The Working Mom Mirage


Catching sight of myself reflected in the glass door on the way out of the day care, I'm shocked. The woman is weighed down, a baby on one hip, lugging a diaper bag and a purse. Her keys dangle precariously off her finger. At first glance, she's what is often called "put-together," with office appropriate slacks and heels, everything fitting correctly, everything coordinated. If you look closely, though, you notice the makeup settling in the fine lines between her eyes. You notice errant strands of silver escaping the blown straight brown plane of her hair. You notice the kind of bags under her eyes that come from an undergrad pulling an all-nighter, or from the concentrated lack of sleep of infant parenthood. She looks like something in an ad, perhaps encouraging you to buy frozen food, a time-saving appliance, or a magic app to help you organize your busy day. You know, without seeing it, that her practical car is littered with Starbucks cups, that she's tried to remember to re-run the load of laundry that's molding in the washer for the last three nights running, that the baby on her hip will almost certainly get a balanced dinner tonight, but she's been hitting the drive through a lot lately. I hardly recognize myself, looking at her--she's so completely the Working Mom.

In my previous ignorance, I'd assumed the Working Mom was an intentional construct, something women decided to become. I saw them, at Target or the library or in cars I passed, their smooth veneers plucked and polished and ironed, the barely contained disorder underneath very rarely visible to my glance. Somewhere in the back of my consciousness I admired them for their ability, still theoretical to me, to balance the spheres of their lives and keep all the balls in the air. Much like one is often told childbirth and nursing will just come naturally, because they're "what you're made to do," I believed, in some dark and not well examined part of me, that they were what I was meant to become. I thought I'd have a baby, go back to work, and slip squarely into their not-too-high heels. Armed with my cell phone and my caffeine addiction, I'd flit from meetings to doctor's appointments to soccer games, always in an appropriate outfit. It wouldn't be without effort, but it would feel innate. There would be no learning curve.

To the strangers and acquaintances I pass as I'm hustling my kid from the day care to the car, calculating that if traffic isn't too bad, I'll have almost an hour once we get home to get him fed and bathed before bedtime, it probably looks as if I did slip naturally into this role. I'm not crying, I'm not babbling, I'm not even wearing stained yoga pants or leaking through my shirt. Sure, a close inspection will make clear I'm a little tired and in a bit of a rush, but who isn't? To the extent that success means convincing those around you that you're capable, competent, even thriving, I've got this. But the chaos underneath bubbles so vigorously that I'm not convinced it will ever feel normal. It certainly doesn't now. 

I don't really have trouble leaving my son at day care. I know he's well cared for, he seems to enjoy it, and our schedule means I don't often have to do drop off, so even if there were dramatics with that, I would mostly miss them. I don't feel guilty. I don't think strangers are raising my kid. The adjustment from seeing him all day every day to seeing him for only a couple of waking hours a day during the week is bracing, but I believe that if we're not both better for it already, we will be before too long. The part I expected to be hard isn't that hard at all. Unfortunately, the part I expected to be easy is pretty rough. Things that don't sound at all difficult--making sure all the fiddly pieces of my breast pump make it into my bag every morning, keeping my son's newly running nose wiped, buying dog food--are suddenly overwhelming. Days are no longer made up of hours, but of the mere minutes in between needing to be somewhere and needing to do something. It will be easier once we have a routine, I tell myself at least ten times a day. It will be easier once he's weaned. It will be easier once he sleeps through the night. Likely it will be. But time is needed, too, to make those things happen. Time and patience, concentration and effort, and all of these are things that are in shorter supply than I'd have guessed possible. 

I am, on the whole, enormously lucky. I have a job I like, which provides me with both a very good salary and the flexibility that is so important to parenting (and so hard to come by). I have a partner who loves his work, who has taken to parenting quicker and more completely than I'd expected, and who pulls much more of his weight than I'd feared. I have a day care provider whom I can afford (if barely...), who already loves my son. Most of all, I have an incredibly happy, healthy, adaptable baby. With the exception of our lack of local family support (which we feel keenly), my family's situation approaches the two -working parent ideal. But even in these prosaic circumstances, it is highly unlikely that I'll ever really become the Working Mom I appear to be. Things may well get easier over time, but they aren't ever going to get easy. We may well find our groove, but we'll never stay in it for very long before something inevitably changes. It's possible that I'll find time to cover the gray in my hair, or at least remember the laundry before it gets musty, but something else will come up. It's clear to me, even though I am only at the beginning of this journey, that the woman I thought I was meant to be, the Working Mom from the magazines, doesn't exist. We're all just doing the best we can, trying to keep the pieces together and give the impression of serenity. The trick, I think, is in learning to accept the behind the scenes bedlam, to consider it a messy junk drawer that isn't waiting for a free moment to be put to order, but rather is intended to stay that way. We try to remain unruffled, if unsleeping, and rediscover every day that all we can do has to be good enough.


Great post! The way time just disappears is amazing.

I especially appreciate the way you write you do not feel guilty about daycare. I don't at all and I feel like other people will give me the leery eye for that. But I like working and my kid is happy at his daycare.

Great post! Even though my girl was older when I went back to work, and I've been back at it for a couple of years, it's still a work in progress. The lack of time between getting home and bedtime is the worst.

So I have been a working mom for 8 years now and I've found that the difficulty of the mundane stuff is pretty cyclical. There are weeks when I have to go to my oldest's school and sneak food/gym clothes/homework into her backpack several times and there are weeks when I am on the ball and she has everything she needs, every day.

Usually I find myself off game when there is some change in routine. So you no longer need to bring the breast pump parts because baby weaned but you forget to bring the only kind of baby food that baby will eat. Routine makes these things easier.

I definitely agree that I am more scattered now than I was before kids. I'd like to think that I am also better at certain things. I do think it is important we talk about these things so moms don't feel so alone in their (imagined) incompetence.

Oh and my youngest loves daycare too and I don't feel a bit guilty about leaving him. He needs the different scenery and extra kids and since he is a super active little one, I need the time to regroup before we are together again. He does jump into my arms when I pick him up, but he also waves goodbye when I drop him off.

Your post really resonates with me. It's been a HUGE struggle to balance a growing baby, a busy full-time job, home life of playing, chores, meals, etc. and then helping my partner with his business and doing my own side business. I finally realized that I just can't do it all like I could pre-baby. It's had an impact on my personal and professional life that I never would have guessed.

I feel really conflicted about not having any time for my own hobbies or personal interests right now. In order to do anything creative, I either have to ask someone to watch the baby (and I already don't see him for 35+ hours a week) or it has to be something I can do in 20 minute bursts when he's content to play trains by himself or I have to motivate myself to do it after he's gone to bed. And by that time, I'm usually so wiped out, it's hard to care anymore.

I would like to hear more as you all settle (or not) into new routines. Has M felt any of these same things with you going back?

I'm interested in the answer to Julia's Q. Because in my house, it seems like I'm the one who's taken all the hit as far as becoming scatterbraained, keeping up (or not) with all the details and needing an ironclad routine including a checkoff list so everyone gets out the door with a lunch and a jacket if needed, in clean clothes.

What a beautiful and courageous post! If only it would have been available when I started the working mom journey it would have saved me a lot of beating myself up and feeling inadequate about the "junk drawer"!

Thanks for this. I hope all the new working moms out there will read this and save their energy for their relationships, and for remembering that they are still themselves and deserve to have fun once in a while - rather than wasting it on chasing an image of perfection that doesn't exist.

This is my life... totally my life. Two kids and a husband with a dog means everyday is a mad dash to the next activity and we just try to get by the best way we can making sure our babies come out on top even when we feel like we've been beat down. I think you've inspired a post.

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