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Juggling Motherhood and Work

Many women these days are struggling to find ways to balance motherhood and work.* Whether you took a short leave and are now back at work full-time, have gone to a part-time schedule (perhaps switching careers to do so), or work at home, the juggle is never easy. If you don't currently work at a job, the decision to be a stay-at-home mom was likely a complicated one - as will be any decision to return to work down the road. Consider these mothers we've known:

Donna had two daughters, seven and four, and a full-time job as a checker in a supermarket; she and her husband had separated a year after their second child was born. She came to see Jan about a cold that wouldn't go away. Jan asked what her days were like, and Donna replied matter-of-factly: They're insane. There's no other word for it. Mario has the girls a couple days a week, but one's on the weekend. So your basic day has me up early to get things ready, drop them off at two different day cares, and get to work hopefully on time. They're cranky because I have to hustle them along just to make the schedules work. And God help us if one is sick: Is she well enough for day care? Am l bad person for infecting the other kids? Can I afford to stay home again this month? What if they call me and I have to leave work? There's no one else, I've got no family here. We get home and we're all fried. I can't be the kind of mom I want to be since I'm so tired. I put them to bed and half the time fall asleep with them and wake up groggy in the middle of the night with my neck scrunched into a comer of the bed. The whole thing's like a Swiss watch: if every little part works perfectly with every other part, then the day's okay. But how often does that happen?

Astrid, a lawyer, had planned to return to work a few months after her first child, Sean, was born. But, as she put it to Rick when Sean was about six months old: I just can't. I'm totally surprised I feel this way, but he's so little and I love him so much that I don't want to be away from him. I thought I'd nurse him for a month or so and then wean, but we're still going, and it's so important I don't want to stop that, either. But all this is creating a problem in my marriage. My husband wants me to go back to work because it's beyond tight without my income. But every day, Sean does something different and amazing, and I don't want to miss that or have some nanny be the one who gets to see it all.

Cora was staying home with her two-year-old daughter, Tatiana, but, as she said at a talk Rick gave to a mothers' club: It's getting old, and I'm starting to feel very restless at home. Put clothes on, take them off. Make a meal, clean up, and make it again. We go out for a walk, but no one's around, just us and the birds. I want to go back to work as a dental hygienist, but my husband thinks Tatiana is too young and his family agrees.

Mandy had received an unexpected surprise at age forty-two: she was pregnant. Now, several years later, she was the full-time mother of a bouncy four-year-old boy, Isaac, having left her career as an art director for a major ad agency. She said to Rick: I feel guilty about it - because being a mom is supposed to be wonderful and all, but I really miss my old job, the bustle of the office, the travel, the intensity, even the deadlines. It was like the world of an exciting color, you know, red. I totally love my son and I'm happy I'm here with him, but I get pretty bored being home all day, like my world has become beige. And me, as well: for example, my husband and I recently had dinner with people from his office. We introduced ourselves, everybody had interesting jobs, and then it got to me. I said I was mother and homemaker, they said, "Oh, how nice," and the conversation moved on. During dinner, people asked each other about their work, but no one asked me about raising Isaac. I felt dismissed and like I had nothing to offer. It made me mad.

Claire worked at home as a freelance writer while raising Tim, who had just turned six, and Tammy, "age three, going on thirteen." Claire told Ricki: People say I've got the best of both worlds, but it's more like the worst of both. I get calls at all hours, but especially in the morning since many of my clients are on the East Coast and everybody needs last-minute changes, so I have to take the calls. I heard Tammy once tell a little boy, "My mom's job is she's on the phone." Tim's in first grade, that's finally working, but childcare for Tammy is one problem after another. She's in a great preschool, but the day care is expensive (and I miss her, I admit it). So I get her early, but then it's hard to do more than bits and pieces of work, and definitely no calls: try talking to an editor while your child keeps calling "Mommy"!

Problems like these are so commonplace that it's natural to take them as a given. But until the last hundred years or so, motherhood and career were woven together into one seamless tapestry in which most women worked with their young children mainly nearby. While we couldn't endorse more strongly the principle that women should have the right to leave home for a job - or emphasize the fact that fathers could just as readily stay home with children - it remains that the modern division between home and work is completely unnatural. Yes, the industrialization that's driven these changes has brought many benefits, like safer childbirth, but one of its costs has been an unprecedented tension in the lives of many women between two callings. If a mother works, she misses her children. Yet if she stays home, she misses the income, camaraderie, and fulfillment of work.

So if you're feeling pulled in two directions, the first step is to let go of any guilt or self-blame: the tug-of-war between family and work is a modern invention, and none of it is your fault. Nor should it all be on your shoulders to fix or solve or bear - as it's construed so often, both in the media and across the dinner table - since it's a fathers job just as much as it is a mother's to balance the need to have bread on that table with the need for vulnerable young children to have the attentive and loving care of someone who adores them.

In the swirl and press of raising a family, in the middle of a society that is breaking new ground each day, you can feel pressured to make quick decisions, go along with the views of a persuasive person or group, or simplify complicated matters by fastening upon one compelling "reason" for one choice or another. But that's not what would be most nurturing for you, plus it often leads to a less than ideal arrangement. Every mother has options: for example, even if you're a single mom or your family can't live without two incomes, there are almost always ways to work a little more or less, or manage your childcare differently. In "Motherhood: Making Choices About Working" we'll analyze the pros and cons of the options today and see how they fit with your deepest purposes in life and the needs of your family. And once you've made your choices - about a job, schedule, or childcare - we'll explore the steps you can take to have them work for you. If you are already clear about the choices you've made about staying home or working, please see "Making It Work to Stay Home" or "Making It Work to Work."

*Obviously, mothers "work" at home as well as "work" for pay in their occupation, but for simplicity, we'll use the word work in this chapter to refer collectively to one's job, career, or business. Many of the points made would also apply to an avocation that has a central place in a mother's life, such as art or a spiritual practice.

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From Mother Nurture: A Mother's Guide to Health in Body, Mind, and Intimate Relationships by Rick Hansen, Jan Hansen, and Ricki Pollycove. Copyright © 2002 by Rick Hanson. Jan Hanson, and Ricki Pollycove. Used by arrangement with Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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