Workin’ Nine to Five, What a Way to Make a Living

I know I just wrote yesterday, because I was on this kick about optimism and I really wanted to show some photos of my sweet little garden. But it just occurred to me that actually, I have had something else on my mind for a couple of weeks now, and the only reason I didn’t blog about it yesterday was that the conclusion I was trying to draw hadn’t fully gelled.

Since L switched to a new daycare about a month ago, my childcare time has doubled. This was merely logistical: Lorena wouldn’t take him for less than three days, and she charges the same for those three days whether I pick him up at noon or at 5 o’clock. Initially I thought I would keep him half days anyway, and I picked him up around 1:00 the first week. But he didn’t want to leave, and I felt I was disrupting the flow of the day when I arrived to take him home, since all the other kids were in pajamas and settling down on those little puffy mats in the living room for their naps (“L will never go for that,” I thought, thinking of our very special nap circumstances at home: white noise, stories, special blankies, crib). So after a week or so, I decided, well, I’ll try just one day to leave him there the whole day. Sure enough, L didn’t sleep and came home exhausted and fractious around 4:00 p.m. The following week I thought I’d try once more to have him stay the whole day, sure that it would be a disaster. Well, Lorena called around 3:00 to say that L was sleeping, and had been for two hours. When I went to get him, he was completely and totally happy. And since then, he has settled down on a mat in her living room three days a week with four or five other kids and sacked out at naptime. Then had someone else get him up when his nap is over, give him his snack, and find him something to do.

And I am wrestling with my feelings about this.

I’ll admit I had and probably still have a bit of a prejudice against parents who have kids and then dump them in daycare for outrageously long hours. I know some kids who are in daycare from seven to seven, five days a week. That’s a lot. On the other hand, I realized after I’d been home with L exclusively until he was sixteen months, working from home part-time for some of that, that I wasn’t cut out for full time SAHMness. When I hooked into a nanny share twelve hours a week, writing or working in cafes, I felt like my life began again. I knew then that I would not follow the model of my own mom, who was home with us the whole time we were growing up, or my sister in law, who very cheerfully stayed home with her three kids until they went to school, when she went back to work. At first I thought I had failed in some way for not wanting to do that. Sure, I could have stayed home with L full time; but I wasn’t that fulfilled or nearly as patient as the job demanded.

Since L has started with Lorena I have been amazed at how much more central my work life has become. I’m writing; I’m teaching; I’m blogging; I’m having entrepreneurial feelings; I’m networking. And I’m wrestling with a voice telling me that I’m failing my kid somehow, while all the while I’m–can I admit it?–ecstatic to be working more. I’ve been kind of whispering that to myself and to B, and today I admitted it to a friend, too: I like having L in childcare three days a week. I miss him, sure, but I also love the freedom.

There’s an awful lot of judgment thrown on mothers in particular for their decisions about work. Let’s face it: if you’re in a heterosexual relationship, there’s an easy assumption that the father will work full time and the mother will be the one to make a hard choice. As a feminist I see the unfairness in this; as a crunchy earth mama I also see the logic: I stayed home with L for over a year in part because I wanted to nurse him that whole time. I have made judgments of other mothers myself (I admitted as much, above). I hear those judgments from other people, and sometimes they seem justified (like the family I knew who employed no less than three nannies and a baby nurse, to ensure that the time they spent with their children was about one hour a day–their former nanny, my friend C, and I had a big old judge-fest about that one day). Sometimes I hear judgments when they’re not even there: when my mom says to me, “So, you pick him up when? At five? Really?” I can’t tell if she’s judging me or amazed, since her sole experience with childcare when I was a kid was an occasional trip to Mrs. McNeeley’s, a kid factory down the road with a giant TV that was always showing the Partridge Family. I was sent there maybe twice a year.

It’s dawning on me that, like sleep, work is one of those deeply personal experiences that every mother, and every family, has to figure out on her own. And what’s probably most important is not only the happiness of the children in that family but the happiness that’s being modeled by the primary caregivers. If I’m fulfilled in my life by working part-time, I model that for L. And if another mother wants to be home full time because that’s what makes her happy, then she is modeling that for her kid. And if a woman wants to work full time because that’s what makes her most happy, then she is modeling that for her kid. When a problem arises, I think, is when either the happiness of the kid is so prioritized that the mother is drained and depleted, or when the happiness of the mother is so prioritized that the kid suffers. I realize that “happiness” is perhaps the wrong word to use, here–but I use it to mean fulfillment, ease, contentment.

For me, being a “good” mother means finding balance, and balance for me means working out of the home some days and home with L some days. Our closeness does not seem to have changed since he’s away from me twenty hours a week. We’re still thick as thieves. And I am, I guess, a working mom. I like to ride my bike to pick him up between 4:30 and 5:00. Usually I have spent the entire day glued to the laptop, and I welcome the physicality of the ride. We weave our way home through the streets, chatting the whole way. He dutifully reports on what he had for lunch and which kids were there. Then he tells me about naptime.

“Were any kids talking during nap?” I ask.
“No,” L says. “They were quiet.”