I was 40 years old with a newborn and a preschooler. I questioned the meaning of life. Was it meant to be lived in an enclosed office space beneath fluorescent lights? I couldn’t help but wonder.
When I was still pregnant with my second child, my career was soaring. I edited not one but two magazines—a national health title and a regional travel publication. I enjoyed my work, and I adored my toddler. Still, my first kid was a poor sleeper and was always up with the birds at 5 a.m.—sometimes after waking me two or three times in the night and demanding wide-eyed attention. And because I was doing two jobs in the hours of one, I inevitably tightened copy, assigned stories, planned future issues and proofread layouts long after my first daughter fell asleep. Which left little restorative rest for me or much time for my husband, who usually made dinner every night when he came home from work, since I usually stayed at the office later than he did. And I never wanted to miss bath time.
This was our arrangement. And although I was definitely burning the candle at both ends, it worked for years—as long as everything went smoothly. Throw in an editorial fire at work that had to be put out, a traffic jam, a snow day, a missed meeting because of a pediatric appointment, a sick nanny or, yes, a second pregnancy that saw me nodding off at my desk with exhaustion, suddenly it didn’t.
I realized after I gave birth for the second time that not every woman is built the same. Some of us can easily run on four hours of sleep for extended periods as we give, give, give to our families, bosses and never-ending commitments. Others require eight uninterrupted hours, all the time. Some of us don’t break a sweat multitasking deadlines with mommy-and-me classes. Some do. I owned up to how incredibly stressed I felt. I admitted this stress was my baseline emotion, not an occasional spike on my overall chart of well-being. Like this writer and fellow mom, I came to the conclusion that I needed to make a change.
I remember feeling conflicted, even when I knew what I was going to do. When my younger daughter was born, I worked from home and cut back one magazine to two, the less-demanding one. I negotiated an extended leave, during which I only went into the office once a week. I found that even though the daily playground jaunts with the kids could sometimes be mind-numbing, I felt happy. Happier at home where I could control my schedule with flexibility. Happier not to have to ask, “How high?” every time I was told to jump. Happier to nap when the kids did, when I felt tired. Happier to slow down and enjoy my morning coffee. Happier to pick and choose my assignments.
And happier to tend to my children. Not every woman enjoys the many mundane tasks: stroller-walking, swing-pushing, lullaby-singing, book-reading. To my surprise, I found I did. I realized how much I loved being a mother and being at home with my girls. I was lucky enough to be able to trim back my hours without facing total financial ruin. We took a hit, certainly, but we managed. And we saved some after letting go of our nanny.
After a year of this, I cut the office umbilical cord altogether when my family relocated to Los Angeles for my husband’s new job. And I embraced the stay-at-home-mom, full-on freelance life.
Flash forward seven years and I’m still at home, and we’re back on the East Coast. There have definitely been some costs against all the benefits. I’ve missed the camaraderie of feeling part of something larger: a company name with which to align my identity when asked, “What do you do?” A unifying mission. An office party to ring in the holidays with colleagues. And now that I’m on the side of 45, there’s fear, too. Just as my girls need me less, it seems the same may hold true from my profession. I still remember the dire warnings I received from a few older female colleagues: Don’t leave work, they advised, or once your kids are grown you’ll be left with nothing.
Nothing, I always wondered? What about a cemented connection with my kids? What about knowing I’d given them the very best of myself as they were being formed? Surely that counts for something.
I guess time will tell. I don’t regret my choice, not for a moment. And I’m able to maintain my professional status, just in a different league, as a freelance writer. I’m OK with that, even if I’ve down-traded on status, on power. Even if I now accept assignments for a fraction of what I used to get paid. I dared to stop and smell the roses—and the diapers, too. I enjoyed some sunshine far removed from those fluorescent lights. I’m happy I did because I was present for all the moments I knew in my heart I didn’t want to miss. There’s more to life than office work. I realized I held the power to define what my work should be. For me, that meant striking a balance—from home.