Just recently I returned to the workforce. I was going to say “went back to work,” but that phrase isn’t really accurate. No one who stays home with small children—which is what I’ve been doing the past few years—actually stops working. It’s just that you don’t need a Metrocard, you get no lunch break and your boss only comes up to your knee.
My miniature line-manager was promoted to full days at preschool this year and it was time for me to start earning a paycheck. So I set out into that foreign country, the world of iHire, Monster.com, and MediaBistro, fully expecting that after such a long absence, it would have closed its borders to me, denied me a visa, put up electric fencing.
But I was lucky. Through a friend’s recommendation, some freelance projects popped up and suddenly instead of schlepping to the Food Co-op in old sneakers, I was riding the subway to Soho with a Kindle in my hand.
Many articles have been written about the challenges for stay-at-home moms returning to work: rusty skills; gaps in resumes; stains on clothes. For me, the main source of anxiety was finding a babysitter—because in the whole seven years since my son was born, we’ve never had one. Mainly, this is explained by the fact that my mother-in-law lives a block away and is a fully committed, high-energy, down-on-the-carpet-playing-with-trains grandma.
I was hugely relieved when it turned out my little girl’s best friend’s nanny was available for some hours: because I know Hannah and think she’s great this did a lot to quell my nervousness. But my transition happened so quickly that I had to scramble to patch together a schedule involving her, my mother-in-law, and a couple of daddy-days off work.
The first week was grueling: I worked late and missed bedtime altogether two nights in a row. One morning at breakfast, my girl suddenly asked:
“If Dada goes to work, and Mama goes to work, who will look after us?”
Her big brother piped up:
“Well, duhhh, Hannah of course.”
Since turning 7, he’s started experimenting with this withering tone, among a few others: I’m constantly surprised, for instance, when he addresses me as “Bub,” or utters, in response to some simple request, his abbreviated version of Whatever (as in, Me: “Go and wash your hands before dinner, sweetie,” Him: “Wha’evvs”). However I suspected this note of crushing superiority masked some insecurities on his part too and so I explained carefully that although Mommy was now working, there would always be some loving person to care for them.
That weekend both kids came down with stomach bugs and the loving person scrubbing vomit off the rug was, of course, me.
The following week, however, my schedule was much more normal: I came home for dinner every night. Laundry piled high, the fridge was empty by Thursday; the chores that used to ebb and flow through my week now lay in wait on the weekend. Still, I was starting to understand why mothers often say going to an office is easier; skipping those chaos-and-asphalt-filled hours of the afternoon and arriving home to find someone else has dragged your kids from the playground and cajoled them through homework is a bit like discovering you have a fairy godmother.
I miss my playground buddies. (It’s not just kids who have them, you know.) And when my little girl declared one day, her face lit as though she’d just remembered a reassuring truth: “Of course, Mama sleep in our house at night, right?” I felt a deep pang of longing for those complicated, emotional afternoons, the battle-of-wits and love-tsunami-days spent in her company.
A friend of mine who’s managed the plate-spinning feat, these last seven years, of having a child, plus twins, plus a full-time serious career, told me recently about her favorite time of day. Her eyes literally shone as she described it: “It’s when I come out of the subway,” she said, “grab a coffee, and buy a newspaper to take to my office.” For some reason it reminded me of a novel I read years ago by Amos Oz, in which the protagonist dreams of walking in cool, impersonal corridors in air-conditioned city skyscrapers. In that book, though, the protagonist is on a kibbutz in Israel, chafing under the confines of communal living.
I suppose there’s some parallel with the world of parenting; like a kibbutz it’s physically hard and premised on bright ideals that you don’t always manage to live up to. And so the appeal of that quiet moment with the newspaper and a latte is powerful. Yet I can see why fifty-eight percent of American mothers (so the media keep telling us) would choose to work part-time if they could: some balance between the two worlds (kibbutz/air-conditioned office) would be nice.
My return-to-work story has only just begun: if I can I'll try to shape it with some kind of flexibility so that balance is possible. For now, though, I'm just enjoying that moment on the subway when I get to read the Times on my Kindle.