“I demoted myself.”
A friend shared this with me one summer day while we were chasing our kids at the beach. We had graduated college together almost 12 years ago and now both work full-time. This statement totally summed up my return to work and what some women our age are, in fact, doing—demoting themselves.
Should I lean-in, lean-out, opt-in, or opt-out? Should I work part-time, full-time or stay home? There is abundance of information thrown at moms about what is the best choice, what not to do, when to do it, and how. People want to tell you what happens if you DO do it or DON’T do it and how you will feel ten years later. It is totally overwhelming and there are way too many ridiculous phrases. Women from different sides of the issue, different life situations, and different backgrounds, are all talking about the same issues as though there is one single answer for us all. It’s insane.
Before becoming a mom, I had no idea that “stay-at-home versus working mom” was an actual issue. I didn’t realize that people wrote books about it, published articles, and dedicated blog posts on this very topic. I was unaware that women debated it, judged each other, felt guilty, felt superior, felt awful, opted-in and opted-out. Or that my Twitter feed would be so full of links, posts and articles making me question my own decision and inundating me.
I had been EJ’s mom for less than twenty-four hours when I heard, “Are you going back to work?”
“Yes I am.”
And at the time, I meant it. I was going back.
I graduated college and fell into the non-profit world. I got (and get) paid peanuts but I love it. It is where I was meant to be and what I was meant to do. I love fundraising. So at 21, my main goal was to become a director before 30. At 29 I received a director position at a university. I didn’t love the situation I was in there, but I was really proud of where I was at. It took a lot of work, a lot of strategic job maneuvering and some guts to say I could do it—and mean it. It felt great. I could only keep going up and began to dream of a VP position.
Then EJ came home.
When I returned to work after 3 months at home with him, he reverted back to the baby we saw in Ethiopia staring at the ceiling and off in his own world. I would pick him up from daycare and he would cry when he saw me. Not a little cry but a loud, desperate cry that would last for minutes. It broke my heart. I would take him home and he would sit and glaze over. All those weeks of progress and attachment were slipping away.
I quit my director job. I left that week and didn’t look back.
My two years at home and then working part-time were the best and most difficult years of my life. I feel completely grateful to have had those years with EJ—to even be able to do that was a gift. And I will never, ever regret it.
I remember that when I quit some people close to me, other moms, actually said, “I like my independence. I couldn’t leave my career.” As if quitting my job made me dependent, and incapable of taking care of or supporting myself. It trivialized all that stay-at-home moms do.
I went back to work full-time last year. EJ and I were both very, very ready. I desperately needed my brain to work and I was quickly losing myself. Within a few weeks of being back full-time, I felt myself return. The strength I once had returned, followed by my confidence, balance and normalcy.
But I didn’t return as director. I almost did. I was offered a director position and for a brief second contemplated returning where I left off. But I wasn’t at that place anymore and I wasn’t the same person.
I didn’t return to my once charted career path. I demoted myself. I wanted the summer hours, the Fridays off in July, the school vacations, the ability to take a sick day, the flexibility of not being the one in charge. I wanted it and I needed it.
My husband will always have the job that makes us the money. He will always have the job that has little flexibility, longer hours, less time off, and not exactly family friendly. He makes huge sacrifices of his time (time with EJ, time with me, and time to himself) to support us. I sometimes get jealous that his career is still moving forward, rather quickly. I sometimes get jealous of his title, his responsibility, and his pay. But then I remind myself of the sacrifices he makes and I am grateful.
I don’t know when I will completely “return” to my career. I am not even sure that career path is the one I want on a long-term basis. I have started exploring the idea of actually writing for a living, but that is still just a dream. There are definitely days when I long for the responsibility, the decision-making, and the title but I feel lucky to work with great people, in a fun environment and have a job I really enjoy. I have no idea if I have made the right choices for myself long-term, did all the right things, or really just screwed myself in the long run. But at the time, it was the right choice for us all.
And on those weekdays in the summer, when I am pushing EJ on a swing at 3:30 p.m. or picking blueberries or taking him for a swim, I realize that those are the moments I will never get back. And I don’t regret only opting in halfway.
I don’t miss being director at all…