I have a few memories of being a little girl. In one, I am clinging to my mother's leg as she tries to leave me at daycare. I'm hysterical, and all I want is her softness, the smell of her hair in my hands.
Another is nap-time. I lie on a blue vinyl cot, looking around in the afternoon darkness of a school room. I am either drifting off to sleep or waking up, but there are strict rules about getting off the cot, and I fear I'll break them. I think of my mother, but she feels far away, too far. Despite being surrounded by other children my age and a few cold teachers, I am alone.
On another day, I sit on a school bus for the first time ever, en route to see a puppet show in the middle of the day. I pass the street where my house is and more than anything, would like to be nestled on the soft couch instead of these sticky brown seats.
As with all children, my mother's face encompassed all the joy and warmth that existed in the world, and seeing it at the end of the day made everything seem right again. I didn't know that she existed without me, or me without her. Still, I felt quite proud on the occasional instance when I visited her job. Vending machines held a joy I had not known in such few years on the planet, and I liked sitting at her desk and spinning in her chair, meeting her coworkers for whom I was a mini-celebrity.
While I remember the strong desire to have my mother with me (even more now that I have my own children and feel their needs more than my own), my mother had to work. She had no choice. She was a single mom, the sole person responsible for me -- for doing the grocery shopping, the cleaning, the bedtime stories; for buying shoes when my feet outgrew the last ones, or presents for my birthday; for picking me up from the brick schoolhouse and bringing me home to our rowhome in Southwest Philadelphia. She balanced the checkbook. And changed the sheets. And picked up the mail. And struggled.
When I was teaching at a girls' school, planning my family and the adjustments I'd have to make, I asked the girls what their mothers did, what they thought they'd do when they had children. Many, if not most, wanted to be stay-at-home mothers, much to my chagrin. (So why was I busting my butt giving them a solid education and promoting female leadership if they had zero career aspirations? Was I Julia Roberts in Mona Lisa Smile or something?)
The students were upper middle-class, affluent enough to go to a private school, and many of them never knew a mother who worked. When I assigned Linda Hirshman's article "Homeward Bound" in the November 2005 edition of the American Prospect, in which she calls on women of elite universities to get to work and stop staying home with kids, the girls got angry. This woman was wrong, stone-cold. Didn't she understand that mothering was the most important job in the world? I heard the question over and over again -- "Why would someone have kids just to leave them with someone else?" (This same question was not asked of men.) So I shared my own concerns about how important it was to be able to fend for yourself even in marriage, even as a mother. They tried to make me feel better; "You're a teacher. You'll have the best of both worlds." (Because as Fox News and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker will tell you, teachers don't work that hard.)
But what about other women? I nearly pleaded as the bell rang and they walked out of the room, the scent of berry lip gloss wafting by. How are they supposed to do it? What does their staying home, my staying home, teach you, the next generation, about the importance of having a career to call your own? What might women lose if we continue to make this decision?
I was never fully honest with myself about how emotional my considerations about working and motherhood were, but of course they are hugely impacted by my childhood. I learned from an early age that dependence on a man often resulted in heartbreak and near-poverty. Pick any of the last three generations of women in my family, and you'll find a woman trying to make ends meet with kids to feed, no money, and an absent father. That wasn't going to happen to me. If fathers will, sooner or later, go their own way in the world, a woman needed independence and a profession. And when those men were around, using their income to wield power they didn't quite deserve, I vowed to make my own money so I'd never have to answer to someone about the phone bill or the shoes I decided to buy.
So here I am, years later, still trying to figure it out. I have let go of my fear surrounding marital relationships and instead embraced trust for my husband, a man of strong character and compassion. Since my children were born, I have stayed home, worked full-time, and worked part-time. Still, I have not figured out the perfect recipe, the perfect plan. In any direction, it seems, something is lost.
Since I do believe the personal is political, I worry how the choices of women in my generation affect those who come after us. Can we change our society's work culture and family unfriendly government policies if we're not in it, making our voices heard?
Right now, I'm working part-time, thankful that my husband has a level of flexibility in his job so that we can split up the drop-offs and pick-ups on the two-and-a-half days I work. I love having days where I feel like a professional and days I feel like just a mom. Yet my son, like most children, wants his mom. On the days he has to go to school, he moans and complains. Upon pick-up, he is known to utter, "What took you so long?" And while I know that two full days in school is a good experience for him, that as a family we are finding our way and he will adjust, I remember the little girl who woke up from her nap in a dim room, a girl who could not be fully comforted by teachers, who felt lost. In those moments, I ache for any moment of ours I've wasted away.
I can never come to an answer -- for me, for other moms, for women in this post-feminist society. Working seems to bring with it the pain of not being present for your kids as much as they may need you; staying home means you are missing out on earnings and respect that you will very well need one day, not to mention the loss of power and ownership you can feel in your own house.
A mother's bond with her children seems to be one of perpetual heartening and heartbreak, one of the saddest and most beautiful of human tales. I guess the same can be said for the state of motherhood, in any era.
What do you think? How can we make our parenting decisions from the heart while not losing any clout for women's progress in society?
Jana Llewellyn tries to make the best of modern motherhood on her blog, An Attitude Adjustment. She also teaches English part-time at her local community college.
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