Friday, February 01, 2008

Working Mom

A friend, who is pregnant and after giving birth will need to return to work quite quickly, asked me to read this piece at Salon today. She also encouraged me to write some about my return to work and how to achieve that mystical balance that countless parenting magazines (aimed primarily at women, I might add) speak about.

Upon finishing up this woman's "Dear Cary" letter, I found myself feeling a bit disconnected from her worldview. It's not that I don't understand or respect where she is coming from--not wanting the role of mother be the primary role by which one identifies oneself--but rather my own views about being a mother and a mother who works outside the home have morphed quite a bit. Not too long ago, right after Maddie was born, I was writing feverishly that I didn't want to lose my identity as a Philosophy professor--as someone engaged with not only the public, but with ideas. Almost everytime I wrote something like that, I would be met with comments that warned me how much I would miss my daughter when I was back and work and how hard it would be to miss out on so many of her daily changes. I think that these kinds of comments might be what fuels the "Dear Cary" letter that this woman writes.

While my ideas about being a working mom or even the "role" or "identity" of mother have changed, they most certainly have not come around to embrace the rather scolding tone of women who warn that going back to work is a travesty or that it results in a disconnection from your child.

To be frank, this has not been my experience in the least. I am gratified to be back at work now and Maddie is really thriving in daycare. We leave for work together and she gets excited when I put her in her car seat. She loves the women who care for her and is starting to play with other babies. I love peeking in on her and seeing her smiling widely and reaching out to touch another little one. Don't get me wrong. The first few days were really hard, especially since she had been with me 24/7. I am also lucky that my daycare is on site and so I can walk over and see her whenever I want. I tend to nurse her on my lunch hours.

The way in which I feel disconnected from this Salon piece lies in the anxiety and anger that the woman writing it exhibits. I was there once. I felt really defensive and in need of staking my ground against a wave of sentiment that having a child and trying to maintain my pre-child identity was impossible. Now that I am doing it--working and mothering--I don't have any time or energy to care one wit about moralistic parents who think I am a bad or soon to be disappointed mom.

[Side-note: in a conversation with Hanno I realized why some women might opt out. The first few days (or longer) of daycare transition can be so difficult that some women might not have the ability to stand it and therefore they leave their job. This was never an option for me.]

I take such delight in my time a work. When I am at work, I am more than a mom. In public, with Maddie, I am practically invisible. Strangers or acquaintances are drawn to her and if they speak to me it is only to learn about her and how I am doing with my little one. I am not, however, resentful of this invisibility. I would rather look at and talk about Maddie too, who can blame them. I am a proud mama and delight in showing her off. But, before returning to work, I tired of having that sort of connection be my only way of relating to others.

When I am at work, I am a more complicated person. But let me first say that I am a mom and I love talking about that in my classes or working it in somehow. I think that being a mom is very important to my identity and that it should be reclaimed and praised. Becoming a mother has made me more interested and attentive to the larger world around me than ever before. Pre-mom I was pretty solipsistic (maybe narcissistic). I care more about politics, the economy, education, the environment, the difficulties of my students . . . you name it . . .with greater passion than ever. The world I live in now is the world Maddie will grow up in. So, I care about that world and the people in it a great deal more than I did.

At work, I am also a silly, whimsical, hyper woman who loves to talk about fashion and catch up on friends' love lives. That part of me doesn't get eclipsed by Maddie's presence. I am also someone who knows a great deal about what she is teaching and therefore students see me as, hopefully, an intellectual engaged in the world and interested in their own intellectual development. I am grateful--so grateful--that I have the space of work to be this person.

Having said that, I am tired and rarely well prepared for my classes. I wing it most of the time. I find it hard to do anything beyond my classes--i.e. write on my blog. When I go home, I know that I have several more hours to be "on," unlike before when I would go home after a day at work and do mindless activities. Sleep is so important to me now that I get bummed out when Za wants to "talk." I use to love that, now I love sleeping.

One of the upsides of having little time and sleep is that I just don't care anymore about being the "perfect" professor and scholar. I know things, I can communicate them, and I don't have to make my lectures or writing impeccable. I look around at my new female colleagues who are equally sleep deprived, but not from being mothers, but from worrying that they have to over prepare to earn the respect of students. I see now that that labor is decidedly not what earns the respect of students (but that is another post).

I guess if there is one thing I want to emphasize in this post about how my worldview differs from the "Dear Cary" letter writers' it is that being a "mom" is never just about being hermetically sealed up with your children. Children open the world to you and get you out in the world more than ever. So, the fact that being a mom has become associated with a kind of shut inness is just plain wrong-headed.

So, let's reclaim "mom" to connote cosmopolitan, worldly, publicly engaged and throw away, once and for all, the outmoded view that moms are nothing more than the emotional and nutritional providers for their children.

To sound trite--every mother is a working mother.