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.