A Woman’s Place is in the House…

When I was elected 8th grade-class president, my mother gave me a pink t-shirt that declared in large letters:

            A woman’s place is in the house…

And then on the back it added the kicker:

            And the Senate.

I loved that shirt, and I loved that my mom, who was mostly a stay-at-home-mom extraordinaire, gave it to me. In retrospect, I also think it sums up perfectly the modern motherhood identity challenge that I’ve faced.

Figuring out my identity as a mother has been one of my most challenging tasks, an obstacle that I still struggle with on an almost daily basis. And this challenge surprised me. I was prepared—at least intellectually—for a lot of the big new parent themes: sleep deprivation, exhaustion, marital strife due largely to sleep deprivation and exhaustion (not to mention added financial and “we-need-to-be-the-adults-now” stress), and even the utter bliss and immediate massive heart expansion that happens the moment your nose first inhales that intoxicatingly beautiful smell of your new baby’s downy head. But I wasn’t prepared for the mommy-identity angst.

Let me try to explain this identity dilemma a little better. It often hits me at one of our neighborhood parks when someone—usually a well-meaning mom or nanny just trying to explore common ground—asks a simple question, “So, do you still work?”

This question is asked often of mothers with young children at parks, sometimes with more tact—I’ve never worked harder in my life than I have in the past 20 months, I’m just not compensated for my work with traditional monetary rewards—and it is never easy for me to answer. I usually fumble around with an answer about sharing childcare duties with my husband while producing and directing films with him, finishing up one last grad class, and doing some writing on the side (a blog counts, right??). And while all of this is true, I always wonder why I feel these competing interests. Why can't I decide what I want with more clarity?

Truth: I want to be at home with her. I love her recent interest in books, and I try not to swell with too much English-major pride when she “reads” through one of her favorites (Goodnight Moon and Good Dog Carl are big hits right now). I love how verbal she is and how she's learning to sing. I usually even love cooking and enjoying meals together now that she’s a lot less inclined to fling her food.

Most days I’m grateful for flexible work that allows me to watch this little life develop. Most days I can remember that I’m lucky to have a healthy child with an outgoing and easy-going temperament and an involved husband who has chosen work that lets him participate far more than many dads on a daily basis (see my yet-to-be-written “Time or Money—Pick One” on how I’m learning to accept that involved parenting often means work choices that bring home a lot less bacon).

But even within my gratitude, there’s also an underlying angst that I’m trying to figure out. I think the roots of this angst lie in the identity crisis that comes with modern motherhood that none of the pregnancy and infant care books talk about.

Also Truth: I go crazy in a shockingly rapid fashion when I’m home alone with her for long. I need and want to do work that counts as work outside of the endless work mothers (and some fathers) put in round-the-clock.

When I manage to have a conversation about this with other moms, I’ve found that I’m not alone in this struggle. Most of us are figuring out how to find space for ourselves within motherhood. And we’re figuring out what we even want that space to look like.

Of course, it’s been very hard to even have those conversations. They’re rare and often happen when the children aren’t actually around so we have a chance to develop a conversation thread for more than 60-second stretches (again, very rare).

That t-shirt my mom gave me back in 8th grade is pretty spot on, actually. I wore it as a proud young feminist when I was 14, but now I see the inherent identity challenge it captures so succinctly. I do want hearth and home, but I want the senate too. And I had no idea just how much in conflict these two sides of the shirt are engaged in.

Women my age were brought up in a world that (thankfully) told us we could do anything and be anything, and we’ve been trained well. We’re smart, competent, and self-confident in any workplace endeavor we choose. But nobody told us how difficult it is to integrate our working selves with our mothering selves (and our biological clocks time this so these worlds collide quite dramatically in our 30s). No one told that our babies need us in an intense way far beyond our usually anemic maternity leaves.

And we want them too. As desperately as we want to wear something other than stained yoga paints and a nursing bra and have adult conversations, we want our babies—even our toddlers. As a work-outside-the-home mom friend told me recently when we were discussing the latest study that showed that working moms of young children don’t need to feel guilty, daycare-babies are fine, “It’s not that I feel guilty leaving [her son] at daycare—it’s a great daycare— but I want to spend more time with him.”

Of course we can choose part-time and flexible work, which is what I’ve done. In some ways it’s both the best and worst of both worlds—I get to spend a lot more time with Lily than I would in a traditional job, but I get paid far less and have no benefits whatsoever. And it’ surprising to me how often I still come up against the either/or choice when I’m asked to identify myself.  I was very shocked when a local, very popular moms’ group asked me to check (for playdate scheduling purposes) one of two boxes: “stay-at-home mom” or “working mom.” Where’s my “both” checkbox?

And then there’s the whole issue of women losing out on a huge scale when it comes to compensation if/when we choose part-time work, or even when we’re working full-time. (See “Do Working Moms Deserve to Earn Less?”)

Of course none of this addresses the men in this equation. Our culture doesn’t typically allow men the flexibility to be both involved parents and successful professionals too, and Stephen has felt some of these challenges as acutely as I have. But he doesn’t have the same level of angst that I have, even if he is the only man pushing a toddler on a swing that he usually sees at the park. I think the roots of this likely lie in our culture assuming that women should and do bear the brunt of childcare. I don’t think he’s ever been asked how he juggles work and fatherhood, but I get asked this frequently.

I’m still figuring out the answer. But I can tell you part of the answer lately has involved a fantastic local nanny share that Lily is a part of three afternoons a week for a few hours at a neighbor’s house. It’s been such a great solution for all of us. Lily adores the three-year-old little boy and the lovely nanny she plays with and comes back joyous, and I am insanely productive for those three-hour windows. I think I get more done in three hours than I used to working in my corporate cubicle for eight or nine hours straight; time has become one of my most precious commodities, and I use it wisely. Of course I still have to work at other hours (usually at night), but those nine hours a week feel a lifeline.

Finding a little bit of balance has been so mentally restorative for me that I think all of us are firmly committed to keeping the family size at three plus a dog for a good bit longer. I’ve just started finding a sense of myself again, and my work with both Lily and the film is demanding and fulfilling—it’s a little bit of both the house and the senate that my mom’s t-shirt gift promised back in 8th grade. But boy does it continue to be a challenge figuring out how to fit both of those promises on the same stage.