I am a working mother and I always have been. I took only six weeks off after the birth of my first daughter (thanks to no paid maternity leave) and twelve weeks off after each of the births of my other two daughters (still no paid maternity leave but we were better able to manage). As a special educator I am lucky to have July and August off from work if I so choose although most summers I work at least part-time for either summer school programs or at another, flexible, part-time job.
I work to support my family, of course. My husband and I have always agreed that we would both work hard to provide financial support for our family (it may have even been in our wedding vows). I don’t even remember ever having a conversation suggesting otherwise. I have never planned to not work (and neither has he). It’s part of who I am, I love my career, and I’m proud to successfully juggle a career and motherhood. I read other blog posts listing various challenges of working parenthood and I usually feel as if I’ve got it all handled. My family has never known any differently and I believe my kids are thriving, my home is (mostly) under control, and I give plenty of my best effort to my career.
There has been one challenge I’ve faced as a working parent, however, that has at times made me feel incredibly inadequate. As my kids have moved into and through elementary school, my “work time” has become increasingly bombarded with kid-related obligations forcing me to get…creative…with my allotted time off from work. Winter festivals, band concerts, student council speeches, parent participation days, early dismissal days, late arrival days, no school days—the amount of time when either my children want me to attend a school event or they need actual care has become increasingly difficult to manage. There are times, therefore, when I must do the hardest thing a working mother does. I need to tell one of my children that I simply cannot be there for her. Nothing is harder than telling your child that her mother, the person who she can count on most, has to choose work over her.
Recently my children’s school did not send home prior written notice of an upcoming event. Two working days before the event I finally received a notice. Without thinking of who was within ear shot I expressed my frustration and verbally went through my week to determine if I could possibly even get there. I think I said, “There is no way I can ask for the afternoon off this close to the event!” I then noticed my oldest daughter standing in the room and saw the look of utter sadness on her face. My daughters have always understood what it meant to have a working mother. They have never volunteered me as a field trip chaperone and they have never expressed sadness that I wasn’t frequently at their school volunteering to help with a project or event. They expect me, however, to figure out how to attend the events that are most important to them. When I have to tell them that I have to miss one it crushes us all. When I have to miss something because I wasn’t given enough notice…well…I think the unnecessary stress some people and organizations put on working parents could be a topic for another post (perhaps when I’m not so angry).
I usually shrug off the idea of “working mother guilt” because I refuse to feel guilty about something that I believe benefits my family. The commitment I give to my career and to my financial independence is an excellent model for my daughters to see as they become adults in a world where women continue to struggle for equal opportunities and rights. My children are confident, independent, and hard working and I like to contribute some of that to spending most of their days away from me, learning to cope and solve problems without me. My refusal to feel guilty can waver just a bit, however, when I need to choose work over them. I usually turn this guilt into anger and my husband likes to tell people, “Don’t EVER mess with a working mother!” because (and he knows first hand) I’m not a pleasant person when I’m feeling guilty.
So, did I figure out how to get to this recent event? Yes, I did. Can I figure it out every time? No, it simply isn’t possible. Will it always be the hardest choice I have to make? You bet.