I spent years writing about women at work. Then I had a baby — and an existential crisis.
- I'm a careers-and-leadership reporter and I often write about women's experiences at work.
- When I had a baby, I thought I'd be prepared for the transition to working parenthood. I wasn't.
My husband and I were having a late dinner on our front patio, huddled over a staticky baby monitor, when I told him I wasn't sure about going back to work.
Our son was two months old. That meant it had been roughly a year — if you count a nearly 10-month-long pregnancy — since I'd been truly alone.
The baby and I spent the whole day, every day, together. I would nurse him for what seemed like hours, then he'd fall asleep and I'd hold him because he'd scream when I tried transferring him to his Mamaroo chair. At night, I'd hear him fussing on the monitor and half-consciously reach for him next to me, then panic when I couldn't feel him anywhere until I remembered he was in his bassinet.
In July, I was due to return to work after a four-month maternity leave. Because my job allowed for remote work, I'd arranged for a nanny who had worked for a family friend to watch my son during the day. But I didn't see how I'd be able to let someone else take care of him for that many hours at a time.
Friends who had toddler-aged kids had told me I'd feel differently by the end of my leave, that I'd be more ready to start working again and to spend time away from the baby. Instead, I told my husband that night on the patio that I was rethinking my decision to start working again.
My husband reminded me of what I'd told him — many times — in the years before we had a kid. I wasn't planning to be a stay-at-home mom; I wanted to keep working. I was afraid to have motherhood subsume my identity. But it had taken four months of maternity leave to undo everything I thought I knew about myself as a professional.
"Now I feel differently," I told my husband. I wanted to be the one to attend to our son's cries, to take him to the park, to sing silly songs while he squirmed on the changing table. I couldn't do any of that, I told my husband, if I had another — paying — job.
The logistical challenges of working parenthood are only the beginning
Early on in the pandemic, I wrote regularly about the challenges of being a working parent, and in particular a working mother. I knew, based on talking with parents and experts, that it could be hard to balance the demands of your job with your kid's daycare schedule and that managers are often biased to see women as less promotable and less dedicated to their careers once they have children.
While writing a book about molding your work life to suit your interests and lifestyle, I spoke with many people about how becoming a parent had changed their approaches to work. Some stuck with a bad job because it paid their family's bills or tried to change careers because having a kid made them want to pursue something more impactful.
So when my husband and I decided to start a family, I assumed that all this knowledge would prepare me for the transition. But I didn't realize that beyond the logistical challenges, there was existential torture. I'm now trying to become the parent I think my kid needs while, at the same time, trying to squeeze myself back into the shape of the professional I think my colleagues are expecting me to be.
I feel like an impostor professional — and parent
When I returned to work, taking my therapist's suggestion to give it a chance, the transition was in many ways smoother than I'd anticipated. My managers gave me time to settle into my new work and home lives before I started publishing anything new. My coworkers asked excitedly about the baby's latest developmental milestones.
Still, I felt a nagging shadow of impostor syndrome, except instead of feeling like I was a fraud at my job, I worried that I'd eventually be exposed as — what? A mom who was relieved to do a few hours of knowledge work because it meant a reprieve from lifting and bouncing and picking up fallen toys with her toes? A professional who sometimes felt like she'd rather be hugging her kid than answering emails? Much of my transition to working parenthood has been like this, an ongoing experiment in self-flagellation and feeling alone.
I'm writing now from the pull-out couch in my son's room, the one on which I've often fallen asleep murmuring "shhh" at 3 a.m. I can hear my son playing happily downstairs with our doting nanny. I feel patently ridiculous sitting up here writing about how hard I find working motherhood when I have the extreme privilege of full-time childcare, a spacious home, and family nearby — as well as a job that allows me to work slumped over a pillow in ripped leggings.
I'm ashamed, too, that the trouble is solely with me. For all the time I spend questioning whether this setup — me working from home, my husband working from the office, a nanny taking care of our son for part of the day — is the best for our family, my son appears perfectly content most of the time. Not to mention that even if staying home would assuage some of my guilt, giving up my full-time salary would make it harder for me to offer my son all the opportunities I'd like to.
This self-deprecating cycle has slowed, but hasn't stopped over the last two months I've been back at work. I find the only respite in doing whatever I'm supposed to be doing at the moment: reporting a story, responding to Slacks, feeding my son, laundering a load of onesies, knowing that eventually my thoughts will catch up with me, but that right now I'm OK.
Lying in front of the TV after my son has gone to bed, I text with girlfriends. I vent, I complain. I learn that my experience is not uncommon. "It gets easier," one tells me. "I promise." I'm not sure I believe her. But I've got a story to write and bottles to wash and, somewhere, the wisdom to know that as far as I may feel from whoever I was before, I am not alone.
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