I am seven months pregnant, slithering along my kitchen floor. The ruler I clutch is for retrieving small objects lost in the dust jungle beneath my refrigerator.
After several swipes I come up with a pile of dirt and a petrified saltine, so I get serious and press my cheek against the floor, positioning my left eye just inches from the target zone. I spot it—the letter "G," a red plastic refrigerator magnet. "Here it is!" I cry, hoisting myself up to offer this hard-won prize to Sophie, my momentarily maniacal toddler. Her face collapses into a sob as she shrieks, "NO! NOT THAT ONE!"
Sophie is 22 months old, and in the final stages of potty training, which I remember as I feel a gush of warm and wet on my outstretched leg. Wet clothes bring more tears (hers, not mine), and I quickly strip off her clothes, then pull off my own with one hand while I slice and peel an apple with the other. I might have barely enough time while she eats to run up stairs, grab dry clothes, and toss the dirty ones into the basket before I'm urgently missed.
That was how I came to be standing in the middle of my kitchen with the magnificence of my naked abdomen hanging low and wide on a clammy June afternoon. The sweat of my exertion had just begun trickling between my breasts when the phone rang. It was an old friend, with whom I'd been out of touch for a while. I panted hello, eyeing Sophie as she climbed up and out of her booster chair to totter precariously on the table top. "What are you doing home?" my friend wanted to know. "Don't you work at all anymore?"
Don't you work at all anymore? Again and again since entering the life phase that positioned my work in the home, I have encountered the assumptions, however unconscious, of those whose definition of work excludes most of what I do. The same system that discounts my labor scoffs at its rewards, which, like my productivity, are impossible to measure by conventional standards.
Like most labels applied to women's roles, "working mother" is inaccurate and defeating, because it foolishly implies that there is another type of mother: The non-working variety. Being a mother is work. On the other hand, it is equally absurd to call mothers who are not employed outside the home "full-time mothers," as this unfairly suggests that employed mothers are only mothers part-time. Faulty as they are, these labels go largely unchallenged. Meanwhile they can trap women in feelings of inadequacy about whatever roles we have chosen or been required to perform.
Before motherhood, I sold advertising at a newspaper, with hopes of working my way into editorial. Little did I know that the last place publishers look for writers in is the ad department. Plus, I was surprisingly good at ad sales (who knew?!) and I was quickly promoted to a well paying position in management that required me to build a classified department from the ground up. I forged ahead until my daughter was born, when, after reexamining our options, my then-husband and I decided one of us would stay home with her. Although he was happily working in his chosen field, John's income as a schoolteacher was half that of mine, which made him the financially logical choice for at-home parenthood. But I was the one who jumped at the chance, albeit scary, to shift the gears of my career and of my life.
Why? Because for one, I wanted to, deep, deep down in my gut. And two, my husband was working in a field he enjoyed and had spent years preparing for. In contrast, I had never really wanted to be an advertising sales manager and didn’t enjoy the work despite my success at it. What I had always wanted was to be a writer.
So when my maternity leave was up, I told the publishers that I wouldn't be returning to the office. Surprisingly, in order to entice me to stay, they offered me the chance to bring my daughter to work with me. Being parents themselves—and unusually open-minded—they were happy to experiment with whatever might work for all of us. I was thrilled. Although I loved being home with Sophie, the strain of living on one income was already frightening. Plus, I was rapidly discovering that my idealized image of leisurely days at home with a baby really didn’t exist. While my sister spoke with unveiled envy about all the reading and writing I would now be accomplishing, in reality I was lucky if I brushed my teeth. So I took the deal.
Seven weeks old on her first day at work, Sophie fascinated the staff as only a newborn can. A two-minute trip to the copier often turned into a half-hour social ordeal as one person after the next stopped to exclaim over her. She was a great diversion for a young and predominantly single staff. I had no idea, as a new mother, how fortunate I was to have an extroverted baby. It was my own introverted nature that suffered from the constant sensory bombardment. I was uncomfortably aware of my special status, and fighting a losing battle to hide how much time it actually took to care for Sophie on the job.
For six months, I toted a baby, a brief case, and a diaper bag back and forth from home to my office, which at first housed the crib and swing, after which came the walker, the play gym, and the toy box—not to mention the breast pump equipment and mini-diaper pail. I could hardly see my desk, let alone get to it. Not that it mattered, because by that time, I wasn't doing any work that required a desk. It had gotten crazy, and I knew it. The circles under my eyes and my continued weight loss told me it was time for a change.
Offering my resignation was a tough decision, particularly in light of my gratitude for the progressive opportunity to have my daughter on site, and the fact that cutting our income by more than half wasn’t going to be any easier now than it had been six months earlier. Ultimately, my employers and I finally agreed to view my departure as the beginning of an indefinite unpaid leave that left the door open for my possible return at some unpredictable future date.
A two-month notice allowed me to finish up the last big sales project of the quarter, while my daughter was cared for by a neighbor. I got an unforgettable taste of the superwoman syndrome, rising at 5 a.m. and dashing out the door by 6 to drop Sophie off and commute an hour to the office for a grueling nine-hour day. This was followed by a long drive in Minnesota winter rush-hour traffic to pick my daughter up and go home, and topped off with a couple of frantic hours that my husband and I spent getting everyone fed and Sophie bathed and to bed so that we could start all over again after what felt like a quick catnap. Relief overcame me as my last day at the office arrived, and I packed my diaper bags for good.
Our plans had always included my return to full-time paid employment upon our children's entry to school, which meant that, for the benefit of our financial solvency, we should have another baby quickly if at all. We chose "quickly," and shortly after our daughter's first birthday I was pregnant again.
I started stringing for our local newspaper, rushing out to city council and school board meetings as soon as my husband dragged through the door at seven o'clock. I got paid a measly 25 dollars a story, but since the meetings were at night and I could write the stories at home, I didn't have to pay for childcare. Moreover, it was the first time I saw my writing published, and it signaled a turning point for me as I finally made the leap from advertising to editorial.
Since then, I've stuck to what I'm passionate about as I navigate the uncertain waters of motherhood and work. I've redefined my priorities, and am using this time of mothering small children to lay the groundwork for a career that is going to work for me long after my children are grown. Like the many women who grow home businesses while growing young ones, I've discovered meaning in my personal work that was previously absent.
These days, since I do perform paid work from home, I could have an easy answer to "Don't you work at all any more?" I could say that I am a freelance writer, working at home. It's true, and since I know based upon my own “research” that it gains me more respect in the eyes of the asker than saying that I'm home with the kids, I'm tempted to offer it up. But I won't, because every time I do, I'm perpetuating a system that defines work only in terms of what men have traditionally been paid to do, and discounts most of what women have traditionally done for centuries.
I have to make perfectly clear when I say that I work at home, I'm talking caring for children and everything that entails, including full use of my talents as a manager, nurturer, healer, wise woman, acrobat...and retriever of small objects lost in the dust jungle beneath my refrigerator. Otherwise, people automatically dismiss these activities, and conjure up a false image of an orderly day spent at the computer doing paid work. This strain toward clarity requires a lot more effort than calling myself a "full-time mom," or proclaiming that I'm taking "time off" to be with my kids (motherhood is not a vacation), or, worst of all, concurring that no, "I really don't work at all anymore."
We need new words, or new combinations of and meanings for old words that more accurately reflect our reality. Because when we resign ourselves to the old words that apportion us less worth than we deserve because it's less awkward and just plain easier—we validate a description of ourselves that we know to be false. This danger is like that of looking into a fun house mirror, without challenging the falsehood of the contorted stranger staring back at you. Eventually, you're going to believe what you see is you, and that twisted version of yourself becomes the only truth you know.
I originally wrote this piece in 1993 for On The Issues Magazine, under the title “Reflections of a Feminist Mom.” It has since been reprinted in several anthologies including Women’s Lives: Multicultural Perspectives (McGraw Hill). Today, Sophie is 22 years old, her brother Max is 20, and Lillie, who wasn’t yet born in 1993, is 17. The employers who so generously allowed me to bring Sophie to work did in fact re-hire me later, in 1995, this time for a job that I truly loved, as editor of Minnesota Parent Magazine. And they let me do most of the work from home. In 2002, they gave me yet another break as contributing editor and writer for Rake Magazine and allowed me to do that as a freelancer while I taught full time at the small independent school my children attended. Later, these same publishers introduced me to people who would hire me for other writing projects who in turn introduced me to others who needed books written, and so on and so on and so on, leading (via a winding and often blind path) right up to where I am today.
For me, sticking to what I was passionate about—the right combination of work I cared about and being with my kids—paid off. My early efforts have in fact blossomed into a career that does indeed seem as if it will work for me “long after my children are grown” (did I really believe when I wrote those words that such a day would ever come?). But that’s just me, and I’m just one person. On a larger scale, I’m not sure language and logistics have changed a lot since my days as a young mother. For my own daughters and stepdaughters, I want more, including paid parental leave policies like those of the European Union. What will it take to get us there?