Back to School Blues: The Teacher-Turned-Mommy Version

Where I live, in my little corner of Northeastern Pennsylvania, school starts up again this week. When I was a 4th grade teacher, I always enjoyed this time of year, how the waning summer would beckon me to the classroom, coaxing me back to the career I loved with the promise of a clean slate, a new beginning. There aren’t many professions in which you can shake off the wrong turns and miscalculations of the previous few months and truly begin anew, and I came to appreciate this as one of education’s many gifts. Now that I no longer have a classroom to set up—no nametags to write, no photocopies to make, no library books to organize—I miss it more than ever. I am not going back to school this fall. There is no classroom for me. And that makes me sad.

When I left the classroom four years ago to become a stay-at-home-mother, I gave almost no thought to my reentry to the workforce. My belly swollen and my feet tired, all I could think of was the impending birth of my baby girl. I said goodbye to my students in June, wished them well, and then scrambled to do what all neurotic mothers-to-be do. I ran my washing machine constantly, organized closets, folded blankets, and scrubbed every floor I could get my hands on. I read aloud to my belly every night, imagining that my baby within was listening intently to the mesmerizing cadence of Dr. Seuss. I relished every fetal squirm and wiggle, driving my husband crazy with constant grabs of his hand and shouts of, “Come here! You gotta feel this!” when she kicked, so eager was I for him to get to know our daughter in the same way I already had. And I fretted over the birthing process itself. I would stare down at my mound of a stomach and wonder how on earth she was going to come out of there. But I never once fretted over how and when I would resume my career outside the home.

Last month, The New York Times Magazine ran a cover story entitled “The Opt Out Generation Wants Back In.” In it were profiled three women who made the choice to leave the workforce when their children were born and who are now either working outside the home or are actively searching for employment. Needless to say, this article resonated with me deeply. I am part of that opt-out generation that wants back in, and having applied to several school districts this summer and having come up empty-handed, I am part of that group of women who has paid a vocational price for making “lean back” decisions. Sometimes when we opt out, it’s not so easy to opt back in.

But here’s the rub: In the same breath that I utter how much I long to be back in the classroom, I must also confess that I am not all that torn up about not going back to school this fall. Why? Because it means I get to spend more precious time with my children. I used to worry that feeling these competing drives made me irrational. How can I simultaneously want to work outside the home and also want to be at home with my children? Why don’t I just make up my mind? Why can’t I just choose a path, stick to it, and stop fretting about it? But the more I’ve lived these competing drives, the more I’ve realized that it makes perfect sense to harbor seemingly incompatible desires at the same time. We can want to be active members of a life outside our home, our psyches lit on fire by striving, yearning, doing for ourselves, and we can also want to give of ourselves to the people we love most, to tend to, nurture, and be near our children. It doesn’t make our thinking irrational or disjointed or disingenuous to desire both. It makes us human. Humans who long ago evolved multiple desires to help solve adaptive problems. The trouble is that in the modern world, it is often impossible to have a thriving career outside the home and also be with our children all day, which is why most of us have to trade one for the other.

There is a push-pull endemic to motherhood. There are trade-offs to be made. And each mother has to come to terms with this in her own way. There is no one right answer for everybody. I am no longer part of a profession that was once very dear to me, but when one of my children falls and scrapes a knee, I am there to soothe the pain. I am there for my son’s first words, it is my leg he tugs on when he wants to go outside, and mine are the comforting arms my daughter runs to when someone pushes her on the playground. For now, while my children are young, I’m okay making that trade-off.

So where does this leave me? Three weeks ago I received a $150 check in the mail for a piece of writing I composed, and I swear I could hear a victory march echo through my ears as I tore open the envelope. That $150, the first money I have earned in four years, marks my inaugural foray into the world of a professional writer. It doesn’t matter that $150 won’t even get me through a tank of gas and a week’s worth of groceries. That pittance is the most rewarding money I’ve ever earned, filling me with newfound confidence, independence, and pride. I want more of those feelings. I want more of those paychecks. I want to write. Here’s hoping I get a fresh start this fall after all. As a writer. 

Where Paul Tudor Jones Got It Wrong

Last month at a University of Virginia symposium on investing at the McIntire School of Commerce, Paul Tudor Jones commented on why there are currently too few great female traders. He described how, once a woman has a baby, she loses all competitive drive to invest well, and that this lack of focus begins “as soon as that baby’s lips touch that girl’s bosom.” He went on to explain that all initiative to understand markets and investment strategy becomes subsumed by “that mode of connection between that mother and that baby.” While it’s hard to imagine that Mr. Jones thought it would be a good idea to make such comments, he is right on one front: mother and child do share an unshakable bond.

 

I have been privy to this beautiful connection with both of my children. It is something I know well. Mr. Jones seemed to indicate that fathers and their babies are not capable of reaching the same level of intimacy with their children, that this was something reserved exclusively for mothers. I surmise that fathers share a similar connection with their children, but not being a father, I cannot attest to that. What I can attest to is that my children are my greatest joys. And it is interesting that Mr. Jones framed his comments around breastfeeding, because in breastfeeding my two children, I have found some of the most tender, serene, and peaceful moments of my life. 

 

The trouble with Mr. Jones’ remarks is that he assumes that the connection a mother has with her child prevents her from doing something else well, in this case trading. This is erroneous, dangerous thinking. The all-consuming pressure that society puts on mothers, and that mothers can be all too guilty of putting on themselves, that we have to be everything to our children and that our children have to be everything to us, is just not good for us. It isn’t even good for our children. By making the mother-child bond so sacred, so perfect, so outside the realm of what real relationships are, we set ourselves up for failure. Many of us expect to find complete fulfillment and perfection in all things motherhood, and when we don’t find these things in every nook and cranny, we feel like failures. Motherhood is beautiful. It is also hard. It is also tedious. And it is just plain wrong to think that because someone becomes a mother, she can’t do something else like trading really well, that she can’t hold her own anymore in a field that she once excelled in before she had a baby because now she is beholden to someone else. It is this kind of thinking that holds women back. It holds us back when powerful men make such comments, and it holds us back when we think these thoughts in our own heads.

 

I say all this from experience. I have been down the road of thinking, even hoping, that becoming a mother was going to be the pinnacle of my life, and that once I had children,   I was duty-bound to revolve my life around them. Every mother has to find her own way, but it was this kind of thinking that brought me to moments of quiet desperation, and I have only recently found my way out of them. Yes, motherhood is beautiful and amazing, and so is breastfeeding. I’m being completely honest when I say that I have found in breastfeeding moments of pure bliss, but I’ve also found in it two bouts of full-blown mastitis, months of tandem yeast, countless plugged ducts, and one cracked and bleeding nipple, the scar of which is never going to go away. I didn’t enjoy that cracked and bleeding nipple so much, and I didn’t quite achieve the connection I was looking for when my newborn daughter clamped down on it searching for milk. I laugh now, but that is the reality of breastfeeding for many women. 

 

The reality of motherhood has its own ups and downs. My daughter and my son are the lights of my life, but I also enjoy some time to myself. I love dancing around the living room with my kids, but I also love when they are at grandma’s and grandpa’s and I can sit down at the kitchen table in a quiet house and write without interruption. I used to worry that after years of being a stay-at-home-mother who didn’t tap into her intellectual reserves on a daily basis, I would forget how to write and think, that I would not remember how to compose an essay. Now I realize that my salvation lies in reclaiming the parts of myself that gave me great satisfaction before I became a mother, that writing and thinking will make me a better mother because I will be a happier person. 

 

Mr. Jones issued an apology for his remarks and I’m glad he did. He is a talented trader and a dedicated philanthropist, and it’s a shame that his good works are currently being overshadowed by the comments he made at last month’s symposium. But there is danger in promulgating the erroneous belief that when you become a mother, you lose your focus to do something well, because every ounce of your being is or should be devoted to taking care of your child. Yes, we are mothers. We are also women. We are also people. And the same drives and ambitions and talents that we possessed before we had children are there postpartum. It’s when we ignore those talents, when we expect motherhood to fill up every bit of our needs and desires that we run into trouble. When we hold onto our strengths and put them to good use, when we remain true to the people we are, even as we soak up the beauty that is motherhood, then we can become the best people and mothers we can be. Teacher, writer, stay-at-home-mother, or trader, we make sure our songs are sung.

 

 

 

 

Awash in Self-Reflection

There’s something about washing dishes that makes me reevaluate my life. Every night I stand there at the sink after dinner, up to my elbows in soapsuds and greasy pots, and my mind spins and tumbles and relaxes. For some reason, I find clarity in that basin. I don’t know if it’s the running water, or the birds chirping at me from my backyard, or maybe it’s just the alone time, but I’ve achieved more serenity than you would think standing there scrubbing pots. 

 

Tonight I am awash in self-reflection. Over the past few weeks, I’ve had what can only be described as a collection of contradictions swimming inside my head, and I’m desperately trying to disentangle them one from another. Tonight my mind wanders back to a conversation I had with my three-and-a-half-year-old daughter earlier in the day. She has seen me doing a lot of writing lately, and after her nap, she comes bounding up to me and asks what my ideas are. I tell her, “I’m writing about how I want you to do anything you want to do in this world, to find something you love, work hard at it, and be unafraid to follow your dreams.” “Thank you,” is her reply, and I smile. She really means it. She knows that her mommy is her biggest supporter. When I talk to my daughter, I always know the right things to say. And I mean what I tell her. 

 

It’s really easy to be good to my kids. It’s not always so easy to be good to myself. What comes all too naturally to me is to beat myself up for this, that, or the other thing, to feel guilty for not living up to whatever impossible standards I’ve laid out for myself, and generally to sell myself short. 

 

I know with every ounce of my being that I need to make some changes in my life. Ever since I submitted my personal essay, Thank You Sheryl Sandberg, to CNN and proclaimed how happy I was being a stay-at-home mother, I have been feeling less and less happy. In truth, I’ve been feeling this way for a while now, and a combination of being unable to ignore Sheryl’s call to lean in, alongside the exhilaration I have found again in declaring myself a writer, has brought me to the realization that fulfilling my longtime dream of writing a book would bring me immense happiness.

 

But I’m finding myself stuck. I’ve written every day for the last three weeks, and while the words are flowing I feel great, until I wake up the next morning, reread what I’ve written, and deem it not smart enough, not good enough, stupid. At my weakest moments, it doesn’t matter that I feel so alive when I’m writing, that the worst thing for me to do would be to stand still and give in to the status quo of my life, because in these moments I feel vulnerable, exposed, and small. In these moments, I want to close my notebook and lay aside my pen.

 

If my daughter came to me as an adult and told me that she aches to be a writer, that she wrote a blog that made it to the front page of CNN, I’d tell her to go for it with all her might. “Go follow your dreams,” I’d say. “Move forward and don’t look back. Don’t listen to the naysayers who detract from your accomplishment, the critics who call you uninspiring and weak, and worse still, the voice in your own head that tells you you’re not good enough. Just go for it. Grab that golden ring. To do anything less would be a waste of your precious gift. It would be living a leaned back life. You’re so much better than that.” I know that’s what I would tell my daughter. So why don’t I tell this to myself? And why am I in tears as I write this? 

 

I am finally unlocking the truth. I am trying to release myself from my small life of hiding in shadows, doing as I’m told, and living in fear. I’ve had enough of living that way. I’m tired of it. And yet at the same time, I’m afraid to let it go because that is the only life I know.

 

That’s why reading Lean In has quite simply been changing my life. It has given me the courage to stare myself in the face and realize that I can do and be more. Though a modern feminist manifesto, no doubt, and one that will undeniably guide a new generation of women to leadership positions, it is also a framework for living a more engaged, confident, and fulfilling life. No one, woman or man, CEO or stay-at-home mother, should feel small, or not good enough, or think her place is at the side of the room. We all need to hold our heads high, believe in ourselves for the gifts we possess, and be kind to ourselves as we go about the messy business of achieving our dreams.

 

I’m coming to realize that beating myself up will get me nowhere. It will do nothing but hold me in the same stuck place I’ve been in for years. So I’m putting myself out there, even though it’s hard, especially because it’s hard, because I know in the end that sitting at the table will make me a happier person. Bit by bit, I’ll get there. Thank you, again, Sheryl Sandberg, for all you have done for me.

 

Thank You, Sheryl Sandberg

 

It was the other night at bedtime when my three-and-a-half year old daughter leaned in close and whispered, “Mommy, my family is my favorite.” That was the moment when the epiphany I had been waiting for all week finally came rushing over me. “My family is my favorite, too,” I whispered back as I kissed my beautiful girl on the forehead and tucked her in for the night. As I made my way downstairs and prepared for some “Me time,” the true impact of my daughter’s words and what they meant began to sink in. 

You see, I had spent the previous few days reading the endless media coverage of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and her new book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, and quite frankly, her message had been sending me into in a mild depression. Sandberg’s primary thesis, her exhortation that had been gnawing at me all week, was this: women are not nearly as represented in high power business and government jobs as they should be and a big contributing factor to this inequity, on top of gender discrimination and a culture that doesn’t support the difficult choices women must make when balancing family and career, is that too many women are choosing not to “lean in” to their professional lives. They’re not realizing their fullest potential vocationally because they are thinking too much about their responsibilities as mothers and wives at home.

As a highly educated, stay-at-home mom by choice, these words stung, their bite all the more blistering because of their truth. All I have to do is look toward my own life to see Sandberg’s point validated. Here I am, an Ivy League graduate twice over, a driven person, conscientious to a fault, one of the hardest workers I know, and yet as I write these words I have a pot of homemade chicken soup boiling on the stove and my one-year old son nursing at my breast.

Before having children, I was a dedicated and respected teacher at two different elementary schools, earning leadership positions on curriculum committees and data teams, only to leave the first school to follow my husband from New York to Pennsylvania when we got married and the second when I had my daughter almost four years ago. No one twisted my arm to leave. I made my choice and I made it firmly and eagerly. Having a family was something I had looked forward to since as long as I could remember, and though at the time I was aware that I would miss the teacher I was and the classroom I created, that I was indeed making a sacrifice to walk away (albeit temporarily) from my professional life, it really wasn’t a difficult choice. In fact, it wasn’t even a choice at all. I never looked back.

Until now. Now, I see layoffs all around me. Hiring freezes. Job losses through attrition. I can’t help but worry if there will be a job there for me when I do choose to return to the classroom. Couple that with my growing restlessness with being a stay-at-home mom and the disconcerting feeling that I have thrown myself into motherhood with such fervor that I have lost a piece of myself. And then enter Sheryl Sandberg with her message that women are holding themselves back. As I read article after article and watched news segment after news segment–some praising her, some denigrating her– I couldn’t help but grapple with who I am as a mother, wife, former career woman, and person. Did I make the right choice to put on hold my teaching career? Never for a second did I consider anything else, but why did I never even entertain other options? A job-share? Part-time paid work? Any sort of day care? Why was I so eager to relinquish such an important part of who I was?

As I racked my brain for days, this question ate away at me from the inside out until my daughter in her magical way made it all so clear. Why did I not lean in to my career when my children were born? Because I didn’t want to. Because my family is my favorite. Though it is true that I do need to work harder at achieving a balance in my life, to reclaim the part of myself that has been lost in motherhood, when I think about who I am and what I truly want, the answers are quite simple. Making homemade baby purees makes me happy. Teaching my children how to enjoy fresh, nutritious, real food makes me happy. Nursing my baby boy into his second year of life makes me happy. And I’m not afraid to say it anymore, but what would make me the happiest woman on earth right now is if my husband came home tonight and said, “Let’s have another baby.” That is who I am. It comes from somewhere very deep. And socialization and forced gender roles don’t have anything to do with it. To miss out on this time would be to miss out on some of my most fervent life’s ambitions. I could pump breast milk at work, but it doesn’t compare to holding my sweet baby in my arms and nursing him at 2:00 in the afternoon until he falls asleep. And there is nothing like curling up on the couch for some Mommy-daughter book time or listening attentively while my little girl tells me the latest bit of preschool drama. That couch and my kitchen are where I want to be right now. I’m not going to apologize for that.

Ms. Sandberg, I want to thank you for helping me redefine who I am and what is important to me. We all need these moments in our lives, and I applaud you for sparking this conversation that American women so need to have. I long for the day when our country’s leaders are half female and when the power players in boardrooms all across the United States are 50% women. I’m truly hoping that many women will heed your clarion call and lean into their professional lives. I’ll surely vote for them and cheer them on as they make their way to the top. And when the time is right, I’ll lean into my career once again, and I know I’ll do it with gusto. But right now, my family is my favorite. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

The Price Tag of Being Authentic

When I first sat down to write this blog I was more than a little bit down on being a stay-at-home mother. I was tired, and not in the sleep-deprived sense, although I’m sure the fact that I haven’t slept past 8:00 a.m. in three and a half years could possibly have something to do with my growing sense of discontent. This was a different kind of fatigue, the kind that makes you feel like you have no movement in your life, the kind that makes you feel stuck, the run-down feeling of running in place. I was getting up every morning and doing what I thought every good mother should do — revolving the entirety of my days around my children’s needs and desires. Our daily routine was monotonous, each hour unfolding rhythmically, the day punctuated by mealtimes and naps, an afternoon excursion to the grocery store or a play date or a trip to the park the high point of our day.

For a good long while, this life sustained me. I wanted so much to be a mother that when my dream finally came true not once but twice, I built a bubble of bliss around myself and my children. This is what you waited for your whole life I would tell myself. This is what you were put on this earth to do I would remind myself. And I convinced myself that I would enjoy it. Every single second of it. You see, what I erected around myself and my children was a snow globe life. Our house was a place where everything was perfect; only happiness and joy and kindness could exist there. Just like a bucolic snow globe scene has no place for dissatisfaction or loneliness or frustration, our life and my thoughts didn’t have room for them either. I had masterfully engineered a world where like the snowflakes in a snow globe, love would shower down on my children and settle comfortably at their feet. It was my mission to create a world where we would experience only health and happiness, never discomfort or pain.

It sounds silly in retrospect, but I really felt this way, and it was only when I acknowledged a growing restlessness with my life that I began to understand the truth: snow globe living is not real. The irritation, loneliness and discontentment that I wasn’t allowing myself to feel are real human emotions that we all have, that we must have if we are to live authentic lives. What I had not allowed myself before in my snow globe existence was to admit that yes, I find aspects of motherhood tedious and mind numbing. I miss working outside the home, earning money for my hard work and having some part of my life be independent of my family. I miss thinking and reading and writing, and simply interacting with adults. That’s the truth, and it is liberating to proclaim it. In allowing myself to feel the underside of being a mother, I am allowing myself to exist in the real world, one in which anger, sadness and frustration are necessary price tags for being authentic.

And so here I am devoid of my former snow globe thinking and wondering where my fresh new outlook on motherhood will take me. Now that my feet are planted firmly in reality (which ironically is snow-covered here in northeastern PA), I am hoping to use this blog to explore the ecstasy and the anguish of being a mommy. It is my ardent belief that by acknowledging and even embracing the struggles, I can revel in the joys that much more, which is why as I write this I can’t help but think back to how delicious my son’s cheek felt next to mine when I danced with him today in the living room or how I just about melted when at dinner tonight my daughter whispered into my ear, “Psst…I love you.” Wouldn’t it be something if all it took to soak up and appreciate every last morsel of our children’s wonderfulness was to come to terms with the fact that they also drive us crazy? A collection of contradictions. Looks like there’s a post for next time.