Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Two years back at work: What I've learned

Two years ago today I went back to work after eight years as a stay-at-home mom. Normally I'm terrible with dates - birthdays and anniversaries regularly pass without my noticing. About this anniversary, though, I'm feeling surprisingly introspective.

When I went back to work and gave up the role of primary caretaker, it was a huge turning point for both me and the kids. My husband and I were talking in the car this weekend about whether the kids will appreciate all we do for them someday. I think they'll appreciate his contributions more than mine. He's the one logging the hours after school now, doing the carpool shuffle, making the snacks, supervising homework. I did all those things, too, but earlier in their lives. Now I show up at dinnertime. Memory favors more recent events. They'll likely see him as the one who was there, and I will be the one who was not.

I've learned a lot in the past two years, about myself, about my family, and about balancing work and parenting. Here are a few of my realizations:
  • I miss the things I thought I hated. I miss driving the afternoon carpool. I miss sitting in traffic with the kids in the car, picking music I know they'll like. I miss washing grapes and cutting up apples and putting them into small containers, then handing them to each kid as he climbed into the minivan. I miss waving to the teachers as I pulled into the carpool line. I miss listening to the kids chat with their friends about the events of the day as we drove the half-hour home. Now, by the time I get home from work, it's mostly "good" and "fine" and "not much" when I ask how their days went. 
  • I miss exercising. Yes, I know plenty of people find time to exercise and parent and work full-time. Frankly, I don't know how they do it. They must sleep less. Oh, and they probably don't have a second job blogging (see my food blog In Erika's Kitchen). I've thought about blogging less in order to have time to work out. Hasn't happened yet, though. Apparently I have a lot to say to the world.
  • It's true - your brain really does atrophy when you have babies. I resisted that fact for a long time, but there's a whole part of your brain that you use constantly as a working person which goes dormant when you're an at-home mom. I only realized it when I went back to work and it woke up again. Thankfully, waking it up didn't take too long, and it happened on its own, or maybe as a result of being in an adults-only environment for so many hours a day. I'd say within two weeks of going back to work I was firing on all cylinders again. 
  • My "Mommy voice" can be useful at work. Another mom who lived nearby when our kids were small went back to work before I did and taught me this (thanks, K). Not that you want to be patronizing or condescending. But sometimes, when people are being particularly thick or stubborn, it helps to slow down your pace, look them in the eye, and say, "Now, Jack, I know that you're frustrated about this presentation. We all know it's important. Let's take it one slide at a time and figure out what we really want to say. Okay?" Seriously, this is a way of taking charge only a mom can get away with.
  • I need to work on putting my own stuff aside when I come home. Another wise mom friend told me that she uses the 15 minutes between leaving work and picking up her girls as conscious transition time. She doesn't want her kids to pick up on her work stress, and she wants them to feel like she is focused on them 100 percent when they're together. I aspire to that, but I rarely get there. I'm not sure whether that's a lack of self-discipline on my end, or a personality trait/flaw, or something else. Perhaps a desire for pity, or at least empathy, from my children? Not sure. In any case, this is an area in which I can certainly stand to improve.
  • I am not an entirely self-sacrificing mother. Sometimes I make selfish choices. I go out now and then on weeknights with girlfriends or for work-related dinners. I spend weekend time when I could otherwise be with my kids going to food blogger meetups or getting my nails done. I love my children, but I don't want to spend every free moment with them. Now that I spend my days at work instead of at home, I have significantly less free time overall, and I need some of it for myself. I hope my kids will realize someday that this made me a happier, more well-rounded, mentally healthier human being. If not, that's what the therapy fund is for.
  • I think my family respects me more. One time when the kids were younger we passed the building where I worked before they were born. I pointed it out through the car window. "Oh Mom," laughed my older son, "you never worked! Your job is to stay home and take care of us!" It really threw me. Was I setting the right example for my two boys? Would they grow up chauvinistic and locked into traditional gender roles? Now they know for sure that both mom and dad contribute to supporting the family, and that all combinations and permutations of parental responsibilities are possible. You're welcome, future wives.
  • I have no regrets about having stayed home. I used the time well. I got to spend quality time with each child alone and with both kids together. When they got older and started school, I used my free time to do things for the family (cook) and for myself (tennis, Weight Watchers).
  • I have no regrets about going back to work. It was necessary, anyway, so there's no place for regret. But I do have sadness. People talk about spending "quality time" with their kids. For me, it was all quality time, even sitting in traffic on the most congested freeway in the country on the way home from school.
  • I'm happier now. You'd think the opposite would be true. But, sitting here thinking about it, even with all the added stress, juggling, and whining from kids who miss me, this combination is better for me. I'm stronger, more confident, and happier all around. Happy anniversary to me.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Writing with censors

I know it seems as if I've abandoned this space. In my mind, I have not. Issues come up every day about my role as parent, and I want to write about them - I frame them in my mind, give them a headline, explore the arc of the story, think about my grand conclusions.

There's a problem. It's very hard to write about parenting and your children when your children read every word you write.

On the one hand, it's probably better that I can no longer talk about them behind their backs. That's a bit rude, don't you think? We teach them not to do it to their friends, and yet there wouldn't be mommy bloggers without children to write about.

On the other hand, it has removed a certain sense of freedom I once had (stupid and misguided, I now realize) to explore all the parenting issues in my life in public. I don't want to have to ask permission to write about the things my boys and I are facing together, and yet it seems necessary - because they're sure to find out at some point.

I wonder how other mommy bloggers handle this once their kids are old enough to follow their blogs? If you're out there, mommy bloggers, do tell.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Follow your instincts

I've been thinking a lot lately about when, exactly, I developed the confidence to follow my instincts. Or in which ways I have.

I was talking to a new parent a few weeks ago who was clearly feeling shaky, new baby in arms, sleep a distant memory, questioning every hiccup and twitch. I couldn't remember whether I felt that way. I must have, but I had the benefit of a pediatrician father (mine, I mean) and experienced mamas all around offering advice. I was lucky and had babies who were easily soothed, so I equated whatever I was doing - instinct - with success, and thus my confidence grew.

When W got really, really sick in the spring just after he turned two, it was instinct that told me: This time is different. This is not okay. Danger, danger, danger. I took him to the hospital once, twice, three times in three days. In the end, it was clear to everyone he needed to stay, and he did. Only the strongest of drugs dripped into his little veins for weeks on end cleared the infection. But it took several days for the doctors, and even W's dad, to catch up with what I already knew and would not release: danger, danger, danger.

As E and W get older, I feel my confidence slipping. The issues are different. The problems confuse me, cause conflict within and without. How do I know whether enforcing bedtime for an 11-year-old is right or wrong? How do I know whether the benefits of consistency, in which I believe strongly as a parenting maxim, are undercut, wiped out, bye-bye, by one lazy night, or two, or a dozen? I have instincts, still, but they seem watery, wavy, translucent instead of solid. My husband points out my inconsistencies, and I'm glad. My kids point them out, too, and I wonder whether to stand my ground or admit my waffle.

On Yom Kippur this year, I was in one of those states of consummate confusion. I heard my mother's voice in my head: It's the holiest day of the year! You can't go shopping! No playdates! No TV! But now, in my house and my life and my family, we are thoughtful but unobservant - aware of our heritage, yet careless of custom. To my children, it's another day. Why can't they watch TV? Why can't they have a playdate? We're not in temple, we're not religious, we've talked about the meaning of the day. For them, that's enough.

But I was all conflict. When they asked if they could watch TV, I couldn't say no, and I couldn't say yes. When W asked to play with his friend around the corner, I couldn't say no, and I couldn't say yes. Wisely, I think, I finally said to my husband: Nothing is working properly in my head right now. I cannot make logical decisions. You need to be in charge of the kid decisions today. I'm not capable. And so he took over, and there was TV, and there were playdates, and I continued to feel guilty and conflicted. Whatever instincts I had about that day, they were off. Soured. Dissonant. Ineffective.

I'm hoping my instincts will right themselves sometime soon. But I'm not sure how to help that happen. I say "help" instead of "make" because one thing I know for certain: I can't make much happen these days. Things happen. The best case scenario is that, as they do, I will be strong enough to listen to my gut to deal with whatever comes along.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The meaning of bad dreams

Last night, for the first time in a while, I had a nightmare in which one of my children was in trouble and I couldn't get to him to help.

When my boys were very small, I had a recurring dream in which one of them was underwater, drowning, and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't reach him. I would wake up crying, screaming sometimes, heart racing, and there was no way I could get back to sleep.

I talked to a few friends and even a therapist about the dreams. The friends were sympathetic. The therapist told me the dreams expressed my feelings of inadequacy as a mother, my worry that I would not be able to protect them from the evils of the world as they grew.

I, on the other hand, was pretty sure that the dreams were about drowning. And, coincidentally, they went away the day that my younger son learned to swim.

Last night's dream was similar - W, now a feisty and extremely independent seven and a half, went missing at the beach, and despite my frantic shouts I heard nothing. When I did hear him crying (still in the dream - he slept peacefully all night, unlike his mother), he was stuck on some kind of rusted steel beams, caught by a thread on his jacket, and trying not to fall into a big ditch behind him. In the dream, just as I got close enough to see the panic on his face, he slipped into the hole and disappeared.

And I woke up crying, heart racing, unable to settle down for a good long while.

While my earlier dreams were, I think, truly about my fear that the kids would drown before they learned to swim (southern California is full of swimming pools and oceans, you know), this time I thought again of the therapist's comments.

At camp this week, W had a run-in with a slightly older and much tougher boy who reacted to an accidental backpack-tromping with fists and rage. It all ended fine - a counselor stepped in, W wasn't really hurt, my sensible husband talked with the camp director. But the rage I felt was overwhelming. How could this child have tried to hurt my baby? What consequences would the boy suffer? And, most of all, how could I not have been there to make him feel safe and protected?

W, as I think I've mentioned, is not the kind of kid who likes to talk about things gone wrong in his life. I got no details directly from him until a full 24 hours after the incident, and even then they were sketchy. So here I was, home from work at last, having missed the whole thing, and all I wanted to do was comfort him. And he wanted no part of that, no part of me.

How I felt: useless. Dismissed. Inadequate. Absent.

How he handled the whole thing: stoically. Bravely. Maturely. Capably.

What I needed to do: Get over it.

But the dream - there, I guess, is where those useless-dismissed-inadequate-absent feelings bubbled up after I shoved them down and away.

What kinds of dreams do you have about your kids?

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

How to look for a job after spending time as a full-time mother: Helpful hints

I've been back at work almost three months now. And I'm a little surprised to say that I'm really happy. Truthfully, I thought it would be harder settling into a full-time job - and into the role of Working Mom - after eight years as a full-time at-home parent.

But it's been remarkably smooth, this transition. It's like riding a bike: I remember how to get up, take a shower, and go to an office. I remember how to talk intelligently with grownups I don't know very well. I remember how to problem-solve collaboratively and state my opinion authoritatively. It's a daily deja vu: I feel more like my pre-children 20-something self than I have in years. My kids are great and all, but I like the way this feels.

But getting a job - well, there I was lucky, and I realize it. In the early 1990s, I accidentally fell into what is now the hottest growth sector (social media) of one of the only growth industries (the Internet business) in the world. Looking for a job in January 2009 was laughable for most people. Me, I saw new jobs listed in my sweet spot every day.

Even so, there were things I learned during my job search that I wish I had known before getting back on the market. If you know women who've been at home caring for their children and are thinking about going back to work, please send them this link. I'd love to hear from them.

So - things every mom should do when looking for a job after a period at home full-time:

1. Sign up for LinkedIn (if you haven't already), or update your current LinkedIn profile. Recruiters in every industry look for candidates on LinkedIn. Even if they find a candidate through another channel, they look on LinkedIn to cross-check what's on the person's resume. Paper resumes are out; electronic "social media" resumes are hot, hot, hot, and not just when you're looking for Internet jobs. Maintaining your online presence tells employers you're modern, current and forward-thinking - especially important when you've taken time off from work and have to fight the perception that you're a dinosaur who thinks about nothing but diapers.

2. Clean up your Facebook page. Yes, recruiters will check there too. It's fine for your Facebook page to be personal, but make sure there's nothing embarrassing.

3. Find all the blogs related to your industry or area of expertise, and spend a week just reading them and following the links within them. The blogosphere is the best way to get a handle on what's going on in any corner of the business world these days. If you read something interesting, leave a comment, and link your name back to your LinkedIn public profile. That way, when something you've said catches someone's eye, they'll be able to click through to read more about you.

4. Start a blog related to your area of professional expertise. You don't have to be a professional journalist. You don't have to be ready to write a book. But you do have to prove to potential employers that you are smart; you are thoughtful about your professional niche; and you are a take-charge go-getter. It's easy to say you're an expert on your resume; it's harder, but much more valuable, to prove you're an expert by actually saying smart things in a place where people can read them. Once you have a blog and have written in it at least three or four times a week for a month, use that link when you comment on other people's blogs.

5. Join Twitter, if you haven't already, and follow all the people in your industry you can find. When you find one interesting person in your business to follow, look at the people he or she is following for more good follow ideas. Spend a few days just reading other people's Tweets. Don't worry if no one is following you back; if you like social media, by all means start tweeting, retweeting, sending @ messages, etc. But if not, you can still learn a lot from Twitter as a passive "listener."

6. Go back to your resume and your LinkedIn profile and add your blog. I had no current work experience, but a very wise woman suggested I put my blogs (I have three) front and center on my work history. That was, indeed, what I had been doing most recently - the fact that I wasn't getting paid for them made no difference.

7. For that matter, make sure your LinkedIn profile and your resume include all the volunteer jobs you were no doubt doing while at home with your children. Chairing a fundraising committee and organizing beach cleanups for the third grade are work, and you can make them sound professional. Be sure to include results. Volunteer work is still work.

8. Make a list of all the people you've ever worked with, and find them. I know this sounds daunting, but it's worth it. If you were good at your job, people will remember you and will be happy to hear from you. I had been dormant professionally for eight years, and between Google, LinkedIn, Facebook, my personal email address book, and mining friend-of-friend contacts, I had resurrected my entire professional network within two weeks.

9. Once you've found all those people, reach out to them. Don't use a form email, but it's fine to send everyone a few paragraphs saying hi, was thinking about you, been at home for X years, now it's time for me to re-enter the working world, would love to catch up. Again, if you were good at your job, the people you used to work with will be happy to hear from you and will likely be generous about making introductions, offering advice, and, in the best case, putting you in touch with the hiring manager at their firm. Don't discount anyone - you never know who knows whom. And accept all offers of help. You never know where they'll lead. Also, don't forget that the people who used to be below you organizationally may not have taken time off and thus may now be in a position to hire you.

10. Go on every interview that comes up. Ask for informational interviews - most companies are happy to take half an hour to tell you about their businesses, even if they have no open positions right that moment. Meet former colleagues for coffee. Don't be shy about talking about your dream job. And don't forget to tell the other moms you know that you're looking - they may be at home at the moment, but they have professional networks too.

11. Here, I think is the most important thing, and it's about attitude, not action. Do not discount your own experience, ability, or worth in the marketplace. Do not start every other sentence with "Well, I know I haven't been working for the past X years, but I think..." I did this. What's worse, I did it more after starting my job than during the job search process. After my second week at work, the kind, wise friend who brought me into the company took me to lunch and said: You have to stop. Get over it. You're here, you're smart, and we all know you've been out for a while. It's fine. Your opinion is just as valuable as anyone else's. Get over it. And that very moment, I did.

I hope this helps others out there. What did I forget? What helped you? Please leave a comment below - this is a topic that needs way more discussion.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Crabby Mommy has returned, with a vengeance

So I'm almost two months into my job, and it couldn't be going better. The work is interesting, stimulating, challenging. The people are smart, fun, gracious and welcoming. I ride my bike to work. I'm home in time to make dinner for my family most nights. And I'm getting paid.

Unfortunately, I believe I have been a bit of a beast to my family.

Today W, my seven-year-old, attacked me at the door when I came home because he couldn't wait for me to read his book report, which he'd finished in one day. Clearly he'd been working intently on it. I sat down to read it, and the first words out of my mouth were: Okay, you guess.

"Wow, honey, what a terrific job you've done!" Nope, wrong.

"This is very well-written. I can't believe you did all this in one afternoon!" I wish.

No, the first three thoughts came out of my mouth something like this:

"Does Popper's [the title of the book is Mr. Popper's Penguins] have an apostrophe in it? I think it does."

And then: "This part needs to be a complete sentence."

And finally: "What word is this supposed to be? Check your spelling."

What a jerk of a mom, huh? And of course W did what any sensible seven-year-old would do. He ripped it out of my hands and ran to his room, shouting "No one gets to read this EVER AGAIN!"

In case you were wondering, by the way:
  1. I felt horrible.
  2. I tried to apologize, several times.
  3. He did not forgive me, and in fact started to tear up every time I tried to apologize.
  4. I still haven't read the rest of it, because he hid it from me.
Bad Crabby Mommy. Bad, bad Crabby Mommy.

Fatigue? Partly. Distraction? Partly. Feelings of being overwhelmed, overcommitted, overloaded? A bit. Lack of exercise, yes. Lack of girl time, yes, although I'm trying to protect that by convincing friends to come meet me for lunch.

I think I need to start meditating on all the positive things this change in my life is bringing me. Intellectual gratification. Free lunch on Mondays and Wednesdays. A paycheck. The opportunity to learn new skills and hone existing ones. New friends. New habits. And, if I meditate on these things long enough, a new attitude, I hope.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

And now I have a new title: Working Mom

I. Am. So. Tired.

Considering that a) I like my job a lot so far, b) the commute is less than two miles, c) my husband has taken on many of the child-and-dinner duties that previously belonged to me, and d) I've been sleeping okay, I have been surprised at my level of exhaustion by the end of the day over these past few weeks since I started my first full-time job after eight years at home with my kids.

Why should this be so hard? All I've done, I think to myself, is trade one set of activities for another. Bye-bye to driving the carpool, buying the groceries, making the Costco runs, picking up around the house. Howdy to biking or walking to work, talking with grownups, absorbing complicated user-experience flowcharts, learning to use new helpful software tools, sitting in meetings, figuring out the complexities of my new employer's business model. Howdy also to being on my best behavior eight or nine hours a day, trying not to say anything stupid, trying to be funny so people will like me. That's one thing you don't really have to do as a full-time parent, actually - I never got into the habit of trying to impress other moms. They liked me or they didn't, and I didn't much care. But at a job things are different. You need people to like you if you want to be effective.

Maybe all the mental energy and heavy thinking are tiring me out. Maybe as I feel more comfortable with the job and the business and the people I won't come home so exhausted I can barely sit at the dinner table without melting. Maybe next week. I hope so, because my children, I think, are beginning to wonder if this is all the Mommy they're going to get from now on. And I would hate for the answer to be yes.

To be clear, I really like the job so far. And I really like the people. It's not about them. It's an adjustment, that's all. A period of transition and acclimation. I knew there would be some. It's just hitting me harder than I thought.