The Part-time Professional: Confessions of a Working Mom

Mother's Day always gets us thinking about mommyhood: the good, bad and the ugly.  I've always struggled with the balance between my career which I love, and my kids who I love.  In honor of Mother's Day, I thought I'd share my perspective on trying to juggle motherhood and a career...

confession of a part time working mom

“So Hilary, what will you be doing for our company?”

Sitting at my brand-new job’s employee orientation, I smiled broadly and shared the little spiel I had been sharing with my friends and family: “Well, I was just hired as a part-time employee, which is great because I have two little ones at home, so I’ll still be able to spend time with them during the day.”  I paused and glanced around the room.  Several of my full-time co-workers who also had little children at home stared at me.  I cringed and realized how arrogant I sounded.  Over the next 9 months, being the only part-time worker in a full-time agency, I plastered a smile on my face and repeated that mantra to myself at least weekly.  I’m part-time, I’m so blessed/lucky/happy because I get to see my kids during the day.  And yet after 9 months, I was miserable.  I racked my brain, trying to figure out why being a part-time worker was so tough, until my best friend nailed it: “Hilary, you’re always in a state of transition.” 

Wow.  It was like a lightning bolt struck me and suddenly my unhappiness made sense.

There have been so many articles written about the difficulties working moms face and a lot of articles written about the stay-at-home mom experience, but none about the trials and perks of working part-time.  And yet there are a lot of women who work part-time.  Nurses, retail workers, office administrators.  Part-time jobs, even part-time career jobs do exist.  Over the past 5 years, I’ve worked several and while I’ve been grateful for that, there are drawbacks as well.  But I’m often too embarrassed to bring them up for fear that another mom will tell me, “I wish I could be home more during the day, but I have to work full-time.”  And many stay-at-home moms don’t understand either.  They see someone who gets to work only part of the week, make money, and be around adults, and don’t want to hear about the struggles either.

And since I’ve been working part-time since my daughter was born in 2008, I’ve been in a no-mom’s-land.  I worked full-time as a social worker and although I discussed being a stay-at-home mom while pregnant, I am a social worker and saddled by overwhelming/soul-crushing student loans, so after I had my daughter, I took 4 months of maternity leave, then went back to working. 

One day a week.  Sometimes I filled in for coworkers one extra day a week.

It was difficult to miss a whole weekend day, but it was nice to avoid the stress of childcare since my husband was home and could watch her.  However, I always felt left out at work since I was only there one day a week, so when my daughter was 2, I was offered a job that was more hours…at night and I took it.  I worked two nights and 4-5 hours from home during the week.  It was a little stressful (any mom who’s tried to have a serious conversation with a child screaming in the background can sympathize), but it worked for us.  I juggled mommyhood and being a professional for two and a half years.  There were times where I was frustrated that I couldn’t work more, or easily pop into a meeting without finding a babysitter, and part of me longed for a stronger sense of permanence in a job.

And then my position was cut and I was unemployed.  I tried the stay-at-home mom thing for three months and it didn’t work.  I have so much respect for women who stay at home (my best friend does, many of my friends do), but it wasn’t for me.  I need adult stimulation, I need to feel like I’m putting my degree to use and I love serving others in a social work capacity.  I’ve struggled over the years with the question: am I social worker who is a mom or a mom who practices social work?  Where do my loyalties lie?

At the end of three unemployed stressful months, right before sinking into a full-on depression, I was offered a job.  It was part-time, but it was during the day.  I would be working 4 days a week from morning to early afternoon.  Pretty awesome, right?  That was my mindset at the employee orientation when I accidentally rubbed my coworkers’ noses in the fact that I would be there to watch afternoon cartoons with my little ones or spend my day off snuggling and running errands with them while their children were at daycare 40+ hours a week.

The first few months were great.  My best friend (who’s also my sister-in-law) watched my kids at her home and I paid her less than a daycare would have cost.  I set up my office and relished being able to work quietly and make phone calls without screaming children in the background.  But I struggled when I got home.  I would arrive home at 3:30pm and sit down on the couch for just a moment until my husband walked in the door to find me staring at kids’ cartoons two hours later, eyes glazed. 

I never had quite enough time to clean in the mornings and no energy after a long day, so my house was never fully clean.  One perk of working full-time is when everybody is gone, there are no dishes stacking up during the day.  My kids were home just enough to trash the house, but I didn’t have the time to leisurely clean up after them throughout the day like I did when I was at home more.  And the one day a week I had off?  I spent most of it hugging my son, playing with my daughter and pretending that I wasn’t gone the other four mornings a week.  The last thing I wanted to do was spend that time cleaning, organizing or dragging my kids to do errands.

See the problem about working part-time is that your role is always in flux.  You have a little time to be a stay-at-home mom, you have a little time to clean, you have a little time to give to your spouse, you have a little time to give to your friends and you have a little time to give to your children.  My relationship with my husband was strained (in my head) because I felt guilty that I was home for part of the week, but he still did a lot of cleaning in the evenings.  Basic daily chores like laundry and dishes took up my limited time and energy, but our bathrooms went months between cleanings and vacuuming went from a daily task to a weekly task. 

I barely had time for friends because they all got together during the day when I was at work.  Even something simple like a leisurely cup of coffee after work was hard when I alternated between being in “got-to-get-things-done” mode after work and totally worn out mentally.  My family couldn’t keep track of my ever-changing schedule, so I would miss calls from them and feel guilty that I didn’t have time for long phone calls with my mom anymore.

After 9 ½ months of feeling progressively more worn out, I was offered a different job that was three afternoons a week.  I took it.  It is still a stressful job, but I am more relaxed.  I cuddle with my son in my jammies five mornings a week and spend part of my morning chatting with my mom or doing playdates with my best friend.  I am so grateful for the part-time work, but there are still challenges. 

I still struggle with a schedule that changes quite a bit.  In some ways, it is easier to have an 8 to 5, Monday through Friday schedule.  People remember that during the day, you are at work.  Done.  Part-time is different.  Sometimes I go in later, sometimes my clients don’t show up and I take the day off.  Luckily, I have a daycare provider who allows me to pay her less when I don’t work as much.  But it also means that if I have a little free time while the kids are napping at her house, I feel guilty working out or relaxing when she is stuck at home with my kids.  It can be tough to schedule my son’s well-child checks months out because I have no idea what my work schedule will be at that point.

There are times when my coworkers are staying late to finish something, and I have to (or get to?) leave early to pick my kids.  At least at my new job, almost everyone is part-time, so it is easier.  But at the last one, an intern told me, “So you have a built-in excuse to leave because you’re part-time?  I bet your coworkers hate you.”

That comment gnawed at me for a long time.

This last year has taught me that there is no magical solution for mommyhood.  It doesn’t matter if you are working full-time, part-time or staying at home, parenthood is stressful.  Keeping your house clean, your spouse happy, cherishing time with your kids and throwing in a workout or two is a balancing act.  And although the mommy wars involve long arguments saying the other side has it easier, I don’t think any side is easy.  By the end of my working experiment, my part-time-working-mom spiel had changed.  I no longer plastered a smile on and talked about how lucky I was.  Instead, I gave myself permission to struggle and honestly told people the truth, which is: I was grateful for the experience, but being a mom in any capacity, no matter where you spend your day, is tough.

And that is okay.

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