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.