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The best advice I ever got

Categories: child care, maternity leave, the home office, time management, working from home

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While I was pregnant (and even before), I read a lot about the experiences of pregnant working women and, in particular, how they handled the Big Question: whether to continue working, either inside or outside the home, after the baby was born, and if so, in what capacity. Following maternity leave–six weeks? sixteen weeks? a whole year? however long it takes to pull your pants up and log in to your email account?–what were the experiences of women who went back to work full-time immediately, eased back into 40-hour weeks gradually, switched to part-time permanently, switched careers entirely, started working from home exclusively, or became stay-at-home moms, either putting their jobs on hold temporarily or giving them up completely? An analyst by nature, I knew that if a “right” answer was out there, I’d be able to find it, by golly.

Turns out, that old chestnut “Different strokes for different folks” won again, and as liberating as it is to know that we all get to figure out what’s right for our own families in our own particular circumstances, it also means that I have to figure out what’s right for my own family in my own particular circumstances and can’t just ride on the coat tails of someone who’s already done all the hard work for me. Foiled again.

That’s not to say, however, that hearing the stories of those who have gone before wasn’t (and isn’t still) extremely valuable, especially when I stick to just hearing their stories–not judging or defending or eye-rolling–and even if I can’t directly apply someone else’s experience to my own situation, I can, at the very least, come out the other side more understanding of why people make the choices they do (or how they struggle with the non-choices they’re stuck with). But that’s old news, right? Because isn’t 2010 the year when the mommywars end and we all learn to get along?

Anyway, of all the stories and warnings and encouraging back pats I’ve gathered along the way during those forty weeks of gestating and then this first year of parenting, the most valuable piece of advice–the one I keep going back to again and again, the one I try to pass on to other expectant working moms, the one I sometimes chant like a calming mantra when things get too crazy–is this: It’s all temporary. Whatever I choose now doesn’t have to be what I choose forever. For me, hearing this was a no-duh no-brainer but also kind of like the heavens opened up and rained golden light down upon me while a choir of cherubim sang Hallelujah. (Which also sort of describes how I’ve experienced motherhood in general so far: one part divine revelation, one part slack-jawed mouth-breathing.)

Also valuable has been the corollary to the “It’s all temporary” rule, something I’ve also clung to as a crutch, a life preserver, and a hallucinogenic drug when I feel like I can’t possibly survive another day of whatever it is I’m currently bemoaning (e.g., I’m overworked, I’m overtired, I’m bored, etc.). The corollary is: Try it for one year and then reassess. (This means, of course, try [employment option] for one year and then reassess, not try parenting for one year. Of the latter, there’s really very little room for renegotiation, especially if you want a refund.)

Lucky for me, because my son’s birthday comes near the end of the calendar year, now is the perfect time to take stock of what I’ve done, how I’ve done, and what I’d like to change about my situation/myself as a (working) mother. It’s easy to moan and groan my way through the daily grind, but it would be sweeter to find ways to make part-time work + full-time motherhood less of a grind than a groove. Over the next few weeks I’ve resolved to take some hard looks at what’s working and what’s not, to identify areas of conflict and opportunities for improvement, with the hope–no, with the goal that 2010 will be built on a foundation of choices made with confidence rather than wild guesses and crossed-fingers.

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