Balancing on the Limbs of the Working Mother Issue
Two weeks ago, on a business trip home from the airport, the driver and I were making small talk.
At some point, I mentioned that we recently moved to Virginia from California and after he shared with me that he has four small children at home, I mentioned that I, too, have four small children at home. He said it must be very difficult to work full-time and I told him that it was.
Or rather, it is.
But thankfully, I'm married to a wonderful man who is home with our children. Even though Charlie makes it look glamorous, I know it's not always rainbows and unicorns being primarily responsible for the well-being of four little lives. (And yet, despite the challenges, it's still the best job in the world.)
The driver told me the story about a woman he drove to the airport for an international trip earlier in the month. He said that when he picked her up at 6:00 in the morning, she opened the front door and was holding a baby in her arms. She handed the baby over to her husband and then slowly walked down the stairs to the car. As he loaded her suitcase in the trunk and climbed in behind the driver seat, he noticed that his passenger had broken down in to tears. He wasn't sure what to do, so he looked at her in the mirror and said, "Miss, I'm sorry that you are so upset. Is there something I can do to help you?"
She shook her head no, but then continued to cry the entire drive to the airport. When they were pulling up to the terminal, she finally opened up and told him that her baby was celebrating his one-year birthday while she would be away on her trip and she was going to miss it. Then she added that she is the primary breadwinner in her family and she desperately wants to succeed in her career, and her presence has been requested at this meeting and really, what option did she have but to say that YES she'd be there?
I let out a deep, sad sigh.
What option does she have?
Let me see...
She has the option to say NO.
She has the option to say, "I'm very sorry but this 'birthday' has been on my calendar for a year and I'm not going to miss it." She has the option to travel the week before, or the week after, but she is not going to travel the week of and miss this monumental event.
Because it is monumental.
And maybe some people wouldn't think so, but then again, those people probably wouldn't cry the entire drive to the airport over missing such an event in the first place.
Therein lies the challenge of the working mother. More specifically, the working mother who is also trying to climb a steep and at times, slippery and rigid corporate ladder. Responses may vary, but the question is always present... just what are you willing to sacrifice, to climb a wee bit higher?
One of my friends is struggling with a work situation that required her to move to a foreign country on assignment, just before her oldest child graduates from high school in the United States. She is currently living overseas and has missed the last two months with her son and will also miss this entire summer with him at home, before he moves away to college. She is equal parts devastated and frustrated over what she feels is a mothering defeat. And I am heartbroken for her, because I know that she'll never get this time back, again.
Very recently, I found myself in a situation that would have left me feeling a very similar kind of mothering defeat.
In a few weeks, our six-year-old triplets will be making their debut on the big stage. But it just so happens that the date of their play coincided with what was gearing up to be an important meeting at work. Immediately recognizing the conflict, I made it clear that I wouldn't be available the morning of the yet-to-be-scheduled big meeting, because my attendance was required elsewhere.
My announcement was met with a blank stare.
After happily explaining that my children's Kindergarten class was putting on a production, it was suggested that it would be in my "best interest" if I not attend the production and instead, participate in the meeting.
Before I go any further, I think it's important to note that I am the primary breadwinner in our family. It is therefore my responsibility to ensure that we have a roof over our heads, food on the table, clothes on our backs, shoes on our feet and all the necessary medical benefits.
But it's also important to note that I am a mother.
And if there's one thing I've learned during this mothering tenure, it's that if something doesn't feel right, it generally isn't. For me, this moment was critical because to miss my children's kindergarten performance ... however trite some might think it is ... would be a crushing blow to my mothering soul.
Yes, a roof over our heads is important. So is food on the table, clothes on our backs, shoes on our feet and the ability to go see a doctor and dentist. Those things are all critical. But there's something more important than any of that, and that's my mental health and the mental health of my children who would have been devastated if I missed their show.
Sure, they'd get over it. But would I?
I have a choice.
So I took a moment to compose myself before very carefully choosing the words, "If you would like to keep me in this role, it would be in your best interest to never attempt putting my work responsibilities before my children. Because while I am a team player that will put in 18-hour work days and will pack up and move my family 3,000-miles cross-country on less than two months notice, in the midst of a significant health challenge, the day that I would sacrifice something as important as this event, is the day that my priorities as a mother are officially out of whack and I need to immediately resign from this position."
Ultimately, the meeting was pushed back. And I feel empowered to share this story because although I might soon be moved to the basement with my Red Swingline stapler, I've met so many working parents that are far too intimidated to stand up for things that are important them. I know it isn't easy because not everyone will have the same focus that you do, but please, don't ever lose your focus.
This is your life and you only get one shot at it.
It's critical that you recognize what is important to you and your family and you defend it, because all too easily, your priorities can be replaced with someone else's. Each and every day, I recognize the enormous responsibility that rests upon my shoulder's to support my family. But I also recognize that nothing is as important as my mental health. When my mental health fails, my physical health fails and it's just a matter of time before I'm calling out MAYDAY!
It is for that reason, I've always been a proponent of asking the question, "What will matter more to me and my family a year from now?" and then advocating a solution that works best for me. Inevitably whatever will work best for me, will work best for my family because when I'm happy, they're happy.
More commonly expressed as:
:) Mom = :) Family
Currently, the solution that will work best for me is getting back in to a home-office arrangement post-haste. It's been almost a year since I've transitioned in to a "high-profile" role and I can say that without a doubt, even though I have a "short" commute by relative standards in the D.C. area, the time that I spend each day on the road is sucking the very life out of me. That is my confession: As a mother to small children, I cannot do this much longer. I will not do this much longer.
I know my limits and I've nearly reached them.
(Edited to add: less than two weeks after I first published this post, I was hospitalized for four days with a severe case of pneumonia and what has been preliminarily identified as adrenal failure possibly as a direct result of stress. Foreshadowing: the phenomena wherein one eerily predicts the upper end of their limits and then surpasses them and experiences a system failure. Or successfully achieving the Mayday effect.)
If only I could get back those 10 hours each week I spend commuting, I doubt I'd feel so far behind. I'd feel like I once again have a somewhat manageable work-life balance. I'd play with our children a lot more. I'd get caught up on sleep. I'd take more pictures and read and knit and write and exercise and watch movies. I'd answer e-mail and send birthday cards and order school photographs. I'd fold laundry and methodically put it away as opposed to throwing it in to whatever I assume is the correct drawer. And you know, I'd undoubtedly be a happier and more productive employee because of it.
Just tonight my six-year-old came out wearing my bra wondering how it got in to her dresser and I had the fleeting image of her as a teenager...
I just know that those days will be here much sooner than I'd like and I don't want to miss a minute more than I absolutely must between now and then.
Life's just too darn short as it is.
(When Jen is not spending time with her husband and four young children, she works as an environmental geologist for a Fortune 500 Company. Her blog, The Amazing Trips, chronicles the navigation of motherhood, careerhood, the ongoing search for balance, and the simple yet abundant pleasures of life.)