Just a few weeks ago, at a friendly gathering at my neighbor’s house, he brought to my attention that I am a ‘shitty’ mom. The statement wasn’t as blunt as ‘You’re a shitty mom, Angelica.’ But, as soon as I finished explaining a new project that I was working on for my job, he brought up a conversation that he and his wife had with their 13-year old daughter in which the girl talked about her aspirations for the future. She told her parents that she wants to be a dentist, get married, have kids, and live in a big house. All very attainable dreams, in my opinion. However, my neighbor went on to say that they had to have a 2-hour long ‘intervention’ with their daughter to explain that she couldn’t be both a good mom and a good dentist. And, that if she attempted to do both, she would end up being either a shitty mom or a shitty dentist.
All of a sudden, I felt as if I were at a tea party during the Victorian period. As he narrated the dialogue with his daughter, his wife smiled. For the next two minutes, I just sat there waiting for the silver lining. I was expecting some cliché about balancing your work and personal life. That one statement that would make me, the only working mom in the room, not offended and bring us all back to the new millennium, to the century when we tell our girls that they can be anything they want: a CEO, an astronaut, a TV celebrity, a mom. Anything. But that statement never came. I assume that the poor girl didn’t take her parents’ opinion easily otherwise their conversation wouldn’t have lasted 2 hours. He justified his views by pointing out that the time required to be a professional and the time demands for parenthood, or better yet, ‘motherhood’ (nothing was said about dads), would make it impossible for women to be good at both. There simply aren’t enough hours in a day. ‘If you are a good professional, you’re a shitty mom,’ he said.
I could easily expose his flawed concepts with a few well-articulated statements. However, if there’s one thing that I have learned about suburban life in the South, is that people hold their guns and their misled values and opinions above reason and common sense.
Motherhood is a job filled with guilt. No matter what you do, you’re bound to be criticized. I have personally ditched the parenting books soon after I had my first daughter. You give your baby a pacifier, you’re accused of teaching your newborn not to deal with his problems. If you don’t breastfeed, you’re a horrible mom. If you do breastfeed, people will be looking at what you eat. Is it organic? Free of hormones? Gluten free? The act of giving birth itself isn’t free from criticism. I’ve heard a few moms argue that women who has an epidural aren’t good mothers. After all, if they are not willing to feel pain, they can’t be any good. It makes sense, right? Right?
As far as working and having children, I have been on both sides and I can assure that neither side is guilt free. When I had my first daughter, we weren’t in a financial position for me to quit working. I cut down, for sure. I found a part-time teaching job at a private academy, Monday through Thursday, from 7:30 am to 1:00 pm. Still, I felt horrible for leaving my child at daycare. I also felt that I was missing so much and that it was my job to watch her every minute. Nonetheless, she loved going to daycare. In fact, one of her first words was “yaiya.” That was baby-talk for Layla, her little best friend at daycare. By the time my second daughter came along, my husband had reached a six-figure salary and I was teaching college. My husband’s job was 70 miles from where we lived. He worked long hours and spent at least three hours of his day on the road. At some point in time, we decided that it was good idea to move closer to his work and for me to quit my job to be a stay-at-home-mom.
Even though I was sad to leave my job, I was also excited about being at home with my kids and never felling guilty again. I embraced motherhood and housekeeping to the fullest. I held my baby and played with her all day. I cooked fancy meals. I decorated cakes with fondant. My house was spotless clean and I ironed all the clothes. I also bought a minivan. Between moving to a new house and the sleepless nights with a newborn, that first year went by in a blur.
The second year was a little different. My baby was now a toddler and she was frustrated all the time. She seemed much happier with the 30-second interactions she had at the playground with other kids her own age than playing with me. The playground visits became more often. I also started going to the gym and volunteering at the PTO. Eventually, I realized that my toddler needed to play with kids her age without the overwhelming helicopter-mom supervision from the playground. She was active and curious and I could never be as cool as another 2-year old. She started going to a mother’s day out program twice a week for a few hours and that changed her whole mood. It also freed up some time for me to read, shop, etc… I was living the perfect life. Except for one thing. I didn’t have a sense of self-fulfillment.
There was a good amount of guilt in that life as well. Despite my husband making good money, we were definitely in the lower-end of the six-figure income and I felt as if I was not contributing. I realize that many women who are stay-at-home-moms live on an lower income than mine and I’ve heard my share of “money doesn’t buy happiness.” And although it doesn’t buy happiness per se, it buys the ‘must-have’ items from Christmas lists, memorable vacations, music classes, tickets for the theatre, and it pays for college. I couldn’t get over the fact that my income could be a college fund or increase the chances to jumpstart my kids’ lives.
I also felt that it was my responsibility to be able to support my kids in case my husband wasn’t there. I worried about him getting sick, dying, or leaving me for the secretary. I know several couples who divorced after years of marriage and the kids had to live with dad because mom couldn’t support them. Sadly, many of these women had unsuccessfully tried to jumpstart their careers after a decade or more of staying at home.
Women are stay-at-home-moms for different reasons. Some women’s income, especially those without a college degree, doesn’t justify having to pay for daycare. Others find enjoyment being at home. Others do it as the ultimate sacrifice. They put off their careers because they believe that having a mom at home is more important than all of the things that I worry about. For me, it was just the convenient thing to do at that time and I’m glad that I had the option of quitting my job and taking care of my family for a while. But I didn’t feel 100% fulfilled by scrubbing the toilet every day, cooking, and playing puzzles. After four years, I knew it was time to go back to work.
The transition wasn’t as bad as I had expected. It took a couple of weeks to get our routine down but once that happened, it was a smooth sailing. I leave the house at 6:50 am to drop my younger child at school. My daughter is always on time, nicely dressed, and brings a home packed lunch with a love note inside. The only difference is that by the time we leave the house, I’m wearing full make up and heels, while some moms still have their pajama pants on. My older daughter goes to the same school where I work. So does my neighbor’s daughter. And I transport her every day (at least I know they don’t think I’m a shitty driver). My kids never miss homework or school events. My husband and I alternate the after-school activities and we are always there for presentations, parent teacher conferences, etc.
Some things did change. We do meal prep on the weekends and I tell my kids and husband to pick up after themselves on a daily basis so that everything doesn’t accumulate for the weekend. When I bring my kids to piano or gymnastics, I bring my work along. We have traveled more, we have two health insurances, and spend quality time together. In all honesty, I don’t think that my kids are missing out on anything due to me having a job. In fact, I believe they only have gained from it. Not only financially, but also by example. There’s great value in observing routine, punctuality, work ethics, and professional accomplishments. Plus, considering the fact that children are in school for at least seven hours a day and assuming that a person works during the day, we’re really not missing much. What really takes the blow is our laundry. Also, my windows haven’t been cleaned for almost a year.
I never thought of myself as being a feminist. As a general rule, I always try to stay away from labels and be open-minded and respectful towards others. I feel that labels such as feminist, democrat, republican, have a polarizing aspect that excludes the reasonable middle. Much like my 13-year old neighbor, I also always dreamed of having a family, a job, and a big house. Luckily, my dream did come true. I have three college degrees, I have been happily married for 17 years, I have two beautiful girls, and a house that doesn’t seem so big until it’s time to clean it. I understood and welcomed the shift in priorities that came with having a family. However, it never occurred to me that being a good mom and a good professional were mutually exclusive. On the contrary, they seem to complement each other. My idea of happiness is to have it all. There is an incredible sense of fulfillment in having a good job, contributing to society, and being able to share that experience with my own kids. Both of my girls love coming to my school and I’ve observed them, several times, bragging about something that I did at work. My younger little girl even says that she wants to be a teacher when she grows up and be the ‘sweetest mom ever’ like me.
Perhaps, being a mom to two girls, made my neighbor’s comments personal on different levels. Besides taking on a personal offense, I find disheartening that a dad will sit down to tell his 13-year old that she has to choose between having a profession or a family. Isn’t it his job to encourage and support her in life? Maybe he could offer to baby-sit her children while she’s working. Maybe he could suggest that she opens a practice with a partner so she can work less hours. He could advise her to finish college before getting married. But killing her noble dreams is just cruel. Then I think about my girls. What would I do if my husband said that to one them? One thing is for sure: I would not sit there and smile. He would definitely need to wholeheartedly take it back and apologize for his misjudgment. Perhaps, I would file for divorce. But, again, that’s an option that I have because I have a job and can afford to live on my own. And I will work even harder to make sure that my girls have the same option in the future. Even if my daughters decide to be stay-at-home-moms in the future, I want that to be a choice based on what fulfills them, not a condemnation of incompetency.
There’s also the possibility that my neighbor was projecting his own guilt and inadequacy as a parent into the conversation. Who knows? Although very unlikely, maybe he feels like a bad dad because he has a full-time job. After all, he cannot possibly think that he can be a good dad and a good professional but his wife and daughter can’t, right? I’m no shrink, but maybe Freud can explain his inner motive. Meanwhile, until I see that diagnosis, I’ll blame his comments to his daughter on ignorance and his retelling of the story in my presence on lack of manners. After all, when this shitty mom invites people to her home, it’s to have a good time, not to insult them. And to all the little girls out there, DREAM ON! You can be anything you want.