Being a parent is hard whether you stay home full time with your kids or go to work outside of the house. Stay at home parents have the joy of spending most of their time with their kids but, in my opinion, they also have the challenge of spending most of their time with their kids. Many stay at home parents do it without any breaks or help. I applaud those superheroes (or Super Parents). Working parents get time away from their kids, which can be a blessing, but often miss out on key milestones or school events that take place during a work day, which can be a curse.
I have no idea whether being a working parent or a stay at home parent is better for your kids, I just happen to be a working mom so that is my only perspective. I love my kids but I also love having a life outside of them. It’s what works for me. If I sound like I’m a distant parent, anyone who knows me knows that I’m not. I’m very engaged and loving with my kids and try to be present when I’m with them but I also want a life outside of them.
I know that while work can be important, most of us need to make money. Some lucky folks have careers that they are passionate about and would do for free. I have found a career that I enjoy most of the time but that doesn’t make me who I am. I have realized that to me, it’s really the relationships I make and the people that I met along the way that are most important. I’m not in a career that saves lives so I can’t speak to that but in my world of sales/marketing, I try to do my best at work but I also realize that no one is going to die if I don’t nail a presentation or if my Powerpoint is not perfect.
I work hard but I try to keep things in perspective, I try to not take my work self too seriously and I make sure to laugh when I can at work. Our life is a journey and work is just a small part of it. My dad reminded me of this recently. He had a big birthday and received hundreds (yes hundreds) of cards and emails from people in his life, many of whom he had met during his 50+ years of working. They told him him how much they valued his friendship and many had stories about the impact he had on their lives. No one said, “your work ethic changed my life” or “that presentation you did back in 1987 was amazing” but he got many, “your friendship/kindness/sense of humor made a difference in my life”.
He figured out early on that, while he had to work to support his family, he would try his best to enjoy his time at work and the relationships he cultivated along the way were the good stuff (he’s got a great sense of humor so people are really drawn to him, thus the hundreds of birthday notes). It was a good reminder that as much time we spend at work, when we reflect back on our lives, for most of us, it’s the people we meet through work not the projects or presentations we nailed and the time spent outside work with family and friends that make the journey memorable.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about raising kids while working full time and reflecting on some of those challenges and joys. Trying to keep a healthy balance of work and life is something I struggle with every day. My hope is that as a working mom I am instilling a sense of purpose and growth in my children by having a life and friends outside of our family. Sometimes work can be demanding and take me away from them for days at a time. Most of the time I like working and get a sense of accomplishment when I do good work but sometimes I hate it because I miss out on my kids’ special events and milestones.
I think of how before I had kids when I’d go on a business trip, I’d often try to eke out an extra day to sightsee or meet friends or family for dinner who lived where I was traveling. Then I had kids and my business trips changed to where I now take the flights closest to the start and end of meetings and, if there is a meeting planner, ask, “Is the meeting/conference really going to go to the stated end time or is there some cushion built in for me to catch an earlier flight home?” If I do get a free night that I don’t have to attend a work dinner, I relish staying in the hotel room in my jammies, ordering room service and, if it’s a really big night, watching whatever movie I want to watch…and I can watch all of it because I don’t have to put any kids to bed. You may have to have kids to appreciate that watching the whole movie that you chose to watch (without interruptions) is one of life’s little pleasures.
I remember when we had our first kid and I was on maternity leave. I had planned on taking 3 months off work and didn’t know if I’d be ready to go back after that. After 3 months, I was ready to go back to work. I loved my baby but I found staying at home full time was hard for me. I am sure that being a stay at home parent can bring so many joys like getting hugs throughout the day, being the first to watch your children achieve all of their milestones and being their main source of comfort but I found it difficult to have someone rely on me 100% of the time. Call me a bad mom but I think I just need a little more independence.
I was lucky because when I did go back to work after my maternity leave with our first child, my wife took family leave and stayed home with the baby for the next 3 months so I never had to hand him off to a stranger. I didn’t have to go back back crying like so many people I know did, thinking I was passing him off to a babysitter or a daycare provider whom I barely knew. I could go back and feel confident that he was being well taken care by his other parent. However, when my wife went back after her leave, she had the experience that so many other parents had, which was dropping him off at day care for the first time on her way back to work. She couldn’t imagine leaving him in someone else’s hands while we both were at work.
And being in the San Francisco Bay Area at the time, we lived on one land mass in Berkeley and my wife had to cross the Bay either over a bridge or in a tunnel on the subway to get to work in San Francisco and I had to cross a different bridge to commute to Silicon Valley. That meant my wife and I were each at least an hour away from home and on a different land mass than our baby. In a place known for earthquakes. That really freaked my wife out and we decided that she would quit her intense job in healthcare strategy/mergers & acquisitions and stay at home with the baby.
It was a scary decision to go from two incomes to one but it ended up working great for our family. I had very steady career in high tech sales in Silicon Valley (as steady as tech in Silicon Valley could be) and we were able to figure it out. She was the primary caregiver for our baby but was lucky enough to be able to get consulting work when she wanted, ramp down after we had our other two kids and has since started her own business working mainly from home. We also successfully navigated the complexities of childcare when we needed it and, although the original best laid plans didn’t always work out, we always ended up with something that worked and, often, worked better than our original plan. We didn’t know what the future would bring when we made the decision for my wife to quit her job but, we put family first, and it all worked out for the best in the end.
Being a full time working parent when my kids were young was often very hard. I sometimes had to travel and young kids don’t understand why you have to leave them for days at a time. I would go to the airport in tears as I had to leave a kid screaming, “Mommy, please don’t go”. They don’t have sense of timing of when you are coming back and it is so heartbreaking to leave. I think of the times I had to peel a screaming child off my leg as I was running out the door and I just wanted to say, “screw it all” and stay at home and play with my kid(s) that day but I couldn’t because I didn’t want to put my job in jeopardy.
Then, when I did get to work, I’d have to switch to work mode and try my best to clean up the little bit of spittle or throw up from my nice work outfit and hope that I brushed my teeth and put on matching shoes. I remember an incredibly stressful work time when layoffs were happening all around and 2 work friends (Gina and Marie) and I all realized we hadn’t brushed our teeth that morning. We had just been so stressed to get to work to see if we still had jobs, we totally forgot. Luckily, none of us got laid off that time but I’m sure other folks at work didn’t want to get to close to us that day. I have blocked out so many of these experiences that they are a bit of a blur at this point.
Recently I went on a business trip and had hurriedly thrown some clothes in a suitcase to get out of the door. At the hotel, I searched through my suitcase multiple times and in a panic realized that I hadn’t packed my work blouse. The best I could pull off was to wear a purple workout shirt under my red blazer. Luckily, the blazer had some buttons so I buttoned it to mostly cover the purple shirt and promised myself I wouldn’t go into the meeting and over explain that I forgot to pack my work blouse. I took a deep breath, channeled my inner Erica Kane (for those old enough to remember All My Children), held my head high and went to my work meeting and didn’t say anything about my wardrobe snafu. I even got a compliment from a work associate who commented on my “colorful outfit”. Using every ounce of self control I had, I held my tongue so I didn’t over explain and smiled and just said, “Thank you”.
Now that my kids are getting older, it’s easier to be a working mom because that is all that they know. They understand that we go to work and they go to school but, when they were young they didn’t have that level of comprehension. I realized for me that, along with the money factor, I needed conversation and interests outside of my family and home life. I am a little afraid that my world would get so small that I wouldn’t make the effort to know what is going on outside of my bubble so working and dealing with different folks and situations all day long forces me to expand my world and my conversations about it.
I have made some of my best adult friends at work because they see you at your best and your worst. You can’t “Facebook” your work life for too long without the cracks showing. I always find a few confidants at work that I can just let my hair down with and be honest about how hard it is to be a working parent.
Just the other day, a work friend, Carolyn, arrived at a customer meeting and looked all put together and ready to work. She wasn’t ok, though, and pulled me aside and said, “I’m trying to hold it together but one of my twins had poop on his shoe and got it all over my car on the way to drop them off school and I just nicked a car in the parking lot pulling in a warped speed. I can’t even focus enough to know whether I need to leave them a note”. I offered supportive words (but told her she had to leave a note even though it sucked) and that I understood, had been there, promised it does get easier and the poop on shoe does end…although I didn’t tell her that my 12 year old stepped in dog poop recently and, being a tween, decided he needed new shoes because of it and tween shoes are not cheap.
The thing about having kids is that you have your working days all planned out and then the unexpected happens— one of them gets sick. “My stomach hurts” “I’m feeling hot” “I just threw up”. So one of us has to cancel whatever work plans or meetings outside of the house we have and stay home with the kids. It falls more on my wife as she works mainly from home but I try to take on my share if I was going to be working from home that day.
No matter how quiet or sick the kid is, my productively plummets whenever I have a child at home and I try to work. Recently, I was working at home and my wife was out of town with 2 of our 3 kids. I got a call from the school office that my 7 year old had a rash on her neck and they wanted me to check it out and take her to the doctor to see if it was was contagious. I had just come off of a string of busy work travel, my wife was out of town, it had been raining for about a month and the dog was stir crazy. There was a small window of sun and I had decided I had to prioritize taking the dog to the dog park after dropping my daughter at school.
I was just getting out of the car at the dog park when the phone rang and I heard about the possibly contagious rash. I said, “Ok, I’ll come to school and check it out but I’ve got some things to do first so can I come some time in the next hour?”. The person on the other end was silent for a moment and then said, “Ah, I guess so”. I realized that if it had been my first child at the same age I would have dropped what I was doing and said, “I’ll be there in 10 minutes” but with my 3rd kid, I said, “I’m kind of busy, can I come in the next hour?” because I was prioritizing the dog. Not surprisingly, I had to take her to the doctor (it was not contagious) and keep her home that day. I could almost hear the whooshing sound of my productivity plummeting as I picked her up from school for the day but it’s what had to be done as a parent and I did it.
Sometimes working means that we miss out on kids events. I had one of those heartbreaking working mom experiences lately. The same “not a contagious rash but please come get her to take her to the doctor and keep her home all day while attempting to work” daughter was going to win her first school award at a school assembly and it was surprise to her. I had a meeting 1 ½ hours away that ended at 11am and the ceremony started at 1pm. I thought I could make it if I hustled back.
I was so excited to surprise her and see her get her award. Of course, as luck would have it, the meeting ran long, I had to debrief with my team afterwards because the meeting didn’t go as smoothly as I had hoped, I was out of gas and it was raining. I hadn’t eaten lunch and was hungry but I skipped grabbing food because I knew every minute would count so I was also grumpy and hangry. I had emailed my daughter’s teacher saying I was trying my best to make it but could they possibly put her at the end of the ceremony to give me some extra time.
Once I left the meeting, my sole purpose was to make it to see her get her award. I screeched up to her school at 1:28pm and rushed into the ceremony to realize I had missed her award by ~2 minutes. Apparently she had seen my wife in the crowd and knew she was going to get an award and was smiling from ear to ear with pride (she has the most amazing smile with a few missing teeth and it just melts my heart). My daughter didn’t seem phased that I missed the ceremony since my wife was there and I came afterwards but I was devastated and I was sad for a couple of days. It was less that I missed it because I don’t think my daughter noticed or really cared but more of what it represented being a working mom and the fact that we often miss important milestones that happen during our work day.
Being a working mom has its own set of challenges but, all in all, I’m glad I have chosen that route. It has allowed me to make money, learn new things, open up my world, model responsibility to my kids and to meet some amazing people. I can finally look back and laugh at some of the crazy things that happened while I was working with young kids and just trying to get through the day without totally losing it or being fired.
I have yet to be fired (although, ironically, I got laid off after I left the craziness of Silicon Valley and moved to a more “stable” industry of education) and only lost it or laughed maniacally at the craziness of it in front of a few close work friends or waited until I got home. My hope is that my kids find a career that they love but, just as important, I hope they are able to keep a healthy work-life balance and realize that work can be a meaningful part of their lives but what’s more important in life than work is your family and the friends you make along the way.