When I turned 16, my parents basically said, “You’re old enough to get a job, so now, if you want to buy something, you’ll need to pay for it.” I half-heartedly searched for jobs until I landed a gig at the movie theater where a few of my friends worked. I wore a collared white shirt and a black bow tie and took people’s tickets or made batches of popcorn with extra oil while downing Coke-flavored icees in water cups. I’ve worked ever since, at an ice skating rink, at Starbucks, at a counseling center, a charter high school, a seminary, and a magazine. I enjoyed many of these jobs, whether for the work, the colleagues, or just the paycheck. But even in my favorite jobs, I think I would have stopped working in an instant if I suddenly had all the money I needed.
So when I became pregnant and started thinking about whether I would work or stay at home or figure out some combination of the two, I thought maybe staying at home was the right decision for me. I didn’t have a job I absolutely loved, and taking care of a baby was going to be enough work as it is. I never really found my identity in my work; I always found it in my relationships. Even when I did a workshop where I reflected on the high points and low points of my life, work almost never entered the picture—even big moments like the first time my writing was published.
I assumed the thing I liked most about work was the intellectual stimulation, and the camaraderie. It seemed possible I could find intellectual stimulation and camaraderie outside of the workplace, if I could just find the right book club and moms group.
And yet, here I am, almost 10 months into this stay at home mom gig (and in a book club and a moms group!), and I’m longing to work.
Part of it is a longing for escape. Taking care of a baby sometimes feels like backbreaking work (how do people have more than one?!). I’m pretty soft, so maybe it’s just me. But really, what’s backbreaking is the constancy of the physical work required in caring for an infant. I mean, said infant pretty much must be carried everywhere; that alone is a huge amount of work that was not in my pre-baby life. (Especially now that Zadie is over 20 pounds and we live on the third floor!!) The baby’s feeding needs and bodily functions all must be managed and cared for by me. It’s kind of insane. And after 9-plus months, I am bone tired. Every night I get into bed and feel like I’m 80 years old. Everything aches. And the idea of going to work, and going to the bathroom without having to do it in less time than it takes my baby to crawl down the hallway to me/the bathroom trash can, sounds like a vacation.
Work would also give me some much-needed space from my baby. You know that feeling when you meet a new friend you really click with (for most of us, this was probably in high school or college), and you hang out more and more until you’re hanging out all the time? And it’s the best, until it isn’t. And you need space so you can remember why you liked this person in the first place, why they became your best friend. It’s like getting so close to something you can’t see it anymore. That’s what I’m afraid is happening to Zadie and me. My sister Rachel said it so well, that for moms, the question of to work or to stay at home is answered with a simple “You’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t.” She said if you work you feel guilty when you’re away from your kids (or even if you don’t feel guilty, you just miss them terribly) and if you stay at home you’re with your kids so much you stop appreciating them. I need a break from Zadie. I need a chance to miss her and to feel like I can’t wait to see her. Sure, sometimes I have those moments when I can’t wait till she wakes up from a nap so I can see her cute face, or where I spend an hour after she goes to bed looking at pictures of her. But mostly, lately, I think, “I can’t spend another minute with you.” It’s like we’ve been stuck in a car together on a 10-month-long road trip (and I’m not even counting the 9 months she took up residence inside my body). I need to be me again for a while, not me-and-Zadie. Work is starting to look like the way to that.
Something else I’ve realized is that even though I’m not a worker bee, everyone likes being acknowledged for hard work and a job well done. It’s been said a million times: mothers do an insane amount of work for an even more insane lack of appreciation. We don’t get paid, and we hardly get a “good job.” It would feel good to go to work, do the work, and take home a paycheck. Also, the paycheck itself would be nice, because we live in Los Angeles now and one income in Los Angeles is a fool’s game.
Here’s what it comes down to. Last week, my attention was turned toward a Facebook post by writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a “feminist manifesto” written as a letter to her friend who recently became a mother. The manifesto is a response to the friend’s question, outlining 15 suggestions on how to raise her daughter as a feminist. The first suggestion stopped me dead in my tracks.
“Be a full person. Motherhood is a glorious gift, but do not define yourself solely by motherhood. Be a full person. Your child will benefit from that. The pioneering American journalist Marlene Sanders once said to a younger journalist, ‘Never apologize for working. You love what you do, and loving what you do is a great gift to give your child.’
You don’t even have to love your job; you can merely love what your job does for you – the confidence and self-fulfillment that come with doing and earning. Reject the idea of motherhood and work as mutually exclusive.”
That paragraph makes me want to shout, “YES!” from the rooftops. It makes me want to run up a mountain, or skydive out of a plane. It feels like freedom. I’m guessing the extreme reaction stems from 1) I have not felt like a full person since I had Zadie almost a year ago, and 2) I have somehow, for some reason, bought into the idea that motherhood and work are mutually exclusive, and I have felt both bound to my duty as a mother and also restricted by my lack of a job I love and can’t bear to quit, like my sister the physician’s assistant or my sister the teacher. I’ve felt that, if I were to be away from my baby, it would need to be for a noble reason, for a job that was changing the world. But perhaps there is no more noble a reason than a job might make me feel like a full person again, and only a mother who is a full person can fully offer her love to her child.
So I guess what I’m saying is, do you know anyone who’s hiring? 😉