For some, making the decision to go back to work after having a baby isn’t a decision at all. Financially, it’s a must. For those of us who do have an option, we recognize it’s not a position every woman is lucky enough to be in. However, that fact doesn’t make the choice any easier. There’s this invisible push and pull between these two places we, in unevenly mixed parts, want and need to be. In her book, Becoming, Michelle Obama refers to her desire for “a work life and a home life, but with some promise that one would never fully squelch the other.” In my experience, and through much trial and error, that balance is found through working part-time.
I have worked nearly my entire adult life. During college, I did work study and temped during my breaks. Shortly after graduation, I coached dance team and worked at a drive-thru coffee shop. After that year, however, it was all full time. Before I turned 34, I’d logged 12 years as an elementary school teacher. After more than a decade in the classroom, the perpetual grind of teaching (don’t come at me with “summers off” — I will fight you) was getting to me, and the increasing focus on standards and testing was encroaching on my anonymity and my joy. When the birth of our first child coincided with a move to a new state necessitated by my husband’s job, becoming a stay-at-home mom seemed the natural choice.
At first, staying home with my baby was a welcome change full of new challenges, from feeding to sleeping to learning her cues. I loved snuggling her and liked knowing that I would be present for her every little milestone. Once she’d settled into a schedule, I filled my free spaces of time with projects, from homemade raspberry muffins to Halloween costumes (felt + hot glue = cutest pizza slice ever). I’m a bit ashamed to confess, however, that I soon became bored and then, depressed. It’s not that I didn’t have things to do. I was always busy, but the tasks were just so mind-numbingly repetitive. With my mind left to wander, my obsessive-compulsive disorder went into overdrive, and I ended up in therapy.
My counselor taught me techniques to manage my anxiety, but something I realized during our conversations was that I missed work. The lack of adult conversation and intellectual stimulation was taking its toll. I also knew myself to be a person who thrives on and had grown accustomed to the kind of positive reinforcement I got in the work environment. There was also the problem of money. We were fortunate in that we could more than make ends meet with my husband’s salary and benefits, but it took me a while before I felt OK spending it. Although he never made me feel like way and I knew deep down that the work I was doing caring for our child and home was valuable and dignified, it still felt like “his” money.
It became clear to me that I needed to do something for myself, for my mind if not my wallet. I’d always enjoyed writing, so, as many SAHMs do, I started a blog. I wrote letters to the editor and started pitching to different outlets, and I got a little dose of feel-good hormone each time I was published. Eventually, I was able to land a gig as a staff writer working very (as in seven hours a week) part-time. I enrolled my then 18-month-old daughter in a Spanish immersion preschool and made for the nearest Starbucks (hello, free wifi). The difference in my well-being after working again was palpable. I was happier to feel like I was contributing to something bigger, have my “own” cash again, and still be home most of the time with baby girl.
As often happens, this glorious harmony became upset by a number of changes. I was getting more writing opportunities and had also started working as an education consultant when I found out I was pregnant again. I added a day to my daughter’s weekly preschool schedule and slogged through 16 weeks of severe nausea and morning sickness. By the time my son was born, I was holding it together, but barely. Even so, I convinced myself I could still do everything I was doing before and take care of a second child. You want to know what that looks like? It looks like standing up and typing at your laptop while jiggling a fussy baby strapped to your chest, forgetting to feed yourself, showing up to pick-up with baby poop on your sleeve, and still not getting any work done.
It took me longer than I’d care to admit to figure out this was unsustainable. Clearly, part-time work was a good fit for me, but I need to find equilibrium again. Eventually, I did find her. Yes, her. Hiring a nanny three mornings a week to come to my home and take care of my kids so I could work was the best thing I ever did for myself. No commute, no packing bags, no pumping in parking lots — just straight to work with no distractions. It comes at a price. It’s primarily a financial one, but there is an emotional cost, too. I know that their attachment to their nanny is essential to their development and I don’t get in the way, but I won’t pretend I don’t feel a little pang when the baby rests his head on her shoulder or my preschooler pushes me toward my office.
On balance, however, I have a pretty great thing going. I’ve somehow managed to cobble together a real career, with work that has led to more work. And those jobs all allow me to work on a remote and flexible basis. I have an amazing nanny who I trust and who my children adore. It’s easy to concentrate on work when I know they’re in good hands. I spend most of my childcare hours working, but I still manage to get out and run errands on my own (I’d be hard-pressed to think of a greater gift than that as a mother of two), spend my hard-earned money on a few things we want vs. things we need, and even grab *gasp* lunch (you know, one that doesn’t involve chicken nuggets and fries).
If you’re a new mama struggling with whether or not to return to the work force, I highly recommend looking at part-time jobs as a compromise. Are those gigs lying thick upon the ground? Not exactly. Do I spend a third of what I make on childcare? Yes. Is it worth it? A hundred times yes. I have accepted the fact that there are things that work fulfills for me that motherhood does not and that being with the kids 24/7 is not good for my personal mental health. I love my children fiercely, but I work because I know the investment I make in my well-being is well worth it. Simply put, part-time work makes me a better me, and thus, a better mom.