Thursday, July 11, 2013

Leaning Tower of Motherhood

When you are married to a teacher, he makes you do things like write your thesis at the top of your essay. So here you go: 

Just because a choice is caked in ambivalence, doesn't mean it's wrong. It means it's hard.  (Good, Eric?)

After 12 weeks of inhaling breast milk burps and lightly gnawing, in a non-cannibalistic way, on chubby thighs, my journey back into VLOOKUP and outcomes analysis has begun. During my maternity leave, I curled up with my iPhone’s kindle app in the middle of the night and consumed things like The Great Gatsby in between gnursing sessions. (That’s when you nurse, and then do some thigh gnaws because baby chub is the perfect calorie free midnight snack). I became impervious to legitimate news and things like Savannah Guthrie’s “what’s trending Today”.

Now I feel like I am playing catch up and only recently heard about the firefighter tragedy in Arizona, and apparently missed much of the heated debate about Sandberg’s Lean In. In full disclosure, I have not read the book, but like a carrot to a donkey, am drawn to the discussion surrounding what to me appears to be the rub between mothers who work outside of the home, and mothers who do not work outside of the home. (Notice the very deliberate terminology—acknowledging not all women who do not work outside of the home embrace the term “stay at home mom”). Giving me some context, I did watch what I feel is one hell of a documentary during my leave on PBS called MAKERS: Women Who Make America and cannot recommend it enough. I have also referred in previous posts to a well written article in The Atlantic that tries to deconstruct some of the debate surrounding the Lean In phenomenon. While I am not fully invested in the Lean In conversation because, honestly, I don’t have time to read the book (I am too busy reading the Positive Discipline series to try and mitigate the explosions my threenager is currently responsible for as a result of the new baby and going back to work), these two sources have served me well in deconstructing my own place as a mother who works outside of the home.

Recently, an article was published on Yahoo! Shine ("Stop Leaning Into Your Career and Start Leaning Into Your Family") that stirred the pot, perhaps not intentionally, and sparked a heated conversation regarding the choices we make as mothers in considering “work”. I give any author credit for being vulnerable within what I am assuming is a character limited space. And while I hesitate making inferences regarding the piece’s intent, I suggest there are multiple dimensions to consider and explore. I want to offer up a personal reflection of what I call the Leaning Tower of Motherhood; as women, I think we sometimes look as though we are leaning so far we might just crumble, but somehow keep it together. And more importantly, depending on your vantage point, we could be leaning a number of different ways.

(Here is where I get to blame sleep deprivation and post pregnancy hormones on anything either incorrect or unsavory about this entry. Including my attempt to play on the whole “leaning” image. I am giving myself another 9 months to use this excuse. Hey, Ms. Manners gives you a year to write wedding thank you notes, I am giving myself a year post baby to say stupid $hit…and say it incorrectly.)

Life is composed of what I call “competing priorities.” Those priorities are defined as the most basic (good old Maslow) to the complex (25 page analysis reports due on the day 1 child breaks his leg and the other has his starring performance as “sea-land creature #2” in the school play). While I can say that there is nothing more important than my family, I also need to say that at times, it isn’t and can’t be my only priority. I mean, I’d never take a shower and require catheterization because it seems that a puzzle just *has* to be completed whenever I’m about to rinse off or utilize the potty. And sometimes I am late for dinner (ahem, last night) because a huge analysis at work needs to be completed. Because my priorities shift doesn’t change their ultimate importance, and the process of triaging doesn’t always result in me feeling good. (Who wants to be late for dinner on PIZZA night with my beautiful boys? Yeah, me neither.)

Here’s another consideration: family first. Sure. But I consider myself to be part of my family, and I have witnessed that I don’t serve others well until I’ve taken care of myself. My body/my soul/my spirit craves exercise. And I crave spending time with girlfriends. And I most certainly crave spending regular time with my husband sans kids. And I also craves working outside of the home. But my body isn’t yours…and I can’t tell you how to operate yours…but I can support the choices you make. While my current arrangement of working full time may not be perfect or ideal, I have made the choice down this path and am learning to make it the best I can. There are many moments I wish I had a few months, hell--years, to stay at home with my entire family. In fact, there have been more moments than I can count that I have wished to play the lotto and win big so I can stay at home with my children forever. And there are moments, in full disclosure, I am relieved to drop my kids off at childcare so I can breathe deeply again, turn on NPR, decompress from a manic morning, and welcome adult conversation at my office.

There. I said it. And I don’t take it back.

While I wax poetic about the necessity for me to go to work, when you strip down all of the layers, it is still a choice. My husband’s and my earning potentials are relatively similar, and we are in a position where if we chose to have someone stay home, salary wouldn’t be a huge determining factor. Excise that out of the conversation, and we are left with decisions regarding what we want our family life to look like. One of us could decide not to work outside the home and our mortgage would still get paid. We would need to sacrifice more, and make different decisions regarding things like Nature Camp, vacations, the type and volume of food we eat, the quality of clothes we buy, etc. But the choice we made was to have 3 kids, and for those children to go to childcare.

I not only pushed my children out of my body, but also take seriously and honor my role as someone who raises them (and I humbly assert I raise them well). Yet I will also honor and ascribe the role of caretaker to more than just my husband and myself. Running the numbers, for good and/or for sad, my children’s caretakers have changed more of my children’s diapers than I have. They clock far more hours and have the opportunity for far more kisses than either my husband or I do during the week, and are most certainly players in raising my kids. It is why we have taken such careful steps in selecting a center that meets our needs and desires (and just so happens to be at my husband's work). In addition, my mother tirelessly comes down every summer to watch the boys during the time childcare is closed and Eric and I are at work. Make no mistake, I stew with the decision to delegate childcare outside of the mother/father arrangement and many times it makes my heart ache to the core. But for our family, we’ve decided it takes a village. And although a choice, that choice isn’t always easy to reconcile. But when they are at childcare, I am certain that they are seen as a priority. Children do absorb what they see as the Yahoo! article asserts, but I believe that for my children, whether at home in the care of a family member, or at our chosen childcare in the care of a teacher, they are loved, nurtured, and made a priority.

It has been asked, ‘but if there is a choice, and someone can be home with the children, to be there, to see the fleeting moments as they pass, to teach and to nurture, why would you choose otherwise? Why wouldn't you just "lean in?"’ This is where I think the question posed may be one dimensional. I choose to work outside of the home because in addition to a paycheck, it provides me with an outlet for the years of education I committed to; because it affords me the opportunity to (maybe selfishly to some) work on different facets of myself that in my heart, believe are necessary for me—Ali—to be a better mom. Because it allows my children to be able to participate in some extracurricular activities we wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford. Because it provides my children with exposure to seeing both mother and father as equal earners outside of the home. Because it is a choice, my choice, that I am making work for my family. Because it has afforded us the opportunity for my husband to take on more significant  and equitable parenting responsibilities. While these reasons are not universal, they are choices reflective of paying mind to how Eric and I need to and choose to nurture our own family. What I am learning to do, even as I write this, is to be okay with those who call my choices “selfish” or question my commitment to my children. I am not going to argue that leaving my 3-year-old as he runs down the driveway in tears begging me not to go to work is awful. I’m not going to say that I haven’t buttered my bread with thick layers of guilt for deciding to go to work. I’m not going to say that our childcare does a “better” job with my babies—but they do a damn good one! I think it is true, you can’t have it all…at once.

But it’s okay for me to wear a cape of ambivalence regarding work. Likewise, it’s okay for those who don’t work outside the house to do the same. Because I question my choices and feel guilt at times doesn’t mean they are “wrong” means they are hard.

I contend that modern day feminism is not about a unilateral definition of “a woman’s work”, but more the push for societal (and governmental?) allowance of “choice” All for 1 year of paid maternity leave say aye-aye! (And all for forgetting if the period goes inside or outside quotations say aye-aye!) Some may choose to have their career in their back pocket, while others may find peace and meaning in having their career with a lead foot in the front seat. How this affects another’s family dynamic and stability is not for me to judge, even when it is in stark contrast to my experiences. While my arrangement of deciding how I “lean” with my family may not 100% resonate with me (or you) every single day, and at times I may be on the verge of crumbling, I am committed to working tirelessly to make it the right choice. And as a “feminist”, I can only work toward and supporting everyone else to be given that choice, too.

Now, back to the thighs. #nomnom.


  1. So well said and well written! I couldn't agree more!

  2. I totally just got out of bed, came downstairs and turned on my computer to respond to this. :)

    I love this post. So insightful and honest, and bringing up points that I had not thought of. You mention that *you* are a part of your family, and you need to put yourself first sometimes to make your whole family happy. I totally agree that each member should be put first at times so that everyone sees that each person is important; whether that is a kid's recital, a mom's run, a father's baseball tournament...That creates children who are more community aware, because they see that everyone has needs and desires, and everyone in the family unit needs to be respected.

    - Sarah

    I think we all shy away from this type of conversation because it's so uncomfortable, but to me, in my own dorky way, I love listening to other's reasons for why they choose the path that they do. As a stay at home mom, there are times that I think, "it was fun to be part of a working was great to bring home that solid paycheck..." there are other levels of frustration that go along with that choice. I truly appreciate your honesty and your courage in examining this issue. I'm going to talk more about this on Sunday at merelymothers...thank you so much for creating this post to continue the conversation in a different direction. I look forward to your feedback as I expand on the Yahoo! article.

  3. I have no idea why that comment split up like that... hmmm...

  4. I resonate completely....thank you for putting this into words!!

  5. Oh, this is so beautiful! I love every one of your words in this thesis. My compliment to you is I will re-read this when I need assurance...every week :) Thank you.


  6. This is wonderful! I love you and am blessed to have you as my friend! xo

  7. Well said, honey! I think it's wonderful that technology makes such inclusive and multi-dimensional discussions possible. The more young mothers can support and encourage one another, the better it is for their families, and wouldn't it be fabulous if the power of your voices eventually result in policy changes that can positively impact families?
    I look forward to reading more "adventures in mothering" - waiting for surviving the teen years...!

  8. Very well said! While I don't have to make this decision in the immediately foreseeabale future, I hope to one day. In the meantime, it has been very interesting to observe friends who do and don't work outside the home raise their children and interact in today's society. Amen to less judging and providing more support to one another.

  9. Well written and well said pp hormones and all :) I think it the picture of family is vastly different for each and every family. I grow so tired of the constant bashing and opinions regarding what it is suppose to look like. We have 3 kids and may have more. I want to be home with them and my craving for a life outside these walls is minimal at best. I know I am in the right place for me. For many of my friends they have to work for the sake of their sanity and that is great too. All that matters that there is love to go around and full bellies... to me that is successful parenthood. Not the working status, sex of parent or anything else. This is best part of moving past the new mom stage and into mom stage being able to accept what motherhood means to your family and being ok with it. Now if we could get all the mean moms to back off and talk less. Your doing great alli and your boys are adorable!