Work and Babies: Women Still Have to Pick Their Poison. (But Men are Evolving!)
For many women, going back to work a few months after having a baby is overwhelming and unmanageable.
As strange as it may seem, things get even more difficult for a working mom after the second and third baby arrive. By that time, the romance of being a modern "superwoman" wears off and reality sets in.
Mom is exhausted. Dad isn't getting a good night's sleep. And older kids feel neglected.
Dads who want to be equal partners too often fall short because there are certain things they simply cannot do for you -- like breastfeeding, sleeping, or even taking a shower.
The new mother starts to question herself and whether it is all worth it. And too often, the money just doesn't add up.
Too often, childcare, taxes and commuting expenses often negate a large chunk of a young mom's salary. At the end of each year, many stretched mommys will do what I did throughout my late 20s and ask why I worked so hard just for the glory of feeling guilty.
Was the paltry profit of an entry level job drained by childcare expenses really worth
missing out on so many cute moments?
And what is worth being so completely exhausted at the end of the week that you feel like you can't give your all to your children, your husband and your boss?
The weekends only add to a destructive mental spiral of "self-second-guessing," trying to run after toddlers and please a husband who just needs a moment of quiet, but doesn't feel like he can ask for it.
Tension builds. You just can't come up for air in a sea of worry and "to-do" lists that all revolve around fixing up a strained household in time to rush back to work on Monday morning.
It wasn't supposed to feel like this? Was it?
On so little sleep, the day-to-day race of trying to manage each hour and everyone's needs robs you of your ability to visualize your long-term goals in life.
You soon forget to ask what you want to do.
You soon forget to ask who you want to be.
You stop remembering all the effort your parents put into your childhood so you would grow up to realize your own great potential.
My best friend and I speak of this often. Over the past three decades, she and I have often been mistaken for sisters. We finish each other's sentences, wear the same hairstyle and laugh at all the same stupid jokes. We look and sound alike. If I had a sister, it would be her.
But we have made very different choices in our lives.
She juggles a five year old and two stepchildren. She has an MBA from BU and worked for ten years at a Fortune 500 company, but quit at a time in her life when the balancing act was simply too much for her family. She could quit.
His salary was sufficient. And juggling the logistics and cost of childcare just didn't make sense. It seemed financially and logistically stupid to stay at work. And on paper, it was.
Five years later, she wishes she had pushed through. While she is blessed with an amazing husband and children and a beautiful home on the water, she feels unfulfilled and regrets that she did not stick with her career. It is a decision that impacts her relationships and her view of herself. She hates that she is completely dependent on her husband for everything. It is a concept that is not that attractive to him either. He also feels helpless that he cannot fill that void. While it was hard for them juggling the baby, the kids, and the jobs, maybe today would be better for her if she had stayed at work.
And here's the key. She feels she was being told by society that women could have it all. She thought she could just "jump back in" later.
That, like many women I know, has turned out to be completely unrealistic. More importantly, it is a bad strategic choice.
We often talk about our very different paths because while she marvels at my ability to balance horrifically challenging job schedules, I marvel at her ability to remember my birthday and to write thank you notes.
After the second kid, it seems like a woman has to pick her poison. Suffer now, or take "a few years off" and pay later. Women need to know that "taking a few years off" can often lead to a permanent condition of dependence and loss of identity.
I want to make a realistic, BS-free argument for suffering now and "pushing through."
There are women who have no choice but to keep on keeping on at work for financial reasons.
There are also women who have the choice to "take a few years off" until the craziness dies down.
I am speaking to both of you.
For the record, I went back too early both times. The second time I paid a terrible price, a story I tell in my upcoming book, All Things at Once.
I realize that of all people, I am no expert on parenting or marriage. My story can inspire just as many women to dial back for fear of making similar mistakes.
Still, I want to put it out there because the conversation for women with newborn babies and careers is for right now, not later.
I suffered from a mild case of postpartum depression after my second child and the physical challenge of maintaining an overnight shift at CBS, a marriage, and two in diapers made the symptoms worse and everyone in the house paid the price.
But I am still glad I did it.
Today, my girls are 11 and 13 and while the household is still chaotic, it is nothing compared to those years after giving birth. My body and mind were out of whack and recovering. The needs of babies and toddlers were constant and drained the life out my sense of self and my family's relationship with each other.
But it's not forever.
Just as those adorable "mommy-moments" go away, so too does the over-exhaustion, the instinctive need to be in charge of your baby's every move, and the guilt.
What you are left with is you.
And by the time they are in school and beyond, what are you?
That question can damage your relationship with your life partner and your children just as much.
You also may need practical options as a family or on your own.
If you are haunted by decisions made in the throws of breastfeeding, weight gain and night terrors, you may actually be left with a bigger challenge; how to jumpstart your sense of self.
I have friends who struggle with this question and because of that, also struggle to maintain their relationships. Yes, I am talking about being mentally and physically interesting to the one you love, your life partner.
This may sound harsh, but when you step out of the career track, those attributes get harder to maintain. It is a risk you take and it is worth talking about openly.
Don't just assume that you will be the same cute, interesting girl who entered the work force and marriage ten years and three kids ago. That is the reality that many of my peers are coping with and it is not pretty.
It is also impractical to assume that your husband will always take care of you. It is just as foolhardy to think he will find your total dependence on him to be an attractive characteristic.
But there is some good news to report as I open myself up to another round of beatings on Twitter.
The attitudes of men seem to have really evolved on this issue. Over the past couple of years, four male friends and colleagues of mine have asked my advice regarding their wives and their apprehension toward returning to work in the months after the second or third child. Wondering how and why I did it. Looking for the right words to bring home.
And they have all expressed something completely new and different about how they feel. Each of them wanted their wives to go back, worried about exactly what I have expressed in this blog.
They also worried about finances because this economy poses risks that make them feel vulnerable. They need their wives to help secure the family's future.
But they also felt a worry their partners would regret the choice personally. I know two of them were encouraging their spouses to stick it out for her sense of self, and ultimately for the sake of the relationship. These guys were not thinking of the short term. They'd rather NOT have someone there to make dinner and get the dry-cleaning and change diapers and to make their lives run smoothly. They'd rather have a partner, with her sense of self in tact in the long run. Wow.. refreshing!
But ultimately it is a woman's dilemma. None of the options are easy. My contribution to the conversation is this. Strategically, women may want to "push through the pain." Get the kids out of diapers and into school before pulling the trigger on any decision, IF they have the luxury of choice.