The Mommy Vortex: A New Normal
The first time I had to bring my first-born to day care, he was five-and-a-half months old. It was a frigid February morning, and I awoke in the early morning darkness to nurse him one last time. He was still half-asleep when I bundled him up in his winter snow suit and began the emotional, painful trek that ended with leaving him with his new caregivers. Although it was almost eight years ago, dropping him off that day was one of the most difficult experiences I’ve endured, and one that continues to haunt me as being a failure as a mom. What I didn’t fully realize that morning was that my feelings of guilt and inadequacy would multiply exponentially when I actually got into the office.
When I arrived at work, despite my heavy heart, I was mildly comforted by the anticipated normalcy of seeing my colleagues and getting back to my role. But the normalcy never set in. Not that day, and not in the days and weeks that followed. I could not recreate, no matter how hard I tried to do so, the same unabashed passion and dedication to my work as I had done for years before. I worried so much about my child that I was afraid I couldn’t do my job well, which, in turn, compounded my guilt and fear of not being able to accomplish anything.
I felt like a failure as a mom and as a professional.
That day, and in the years that followed, I found it extraordinarily difficult to navigate the twin goals of being a good mother and fulfilling my professional dreams that had been fertilized decades ago.
How could I, suddenly, care a little less about my career after years of studying, hard work, and sacrifices? My self-esteem and identity were tied to my accomplishments; I recognized that. But I had a new passion to contend with: I fiercely loved my son, and I wanted to be successful raising him, too.
I think many of us moms identify ourselves with our work and career goals so intensely before we have children that after they come, we have to reinvent ourselves again, as we are forced define ourselves differently. I’m fairly sure most women go through this at some point, especially those who are really passionate about their careers, because they know deep down it is impossible to give 150% at work when you want to simultaneously give 150% to your child, as well. It often feels like – at least to me – that you can’t do well anywhere.
And over the years, I have (unfortunately) found very few work colleagues who could identify with me or who were supportive of my decision to want to be home at night to bathe and feed my kids. I accepted that other parents may not feel the need to do that; I could respect their choice without adopting it as my own. I wanted to be home in the evenings, and I made that a priority. Which led to one colleague telling me outright that I had made his life harder by having children because he had to schedule meetings around my part-time schedule.
I was a diligent worker, yet I suddenly had to prove myself more and advocate even harder for myself after having a baby. To me, this was absurd. Unbelievably, not long after that comment, a mother who was in upper management actually told me that she was “disappointed” in my decision to return to work part-time (even though it was a temporary arrangement), as she had had “high hopes” for me that could not be fulfilled now that I “chose my baby” over work.
I cried pretty hard that night.
It has taken me years to acknowledge that I am not a failure professionally simply because I chose to have children, and conversely, that I am not a failure as a mom because I also have a career. I am just now, however, beginning to actually accept that fact. It has taken me quite a long time to look at my accomplishments – both personal and professional – through the lens of a mother and not just as a career woman. I spent years studying for and building my career, which meant that it took a very long time for me to accept that my identity has shifted and that everything else has to be somewhat redefined, as well, even if just for the short-term. Moving towards acceptance has allowed me to make decisions with less fear and guilt.
So many women I have worked with and spoken to are viewed as and/or see themselves as damaged goods in the work place after having children. I will not deny that there still exists some level of discrimination toward mothers who have children and return to work. (In fact, I was recently involved in a conversation where a manager didn’t want to hire a more qualified candidate – a new mother – because he was worried about “where her loyalties would lie.” Before I could even address the legal issues of this statement, I couldn’t help myself from pointing out that the male candidate also had young children, and yet no one was worried about his loyalties.)
We moms therefore have to continually remind ourselves that how others perceive us in the workplace should not undermine the value that will still bring to our work, whenever we decide to re-enter the workforce. We still are who we are, and we can still accomplish great things. Those accomplishments in our careers may take longer as we travel the circuitous route of being good moms and respected professionals, but they are there, waiting for us to reach them.
And If I’m being completely honest, I did see my career take a different shape – especially since my second child was born and I off-ramped for a couple of years – but I’ve learned to stop apologizing for that decision, and I’ve especially tried to combat the feelings of failure I inevitably experience when I choose my kids over a new or better career opportunity. Learning to achieve work success at my own pace – and also to respect the women around me that may follow a different pace – has been a challenge, but one that I am determined to meet.
For me, I’ve had to redefine what it means to be successful; my achievements are no longer solely defined by my career accomplishments, simply because doing well in my career doesn’t feel as good if I’m not engaged as the mom I want to be to my children. It’s not really a balance – it’s more of the aptly-quoted juggling act – but figuring out the right combination is a very personal and individual decision for each of us.
I think, then, that we need to be kinder to ourselves (and each other), and not allow guilt and failure to be options at work or at home. We need to acknowledge that things have changed, and we have to do our best to shape our work around those changes. If we try to do things the same way we’ve always done, it’s going to be hard to be successful anywhere, as there were no children to care for before. We need to embrace that fact rather than challenge it.
Because, in the end, it seems acceptance and adjustment are the only constructive ways to move forward.
Rosemarie Coppola-Baldwin is a practicing attorney and a dedicated mother of two children. A Georgetown University graduate, Rosemarie has practiced law at a major New York City law firm and for the City of New York. Rosemarie has been a guest lecturer on women’s civil rights and related legal issues at St. John’s University (New York), and offers pro bono legal services to a variety of entities.