In June 2006, I was promoted to features editor at the daily newspaper where I worked. I had been at the paper for seven years already, and had wanted that job even longer than that. After a decade of struggling to build something resembling a career in journalism, I felt like I’d finally made it. I had a small staff of my own, a talented assistant editor at my side, a Sunday column, and six weekly sections to assign, manage and proof. I was working 12-hour days and loving it; I imagined owning that desk for a long, long time.
Three months later I found out I was pregnant.
It was an unplanned, shocking pregnancy, and though we were thrilled, almost immediately an inner battle began brewing. The writer in me was not about to give up her dream. The mother in me wasn’t either, not even for a few hours a day.
I spent the next nine months in denial, not really making a decision about what I’d do. I told everyone I’d be coming back to the paper after my maternity leave was done, because that’s what I wanted to do. I said it so often and with such confidence that half of me believed it. But the other half knew I hadn’t called a single day care center or potential babysitter to line up child care for my supposed return to full-time employment.
The managing editor and copy desk chief threw a baby shower for me. In the weeks before the due date, I trained my assistant editor on how to handle everything in my absence. Meanwhile, I helped a team of consultants redesign the features section – “My baby,” I remember saying more than once – and generally continued the hectic daily newspaper pace until the day one of my editors, a mother herself, told me I really should take it easy. So I collected a round of hugs and left my desk cluttered with the various keepsakes, papers and awards I’d gathered over the years. “I’ll be back,” I said to everyone, including myself.
Five days later I gave birth to a healthy baby boy, and six weeks after that I called my boss, choking back tears, to tell him what half of me knew 10 months earlier: I wasn’t coming back.
Almost immediately, I was blessed to be given the opportunity to work from home part-time for the paper instead, and though I greatly missed the camaraderie of the newsroom and my beloved features desk, I was thankful for the chance to keep contributing to the family’s finances (a necessity) and retain at least some of my pre-baby identity.
What I didn’t realize then but quickly learned was that the single decision to become a work-from-home parent would be followed by a million smaller ones, every day, about how to do it. And those choices, more than the work and the kids combined, can really wear you down.
Do I try to squeeze in one more phone call, or bring the boys outside to play? Do I answer the phone and try to take notes in my car in the grocery store parking lot and pray the baby stays asleep, or let it go to voicemail and risk losing out on that potential job? Do I stop what I’m typing mid-sentence when my son wants me to look at the robot he’s building? How about now? And now? And now? And now?
Can I write one more business profile before lunch? Why does my editor always call when we just start reading books?? Will Evan’s nap time be reliable enough to schedule that phone interview I desperately need to get done? Can I finish all of this after bedtime, again?
I choose the playground over the research, but then I have to choose the last-minute research over the dance party. “Just give Mommy one minute to send this email.” “Mommy has to do a phone call for work, so you can finish your lunch and watch ONE EPISODE of ‘Superman’ and then we’ll play a game…”
For years I’ve been ping-ponging between the two roles, berating myself every day for falling short on both.
Being home with my sons has been an amazing gift. I’ve been able to rock and nurse and coo (and burp and change and feed and discipline and potty train) to my heart’s content. We’ve played, we’ve snuggled, we’ve explored. We’ve painted and danced and skipped and biked for hours and hours on end.
We’ve slept in, watched cartoons all morning, stayed in our PJs all day. We’ve been superheroes and robots and wild animals on the African plain. We’ve yelled at one another and whined about each other and laughed together. We’ve read and read and read and read and read. We’ve built snowmen and blanket forts and bonds so strong they will never be broken.
But still, the back and forth tug between working and mothering has been difficult (as it is for all working parents, no matter where you earn your paycheck).
After a summer of trying to take on extra work while also entertaining (and refereeing) my growing, energetic and very loud boys, my daily life now looks and sounds much different. Evan has started full-day kindergarten. Suddenly both of my sons are in school, away from the house for six hours a day. Six hours of silence. Six hours in a row to write. To conduct phone interviews. To email and edit and invoice and market myself for even more work.
In those first few minutes of silence last week, all I could hear was the absence of their laughter, and all I could feel was that familiar regret of parenthood, which somehow appears no matter what I do or how hard I try.
If only I hadn’t worked so much this summer, we would have had more time to play together, I lamented. I tried to assuage my guilt with a mental list of the fun things we had done, but it was overshadowed by all the ideas we’d had in the beginning of summer that never happened. Maybe if I’d been able to work more I could have at least afforded the swimming lessons I’d promised them.
The kids were gone, but my mind was still ping-ponging.
As I sat there at my desk, listening to the quiet and staring at a list of my latest assignments, my email inbox lit up with a message from LinkedIn. “Sue Jarrett congratulated you on your work anniversary!” it read.
My work anniversary? I thought. I haven’t had a real job in ages. Something in my profile must be outdated. Puzzled, I clicked on the link, and there it was: “Seven years ago this August, Robyn Passante became self-employed.”
I stared at the message, worded like it was an accomplishment. Seven years. For seven years I’ve been juggling diapers and dinosaurs and deadlines. In that moment I realized I haven’t been giving myself enough credit, as a mother or a professional. I not only do have a “real” job, I have TWO real jobs. I ping-pong between them because I love them both. For the first time, that isn’t an apology – it’s a declaration.
And after seven lucky, difficult, beautiful years, I am thankful to have the breathing room I need to help me do both of those jobs even better.