When I was a little girl envisioning my life as a grown up, I thought of two things. I would be an “always-there” mom – you know, the kind who bakes cookies for her kids on a whim, is always home when they are done with school, and is present and involved in every aspect of their lives.
But I also had a vision of myself as a successful working woman. Like my single mom, I would work my butt off and be financially independent. When I was very little, I wanted to work in a grocery store (swiping items across the conveyor belt was an early dream of mine). Later, I wanted to be a teacher, a midwife, or a writer. Either way, I would pour myself into my work and kick ass.
And somehow I would be able to do all this while being that ever-present, all-knowing, perfect mom. I wanted to work as hard as my mom did, but also be able to be more involved in my kids’ lives than she could be as a single mom (a badass single mom, I might add).
I spent much of my childhood as a latch-key kid, fending for myself. I didn’t blame my mother for this, because I understood how hard she worked and how much she sacrificed. But I craved more parental involvement. I wanted a mom who would lay out cookies for me when I came home from school, and volunteer for the PTA. I wanted to be able to give that to my own kids.
Don’t we all want to give our kids that which we perceived as lacking in our own childhoods?
Of course, as you might have guessed, my little plan did not exactly come to fruition. When my first baby was born, I had to quit my prestigious job as a college English instructor because childcare in our area was too expensive to justify me continuing to work. Plus, I realized that working when my kids were young wasn’t going to fit in with how I wanted to raise my kids at that time. And although we struggled financially, I had the privilege of making the SAHM thing work for a few years.
Flash forward ten years, and both of my boys are in school full-time. Even though I work almost full-time hours now (from home, which definitely has its perks), I still take on all of the responsibilities I did as a SAHM. I do most of the housework, most of the meal prep, all of the before- and after-school childcare – not to mention the mental and emotional labor of running a household.
I basically arrange my life, my schedule, and my soul around my kids’ lives. And I know I’m not alone. So many working mothers operate this way.
I guess you could say that this is exactly what I always wanted. I get to show up at my kids’ school whenever there’s an event. I definitely don’t bake cookies for them unless it’s a weekend and I’ve finished my endless list of other chores, but it happens for sure. And I’m there for them after school – not exactly cheerful all the time, but present, ready to listen to them kvetch about everything under the sun, and ready to dish out ten bazillion after school snacks.
I think most working moms fall into this trap. You work, but you are still expected to be the default parent for everything. Part of you even wants to do that, because that’s how so many of us young girls envisioned our lives as parents. These days, it’s not supposed to be that either you’re a SAHM mom or a working mom. It’s like you’re supposed to have all the trappings of a full-time mom and a full-time worker.
Let’s just call it what it is: It’s so, so stressful. So FUCKING stressful. And it’s freaking bullshit, because who on earth is supposed to be able to do all this in one flipping day and not go totally bonkers?
During the school year, I wake up with my kids, make them breakfast, fight with them to eat said breakfast, fight with them to get dressed, and push them out the door to school. Then, I immediately get to work. I work until the very last second when I have to pick them up from school. I’m supposedly “off” work until my husband comes home to take over. But I’m usually finishing up work/answering messages and emails while I do the after school care/dinner/homework run. Then, when my husband gets home, I go back to work so that I can get all my hours in.
All while caring for the house, shuttling the kids to activities, doctor’s appointments, and making sure to show up for whatever school events happen during the year (which are, like, a million). Oh, and I’m the default parent when it comes to sick days for our kids (which are also, like, a zillion).
And did I mention that I take on brunt of the mental and emotional load of our household, too? Because of course I do.
I tell myself: This is what you wanted. You signed up for this. You have it all, and you are lucky. You shouldn’t complain. And yes, I get that. I get that it’s a privilege to have what I have. And I appreciate it. I don’t take it for granted for a second.
But that doesn’t mean I can’t admit that it’s just too much – that one woman should not have to take on the roles of what should basically amount to two whole people. And forget about what this does to my mental and physical health. When I have a week where my work deadlines are piling up to the sky, my kids are cranky or sick, and like one other little thing goes wrong with the house or the bills or whatever – I am apt to completely lose it.
There comes a point where literally no more of me can “show up” and do all the things, and I just break down and cry. But how could that not happen, given all the stress and responsibility I take on?
My husband isn’t totally out of the picture, though I suppose I make it sound that way. He is a very hands-on, involved dad, but his job doesn’t have a flexible schedule like mine does. And up until recently, his job was causing him so much stress and sucking up so much of his time that it was difficult for him to do much else than work and put the kids to bed.
Thankfully, he recently quit that job and is taking on work that we hope will allow him to be more involved in all aspects of our kids’ lives, as well as in the arena of housework and even the “mental load.” Like many folks out there, we can’t really afford outside childcare, nor can we afford for either of us to work less, so it’s all about finding balance and making good choices about our work/life balance. And that is what we are striving our best to do.
Beyond all that, I’m not sure I have all the answers. Besides finding help wherever I can and making it a priority for my partner to pitch in, the best I can do is adjust my expectations. I can’t be the perfect, cookie-cutter mother. I quit the PTA long ago, but maybe I need to cut back on some of those school events. Maybe my kids are going to need to do a little more “fending for themselves” just so I can take a few extra deep breaths each day.
“Good enough” is what it’s going to have to be around here, and that’s okay. And despite my childhood vision of my life as a mom, I’m going to have to reframe things and accept that I can only be as good as I can be. And most importantly, that my kids will thrive best if they have a happy mom, not one who is struggling and striving to meet expectations that just aren’t realistic or healthy for anyone involved.