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Working Mother

Motherhood can be a tricky topic for working mothers in the United States. People have strong opinions about leaving a child with alternate caretakers. Since I chose to return to work, I have a pile of books written for working mothers that I’ve been working my way through over the past couple months. These books all agree that being a successful career woman and a mother is hard, but possible with enough support. At first I was incredibly intimidated by this. I don’t want to be Super Mom, I just want to be me, with a family, and a career I love. As I bonded with my son and started getting ready to start my new job, I realized that both are exciting enough to me that I want to excel at both, and that is what will give me strength to be the best mother and the best professional I can be.

I also put a lot of thought into what I get value from. I started my new job on Tuesday with a trip to Atlanta for an event. I missed little Adam terribly, at one point I nearly cried while walking past the baby aisle in a CVS. Out at dinner with a friend and colleague, we spent almost the entire meal talking about our kids. But I also felt great. I was so happy and fulfilled to be back at work. This tug between parts of my life can be best described by Emily Oster, as she so honestly wrote in her recent opinion piece in the New York Times:

I work because I like to. I love my kids! They are amazing. But I wouldn’t be happy staying home with them. It isn’t that I like my job better — if I had to pick, the kids would win every time. But the “marginal value” of time with them declines fast… The first hour with my kids is great, but by the fourth, I’m ready for some time with my research. My job doesn’t have this nose-dive in marginal value — the highs are not as high, but the hour-to-hour satisfaction declines much more slowly.

Sidenote: The article was adapted from segments of her recently released book Cribsheet which I pre-ordered after loving her pregnancy book so much. It was released last week and I have almost finished reading it. It’s so good.

Being on this firm footing privately has left me in a great spot, but I’ve also been trying to figure out how public I want to be about my family. There’s a meme that went around that, when referring to working mothers, “At work, you have to pretend you don’t have kids. With your kids, you have to pretend you don’t have work.” This speaks to the career penalty that many women suffer, and negative judgement from people who don’t believe mothers should work full time. It bothered me. Not just because it’s unfair, but on a deep level I’ve always been very public and genuine. Hiding the fact that I have a child from my professional life would not be consistent with who I am. It’s also not what I want. I bring my whole self to my job, and my whole self now means that I now also identify with being a mother.

And many of the skills I’ve developed and discovered in this new role as mother will serve me well. I thought I was pretty good at multitasking before, but motherhood has bumped that to a whole new level. I thought I knew tired and sleep-deprivation given my work and international travel schedule, but it’s difficult to compare to the first few weeks of having a newborn at home. I think the difference is there was always an end time with work and travel, a time when I could crash and sleep for a whole weekend without having to worry about anything. No more! Even when I did have times of more sleep when MJ or my aunt would take over, I would have to wake up to pump, or just because my brain decided I should check on the baby. The mantra “If you want something done, ask a busy person to do it,” could easily be narrowed down to say “If you want something done, ask a working mother to do it.” For me, I feel like I’m a better employee because I now have this experience. I value my time more and am considerably more strategic about how I spend it.

In keeping with this openness, the other day I took to Twitter to see if I could find a hotel room for an upcoming conference. The opportunity to attend came too late to book a room near the conference venue, and I was hoping someone knew of a last minute room cancellation that I could take advantage of. My request got a lot of attention, especially when I disclosed my reason for needing a close hotel room (bringing along my infant, who I am feeding breast milk). But being honest about that caused me to pause. Was I sharing too much information? Was asking for this “accommodation” going to hurt me? Of the people who responded, there was an overwhelming amount of positivity, support, and problem-solving to make pumping and milk storage work at the event. Shining a giant spotlight on my situation was scary, but regardless of the outcome, I’m glad I spoke up and asked for help. Maybe other women who feel less privileged than I will also feel more empowered to speak up, and the stigma around everything related to motherhood will slowly fade away the more we talk about it. Right now I worry that many mothers are instead just making the choice to stay home when they’d rather work, switch their child to formula sooner than they’d like, or put a pause on career advancement when they really don’t want to. I’d really like to see support for working mothers improve in this country, both culturally and legally.

I expect the next several weeks as I settle into my new job to be a tiring time, but I’m looking forward to the challenge and opportunity. I’m excited about my work, I already enjoy working with my colleagues and a technology that’s partially new to me. I spend less time with Adam, but I’m happier and more energized about quality time together when I get it.