Over the past week, women have responded to Katy Read's Salon essay, in which she wrote about regretting leaving her newspaper job to stay at home with her children. Fourteen years after this decision, she's now divorced and facing the prospect of re-entering the workforce to an industry that has completely changed.
I posted a link to her essay on Facebook, which generated some discussion amongst my mom friends, one of whom, Courtney Pastor, wrote about it in in her TBO.com column, the Family Room.
Today Scary Mommy posted her response to Katy Read's piece, echoing some of the sentiments of second-guessing over her own choice to quit her rewarding career to stay home.
I respect all of these writers for sharing their views so honestly, and think that the resulting discussion is an important one. To this discussion, I'd like to add not just my story, but some practical advice for new moms or women who are thinking about having children.
When I had my son, I experienced what many other women do: I was overwhelmed with the whole experience of caring for a newborn. Nothing in life quite prepares us for the physical and emotional work involved in the first months. It's not original for me to say that I remember being up in the middle of the night, struggling to breastfeed (yes, I sought help from numerous lactation consultants) and crying while a cheesy Sandals commercial came on.
"I'm never ... going to be able to ... go to the beach again!" I sobbed to my husband. We'd made a mistake, clearly. As much as I loved that little person wrapped in a blanket, I didn't feel equipped to take care of him. I didn't enjoy this work -- wasn't I supposed to enjoy it? I found myself at my computer four days after coming home from the hospital sneaking a peek at my work e-mail, wondering how early would be too early to go back.
At my six-week follow up visit to my OB, I asked for the name of a therapist and started seeing him. Nearly five years later, I still see him. He's helped me deal with the mother load: second-guessing, releasing expectations, redefining what motherhood, family, and identity mean to me.
When I first started seeing Dr. G, I told him how, on my first trip out of the house, I went to the library to look for books with stories from other moms who felt the same way. Confused. Anxious. And feeling ill prepared to take care of a small human being. As a writer and reader, this is how I dealt with things -- drive up to the library, do some research, get an answer.
There have been many versions of this conversation over the years with him, many times of sharing where I looked to other people for advice. There's a lot of power in words, whether they be in a book, on a blog, or from a friend who says, "I've been there. It gets better." It's really important that new moms (and old moms) have resources -- especially people -- where they can turn for encouragement and practical advice.
But, and this has taken me a lifetime to learn (one I have to remember when I'm wondering how another mom "does it") ... no one can tell you exactly what is "right" -- not when it comes to making personal choices about working, or how you're going to raise your child, or anything else. Also, there is no "right" for everyone or even for one family (or for one family forever -- circumstances change). Each decision about parenting and working and however else you spend your time has its own consequence.
When I was a newspaper intern an 19 years old, a very well known columnist took me out to lunch and said,
"Here's the deal. You can't have it all. You're going to meet people who tell you you can. It's not true."
I recoiled then, but now understand better. It's not about having it all. Having it all is a myth.
Which leads me back to Katy Read.
What can we learn from these moms who say that they regret their choices?
What's made all the difference for me has been having a professional to walk with me on my path of introspection. I haven't faced the "work" or "stay home" dilemma -- that's not my story. But I have had to make some pretty big choices that would impact my family and career. Choices like changing jobs when my son was three, accepting assignments that sometimes mean being away from my family, and most recently, the decision about our family's size.
On that last point, as I've talked with Dr. G about the pros and cons of having one child, he said something that really resonated:
"At least in 10 years, you won't say that you didn't really look at this from all the angles and consider all the options."
That brought a measure of relief to an at-times agonizing decision. Which gets back to this issue of second-guessing. I still do it, but less. As I've matured, I'm more confident in my decision making and in myself. I didn't have that confidence when I became a mother. Maybe I would have gotten it without Dr. G (plenty of people do). It's just what worked for me.
The lesson of Katy Read and Scary Mommy is that time does speed up. Screaming infants and cute toddlers don't stay that way forever. For better or worse, children do grow up. There is no "pause" button on the rest of the world -- it goes on while we are changing diapers and shuttling to play dates.
So, what to do?
First of all, and this doesn't diminish anyone's struggles, but these are struggles of the relatively privileged. I feel it's important to say that, because there are so many women who work two and three jobs and, because of education and/or circumstances, will never have that choice. (For a great resource on how to take action to create better conditions for all moms, check out the grassroots movement MomsRising.org.)
And, introspection is good. Introspection with "what can I do now?" is even better. Because while we can't change the past, we can add to our skill sets, or start a new course. (And I don't say that with naivete. It's tough enough to be a mom with one child in a household with two incomes and benefits; I can't imagine what it would be like to be a single mother and try to switch gears mid-stream. Though I know people who are doing it.)
Finally, at any point, introspection with a well-chosen professional can be invaluable. (If coverage is an issue, there are low cost options and counseling through churchs/place of worship -- though admittedly, that might have more of an agenda.)
I also think we need to continue honest dialogue as women (and men -- hey, we're all parents) about our experiences, not just with each other but with younger people.
When I talk to journalism students, I appreciate it when they ask me about my career decisions, especially when they come to family and balance. I've never repeated the advice of that columnist.
I just say the truth: I've made my choices. Now, you make yours. And don't look back.
Jenny's Light - Postpartum Resources