The Irreconcilable Dreams Of A Working Mother

“You’re a LAWYER?” a new friend asks me, her eyes wide.

“I am,” I admit.

I am both pleased and embarrassed by her reaction. She is clearly impressed. Lawyers are smart. Lawyers work hard. I earned those badges through two decades of schooling and I let these new assumptions soak in.

“I had no idea!” she goes on, giving me a gentle shove on the arm.

She is also clearly confused. If you’re a lawyer, why do you hang around the kids’ school as much as you do? she must be wondering. Why are you at every mundane event? Regular dismissal? I shrug, but don’t respond, even though the answer is on the tip of my tongue. She’s not familiar with that part of me because I’m on a leave of absence trying to figure out what is best for me and my family.

During exchanges like this one, I feel both Pride and Shame, the working mother’s constant companions. They have been with me since I achieved my two lifelong dreams of becoming a lawyer and becoming a mother.

I was five years old when my grandmother first asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I didn’t hesitate in exercising the newest word in my vocabulary: a lawyer. As a kindergartner I knew that lawyers read, wrote and argued all day long. I was instantly sold on the job. Those were my favorite things in the whole wide world! For decades that followed, words were my tools and I worked them endlessly.

But even before I could read, write and argue, I loved playing Mommy. I was mother to my doll, Linda, my stuffed cat, Amy, and Red Bear, my beloved teddy. My younger brother was born before I turned two and my nurturing routine got upgraded to actual human status. I never had any feelings of jealousy over the baby. I loved to love.

Somehow when I combined the two—mother and lawyer—everything changed. I found my heated arguments no longer involved the political systems of South Africa with a fellow Poly Sci major, or the fairness of the eggshell skull rule with another JD candidate. Now the most tempestuous debates exist only in my mind, as the two parts of my identity duel to the death.

I am a mother.

I am an Executive Director in-house at a global financial services company.

I am primary caregiver.

I am a provider.

I have Purpose at home.

I have Power at the office.

I have passion for life.

Responsibility is life.

I don’t know how to reconcile these parts of myself, and I feel very alone in this struggle despite the fact that many working mothers have recently stepped forward to reveal their inside operations. They openly lament missing spring concerts for important deal closings. They admit to store-bought cakes because there are not enough hours in a day to bake. When someone asks these women, “how do you do it?” with a pleading look on their face, they typically give a response about day-to-day management and the necessity of a partner willing to divvy up the work. I get it. Every bit of it. But I also want to talk about the burdens we don’t share.

I want to know how to choose between apologies:

I’m sorry I don’t have money saved for us to go on a spring vacation this year.

I’m sorry I couldn’t volunteer for that field trip.

Or unpack the kind of example I’m setting for my daughter:

Mothers belong at home with their children (except I don’t believe this). 

Mothers thrive in male-dominated fields (except I don’t believe this).

I wonder how I can ever do what’s best for me so long as I remain conflicted:

I belong at home with my children; my desire to nurture is greater than ever. 

I belong in a productive industry; my ambition is stronger than ever.

My life as a working mother is riddled with emotional stalemates.

When I’m disheartened, I try to focus on the tangible daily successes. Most days I’m on time for work and school pick-up. Most days I pack a healthy lunch for me and the kids. I stockpile the gold-star moments to build my hill of motivation, but all those nuggets combined don’t reach the level where the real battles are fought. Most days I don’t know where I belong, even when I show up exactly where I’m supposed to be and when.

In this way, I am reminded of the words of Tina Fey: “I think every working mom probably feels the same thing: You go through big chunks of time where you’re just thinking, ‘This is impossible — oh, this is impossible.’ And then you just keep going and keep going, and you sort of do the impossible.”

And I do. I keep going and keep going, pushing past the contradictions but never syncretizing the irreconcilable dreams of this working mother.

Carinn Jade is a conflicted lawyer, mother and writer. Her essays have been published in the New York Times, Brain, Child, Mommyish and DailyWorth, as well as several anthologies. She’s not conflicted about her love of yoga, donuts, tea, and a great contemporary novel.

This post first appeared on Motherwell Magazine.

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The Competition to Give Our Kids Picture-Perfect Lives Is Ruining Our Own

It seems like the same pressure women experienced as teenagers to be thin and perfect hasn’t gone away; it’s morphed into a pressure to be rich and perfect as mothers. And it’s coming at a much higher price than most realize. Kids feel the financial and emotional strain that the pursuit of perfection is putting on their families.

Most mothers blame social media as the root of the parenting competition. Witnessing family life under a microscope, mothers feel the need to make the perfect lunches, throw the best birthday parties, and send their kids to the most enriching after-school programs — no matter the price.

According to a BabyCenter survey, a staggering 46 percent admit they’ve gone into debt to pay for organic food and extracurricular activities. I’m not sure how this makes sense. Going into debt to send little Janie to cello lessons at the age of 7 is only the right choice if she’s planning to be the first female Yo-Yo Ma. And while we all want our kids to be the next Mark Zuckerberg, trekking Suzie to coding class an hour away seems extreme. That’s simply a lot of stress to put on families, financially and emotionally.

Mothers surveyed see the cracks already. According to the report, half of the parents report fighting with their spouses about the cost of child-rearing extras, and 47 percent of children whose parents have finance-related friction reporting feeling affected by these issues.

For the sake of our kids and our marriages, and presumably our own happiness, can we stop letting the media (whether it be traditional advertising or social sites) undermine our self-worth? I think back to my own childhood whenever I’m struggling with whether to add another expensive activity to my kids’ schedule. I remember that my favorite times were those spent in my own house, playing pretend, dressing up in my mother’s clothes or simply watching a movie with my parents.

I often see articles lamenting the simpler days of our own childhoods, but there is little movement to actually replicate it. Why not let kids play in the yard after watching two hours of cartoons on Saturday mornings rather than carting them to soccer and T-ball year round? Why not set up a blanket fort and pull up a movie on Netflix rather than paying $100 on a restaurant and the newest theater release? These are things we can do now, even in 2015. But only if we stop trying to keep up with the Joneses.

I’m not sure even if I had all the money in the world that I’d use it to pack my kids’ lives with every possible advantage in life. Part of individual success comes from internal motivation. I let my kids explore what interests them, even though every year that passes where my son doesn’t pick up a golf club on his own means he will never be the next Jordan Spieth. I admit it’s hard not to lament those losses because I want the world to believe he’s as amazing as I do. But that’s not my responsibility as a parent. And if it’s coming at the cost of a strained relationship with my husband or at the price of spending money that could go toward our current mortgage payments or be saved for his future college tuition, it becomes counter-intuitive, if not downright toxic.

I won’t let go of the big picture and forget that quality time with family is more important than a résumé of outrageous privilege. Instead, I’ll vow to take Instagram for what it is — a bunch of pretty pictures and not a life.

Read the rest on The Stir…