As summer began winding to a close a few weeks ago, I was feeling pretty darn proud of myself. I had kept my kids busy and active with summer camps, Vacation Bible Schools, playdates, vacations to the beach and to see grandparents, day trips, hikes, excursions, and special events. I had managed to get all of my writing assignments done on time, redesign my blog (with a whole lot of help) and take some time off with two different trips to the beach. I had worked in a few business trips and made sure my children were well taken care of by family members and trusted babysitters while I was gone.
Yep, I thought to myself. I can do it all. I can be a good wife and mom, keep the house clean and have my dream career. I am woman. HEAR ME ROAR.
And then my seven-year-old daughter said something the other night that shot all my smug thoughts straight to hell.
“This summer has been really hard on me,” she said quietly as I tucked her into bed. “I think summer is my least favorite time of year.”
“What do you mean it’s been hard on you?” I asked her. “You’ve had a great summer!”
“It’s hard for me because I don’t get to see you as often as I do the rest of the year,” she said.
My face fell. She had a point. She and her 4-year-old brother had spent a week with my parents early in the summer and another four days with them while I went to the beach with my girlfriends. And then there were the business trips. I really didn’t think the kids missed me when I left for a few days- Their dad turned those times into Don’t-Tell-Mommy extravaganzas of doughnut dinners and late bedtimes. But apparently, I was wrong.
I tried to reassure my daughter as best I could, but her words unnerved me. Business has picked up for me lately and more travel is almost a guarantee. I’ve worked so hard to get to where I am now and to have a career that would allow me to provide for my family and still be at home with them most of the time. I’m finally reaching that goal.
But is it coming at the cost of my daughter’s sense of well-being?
“I just don’t understand,” I told my friend Jane a few days later. “I thought I was balancing everything so well. To hear her say that just killed me.”
“I know,” my friend replied. “My daughter told me the other day that I had been more like an aunt to her this summer than a mom.” I winced. Jane works as hard as anyone I know. She generally has between two and three jobs at any given time, and she and her husband keep crazy hours so that one of them can always be home with her daughter. But this summer, that had proved to be impossible, and little Cara was spending many of her days at Jane’s best friend’s house. Hearing Cara say that must have been crushing.
All this was weighing heavily on my mind as I flew to San Diego last week for the annual BlogHer conference. Not going was out of the question; I was hosting the closing party and speaking on a panel, and every single hour was filled with parties and events held by important business contacts.
But even as I met with celebrities and dined on lobster tails and danced with my friends at parties and felt incredibly fortunate to have a JOB that let me do these kinds of things, the mom guilt never really went away. Instead, it sat like a heavy stone in the pit of my stomach. What were my kids doing? Were they eating right? How long had it been since their last bath? Did they miss me? Were they sad? Were they brushing their teeth? Was the babysitter doing more with them than playing video games?
I texted and called often, but the conversations did little to make me feel better. I couldn’t get past the nagging feeling that I should have been there with them instead of having fun across the country… even though I was making money. Even though I was doing business. Even though I was living my dream.
These feelings of guilt aren’t something I talk about very often with my mom friends- After all, I have it so much better than so many moms I know. I can set my own schedule and make it to all of my children’s events. I can take them to the zoo, bring in fresh out of the oven cookies for their school snack times, and say no with a clear conscience to most of the blogging trips that are offered each year.
But when I found myself sitting with a half-dozen other bloggers and PepsiCo CEO Indra K. Nooyi for a conversation about our roles as women in today’s society, the work-family balance is exactly what came up. Liz Gumbinner talked about the difficulties she has working outside the home and being away from her girls. Jyl Johnson Pattee said that she had never imagined that she would be her family’s source of income before her husband got laid off. Stephanie Nielsen talked about the fact that motherhood was her calling and passion in life, and that she never expected that a plane crash would dramatically change that experience.
Indra K. Nooyi listened. And then she did something totally unexpected. She asked her 18-year-old daughter sitting beside her to tell us what it had been like to grow up with a mother who worked long hours as she was growing up. Her daughter candidly said that it had been difficult -- that it was hard for her when she was young having parents who traveled, hard coming home to an empty house or a babysitter, hard having parents who were different from the parents of her friends. But she said that she also realized that her mother was living her dream and making it possible for her family to have wonderful lives.
Listening to all of this, I got tears in my eyes.
In fact, if I hadn’t focused all my concentration on maintaining my composure, I could have easily broken down and had a good old-fashioned ugly cry, right there in the Presidential Suite of the Marriott Marquis.
And I’ve thought a lot about that conversation ever since. Why is it so difficult for us as women to balance our work and family roles? Why don’t we hear about men who feel guilty and conflicted when they work long hours or travel? Why can’t I escape the worry that I’m doing the wrong thing when my work takes me away from my children, even though it’s work that helps put food on the table and a roof over their heads? Why do I feel this overwhelming urge to sacrifice everything that makes me happy if it means easing the hearts and minds of my kids?
And why do I have the feeling now that I’ll never be entirely certain if I’ve found a solution?
What I can say is this: I did a lot of amazing things this past weekend, and I met a lot of important people. And when I got home, my kids were happy, and had clearly had a lot of fun with their dad in my absence. But when I lay down on the den floor last night in complete and total exhaustion, my squirmy, active 4-year-old son laid down with me, and pretty much stayed there for the next two hours. He played with his toys. He sprawled out across my back. He told me stories. He patted my hair and tenderly called me “Mama” over and over. He sang songs to me and let me cradle him in my lap like a baby.
It was the first time that I had felt “right” all weekend long.
If too many mothers today are still being held back from reaching their full potential in the workforce, I’m no longer convinced that the root cause is the continued presence of societal norms and stereotypes that are difficult to shake. I think it’s something far deeper.
I think that what’s holding us back is our hearts.
Photo Credit: Christopher Carfi.