Finding the balance between work and life is hard for anyone. But when it comes to motherhood, finding that balance is harder than ever.
I was told as a child that I could be whatever I wanted to be, as long as I put my mind to it. At first, I wanted to work at Sea World; then, I wanted to be Jessica Simpson. But after a while, I settled for a career where I could make a difference. I graduated with my Bachelor’s in Social Work, and moved across the country to start a whole new life. I worked as a 24/7 crisis worker in Boston, waking up at the crack of dawn every morning, completing sessions frantically throughout the week. Some nights, I sprang from my bed at 2 am to drive off into shady parts of town. Other times, my week was spent in courtrooms, psychiatric facilities, or searching for runaway clients up and down the coast.
I drank coffee for my meals, and put others’ health before my own. Rarely did I make a doctor’s appointment or go to a hair salon. My work was my life, and I only took the weekends to refresh; in other words, I got some pretty good practice for motherhood, without breastfeeding.
I burned out quickly, but the value of my work was priceless. I had a position where people expected a lot from my efforts, and saw a bright future. It was a time where the best was always yet to come, and my journey was just beginning. I remember constantly bouncing ideas off my supervisors and coworkers for personal and career development, discussing goals I wanted to accomplish in the next five years.
Everything changed when I became a mom.
After two years of social work in Boston, I moved to New York. I immediately discovered I was pregnant, and scrambled to find a job. I didn’t have the luxury of searching for a dream job. I had to find something quick, between the morning sickness phase and not being able to hide the bump.
I started to notice a difference in how people treated me as my pregnancy progressed. The conversations no longer focused on my future goals or career, what I was planning for next, or if I’d ever get my Master’s. Suddenly, everything became about motherhood. I was inundated by baby trivia, and stories of birth and delivery. Questions about my parenting style flew in every direction. There was no one asking me about a five-year plan for myself; it was all about the baby. What kind of future did I want for my child?
Something else happens when you start talking about working or not working after having your baby; people start to voice heavy opinions. When you consider staying home, you have the critics who wonder why you wouldn’t want to go back to work: Won’t you be bored? Can’t you just do daycare? When you consider going back to work, you have the critics who question your judgment as a mother: But he’s so young! Why don’t you just relax? You can go back when he’s older.
When my son was born, I realized my current job was not going to work, and I was stuck in the working mom cycle of doom, feeling guilty about everything: for leaving my baby, for not wanting to stay home, for wanting to stay home, for not finding a high salary job, for not being able to work extra, for not playing enough, for not having energy — for not being happy.
I must have missed the class in school teaching women that after you have a baby, society will either expect the world from you or nothing at all. It would have been helpful to prepare myself for the employers who lacked empathy for working moms, the ones who view your struggles at home as a weakness. It would have been nice to learn how to defend my choices against stay-at-home supporters, those who believe you’re damaging your child tinkering away at your job.
With every child I’ve had, it’s been a little bit harder to get back on my feet. I’ve had three children, and I’m still in the cycle of doom. Some workplaces boast about employing working moms, but never set up a system to support them. Remote positions can be overbearing when employers assume you’re available all the time. On the flip side, only doing mom things all day, not working towards my own aspirations and goals, feels disheartening after years of pumping myself full of big dreams.
Why is society primarily promoting these two extreme versions of motherhood? I can assure you that anyone raising daughters right now is not saying, “You can do anything you put your mind to. But remember, when you have kids, you have to put your dreams on hold and do nothing but kid stuff… or become your own boss and take control of everything until you burn out. Dream big!”
My parents taught me I could do anything; not nothing, and certainly not everything.
I don’t know where these extremes came from, but the rhetoric needs to change. Women need a more balanced idea of what motherhood is like in the modern world, with support and resources to back it up. I’m tired of people only looking to me for parenting advice, calling my work a hobby, and thinking that all I need is a glass of wine and a nap. I’m also tired of people assuming that because I can’t work 24 hours a day or even full-time that I’m unambitious or lazy.
Of course I want to play with my kids and spend time with them. I love watching them grow and talking about their amazing dreams; I also want to live out my own amazing dreams. I want to write books in several different genres. These dreams take time and hard work. I know the house is dirty and appointments need to be scheduled. There will always be school events to participate in and volunteer roles to sign up for. But I don’t want to always be the one who sacrifices part of myself to meet these demands. There has to be a balance in motherhood, and we can’t do it alone.
Society is telling women they can do everything. Society is telling women they can let everything go. These two ideas are unrealistic, and frankly, I don’t know many women who are succeeding happily in either. Moms who want to work need more support. We need to continue to push for support, and advocate for our rights to be mothers and career-driven women in a way that fits our lifestyle; a way that enriches us instead of burning us out or shutting us down.
I don’t want to choose one of these extremes. I shouldn’t have to. You shouldn’t have to.
About the Writer: Shell Sherwood is a poet, fiction writer, freelancer, and creator of silly children’s stories who could live on coffee, pastries, and romantic tragedies. She lives in Hudson Valley, NY with her fiancé and three boys, and aspires to own a small writing getaway in every climate. Learn more about Shell and follow her writing journey via her author blog and Instagram.