I have a vivid memory from when I was a teenager – I was watching Oprah! with my sisters and my mom in our living room at home. Oprah was moderating a debate between working moms and full-time moms. I don’t remember much of what was said, but I do remember passion coming from both sides. I also remember feeling strongly connected to the working mom side. I was probably 15 at the time, but for some reason I had the uneducated opinion that being a working mother was much more challenging than being a stay at home mom, and that since I always liked to challenge myself, I would also be a working mom, and I would kick butt at it.
Perhaps my brain filed the memory of this particular Oprah! show in my mind so that when I actually became a working mother, I could laugh at the naivety of my teenage self. Erica, you have no idea what you’re talking about! For the past two years, I have been a full-time working mother, and not only is it challenging, it’s nearly impossible for me. On the other hand, I’ve never stayed at home full-time with Finn, so my viewpoint on that side of things remains uneducated. I will say that those days I do have Finn all day long, I’m much more exhausted than any day I spend at work.
I’ve been a mother for just over two years. In that time, my feelings on working have changed dramatically. If I had written this post when Finn was an infant, you would be reading about how grateful I was to have a place away from motherhood. About how work was my sanctuary, my comfort, my sense of normalcy. Being at home with a newborn was terrifying, and I was grateful for the professionals that would willingly spend the day with the unpredictable baby.
In the past year, my feelings on this topic have done a drastic 180 degree flip – and I never, ever expected that. You see, not only did 15 year old Erica think she could totally kick butt at being a working mom, but she also thought that was what would fulfill her. She always thought that being a career woman would fuel her and give her purpose, that having something just for her would bring joy to her life. She spent tens of thousands of dollars on a college education, after all. She would be successful.
Regardless of these feelings, I still never felt fulfilled the way that I thought having a career would. Even when I succeeded or was praised for a job well done at work, the pride I took in it was fleeting. I still lacked the motivation behind it all – the purpose was missing.
The real struggle came when that feeling didn’t initially come with motherhood either. So I’m not feeling fulfilled at work, and I’m not fulfilled as a mom, will I ever feel it? So, I thought maybe it was because I needed more of a challenge. I asked for more responsibility at work. Maybe I just needed to feel pushed and then succeed at that. Maybe if my colleagues saw me kick butt, then I would feel it.
The feeling never ended up coming from work. It came from the crazy, messy, unpredictable life of a toddler. It came when I started hearing words come out of Finn’s mouth. It came when I saw him running around playing with Juneau. It comes when I watch him overcome his fears, or try a new food, or sing a song along with the radio. So, 15 year old Erica had it all wrong – my joy in life would not come from taking on the challenge of being a working mom, it would come in being a mom.
These experiences, and this story, is just a roundabout way of explaining how difficult it has been spending 40 hours of every week away from my joy, and feeling incredibly lonely in that feeling. I’m surrounded by other working mothers who, like all the women on that Oprah! show, make it look so easy. I, on the other hand, struggle with it on a daily basis. Perhaps that’s just my personality, I lack the ability to compartmentalize my work and personal life. Perhaps it’s a symptom of an unsupportive culture. Perhaps, it’s absolutely normal and there are thousands of other women out there feeling the exact same way.
So, what am I doing about all of this? Ahh, the million dollar question. I think the most important thing to recognize here is that I’m still trying to feel comfortable with these feelings. After a literal lifetime of thinking that I wanted an office job and a family, the acceptance of switching those priorities is taking some time. In the process, I’ve made a lot of mistakes, shed too many tears in inappropriate places and even let some depression set in. However, my next step is and always has been very clear to me – it’s the path of getting there that’s unclear, but I have started taking the steps I need to.
I think the biggest thing I’ve realized from all of this is that women, especially mothers, feel the need to put on a face in order to succeed in life. I’ve felt ashamed because I’ve cried at work over having to spend so much time away from Finn. I’ve apologized for doing so. And in hindsight, I wonder what I’m apologizing for. I don’t need to pretend to feel any way other than the way I actually feel. The response does not need to be to apologize, but to take action. It’s also important to redefine how we view success. For the first 28 years of my life, I thought success came in the form of dollar signs. Two years ago, I started measuring success on how happy Finn was – was he experiencing new things? Was he healthy? Was he spending enough time with me?
The purpose of writing this is to let other working moms who are feeling lonely in these feelings realize they are not alone. I have had countless conversations over the past week or so with people who have not only validated my feelings, but have looked at me and told me that they totally understand. I’ve also had conversations with people who would rather pretend that I’m crazy and that’s okay too. I have to realize that just because it’s normal for me to feel this way, it’s also not everyone’s reality.
In closing, these powerful words: being a working mom is hard. Do yourself a favor today – let yourself feel whatever it is you feel – pride, guilt, exhaustion, etc. – you deserve to give yourself a little grace!