The Girls Are Going to Work

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Goodbye, summer. Hello, work clothes that don’t fit. (Photo by Urban Bay Photography.)

This is what I tell my nine month-old in the mornings now, when I’m giving him a breast milk addendum to his blueberry oatmeal and nuggets of scrambled egg. He’s easily distractible and pops off repeatedly to stare at the cat, or his dad, or the window, or the magic of his own hand. And now I ask him, “Are you sure you’re done? Because the girls are going to work.”

Yes, after three months of meandering routines and on-call milk from the tap, “the girls” and I are back at work, caught in the whirlwind of teaching and prepping and pumping and attending an absurd amount of meetings. And Michael is in full-swing stay-at-home-dad mode.

Part of me feels relieved. Summer comes with weighty expectations. You’re supposed to do fun! exciting! things that other people will find interesting, people who inevitably ask, after regaling you with tales about ice climbing in the Himalayas or spooning with dolphins in the Caribbean: “So, what did you do this summer?”

I hung out. I played with my baby and my nephews. Once, I thought briefly about going camping and had ambitious plans to take a road trip to a wedding, but neither of those relatively minor excursions panned out. I picked some berries. And I ignored the Internet for an extended period of time because the endless pictures of other people doing their fun! exciting! things was beginning to make me feel dissatisfied with my slow-going, home-bodied, berry-picking life.

Aside from unreasonably lofty expectations, summer also wreaks massive mayhem to any sense of routine, which, before I had a baby, was refreshing. Now? Not so much. As August dwindled, both Michael and I began to anticipate the return of some structure and consistency to our lives. Wide-open days become unwieldy after awhile.

So when the deserted campus was once again overrun with (mostly) eager students and colleagues, I felt and welcomed the electricity in the air that comes with a new school year. It felt good to inhabit my office, to be alone and have a task to anchor my mind. It felt good to lose myself in the unending possibilities of syllabi tweaking. It felt good to work.

But underneath this honeybee enthusiasm – deep in the sticky hive of my mother-mind – I felt something else: the steady drone of guilt.

Ugh. Guilt. I know it’s an inevitable part of mothering. This was recently illustrated to me a couple months ago when I swung Julian up to my shoulder a little too harshly, making him veer awkwardly and start to cry – obviously not anything serious, but I felt bad nonetheless and said as much. My mom, rather than reassuring me that this was no big deal, launched into a rather terrifying story about my brother almost drowning as a young boy because of (what she perceived to be) her negligence. She wasn’t chiding me; my expression of guilt had simply triggered her own reservoir of the stuff. I could palpably feel our mother-guilt pooling and undulating as we looked into each other’s haunted eyes, and I thought to myself, “This is motherhood. I will now feel guilty, about something or another, FOREVER.”

Some of the time, I am fine. Some of the time I tunnel headlong into whatever I’m doing at work and manage to stay focused. But then my milk lets down, and I think about my baby, about the reality of our physical separation. I check my phone to figure out whether I need to pump (in which case I spend the next 15-20 minutes marooned at my desk, lamely scrolling through Facebook with my left pinky) or whether Michael has time to bring Julian by for a nursing session.

This should be the ideal scenario, of course. I am lucky to have a job with the space, flexibility, and proximity to accommodate nursing, and I feel a surge of giddy joy whenever I see Michael and Julian appear in my office door. As soon as I know they’re en route, I watch the clock in anticipation and listen for Michael’s familiar plodding tread on the stairs.

But then, after Julian eats and crawls all over my office, pulling books off the shelves and eating paper from the recycling bin, they leave. They leave and the office feels empty, eerily quiet. I find myself wondering about how long Julian’s nap will be, and if he’ll wake up crying or not. I wonder if he misses me, if he thinks about the fact that I’m not there.

Tuesday was the hardest day this past week. On Tuesday, the wonderful flexibility of my job backfired. Michael brought Julian by for some milk, and as I watched my baby gleefully tear apart old copies of my maternity leave paperwork, it occurred to me that I didn’t have to be there. Tuesday is a day I don’t teach, so I use the time to prep classes, grade, meet with students, write – all necessary parts of my job. But as soon as the thought presented itself – the thought that it was selfish of me to be in my office when it was possible to be at home – I couldn’t unthink it. I gave into the guilt, went home, and spent a frustrating and futile afternoon trying to work from there.

I’m sick of the should voice. The voice that tells me I should be working when I’m with my baby and that I should be with my baby when I’m working. I don’t know where this voice is coming from, but I can’t give it what it wants.

Of course — just processing out loud here — maybe this isn’t all about guilt. Maybe this is about me being territorial. Maybe part of me is threatened because Michael and Julian are honestly completely fine when I’m not there. Or maybe – I’m feeling an inner ding ding ding! as I write this – maybe I’m feeling guilty not simply because I’m missing out on time with my baby, but because I actually enjoy being at work.

On Tuesday, truth be told, I wanted to work. I wanted to stay in my office and power through and get some stuff done, but I felt compelled to be home, simply because that was in the realm of possibility, and I seem to have absorbed the cultural expectation that babies should be with their mothers 100% of the time. Given the choice between being with her baby and being at work, a good mother should want to be at home right? But I’m the bad mother who wanted to be at work.

So that’s where we are, the girls and I, stuck on the “damned if you do or don’t” merry-go-round. When I’m working, I feel like a bad mother – especially if I’m enjoying myself. And if I come home leaving a lengthy “TO DO” list smoldering on my desk, I feel like a bad professor.

We’re too hard on ourselves, we mothers. Remember that Time cover? “Are You Mom Enough?” Those editors knew exactly which button to push with that headline, exactly which wound to prod. I never feel like I’m mom enough. But who does? Who could possibly meet all the demands, all the steaming piles of should we heap on ourselves? I know it’s bogus, I do, but still, I keep shoveling.

And so, at the dawn of this new week, this new school year, I would like to raise a toast, to all you pump-weary, guilt-haunted, stretched-beyond-the-limit mamas. Despite what you may feel, you’re more than mom enough — say it with me now! — and the girls and I salute you.

[SIDE NOTE: I referred specifically to “mother-guilt” here, because I’m honestly not sure if men feel this same pressure to be constantly present to their children. Is the guilt a dad thing, too...?]

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9 comments

  1. Ryan Blanchard

    Re: dad guilt – For me personally, the only pressure I feel is to perform well in the areas my dad didn’t. My dad spent most of my childhood in the basement on his computer, and almost never came to my sporting events. So, I sit through every second of my daughter’s soccer practices, even when I have to carry the baby the whole time in hot weather. It’s stupid, but I’m pretty convicted about being present for all her activities. All the normal stuff, not so much. I don’t feel any guilt letting her play Ipad games by herself while I watch football, for example.

  2. Michelle at The Green Study

    I felt guilty when I went back to work because I didn’t feel guilty. I have now been working from home the last 7 years. That’s a whole different kind of guilt (the kind that comes from snarling at my child who has interrupted me for the fiftieth time). It’s a true skill to recognize intellectually that things are okay, that kids will turn out fine and that you can always change the scenario if it’s not working out.

  3. Melanie

    Resonate with this in every possible way. I too wonder about dad guilt, especially since Ron seems to be able to compartmentalize in ways I cannot. Here’s what mother guilt looked like for me this morning: reading an article about women “having it all” (another one!), and seeing the suggestion that maybe a mom needs to let go of the perfection of making a hot meal for her children every morning and thinking, “shit. I never make hot breakfast for my kids. Is that a problem? Is cereal really *that bad*?” Great going to work this morning with that little conundrum swimming in my head.

  4. Daniel P. G.

    I feel dad-guilt all the time. I use to be ok, but then I read this blog: http://theresurgence.com/2013/08/15/a-childish-life . Now I know how God meant for me to use my body. I never thought about the relationships I was refusing, and how much that hurt the children I didn’t have. I just wish I could grow up and not be so selfish, so I was mature enough to have these children. Guilt is really difficult to manage because you don’t know it exists until someone points it out.

  5. michelleindenver

    Yes, to all of this. Most of the time, I can now come to terms with the fact that I wouldn’t want to stay home with the kids. I am a better mom and enjoy my time with them more when I’m not with them all day. :)
    Oh, and I recommend a hands-free pumping bra. It’ll change your life.

  6. Ron

    Abby, I always appreciate your writing. Trina and I have talked a lot about guilt. We both feel it, but she much more than I. She has taken great solace from conversations with a friend of hers. This woman used to work full time, and after maternity leave came back part time, and now is home full time, with the intention of working again in a couple years. (Trina works more than full-time). They swap guilt stories. It has offered some comfort, a way of believing the guilt is not about some underlying moral failure,but about something else entirely.

    I am inclined to believe a very boring story about much of this, one wrought by evolution and then hyperamplified by culture. Babies that had moms that fretted (which would induce guilt when not there to observe the baby) over them did much better. Fretting, and all that went with it (the ability to hear things at night, unheard before, etc.) probably vastly increased survival and thriving, and were thus selected.. But we don’t live on the savanna, and it’s unlikely a hyena will eat our (very cute!) little boys anytime soon. And there seems to be astoundingly little good evidence that particular parenting techniques produce thriving children or better relationships with them in the long run. The biggest predictor of these is thriving parents who build good relationships.

    My (somewhat slippery logic induced) inclination is to believe that this guilt, while a sometimes miserable companion, is a misfiring, and it is a companion that can be befriended. For, as long as we are attentive and unsatisfied with ourselves as parents, we can know that we are doing the main, best thing we can do–paying attention, caring about our kids, and (hopefully, by extension), working on being better parents. People with this wiring produce good kids, whether one or both stay home, or whether they embark on epic summer journeys.

    And Melanie – I throw a spinach smoothie together in just about three minutes that is much better for you than almost any hot meal! Let me know if you want to know about it.

  7. nantubre

    Love this post and plan to share it with a young woman I know who is a research scientist and managed to nurse her son for MONTHS, maybe a year. New respect for all of you nursing mothers who make the sacrifice it takes to do so!

  8. orangelinecareer

    Ah guilt and selfishness. Old friends of motherhood. But why? You looked at the underlying assumption that is causing the guilt: you actually love your work. Isn’t this fantastic? Isn’t this actually something to celebrate? So instead of feeling selfish that you are at your job, why not ask yourself why you are feeling selfish? Because good mothers keep their children safe and are by their sides always? Because perfect mothers are fully responsible for their children and don’t work unless of course they have to for their children to eat? Instead, let’s reframe the assumption: I am a good enough mother. My child is safe and sounds as is. I love my work and “feeding” myself is equally as important as feeding my child. (or some other reframe that feels true for you). We make ourselves feel guilty and we simply do not have to. It’s simply an assumption. Reframe the assumption and you can let go of the guilt.

    Jodi Detjen
    Learn more at http://www.orangelinecareer.com
    co-author, The Orange Line: A Woman’s Guide to Integrating Career, Family and Life

    • Abigail

      Jodi — excellent thoughts. I agree, and writing this post was part of that effort of “reframing” for me. I know, intellectually, that it is a fairly recent cultural development to expect mothers to spend 100% of their time with their children, yet I still feel the emotional pull of that expectation. So it’s encouraging to hear from other women who can affirm what I try to tell myself: my child is healthy, happy, and thriving — and I actually think that our time together is of better quality now that I am back at work. Guilt be gone. (It’s that easy, right?!) ;)