The missing piece in the “good mother” puzzle

Today I re-tweeted an article by Kathryn Sollmann, Peace Talks for the Mommy Wars in which she re-frames the “have it all” and “lean in” rhetoric into personal, economic terms. I love this article. I think her argument is spot-on. She writes, “At the end of the day, let’s accept that we’re all good mothers…The better mother is the one who faces reality, plans for life contingencies and makes certain that she tucks her family into a future that is financially secure and safe.” Amen.

I am fortunate to have a mentor (the same one since I was 22) who told me to always know what money is going in and what money is going out. She taught me that I am responsible for my financial future and no one else. That was/is good advice. Especially since at that time, a spouse wasn’t even on the horizon. I was young, educated, and on my own. I needed to know how to pay for my car, food, health insurance, plane tickets home to NJ, etc. etc. No one else was going to do it for me. I needed to know how to do these things. And, thank goodness, I do. God forbid I am ever widowed, I could still stay afloat. I have a job, my degrees, and the know-how to figure it out, or at least ask someone who does.

But this is only part of the “good mother” puzzle. An important one, but not the only one. Of course I need to tuck my children into a financial future. But I also want to tuck them into bed and into my heart.

I have read Lean In and I think Sandberg has some great points. For some people. I spent five years of my life as a PhD student investigating work-life “balance,” which I now call work-life negotiation, and wrote an entire dissertation about women student affairs administrators with young children and how they are trying to “have it all.” I read journal articles, tweet interesting links, have entire files of studies, pie charts, and bar graphs outlining ways that corporate America can help working families. All of these things are good and important. I have even blogged about my own “negotiation” strategies sometimes on this blog.

Today I had lunch with my husband who is also a working parent in higher education. It was a date in a college cafeteria because that is what fits our lives and our budgets right now. Sitting there over the beef and broccoli and roasted turkey, I realized something. All of these “have it all” articles are missing one important piece. The articles are prescriptive, one size fits all suggestions. I’m not a fan of being told what to do. I don’t know many mothers who are.

My contribution to the missing piece is this: the better mother is the one who does all she needs to do- personally, emotionally, financially, legally, geographically, etc., etc.- because it works for her. Because it works. for. her. Happy, focused mother= well-adjusted children and family.

The focus of modern rhetoric has been on macro changes. If more mothers lean in, then “the system” will change. (Maybe.) If legislators are made more aware of the burdens of working families, government will start to act in the best interests of the people. (Umm, sure.) Yes, these are important and necessary. Is it ridiculous that in 2008 I pumped breast milk in my own locked closet with paper on the windows because that was the only place I could go? Yes. Ridiculous. Is it insane that families with a sick child or elderly parent miss important meetings at work AND with their loved ones’ medical care team for fear that something will fall through the cracks? Of course. We absolutely need changes on the macro level. No question. But shaming SAHM and working mothers (or fathers) into leaning in, or wanting to have it all isn’t the answer.

I don’t have the answer. But, I have my own experience, I have my own answer. And what I have learned is this: forget everyone else and focus on what works for you. What worked for me as a working mother was to leave a Director level position and come home to a less than mid level advising position 10 minutes from my house. And guess what, NO ONE said boo to me. The person who was shaming me into thinking that I was derailing my own fast track train to having it all was me. I thought that giving up this job made me a hero or even better, a working mother martyr. Neither of these labels is true.

I gave up…nothing. And gained everything.

When I told people at my former institution that I was leaving because a job 5 miles from home opened up, every other woman (mother or not) in that office said this, “Oh, well, of course. That makes soo much sense. The little people in your life will be so happy.”

The little people in my life were indeed happy. Especially the three year old (who is now six and a giant!). When I was gone 60 hours/week (15 of which were spent driving the autobahn that is I-96 East in MI), he barely spoke to me. I saw my boys for 15 minutes each morning. I forced them to snuggle with me because I needed to leave the house with their morning smell still on my shirt. When I came home at 530pm (if I was lucky), the three year old wouldn’t speak to me. Sometimes he would open up and start talking to me over dinner. Sometimes he never spoke to me; he avoided my loving, hopeful eyes. This was his little three year old way of telling me that he resented me being away for so long. I resented it, too, but was constantly torn between wanting to “have it all” by using the degree I had just spent five long years earning, and wanting to be a “good mother.”

At the time, a fellow working mother told me that my son’s not speaking to me when I came home was about him and not me. He was three years old. Maybe that is how she would have approached the same situation. But for me, that was not working. I was actually starting to get really good at my job when I left it. But I was not the kind of mother I wanted to be. I missed everything- drop-off, pick-up, class trips, laughing at the breakfast table. And, I missed them. I missed them. Much of the modern talk is about the children. How are the children impacted by a parent’s work-outside-the-home status? What are the differences between children in daycare and those not? The good news: there is no difference.

What I think is missing from this rhetoric is the other side. The mother’s side. My side. I saw very little of myself in all of these articles screaming at me to keep my fast track job. I missed my children and my husband. I needed them. I missed them so much I ached. Eventually the three year old would have been fine. But I am not sure that I would have been fine. I was tired all the time. I was stressed out from driving. I started clenching my jaw at night (and now need a bite guard which I am getting tomorrow).

I tried the stay-at-home mom thing, too. Twice. Hated it. I was not good at it. I would be a horrible stay-at-home mom. I was also a horrible “have it all” mom.

For now, I am a mid-life, mid-career, mid-western mom who does not have it all. But, I am pretty darn close. I am happy. My boys are happy. I go to work and I help people. I help students be better versions of themselves and I love it. Turns out, my current position pays even more than my last one and I am no longer spending money commuting, so double bonus. Tucking them and myself into that financial future.

My real legacy, my “having it all” is my sons. They are the micro changes that will go out into the world and make macro differences. If that happens, when that happens, then I really will have it all.

That same mentor who taught me to take charge of my financial future also told me once, “your life right now is not your life forever.” Preach.

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