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.