Thursday, August 26, 2010


It's back to work I go. Two weeks ago, I returned full-time to my job as a college administrator. I know that a very special era in my life is over.

When Dylan arrived, I took the first three months off from work totally, using a combination of accrued vacation and our state's paid family leave to make up for my missed income. That time, especially, was so unique. I spent hours just focused on my new son, getting to know him, cuddling him, feeding him. We took long walks and spent lots of time rocking in the glider on our wide front porch. Often, when he napped, I would nap too, which helped me stay coherent despite the regular night feedings.

Friends and family were excited to meet our little one, and I loved sharing him with them. I invited colleagues over for lunch and felt connected to the "real world" just enough. For the first time I can recall, I was able to keep our house (reasonably) clean and tidy. Dylan's first months coincided with the holiday season, and I really enjoyed having time to shop online, wrap presents nicely, and deck the halls. I baked. I nested. Mind you, I wasn't super productive and I often marveled at how little I actually was able to accomplish in a day. (Though we had grand plans, Dylan's room still isn't decorated!) But my primary ambition was caring for this new human, and I felt like I was succeeding.

Then in January I returned to work 60% time, spending three full days in the office. This summer, I went down to 50%, which has usually meant just going to the office one full day and three afternoons. With my part-time work, most of my domestic "niceties" went out the window; we've avoided entertaining, and there are monster-sized dust bunnies floating around.

But I was able to stay connected with my son. I knew his routines. I could spot tiny incremental developments in his awareness and skills. Heck, I could predict the color and consistency of his poop the next day, because I prepared his meals and fed him!

I know how privileged I was to have had all this time with him. The vast majority of parents around the world and even in our "developed" nation struggle to put food on the table while working at least one full time job. They don't have the stable position with good benefits that I do that enabled me to shift my schedule.

And let me also say that I respect those parents who want to work full-time jobs. They recognize that a critical ingredient to providing little ones with happy, fulfilling childhoods is having parents who are happy and fulfilled, and many people would not be happy and fulfilled without pursuing careers that demand full-time attention.

Before becoming a parent, I speculated that part-time work would be ideal for me. It would allow me to continue to contribute to endeavors that make a difference beyond my immediate family and keep my mind engaged in things that challenge me in interesting ways. I recognized that I couldn't really be content as a full-time, stay-at-home parent.

Fortunately, my partner in parenting was also interested in splitting his time between caring for his child and his paid work. We debated and investigated and determined that if we scrimped and cut back some and relied on the regular help of my mother, we could afford to both work less than full-time for a few years, so that we could care for Dylan in our own home, by ourselves, which was our preference.

Unfortunately, that wasn't to be. A few months ago, my boss let me know that she needed me to return to work full-time when the new school year began. Hoping to convince her otherwise, I proposed lots of other options, including job sharing. Never-the-less, she stuck to her conviction that my job, as it currently must be constructed, is truly a full-time (or more, I must say!) job. Though I suspect she made the right decision for the College, I was of course quite disappointed. I contemplated leaving, but that just isn't feasible at this point.

And so began the scramble to figure out childcare.

Even before Dylan, M. and I spent lots of time investigating and discussing the great debates about the impacts of different childcare arrangements on children. I reached a few conclusions. First, the research is inconclusive, and the "conversation" is sometimes divisive. Second, its impossible to extract the influence of the type of childcare from the other influences on a young child's life. Next, most families have limited options and therefore don't necessarily make a decision they feel is ideal for their children; as in most situations in life, compromises are made.

I became convinced that whatever we arranged, Dylan is the type of kid who will do well. The preference to have him looked after entirely by family members in his earliest years is more about us (me!) than him.

With that in mind, we checked into day care centers, home day care options, and nannies who would come to our home. Since my mom was still willing to spend one day a week looking after her grandson, and since M. was still able to work his clients into about 24 hours per week, we only needed to find part-time coverage.

There were some really stressful days when it looked like none of our options would pan out. But then I followed a lead from a colleague that got more and more promising. I'm delighted to report that we've hired K., a warm, wonderful young woman who will be Dylan's nanny four mornings a week. She has strong experience and good references, and clearly loves kids. In fact, she will be earning her elementary teaching credential at my school during the evenings.

In my first conversation with K., I told her we hoped to find a situation that becomes so comfortable, the nanny is like an extension of our family. Sure, it's too early to tell, and in fact, she won't start caring for Dylan until next week, when her classes also begin. But I am very optimistic.

We've patched together childcare in these intermittent days before K. arrives, exploiting the love of Dylan's aunts and grandmother.

Now I'm back in the office, typically from 8 a.m. until 5:00 p.m., with lots of opportunities for "weekend and evening work." It's still too early to really tell what it's going to be like to be a mom who works full-time.

Yes, I still snuggle with him when he first wakes in the morning, I've come home for lunch a lot to see him a bit, and we're together in the evenings. He crawls through my legs while I'm pulling together dinner, and he sits next to me in his booster seat shuffling Joe's O's while M. and I dine. We splash through his bath and then play a bit before I wrestle him into his jammies. There's still time to read a story together, and then we rock and rock while he drifts to sleep (if we're lucky). There are still many, many sweet moments.

But even now, the relaxed confidence I had that I was doing a "good job" as a mother is slipping away. I'm constantly checking in with myself: "Am I paying enough attention to my son? Is it the right kind of attention? Should I be playing with him more, instead of clearing the dishes? Should I keep him awake a bit longer, so we can read more together, or should I put him down, so I can relax a bit and maybe actually have a conversation with M?"

I'm nervous about how I'm going to handle the tough juggling acts on the horizon, and I am sad that the sweet, sweet months at home with my baby boy are already behind me. I know the tension I'm coping with is nothing new; I feel like I am living a cliché. It's something many (most?) parents struggle with at some point. However, the fact that I have excellent company at my own personal pity party is cold comfort. This is a big transition for me, dang it!

1 comment:

Lisa T. said...

I can hear in your words how hard this is and is going to be for you. I hope a routine you are all happy with settles in and you are feeling good about the new life. I am grateful every second that I am able to stay home with Henry. I do miss my classroom though and the larger contribution I might make to the world, but that will come again someday...hopefully. and who knows Kristen, times might change again in the future, job shares or part times might avail themselves. Get yourself a digital picture frame so you can load hundreds of photos on to watch when you get to missing the boy. I did that for my husband and he loves it.
Take care,
Lisa T.