This is a post mainly for those professionals who are passionate about their careers and are considering having children but wonder/worry what impact it might have on their life and their career. I’m going to talk about my own experience finding an identity as a working mother over the past year. Remember that your mileage may vary — there is no telling what you’re going to feel when you have a child and how that will impact your life and your feelings about work.
This was one of my biggest concerns before Adam and I decided to get pregnant, and, unfortunately, the women I talked to about being a parent didn’t fill me with confidence that I’d be able to balance work and family well. I heard from women who told me that they’d become less ambitious once they had children; women who hated leaving their child at daycare but didn’t have a choice; women who worked 9-to-5, took care of their children and never did anything else; women who could count on one hand the number of times they spent alone time with their spouse in years; and women who chose to stay home with their children. Since Adam and I both had mothers who stayed home with us, we didn’t have many exemplars of mothers who successfully and happily balanced work and family. My mother was actually horrified at first that I was going to send Reed to a daycare. I felt like I couldn’t win.
My biggest worry when I had Reed was that I would want to stay home with him forever when that simply wasn’t financially feasible. I was envious of my former colleague (who had her baby a week before I did) who decided to quit her job and stay home with her daughter. I felt like I would miss so much time with my son and wouldn’t be able to bond with him as well. While, at first, it was hard to comprehend being away from him, I am so glad that I go to work and that he goes to daycare.
A good daycare is one of the best things for a child’s social development. When I get the chance to watch Reed at daycare, I see all of the opportunities he has to learn about sharing, about interacting with other children and adults, about bonding with people other than his parents, and about social play. Just today, I saw him and a little girl trying to play with the same toy — learning how to deal with this simply isn’t something he’s going to get from being home all day, and (most) playgroups are often play mediated by mothers. I’m fortunate that Reed immediately took to being in daycare when we started him in it at 4 months — he’s an incredibly social and high-energy little boy, so being around different people perfectly suits his personality. I very quickly felt comfortable leaving Reed at daycare, because I didn’t feel like it was a second-best/no-other-choice option for childcare — I really do think he’s better off there. That’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with staying home with your child; this is just what works for us.
I also realized that I need my identity as a professional. I like going to work, interacting with adults and working on projects. I like giving talks, writing articles and taking part in professional conversations. While I think about Reed when I’m at work, I don’t wish I was home with him. Any concerns I had about my losing my ambitions after having a child went out the window shortly after going back to work. My priorities have not changed. Family was always first — I chose not to write a second book a few years ago because I didn’t want to put such a burden on my husband in taking care of the household. I’m still passionate about my work and it’s just as important to me as it was before. I think the only thing that’s changed is how I manage my time. I don’t have the luxury of coming home from work and writing a blog post or working on an article — I have a sweet little boy play with, feed, bathe and put to bed (and, frankly, I wouldn’t trade that time with him for anything, no matter how tired I am when I get home). I have to find little pieces of time here and there (naps, after Reed goes to bed, Monday mornings since I work a night reference shift, etc.) and obviously can’t do as much as I used to. But I’ve lost none of the passion I had before for technology and our profession.
With all of the (bad) advice being thrown at new mothers, it can be incredibly difficult to find your identity as a mother. I found that many mothers were all about guilt-trips and one-upsmanship. You don’t use cloth diapers? You don’t breastfeed exclusively? You feed your child baby food from a jar? You leave your child with someone else so you and your husband can spend some alone time together? I got the sense from reading books, articles, and (especially) discussion boards that my entire life should revolve around my child since one wrong choice could have terrible consequences, and that having a child would require me to be completely selfless and put my own desires at the bottom of the pile. And I bought into it for a while.
The hardest thing about the first few months after having Reed was letting go of all the expectations I put on myself because I thought that was how a mother was supposed to be. I made myself so miserable trying to be someone I’m not and trying to do things that simply weren’t working for any of us because I thought I had to. Part of it was crazy post-pregnancy hormones and postpartum depression (an issue I never talked to anyone about at the time other than my doctor and my husband), but I feel strongly that a lot of it was my unwillingness to let go of this idea that I had to martyr myself to my child’s needs. I have to wonder how much postpartum depression is caused by these unrealistic expectations people have for themselves as new mothers and what happens when their expectations don’t mesh with the reality.
If anything, I’m more selfish now than I was before having a child. I’m very protective of my time and say “no” to doing a lot of things that I would have said “yes” to a year ago. I work hard to ensure that my husband and I make our relationship a priority, even if it means leaving my precious child with his grandparents while we spend a night at a hotel (which is exactly what we’re doing this Sunday — woo hoo!). And I do things for myself or buy things for myself that make me happy. I realized after that very scary episode with postpartum depression (my first major depressive episode since I was 19) that I need to make myself happy to be a good mother to Reed. Happy mommy = happy baby. So I’ve learned how to balance taking care of me and my marriage with taking care of my little boy. And judging by how happy and mellow he is most of the time, I’d say I’m doing an o.k. job at it.
I’ll also say that having a good work/family/fun balance depends greatly on having a supportive partner (with an emphasis on the word partner). My husband is a partner in every sense of the word — we parent and take care of the house 50-50. He is so wonderful with Reed and there’s nothing I enjoy more than watching Reed climb on his dad and seeing the smiles they both have when they look into each other’s eyes. Without Adam, I can’t imagine making this all work. Thanks hon!
I wish someone had told me all these things when I was thinking about having a child. Yes, you can still be ambitious in your career — you may have to spend less time speaking at conferences and writing books, but you don’t have to give it up altogether. It’s not only ok for you to send your child to daycare, but it might actually be the best thing for him or her. You can be selfish and still be a good mother. If you decide to get an extra hour of sleep instead of making your child’s baby food yourself, he or she won’t be irrevocably scarred by eating food from a jar. That what’s most important is that your child is loved and well cared-for and so many of the other things you think are important when you read baby books or magazine articles really aren’t.
So if you’re on the fence about having a child because you feel like you might have to give up being who you are, realize that choice is up to you. You can still be the passionate, hard-working professional you are and be a great parent — the only thing you’ll absolutely have to change is how you allocate your time. I also wish that someone had told me how much fun it is to have a child. Everyone tells you it’ll change your life, you’ll never sleep again, you’ll never go out to the movies again, etc., but you never hear enough about the awesomeness of parenthood. Reed is really the most fun person I’ve ever known and I treasure every minute I spend with him. I feel so lucky to be his mom. Parenthood isn’t for everyone, but it’s a far more fun and awesome adventure than I’d ever expected.