Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Secret Life of Working Moms

When Laura, one of my marketing clients, called me from her cell phone last Friday, I looked out of my window and smiled. The weather was perfect: blue sky, sunshine, just enough breeze. “Where are you?” I asked. “Playground?”
“Sandbox,” Laura admitted with a laugh. “Think it'll wreck my laptop?”
“It'll survive. Just don't let Owen build a castle over it,” I said.
Laura and I chatted about a brochure I was writing for her while Owen, her toddler, played in the background. We then arranged a follow-up conference for the next week. “Can we talk late Wednesday afternoon?” I proposed. “That'll give me time to get Aidan home from school and settled with his snack.”
“Perfect,” she said.
Perfect: That's what we working mothers strive to be, especially when we finagle flexible work schedules that allow us to keep food on the table without missing out on being at home to watch our kids grow up. Some days we nearly achieve that goal.
Of course, it's a rough transition to the secret world of working moms. In the final months of my first pregnancy, I gave notice at my public relations job and told my coworkers that I had decided to consult from home after the baby was born. This news caused my secretary, an older woman known to type faster than anyone else in our building despite daggers for nails, shake one scary finger at me in warning. “You're making a big mistake,” she said. “You'll never get any work done without daycare.”
I smiled and nodded the way I always do whenever someone gives me unsolicited advice. And then I proceeded blindly and blissfully into the Bermuda Triangle of working motherhood.
Now, as any parent of a newborn knows, babies sleep a lot. But they also wake up a lot, especially at night, when you're trying to restore the damage done to your brain cells by those pesky post-pregnancy hormones. And, whether sleeping or awake, babies are their own personal disaster areas, peeing and pooping and spitting up, mostly when there's nothing but your shirt to use as a mop.
Between tending Blaise, my son, and doing Himalayan piles of laundry, the actual physical labor involved in early parenthood turned out to be more taxing than any other job I'd ever had. That included the summer job I once had on a factory assembly line, pulling plastic paintbrush handles out of a hot mold machine every three minutes. That was mind-numbing work, hot and hard on my back, but I got regular coffee breaks. With the baby, I was clocking in a good eighteen hours a day as a personal valet to someone who didn't even have the wits to say thank you.
What's more, any time I wasn't actually performing a physical service for my new lord and master, I was worrying that I wasn't nourishing Blaise's intellectual development. My mother once caught me hanging those stark black-and-white pictures all around the edges of my son's crib and asked me what the hell I was doing.
“I'm trying to stimulate my baby's brain,” I said. “You don't want your grandson growing up stupid, do you?”
Mom sighed and turned away. “I try to keep in mind that intelligence is largely an inherited trait, though sometimes I wonder about you. I hope you won't screw him up by scaring him out of his little mind with all of those weird things you do,” she said.
By the time my firstborn was six weeks old, I had a steady stream of clients, including the PR firm I'd been working for full-time. It was great to discover that they couldn't live without me. I took every job that came my way. Too late, I discovered that babies can be perfectly content one minute, but will wail like somebody's sticking them with invisible pins the next. That's how they keep their mothers on task.
My husband traveled often for his sales job, so he couldn't offer much parenting help. I had to devise a system of my own. Gradually I discovered that working at home required getting up before the bluebirds and sitting at my computer in a bathrobe, pouring coffee over my head. When the baby woke, I'd feed him and then put him in his infant seat on the bathroom floor, so that I could shower while playing peekaboo around the shower curtain. I'd play with my baby for a bit, and then I'd plunk him into a jumpy swing in the doorway of my office while I called clients, thumbed through research, or wrote reports at top speed. Never mind that the swing was recommended for babies six months and older, or that my own infant dangled like a puppet: he was happy and this tactic worked darn well.
Women clients, I discovered, would overhear the baby in the background and keep right on talking to me on the phone, assuming I had things under control. Men were more problematic. They'd hear the baby and assume something needed tending.
“He's not choking,” I'd reassure them. “He's chortling. He's hanging in his swing in my office,”
“Oh,” they'd say, unconvinced. “Shouldn't you be doing something with him?”
“I am doing something,” I told them. “I'm helping to keep a roof over his head.”
At times, I'd have to do research at the local library. This was a pleasant outing for the first eight months, because I could carry Blaise in a backpack. When he got antsy, I'd lay him on a blanket on the library floor. This worked well, until one day when I was so engrossed in reading that I was startled when a woman tapped me on the shoulder.
“Yes?” I asked, barely taking my eyes off the screen.
“I think you lost something,” she said.
I looked down at the blanket on the floor beneath the computer. No baby. The woman pointed. I jumped up and saw with horror that my son had learned to crawl, and that he was headed, butt high in the air, for the elevator.
After that, playgrounds were my biggest salvation, especially when I had a second child just sixteen months after the first. My daughter Taylor was fussy, the sort of child who cried for no reason and was always thrusting her fists in the air like some miniature antiwar demonstrator. She was only content if I kept her in motion. I did a spread sheet calculating the costs of commuting, buying clothes for work, going out for lunch, and paying a babysitter, and decided that paying for two days of family day care outside the home was optimal; anything more than that, and I'd barely break even. So I dropped the kids off with a sitter for two days but kept them home while I worked for the other three.
On the days I worked at home while my children were there, I still got up at 5 a.m., so that I could clock in two hours before they woke up. And then, when everyone was up and fed, off to the playground we'd go, no matter what the weather. I once wrote an entire brochure in longhand while pushing a swing.
Nap time was sacred: I scheduled most conference calls and interviews for those precious quiet hours. Then the kids would get up and out we'd go again. The one thing I always skimped on was housework. I once had to iron a dress for a meeting, and when I took the ironing board out of the cupboard, Taylor had to ask me what it was.
Things got a little easier once my children started preschool. I had more solitary work hours, provided that I was diligent about not doing housework, gardening, laundry, cooking, or any other domestic chore while my kids were out of the house. (Though I confess: I sometimes did fold laundry or unload the dishwasher while chatting with clients on the phone, taking care not to pant with the effort of lifting baskets or clank the dishes.)
Despite the novelty of school hours, during some wintry weeks I still put in more hours at our local McDonald's than most of their employees, simply because it has an indoor playground. Here's one dirty secret nobody ever tells working parents: school is not day care. Just as you get used to having your babies out of the house and stop weeping every time you pick up their little socks, you realize that the nurse will send your kids home with sore throats or fevers or even the merest sniff. There are snow days and teacher workshop days and once, I swear to God, almost an entire week of rain days off from school, just because the river happened to overflow and blocked off a few measly roads.
I now have three children and continue to juggle my time, despite the fact that the youngest is in elementary school. I still get up early and stay up late to meet deadlines. I still work on weekends. On snow days, I've even been known to skip a wholesome outing to a science museum, where Aidan, my youngest son, can learn about gravity and whales. Instead, we head for one of those germ factories, an indoor playground with arcades that gear your kid up to play the slots in Vegas: they are that addictive. Everything in those places, even the food, seems to be made of brightly colored plastic, like you're living in a TV show – but, hey, working parents like me can plug in their laptops and work in an empty birthday room.
The flip side of juggling work and kids in the same space is that I also can take breaks. When my kids want to spend the afternoon outside, I can often go with them. When I have a child who's home sick, I can climb into bed with him and read him stories. If I have to work, I can set the kids up at my desk with their own notebooks or computer while I work alongside them. Watching me meet deadlines, my children understand about work. And, because of them, I appreciate the value of play.
Mothers have always worked – in fields, on farms, in factories, at home. No matter where we work, most of us take joy in having jobs that we value and children who enrich our lives. I'm one of the lucky ones, in that I can spend some days working at home, straddling the divide between job and family that confronts most of us.
Recently, a client called me during an early release day from school. He was discussing a marketing brochure that he wanted me to write when I had to stop him mid-sentence. “Sorry. Please hold that thought,” I said. “I have to tend to something here.”
I was in a rock climbing gym and Aidan was taking a lesson. For the last hour, my kid had been swinging around like a human yo-yo while I worked on a laptop I'd set up on a corner table loaded down with ropes and harnesses. Now he was waving at me. I stopped talking to wave back and blow him a kiss.
“Okay,” I said, once Aidan was belaying back down. “I can probably do the brochure by early next week.”
“Really? That fast?” my client asked.
“Sure. Have I ever let you down?” We said goodbye. I hung up as my son came running towards me, grinning, to make sure I'd seen him climb to the top.