Monday, June 24, 2013

The Ageless Debate: Work or Family?

Go away for two weeks and the world moves around you. There's been so much going on in those two weeks, both in my personal life and the world at large, that I had trouble deciding what to write about. After all, there is grief, governmental bullies, and a stay-at-home mom's regrets, just to name a few topics. I found I wasn't quite ready to write about a grief so fresh that the edges still cut. So, maybe it isn't a surprise that I chose a soft and long-term ache - the tension between being a mom and having a career. The "You Can Do It All" Syndrome.

In reflecting on her soon-to-be empty nest, Lisa Endlich Heffernan wrote Why I Regret Being A Stay At Home Mom  for the Huffington Post. She'd been simultaneously lauded and vilified for "coming out" and admitting that there might be some downsides to choosing the professional mother path. There are downsides to every choice.

Let me start out by saying I do think a woman can "do it all", but maybe not in the way she dreamed about.

I live the professional and mother route. I went to an exclusive all women's high school, Dana Hall, in Wellesley, Mass. While during its long history, it had helped women achieve the then "highest goal" of earning their "Mrs." degrees, but the 1980's Dana's curriculum had changed with the times to stress financial and career independence for its students. There wasn't any real question that I would go onto college and get a degree that started with a "B" as in "B.A" or "B.S.". Many of us went on to advanced degrees. I was no exception.  But I always knew I wanted a family. Hell, I was entitled to have it all.

I've been very fortunate. My husband has been an active force in our boys' lives and he's never worried about whether picking them up from the baby-sitter was "women's" work or not. So, much so that he would often drive the boys to and from while talking to clients on his cell phone. Matt is a criminal defense lawyer, and often is involved in child abuse and neglect cases (both as the child's advocate or on behalf of the City). His language is not child appropriate on those calls. How did we realize that our children were little sponges? When our then-two-year old started swearing like a sailor. At least he knew which expletives to use in which situations. We were so proud... and ashamed.

Where Ms. Hefferman laments the loss of income, professional and technical development, the endless volunteering, and the necessary narrowing of focus that comes with devoting her attention solely to her three boys, I feel guilty about the time I miss with my two boys because "mommy has a trial next week" or "court during your play" or another one of the endless deadlines my career as a lawyer and my second career as a write creates.  It's hard to explain to children that you can't be there to read their bedtime story because a client wants to take you out for dinner and drinks to celebrate a court win. When it comes down to it, there is a golden window of time when your kids only want you. Ms. Hefferman gave her boys that time. I didn't give my boys as much.

So, what have I figured out after nearly 15 years of having it all?

1. Life is a series of trade offs.  There are a few immutable facts in life. There are 24 hours in a day, and the human body needs sleep for some of them. What does spending 8, 10, 12 or more hours a day in the office mean? It means I have few hours to spend with the boys, my husband, writing,  on horseback riding, cleaning the house, spending time with friends, and just doing nothing each day. One or more of those other things I want to do are going to get shorted.

2. Kids value what you do.  Ms. Hefferman notes that her kids think she did "nothing" for all those years she made their care her primary focus. Writers and stay-at-home parents share a similar problem. What they do at work isn't about clock-punching or sitting in an office all day. It's only recently that society has recognized these careers as "work." It's easy to dismiss activities as "not work" when they revolve around sitting at a computer in your sweats, in the case of a writer, or running out for groceries as a mom.  There is an educational process involved in teaching others that "yes, I am at work' in these situations. I've had to teach my boys that I'm working when I'm writing, and they are no freer to interrupt me when I do so than they would be to walk into a client meeting and stop it.

My husband and I taught our boys that moms and dads work hard whether they go to an office, work on a computer at home, or run their households. A family is a small business. There are finances to be managed, deadlines to meet and client expectations that must be fulfilled. Part of my job is a parent is to help my boys understand that running a family is no different than any other job except that it has better perks like story hour. Teach your kids to respect and value what you do and they will never see you as having done "nothing."

3. A messy house is not a sign of a bad parent. My mom's Supermom. Her friends were Supermoms too. Yet somehow, they had houses that you could open the door and usher in photographers for Better Homes and Garden. For a long time, I had no idea how they did it (they worked part- not full-time). I'd come home after a day at the office,  put together dinner leaving my kitchen looking like a micro-tornado had struck, get the boys washed, bedtime story read and then tucked into bed, before falling into bed myself. Dishes in the sink was is the norm. I felt like a failure as a mom. But then I realized something related to #s1 and 2. I could spend hours cleaning the house to model-home standards or have a clean but messy house and invest the time in my boys. When I put it that way, the choice was simple for me.

4. Laughter matters most.  Once all the basic needs are taken care of - safety, food, shelter, education - what matters most is laughter. My husband can make me laugh when I'm miserable or furious or just generally in a bad mood. As recently as this morning, he told me to "push back the crazy." Rather than growl at him, which was my plan, I ended up laughing so hard I had tears in my eyes, Okay, so it's probably not a "normal" relationship, but it works for us

My boys don't remember all the times we went to the doctors or clothes shopping. They don't remember the 6 hours I spend making homemade pork barbeque rather than buying Lloyd's Pork Barbeque. They remember handing their father the mini-golf clubs and running back to the hotel room during a thunderstorm. They remember building the sailboat in our pool. How much we enjoy out time together matters more than how much time we have.

5. Choose deliberately, and you'll have few regrets. I think what rubbed me the wrong way about Ms. Hefferman's article is her use of "regret." To borrow a phrase from James A. Owen's Drawing out the Dragons, "Live Deliberately." I chose my chaotic existence just like Ms. Hefferman chose to stay at home with her boys.

Are there things that I wish I could have done with my boys that I didn't? Sure. Will there be more of those trade-offs in the future? Sure. Are there writing conventions I wish I'd attended but didn't? Or cases I wish I hadn't or had taken? Career missteps? Sure. See, point #1.

I'm not raising my kids to take care of me when I'm old. I'm not raising them to create my self-worth on their accomplishments. I'm raising them to have adventures with them for as long as we can.

Sometimes I have to do other precatory things (like earn money) before the things I want to do with them. Sometimes in the short-term I need to place my focus and time elsewhere. Knowing the goal means I can't regret the choices and trade-offs necessary to reach it.

Being a parent's complicated. Whether you go the stay at home route or the working parent one, there's really nothing better than laughing with your kids. None of us know how much time we have. Don't spend it on regret. Live deliberately and you can have "it" all.  You just have to decide what "it" is.


Heather Holden said...

"Live deliberately" is such a great phrase. I agree, it's better to be deliberate instead of regretful. There's already so very little time in life, so why spend any of it on regret?

Nancy DiMauro said...

I agree, Heather. Living deliberately and avoiding regret are hard to do, but worth it. Why lament the path not travelled instead of rejoicing in the one you did? Sure, there's bound to be bad things along either path, but don't lose the joy in your life by comparing reality to a fictionalized other choice. Of course the other option looks better in hindsight, it's fiction and doesn't suffer from the very real limitations of life.