to have been able to give Meera this gift. A gift that I was not able to give to my boys. A gift that is precious and profound. As a mother who knows what it is to not be with your baby for the first seven months, the value of these past seven months is not lost on me. I will forever be grateful for this time that I've had. Having had it has given our whole family, and individually every member of it, a precious gift. It doesn't heal us completely, and it doesn't protect us forever, but it surely helps. And I'll forever be holding it in a sweet, soft spot in my heart. I am so thankful for Meera Grace-- this tiny, gentle soul who has found us and filled a special place in our family. I am so thankful for all that has been and all that will come. And so now we end one era and embark anew. And we give thanks, again, for all that we've got.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for writing and thanks for your honesty. It is really refreshing since so few women with serious big careers write about this. It may bore you but it definiately does not bore us. Another truly thought provoking post. Thank you.
Sylvia in Seattle WA

Anonymous said...

Beautiful. You are beautiful. What a wonderful attitude you have. Thanks for sharing.

My children are 14 and 12. I still look forward to hurrying home after school to see them. I love and enjoy every moment I have with them. I don't think that feeling will ever pass.


Jessica said...

Thank you so much for sharing this!!! So many women seem to be either pro-staying-at-home to the point of saying that every working woman is selfish and feminist, or are actually working women who are selfish and macho-feminist. I really appreciate your taking the time to show that there are perfectly good moms who can love their families and work outside the home at the same time.
All the best!!!
By the way, if you don't mind my asking, what's your PhD in? (I love hearing what other people enjoy studying...!)

Anonymous said...

what a beautiful post! you're an amazing woman with an amazing family. i don't think anyone who knows the johnson-mccormick family can judge you for the choice you made. you're a strong family with lots and lots of love! a family that we love dearly. i know it wasn't easy for you this morning. we support you 100%!


Anonymous said...

Wow- You are strong. I quit my
job to stay home with my kids-
16 yrs later- I think back and
I am not sure I would make the same decision. To start over I
would have gone back ....not
because of my kids but because
I believe a career is important
My father was a professor(phd)
like you and his career had so
much meaning. It also gave him
flexibility as he got older
to spend time with us.
You have a beautiful family and
they will respect and love you
for you choices.

Jen S. said...

I teared up reading this post. I hear you, understand you, and love you.
xo jen

Heather said...

Thanks for this, Heather. I needed to read this today.


gloria said...

A really wonderful post -- captures so many of the feelings I have on a daily basis. You're right -- the kids are and will be fine. And you're right -- it's most difficult for us moms. What I have discovered in my journey of balancing a family (3 young kids) with a demanding career is this -- I continue to give my all to my kids. I continue to give my all to my career. And there is precious little left to give to myself (and my husband would say to give to him as well!) There is only so much one human being can balance. It may not be forever. But that's where I'm at now.

Mark and Sarah said...

Thank you so much for this post. I am a stay at home mom, but also feel very torn about what I "should" and want to be doing. I miss my career and know that I want to effect more change in the world beyond my beautiful children, too, but am not sure when. I am looking forward to seeing how the next months unfold for you as you balance your life. Thanks again for sharing and I'm thinking of you this week.

p.s. I love your new haircut! It looks great on you.

Deirdre said...

Such a beautiful post. It perfectly expresses what I've been feeling as I interview nannies, tour preschools, and get ready to go back to work and leave my 7-month-old girl and 3-year-old boy. In my cynical moments I see it as another in a lifelong series of separations, so thanks for reminding me of all there is to be grateful for as well.

Anonymous said...

Wow...simply beautiful, honest and lovely. Heather, not being a mother, I can not fathom your pain but in the rawness of your writing, a little bit of what you're feeling has been felt. My humble advice is to live your live being the best mother, wife and PROFESSOR you know how to be and God will fill in the gaps.


laurafingerson said...

I HEAR YOU!!! Boy do I hear you!!! No matter what decision women make, there is always ambivalence, always questioning "what if I had chosen another path." I think about it a lot. I bet we always will think about it a lot. This is good and we are lucky to have the options in 2009.

Mom to 3 said...

Wow, you are one strong woman!! I completely understand your feelings. I had the same feelings after my first child was born.

I had spent years and years in school and then many more years establishing myself in my chosen profession. I briefly went back to work after my maternity leave. It was such a struggle for me and my heart was just no longer in it. I left my field and have been a stay at home mom ever since.

It was an incredibly difficult decision for me and years later, I still wonder if it was the "right" decision. It's human nature to question and wonder and doubt oneself.

I have no doubt that your kids will be great no matter what. You and Braydon have laid a great foundation for them.

And what a wonderful example for your daughter--a strong professional Mother! She will have no doubt in her mind that she can be whatever she wants to be when she grows up (as will your boys)!

Chapter Two Manmi said...

If I an offered and accept this job opportunity that seems so likely, I hope and pray I am able to see and feel the blessing of thankfulness for the year I've had to be home (albeit working here) with my children during their first year home and the biggest of adjustment of our lives. I don't think we would have made it (at least not progressed so) if I couldn't have been here. So I feel somewhat ambivalent too. I want a career; I'm ambitious, able and have something to offer. And I want to be my kids' manmi. I can't have it all.
Thanks for such a beautiful post. You helped me to remember the blessings and I haven't even gotten an offer yet:)

mayhem said...

Heather... Hugs to you today! You rock. I hope, hope, hope that judgement you're wondering about never comes. Most moms will understand your feelings and choices regardless of the choices they themselves have made. You know I have nothing but complete support for you! You're right, your family will be fine, for all the reasons you've written here. I'll be thinking about your family as you all find your footing in this new phase of life.

Candis said...

I found when I was at home people (not DH or DS) took advantage of me ("Could you watch...? Can you meet the cable guy...?") But when I am at work, I feel (and KNOW) my household doesn't run smoothly, and that's is important to me. I like being relaxed and having a clean comfortable place with meals/snacks ready to offer my family when they came home, AND I like the respect my time is afforded because I have a career outside the home. Sigh. Bless your heart (and soothe it, too).

Claudia and John said...

Darling Heather. Thank you so very much for your post. You are such a loving and giving mother. You and Braydon are both doing such a wonderful job raising your bambinos.

I understand and know what you are going through. I was a stay at home mom until Shawn started Kindergarten and Becky was in 1st grade. I debated about still being a stay at home mom, but felt I needed to find my place in the world.

Love and Hugs,

Haitian-American Family of Three said...

I know how you feel, its so hard for parents in our American-style work place. It would be nice if you could work a few days from home and a few days in school...we're also trying to figure this out.

Single PAP said...

beatuifully written, as always. i understand your ambivalence, not from a personal perspective, but the difficulty in not having it all. all i can say is you being balanced and fulfilled (thru work) is a gift you can give your children.


hope you had a good first day back!

Mrs. Baker said...

I just wrote a WHOLE SLEW of posts on this...just went through the EXACT SAME THING - Back to work after 8 months off. Its hard...even for me who does get to work from home. It was my choice to go back to work.

I talk about a book on my blog that I think would be a BIG help for your spirit now...it was very helpful for me.

Just wanted to share if you care to read...


sarah. said...

Thank you for such a wonderful post. I teared up while reading it, too.

iesha said...

Girl, I hear you loud and clear! I had to go back to work after only 3 months (to a job I don't even feel passionate about mind you, which makes it worse) While I think about every moment I am missing with my kids all day at work, there are times I am a bit relieved to have some time to follow my path. I loved your line "I believe that every person has the right to have their personal potential unconstrained." I think about that often as I worry about making sure all the hats I wear are on straight!
You are a wonderful mother, wife, and person!

Elyssium Earth said...

I can only tell you, Heather, how profoundly different your perspective is from many mothers I've encountered in my long years of childcare. They think they're escaping.

I can also tell you that I helped change many tiny people's lives with my presence as a 'nanny' the way only an objective party can, in a way that today, my university tutor changed MY life. In a way that only he can. Go GIRL. Change that world :)