The Working Mom's Dilemma

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How much of ourselves should we sacrifice for our families?

The end of my maternity leave was marked with a big red “X” on the kitchen calendar: January 12, 2011. I cried during Christmas dinner, sobbed through New Year’s Eve. The anticipation was unbearable. I had spent every minute with my baby boy for five months; how on earth would I abandon him to someone else?

But being a stay-at-home-mom was never an option. My husband and I had made the decision to raise a family in the Bay Area, which left no choice but to be a two-income household. On the day marked with the big red “X,” I returned to my job in the development office at an independent school, and never looked back.

In some ways, life was easier back then. Sure, I had frequent bouts of working mom’s guilt, and often wondered why I was paying someone else to raise my son. But then he turned two, and I was suddenly okay with trading tantrums for time at the office. I loved my job, enjoyed having a reason to brush my hair in the morning, and relished the adult interaction. I could go to the bathroom by myself and eat lunch in peace. Daycare closed at 4:30 pm sharp, and I’d be the one sprinting across campus at 4:29.

It was my favorite time of day. My son’s face would light up when he saw me, his bottom teeth jutting out like a Jack-o-Lantern’s. Three years later, my daughter would squeal as she walked like a drunken sailor toward my outstretched arms. The pang of missing the latest milestone was alleviated by the fact that I’d also escaped seven dirty diapers and two failed nap attempts.

Daycare was closed during school breaks, and I would get a glimpse of full-time motherhood. It was hard. So much harder than planning a work event or writing a grant proposal. “I’m not cut out for this,” I’d think to myself. I didn’t need to admit it, though, because school would faithfully start again the following Monday. While there were myriad times when I would have preferred playing Candy Land to planning Career Day, this working mom thing was really working for us.

When I was presented with an opportunity to leave my posh post for a scrappy startup, I was torn. I’d have to pull my kids away from the loving daycare they’d known since birth. I’d be giving up healthcare coverage and a generous 401K match. I’d say goodbye to 10 weeks’ vacation and hello to double-overtime. But I would be part of something new, exciting and innovative. I would be valued and looked up to. My skills would be developed and depended upon. For the first time since becoming a mom, I was making a decision that benefitted my career instead of my family.

As I dove, head first, into my first new job in a decade, I was eager to prove myself. I worked all hours and exceeded all expectations. Meanwhile, unwilling to shortchange my kids, I attempted to replace quantity with quality. Dance party after dinner? Yes! Play outside in our pajamas? Why not? Bake cookies at bedtime? Yum! I was burning the candle at both ends, and no one was losing out but me.

My new schedule quickly became unsustainable. With no shortage of passion or ideas, my only limitation was time. My boss graciously agreed to scale back my hours, allowing me to give as much energy to my family as to my work. Dance parties could happen before dark. I could chaperone the school field trip and update the company blog on the same day. I took Tuesdays off with my three-year-old to hit story time and go out for ice cream. Was it too good to be true?

In some ways, yes. Along with a lighter work schedule came a shrinking salary, and with the cost of preschool and after care, I was barely breaking even. Despite spending every waking moment attached to a kid or a computer, I had acquired no savings, no retirement, no spending money. I couldn’t even justify a trip to my favorite second-hand clothing store, Plato’s Closet.

Most part-time jobs pay just enough to cover the cost of childcare. Hence the working mom’s dilemma: do we sacrifice the majority of time with our kids to make a meaningful income? Do we sacrifice our own professional development (and spending money) to be a more present mom? Or do we score the elusive flexible work schedule, making virtually no profit but keeping our sanity and resume in check? To have the choice is a privilege, albeit a confusing one.

Last Mother’s Day, my daughter handed me a picture of the two of us that she had drawn at school. “You’re on your computer!” she exclaimed proudly. I was shattered. I like the message that being a working mom sends to young girls: that they can achieve anything they set their minds to. But I don’t want my kids’ memories of me to be disengaged or distracted.

At 39, I feel like I’m at the top of my professional game, I have so much to give, and have finally found my true passion (for writing). I’ve got the combined experience and confidence to make a major mark. But while there are myriad full-time positions out there, part-time options are piddly. Freelance is flexible but unpredictable. Remote work offers convenience but a way-too-close proximity to laundry and dirty dishes. It’s hard to make ends meet and keep a sane schedule. What is the “right” answer for a working mom?

As with any parenting decision, I know there isn’t one. What works for one mom will, in all likelihood, not work for another. When I picture my working self in my head, I’m wearing a funky blazer and hip glasses. I’ve got a stylish haircut and am surrounded by curious, collaborative millennials. As we brainstorm the latest inbound marketing campaign, I sip free coffee and munch organic granola from the company kitchen. I feel smart, productive, and am still kind of glowing from this morning’s presentation. (I nailed it.)

But in order to achieve this idyllic vision, I’d have had to catch the 7:15 am train to San Francisco. I’d have dragged my sleeping kids out of bed, jammed English muffins down their throats, asked them to get dressed at least 37 times, brushed their teeth in the car, and dropped them off—hysterical—at before-school care. To get home in time for pickup, I’d have to leave halfway through the brainstorm session—millennials glaring—and sprint to the train station. While my colleagues hit happy hour, my kids and I wander aimlessly around Trader Joe’s, bleary-eyed, foraging for food. Chicken nuggets, skipped bath, rushed bedtime stories… that part doesn’t sound so glamorous.

I take down my daughter’s Mother’s Day portrait from the fridge and replace it with the photo booth strip we took at the zoo on our day off together. We’re both laughing, and making our craziest faces. I pour a glass of Chardonnay. After all, it’s happy hour.

About the Author: Liza Bennigson is a mom of two and the Content Marketing Manager for Teen Mental Health at CHC. She enjoys running, writing, and spontaneous dance parties with her kids. Find her on Medium and Twitter @LizaBennigson.