FYI Figuring Out This Working Mom Thing Isn't Easy

It took me 3.5 years to find a balance that works for our family -- and I'm sure it'll change again as my girls grow.

“I don’t know how you do it.” She looks at me with a combination of curiosity and empathy. I’m at a playdate, juggling my three-year-old and newborn, chatting with a mom who works full-time. I repeat the same words back to her.

And, I mean it. I really don’t know how she does it, either. I tried working outside the home and to say it was hard is an understatement. Even though I was only teaching part-time, I was also freelancing, which added up to full-time hours.

I’d get home and sit on the couch, paralyzed, unable to figure out where to start with all the household tasks I had to tackle. Was I supposed to play with my kid who missed me or prep dinner so we could all go to bed on time? My exhausted, pregnant mind and body ached to just do nothing instead.

Of course I didn’t pick the third option of taking care of myself. I ran around like a crazy woman trying to do it all and woke up at the crack of dawn to squeeze it all in, again and again. Looking back, this probably had something to do with my near inability to walk by my third trimester. Thank goodness for modern chiropractic care.

Teaching has always been a labor of love.
Teaching has always been a labor of love.

My passion for teaching and those extra paychecks kept me going, but I know my family also suffered emotionally for my refusal to let something go. The feminist in me cringes at that last statement, but it’s true. Even super woman can’t do everything and sometimes we have to put part of ourselves on hold.

Now I know what you’re thinking, what about your husband? Can’t he do some of that stuff? And, yes, he does plenty, but with the hours he works, I’ve taken on a bigger role in the home, which pretty much mirrors everything you read about working women still doing the bulk of the chores. Again, the feminist in me flares, but it’s the reality I've embraced to make it all work.

I always laugh when I hear someone say the dishes can wait. After all, who is going to do those damn dishes if I don’t?
I always laugh when I hear someone say the dishes can wait. After all, who is going to do those damn dishes if I don’t?

Working outside the home obviously meant trade-offs. I enjoyed getting out of the house to be part of two professions I love, teaching and writing. Some days I’d drive away with a big smile on my face because leaving felt good and I was contributing to our family’s finances. Other days I drove away with tears running down my cheeks because I just wanted to be with my daughter who was crying for me at home.

My then two-year-old was having severe separation anxiety and just wanted mommy. Since her birth, I’d slowly worked a little more here and there. First some substitute teaching jobs after a year at home, and then a part-time position a few days a week. I thought jumping up to five days would be the natural transition, but after a summer at home, the reset button had been pushed. Couple this with the bright idea that perhaps preschool would be a nice way to punctuate the routine, and, ouch.

To my defense, it felt like the perfect preschool. A little farm, lavender foot baths and fairy stories. She went twice and was fine. Then, out of nowhere, screaming hell. I will never forget the phone call to come fetch her, her wild screams in the background. Apparently perfect for me was not perfect for her. After a summer home, she needed mommy more than chickens to feed and new little friends.

This mini-me has been my loving shadow since birth.
This mini-me has been my loving shadow since birth.

There were other signs of her unhappiness, too. The first week back she declared she no longer liked me. A setback, but nothing particularly alarming coming from a two year-old trying out new language options. Then the night terrors returned and suddenly she was screaming her dislike in the middle of the night. As a pregnant mama, this was too much for my hormones to bear. I cried, alone, in the darkness.

Going back to work is one of those confusing things. Either you have to do it or you don’t, or you want to do it or you don’t, or maybe it’s a little bit of all those options depending on your situation. For me, it had become a want-to and pretty much a have-to with a mixed-in wish I could still be home a bit more, and well, it turned out to be a whole lot harder than I expected.

Flash forward to week two of preschool and her words had shifted to “Mommy no work” and “I lost my mommy and daddy.” Talk about heart-wrenching. The worst was when she explained to me how the other children at school helped her look for us. So sweet it hurt.

Then it was my turn to drop her off. She wouldn’t let me out of her sight. When I tried to slip away she jumped out of her skin and started screaming. All pretty normal for a two-year-old going through separation anxiety but that didn’t make it any easier for me, (did I mention I was pregnant?!). As the teacher explained their policy of requiring the children to want to be there, I burst into tears.

I did my best to suck it up, tears still escaping against my will, and followed the teacher outside to distract my daughter. She had none of it. She just wanted me and I was going to be late for work if I didn’t give in. They clearly didn’t want her to stay in this state. I caved and drove her back to her dad.

The following months were challenging, but we made it work. I was determined to hang in there until my maternity leave, and then reassess our options once baby number two had arrived. I was working two jobs I’d dreamed about for years and didn’t want to lose the opportunity to come back to them. Still, once my new daughter had arrived, I knew we needed to come up with a different solution for our family.

Eight months later I’m typing in my home office while my baby naps and my older daughter, now three and a half, has adjusted to a different, nearby preschool. I work from home three days a week. Some nights I dream of teaching and wake up missing that piece of myself, but I also know I’ll have another chance in a few years. My daughters will only be little once. Full-time work will still be there even long after they’ve flown the nest.

Thankfully a year and me at home has made the difference for a happy preschool life.
Thankfully a year and me at home has made the difference for a happy preschool life.

Our finances might be tighter for the trade-off, but we’re willing to make sacrifices and work harder in other capacities to sustain ourselves. That’s also where my husband comes in. Maybe I do more chores, but he’s willing to work his butt off outside the home (and miss out on a lot here) so I don’t have to. A lucky trade for me, one I acknowledge might not always be possible.

So, when other moms say, “I don’t know how you do it,” I smile and nod. I don’t know how any of us do it, but we do. Some of us would rather work outside the home, some of us wouldn’t, and some of us land somewhere in between. I’ve felt it all.

But for those who simply can’t believe they could possibly find a way to make it work at home, I say get creative. Think outside the limits of what you’ve done before and make a leap. You might be surprised by what’s possible with a willingness to take a few professional and financial risks. And, if you're happy enough outside the home, keep at it. We all have our own groove to find.

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