On Sunday we celebrate mothers. It’s a big day; millions of dollars will be spent on flowers, brunch and gifts so we will feel special. But when Monday comes, it brings with it the reality that, for many, motherhood can also carry a certain professional liability.
Some time ago I was at a public meeting when Mayor Joseph Curtatone got up to give remarks. After a few minutes he announced he was cutting himself short as he had to get home to his kids. A collective ripple of admiration spread through the room—and I was among the admirers. Work-life balance is a constant struggle, and I always appreciate it when folks in an influential position acknowledge this.
I love that Mayor Curatone talks about spending time with his family; however, I couldn’t help but wonder how different the room might have reacted if a woman was at the podium admitting she was on her way out to see her young children. The reaction to the mayor’s comment was different from the many times I’d gone back and forth in professional settings, trying to schedule meetings around my family’s schedule, only to be left wondering if the other parties were thinking I wasn’t putting enough value on my career.
And I know I’m not alone; so many women find it hard to be taken seriously while being open about the struggles of balancing parenting and their careers. This is particularly true for those having children later in life—as I did—when already established in a career.
I wasn’t prepared for how much my life would change after I became a mother. For a number of reasons, I took almost a year off after Sumner, my first son, was born. This hadn’t been my plan. Before having kids, I worked my way up to a coveted job in my field. We relocated to Somerville when I was pregnant, and I returned to the work force in a part-time job as the Director of Somerville Local First. The timing worked really well for me. I had a whole year with my son to bond and nurse and do all the things I felt I needed to do, and by the time I went back to work and Sumner went to daycare a few days a week, we were both ready to see other people. I assumed my next step would be working full-time. I stayed at SLF for three years, until just shortly after I had my second son.
Despite having the support of the board, I left the position only a few months after my short maternity leave ended. I kept hoping it would get easier as time went on, but the struggle became too much. I was balancing the work of running a nonprofit while adjusting to a new baby (and had lost a promised daycare spot, which meant working from home with said baby). My four-year old was in a new school, and dealing with all of this while managing the household left me feeling like I was failing on all fronts. My work-life balance had tipped to the point where I was buried under the scale. Instead of having it all, I was half-assing it all. But to admit this made me feel like a bad employee, a bad feminist and a bad mother. Most of all, I was afraid that by acknowledging my limitations—as well as my desire to focus more on my children—that I was now a risky hire, a liability, should I ever want to go back on a “standard” career track.
Even after I’d made my decision, I continued to second-guess myself. I was afraid I’d basically committed career suicide. I talked it over pretty much any chance I got, and got a real confidence boost from JJ Gonson (of ONCE and Cuisine en Locale), whose career and mothering skills I greatly admire.
“I feel like I’m giving up. Somehow betraying the sisterhood or something,” I said to her. “Women fought hard for the right to work outside the home, and here I am going right back into my home.”
“Being a caregiver doesn’t make you any less of a feminist,” she said. “There’s nothing anti-feminist about being more hands-on in raising your kids.” She went on to tell me how she built her business after her kids were a bit older. She now has a thriving catering business and runs a venue, and she was able to have the time to care for her kids when they were really small.
This conversation made me realize that over the years, I’d let my identity and self-worth become so entangled in my career aspirations that I wasn’t able to see the importance of being a caregiver, the emotional center of my home. And our culture doesn’t value this as highly as it should, either, particularly given how incredibly hard it is. One of the first things folks will ask you at a party here is what you do; when I was staying home with the kids I’d mumble something about how I was really an urban planner/nonprofit professional and was just taking some time off. Sometimes I’d say, “Oh, I’m just a mom.” I didn’t feel pride in answering “I parent.” I’d even set my occupation to “reluctant household manager” on Facebook. And while I’m a terrible housekeeper, it felt somehow more true to my feminist leanings to really state how little I enjoyed it, instead of owning my new role in life.
So what I really want for Mother’s Day is for us to acknowledge the importance of caregiving and the value it has to our society. To allow for a more creative use of standard resumes so women won’t be terrified to put one career on hold while they build their mothering practice. For employers to see caregiving time not as gaps in a resume, but a period spent growing important skills that can benefit everyone in the workplace. In any other job, it takes months to learn the ropes, but as moms we’re supposed to hit the ground running and keep everything else up, too. It’s not sustainable. We need to give caregiving its worth and its space to thrive.
As for me, I’m going to keep openly half-assing it all the best I can until I start to ace it. And I hope to encourage other mothers to do the same.