"Oh. You must be a stay-at-home mom."
There we sat, in a doctor's office for my annual exam, the nurse tapping in all my background information. We'd just established the five kids piece when she said it.
"No," I said. "Actually, I work full-time."
It came out almost like an apology, like I was ashamed to say that I, a mother of five boys, work full-time -- and I followed it up with a disclaimer about how I have a flexible job that allows me to work afternoons and late at night so I can spend mornings and evenings with my children and work when they're being cared for by their daddy or asleep.
"Oh. Oh, wow," she said. "OK." She turned to put this latest bit of information into the computer with nothing more said.
It's not the first time I have encountered this assumption or felt the need to apologize for correcting it. It's usually women who make those comments: "So, obviously, you stay home with them all," "Wow, you must be way too busy to work a job," "Isn't it wonderful to stay home with them while they're little?" and it baffles me a little, because if there's one thing I've learned in my seven years of parenting, it's that we are all different.
Which means that what we think we might do if we had five children doesn't mean that's what she chooses to do.
There are moms of one child who choose to stay home with that child, and there are moms of five children who choose to work.
I go into an office and I write stories and take pictures in the field and I produce a newspaper from them, and I enjoy what I do. Having children did not change that.
But even if I didn't have a full-time job, I would still choose to work.
Because I am a better mother for my separate pursuit, for my writing, for the ways I can process through mistakes and solutions outside of the constant demands of my children, but that is just me.
I have friends who are stay-at-home moms, and I love them dearly. I have friends who spend all eight working hours in an office, and I love them dearly, too.
There is no one right way. There is only our right way.
We get really good at debating what's best for the children, but sometimes what's best for the children is what's best for us. Some of us can be better versions of ourselves with a career to pursue. Some of us are better versions of ourselves away from the stress of an out-of-home job.
We can argue about who has it hardest, too, but it's all the hardest job in the world, because we are all mothers, and even when we're in an office, miles away from our children, we are still thinking of them and worrying about them and missing them. We are still loving them, just like that stay-at-home mom.
And when we're at home with them, meeting all those needs in real time, trying to hold fast to our sanity because all the whining is pulling it out of reach, locking ourselves in the bathroom for just a moment to breathe, we are still thinking of them and worrying about them and loving them, just like that working mom.
Just because a mom chooses to have five kids doesn't mean she chooses to stay at home full-time, or she has to give up on a career, or she cannot pursue a dream for herself. It just means it may look different for her -- like working odd hours to get those 38 hours in; like trading off with their daddy to avoid childcare costs; like traveling to an office twice a week and working from a home office the other three days.
I don't work to get promotions or make a lot of money or even to show my boys a strong example of a working woman, a managing editor who is a mother of five young children. I work because it's enjoyable to me, because without writing and creating and chasing a dream, I am not me.
I know that nurse didn't say those words to try to make me feel bad or guilty or wrong for my choice, and I don't.
But I do believe that maybe the world could do without all our assumptions -- that the next time we see a mama with a whole tribe of kids, we shouldn't just assume she is one who has chosen staying at home over a career, and that must be why she has so many.
Maybe we just admire those children, pat them on the head with an encouraging smile, and leave those assumptions where they lie.