Over the years, I’ve heard more than a few women declare that “working makes me a better mom.” I don’t doubt that they’re telling the truth, but after almost six years of trying to claim that truth for myself, I’m going to have to say: working makes me a rotten mom. Maybe it’s my profession or the way that responsibilities fall at home; maybe my personality is to blame.
Whatever the cause, my children do not benefit from my career.
I frequently hear moms say that working gives them an outlet, a chance to have relationships with other adults. Let me tell you about the relationships I get to build at work: I’m a teacher, so my “adult” interaction is seven-plus hours a day with the 15-18-year-old set. Sound glamorous? I like teenagers; there’s a reason I chose to be a high school teacher. But if working is supposed to provide me with significant, meaningful interaction with my peers, I only get 20-25 minutes during a frantic lunch when I might also be making copies or running to the restroom. When we do have time to “collaborate” with other adults, all I can think about is the grading and the paperwork that I’ll have to do on my own time. Instead of recharging while my kids are in daycare, I’m spilling out the best part of myself for my students, and by the time I get home, my introverted self just wants to curl up in the fetal position and whimper from the overload.
But I can’t. Because when I get home, all that housework that I can’t do during the day is still waiting for me. I don’t even bother to change clothes when I walk in the door; I go straight to work. The dishwasher still needs to be unloaded, the breakfast dishes are sitting in the sink with food dried on them because I couldn’t get to them before I left, Mount Laundry has seemingly doubled in size during the day, an orange film is coating the toilet bowl, mildew is taking over the shower grout, the trash stinks and needs to be taken out, dinner is begging to be finished and served, dishes need to be washed (again), baths are an absolute necessity, and then the marathon that is bedtime needs to be run.
Sometimes my husband, in all sincerity, will point out the things I haven’t done yet; I guess he thinks maybe I haven’t noticed. Believe me, I notice. I never stop noticing, and all those things I notice swell up into a weight on my chest that makes it physically hard to breathe. At no point in my day am I able to just “be” with my kids.
Yes, we are in the same house for several hours in the evening, but I am always working. Yes, I try to involve them in the work, but that takes a lot of patience, and if you remember, I already used that up at work. You can say that they don’t mind and that they understand, but that’s just not true. They grab my hand, they try to pull me toward the living room, they try to sit on my lap when I’m going to the bathroom, they sit on my feet and grab my knees while I cook. There are meltdowns and tantrums and sibling spats that all come down to wanting more attention: attention I can’t give while also meeting their physical needs. Even bedtime stories are rushed because I’m trying to get everyone to sleep before they get overtired because THAT means night terrors and less sleep for an already overwrought mama.
“Just slow down and breathe,” I’m told. “Focus on what is important and let the other stuff wait.” Great advice.
So what would you suggest that I not do?
Shall we go without dinner or wear our underwear for two days in a row? We can talk all we want about carving out rest time, but some things have to be done. And all the things that have to be done take more time than I have. Let me tell you what’s already been cut: time for me, hobbies, self-care (I simply cannot talk about my toenails at this point), time with friends, phone conversations, and exercise that goes beyond the push-ups and squats I can do in the bathroom before I take a shower. Yes, I admit. I still use Facebook. Go ahead and judge, but that’s the only adult interaction I get in a day. It is often the closest thing to meaningful relationships that I have. It feels like finally exhaling when the kids are in bed, I grab my phone and let my mind shut down for a few minutes.
And then it’s off to bed, to collapse into sleep until someone wakes up and needs me. Even in the middle of the night moments, I try so hard to just relax and be present, but my mind is racing with a to-do list, reminding me that the alarm will go off at 5am, and I’ll be up making breakfasts, lunches, and sometimes dinner, unloading the dishwasher, dressing tiny people, and battling through another day. There is no break. Ever. Not on weekends, and not on breaks, which I realize I am lucky to have. But I use those breaks to catch up on the household tasks that have been neglected during the week. I can’t even talk about the hard part of parenting…the actual teaching and training that it is my JOB to provide. When am I supposed to fit that in?
What comes off my plate so I can do what is most important?
I am not a person prone to meltdowns, but I have them daily. WE have them daily. You can’t really blame my kids: they are just following my lead. They happen in the morning when I’m invariably late to work and someone is unhappy because his sock is bunched up in his shoe or he wanted yogurt and he got a banana. They happen when another small someone is whining because he has to go to daycare after school when everyone else gets picked up by a mom. They happen when the baby, bless her heart, just wants to be carried, and I need four extra arms. They happen in the evening when my kindergartner wants to race through his handwriting practice and I’m trying to get him to slow down while also herding his little brother to bed. They happen when dinner isn’t quite done and everyone in the house is screaming because they were hungry five minutes ago. You cannot tell me that our collective emotional state is good for any of us, but I’ve done all the tricks for finding peace, and I can’t.
And don’t get me started on the things I miss: the class parties, the field trips, the firsts. I used all my sick days in an attempt to get a maternity leave, so there’s nothing left now that the kids are here. If I’m sick, I go to work. If my kids are sick, I give them Motrin and go to work. My employer won’t give me my yearly sick days all at once, and I can’t afford to be docked pay. So I keep in touch with my kids’ teachers via email and try to figure out whether my four-year-old napped based on his behavior. On bad days, when my husband asks what is wrong with the kids, the truth is I don’t know. I wasn’t there.
“The grass is always greener,” you say, but I’m going to disagree. The only advantage of my current job is the summers off. And you know what happens in those summers? I become friends with my kids again, I exhale and slow down, my temper subsides and we spend hours at the park and pool because we can. We spend time with each other again, I get to revisit my hobbies without staying up all night. We watch less TV because we don’t need it. We play board games because I have time to take part. We go on playdates where I have fractured conversations with other adults who understand that fractured conversations are a part of these little years. We behave like humans. We are a functional family and it is good. If we could do this and pay our bills, I’d quit tomorrow.
“So why don’t you quit?” Good question. We can’t afford it, and not because we’re too materialistic to make cuts. We don’t have cable, we have a basic phone plan, we don’t eat out other than the once-a-week pizza, we’re lucky to take one small vacation a year, we wear hand-me-downs, we live in a small house (that we love), and we do the best we can. Sometimes making cuts just isn’t enough for a mom to stay at home. Some professions don’t offer a part-time option, and I’m finding that transitioning to a new field will probably require a pay cut I just can’t take. So I am stuck. And while I know I am fortunate to have a “professional” job, I am miserable. And so are my kids.
I’m quite sure this is not what the early feminists had in mind when they fought for my “right” to work. I’m told I’m an empowered woman with “options” and “control”, that I’m setting a good example for my kids, that I’m providing for their futures. It sure doesn’t feel like it.
I know that in ten years, I’ll look back on these days and be sorry that I missed so many of them. I know that something has to change, but I don’t know how to change it. And I hate that.