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Why Do You Have to Work, Mama?

My son is getting to be old enough to remember the words I choose with him. And I don't want him to remember that working is always a chore that must be endured.
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My son is in the Age of Why.

"Why, Mama? Why do I have to put my shoes on?"

"Why does that sign say stop?"

"Why can't I have a new toy?"

"Why do you have to work?"

He asks me that last one on a regular basis. "Why do you have to work, Mama? Why? I want you to play with me." I struggle to answer in a manner that satisfies either of us.

"I work because I need to make money to pay for our house, and our food, and our car," was my first answer. It doesn't feel right, though, this cut-and-dried answer to a question that has so much depth and breadth to explore.

My son is getting to be old enough to remember the words I choose with him. And I don't want him to remember that working is always a chore that must be endured.

On the other hand, I can't lie to my son and pretend that I wouldn't rather be with him every day. I know that I'm not unique; there are mothers around the world feeling the same way. Many women work because they must.

However, work offers benefits, both literal and figurative, that are invaluable. Aside from the obvious -- paycheck, 401k and medical insurance -- there is also the satisfaction of a job well done. There is confidence to be gained from completing a project. As the frosting on top, there are airline and hotel points, which allow us to take vacations for free. There are the friendships I have built around the country -- indeed, around the world -- that I wouldn't have if it weren't for my job. There are the opportunities to build our family's future.

I asked for advice on my response to my son from my friends who are also working moms. Jamille, the mother of an 18-month-old boy, has a job she loves with a non-profit and employs a caretaker to watch her son in their home. "Mama is going to share her talents with the world," she tells him every weekday, not completely without mama guilt, but with the joy of doing something meaningful. She loves her beautiful son with all of her being, but she also loves to work. She wants him to know that she has something important to offer society, and she is teaching him about passion for a cause.

"There are still days when I question my decision," Jamille says,

But I think that is the mama guilt. I feel blessed to be able to work for our community and know that my son is seeing me work; I have come to realize that this balance of work and home is more personal than I had previously thought. I know I'm a better mama because I work and I'm certain there are other mothers who are much better by staying home. I'm glad that society is becoming more respectful of all choices we make as moms, although I don't think society as a whole will ever understand that the push/pull continues day after day even after we know we've made the best decision for ourselves. I think we make the best decision for the moment and I personally reserve the right to change my mind.

Catherine gave up a fantastic career when her first daughter was born; her husband's business keeps him on the road nearly every week. It was best for their family for her to stay home while he runs the successful company he built from the ground up. Now that her girls are 4 and 7, she is struggling with her own challenges; she is considering starting a business so that her girls can participate and understand what it means for women to work. She wants them to learn how to try and succeed, or even to try and fail and pick themselves back up again.

Alexis has three girls, a law degree from Harvard and a teaching job at a university an hour away. She has managed to craft her weeks around a schedule of two days in her office and works nights, after her girls go to sleep. It's a challenge, but she believes strongly that if someone has earned a college education, he or she should return that knowledge to the world in turn. Realizing that this may sound like a controversial stance for women who have chosen to be stay-at-home mothers even with a college degree (or two or three) under their belts, she believes that contributions come in the form of volunteering for a child's class, or for the community.

Alexis' view is that women have a moral obligation to contribute their gifts to the world beyond their immediate family. That may come in the form of paid or unpaid work, but she believes that women are selling themselves -- and society -- short when they choose not to use their education, skills or gifts for the benefit of those other than their children. "We can't do it all," Alexis said, "but we can do more than we often give ourselves credit for." Her message to her girls is that women are strong and smart and can do anything and be anyone they want.

My mom, who never went to college, gave me that same message. She stayed at home with me and my sister until I was 14, and then she took a part-time job for the fun of it. She was there every day when I got home from school, and she never missed a recital, a play, a marching band contest or a sick day. My mom and dad taught us to be smart and strong even without a working mother, and it was never a question whether or not we would go to college. We assumed we would, and we did. My sister, a brilliant math whiz with a degree in quantitative analysis, chooses to stay home with her kids. My husband and I have a dream we're building on the back of his business, and to get there, we need me to work, too. It feels like a stab to the heart when a well-meaning friend says, "Can't you shuffle some things around so you can stay home?" It feels, although that's not the intention, like I am not trying hard enough to make it happen. The guilt can be crushing.

I don't know the answer yet to the "why?" question. I can tell my son that I'd rather be with him every single day, which satisfies my need for him to know where I want to be.

But I can also tell him that I am very fortunate have a job when so many people don't.

I can tell him that my job does pay the bills, in a way that is very generous and allows us to pursue our dreams for our family.

I can tell him that I have the opportunity to create campaigns and programs to help my employer succeed. And when I volunteer for a non-profit in my free time, that I'm using my skills to help people in need.

I can tell him about the mentors who have been encouraging me to find more speaking engagements to increase my confidence, and their visible pride every time I complete an event.

I can tell him about the friends I have made, and the places I have seen in the name of work: Athens. Halifax. Rome. Dubai. Barcelona. Prague. Brussels. And so much of this beautiful country we call home.

I can tell him that work isn't always where I want to be, but I'm lucky to have a great job that allows me to support our family. And we will find a balance, in our own way, work and school and ensuring we are there for him as much as he needs us. Maybe balance is not a steady thing but something that requires constant adjustment, much like walking on a tightrope. We'll adjust and we'll figure it out as we go, as a family.

And someday, I think, he will understand.