I am catching up on my stack of newspapers that piled up while we were on holidays. There was a super essay published last month in the New York Times by Lisen Stromberg called The Not-So-New-Mother: Finding Balance.
I so appreciate any writing about women’s work that isn’t black and white. The black being: Go back to work! Don’t lose your career! And the white being: Stay at home with your kids! Look after your house!
Life instead presents us with infinite shades of murky grey.
Lisen Stromberg shares her experience struggling with the paid work question when she had children.
But I was paralyzed, unable to find clarity on what was right for me.
This is the way it is for most of us. We struggle with our decisions, no matter what they are, but hopefully find peace with them. Or if we don’t, we creatively adjust our working arrangements.
When I meet a mom, I am careful to ask, not ‘do you work?’ but ‘do you work outside the home?’ I firmly believe that if you are at home, you still work. It is just not paid. So I’ve always used the terminology: paid work and unpaid work. This is to value all types of work, whether it is paid or not. Paid work is self-explanatory, but can include regular full-time, part-time, casual, or irregular contract work. Unpaid work includes caregiving of all types (children and other loved ones), volunteer work, and work tending to the home.
Let us consider our own journeys navigating work after we have had children. The results may be interesting, and not as linear as we might think. Yes, there are some women who go back to their full-time position after maternity leave, and others who purely are at home full-time with their children. But there’s a lot in between.
Here’s what my Mom Resume looks like:
1993 – Kid #1 is born. Take 6 months’ maternity, but then quit to stay at home full-time.
1995 – Old boss calls me up and says, “are you ready to go back to work?” Husband and I switch – he stays home, I go back to work full-time for a year and a half.
1996 – I get pregnant with kid #2. Husband’s search for work necessitates a move two provinces away. We move there for his job, and I stay at home for the next 4.5 years. Unpaid work includes: being involved with a national group called ‘Feminist Mothers at Home’, building a new community of support in a city where we know nobody, volunteering at school, and becoming a volunteer La Leche Leader.
2000 – Marriage #1 breaks up. I have no paid job. I slowly start freelance writing, but $25 per book review for our local paper is not paying my bills. I take in children for before and after school care in my home to cover my mortgage.
2001 – I move to Norway with my children to live with a family and their three children. I look after all five kids during the day, and then have the evenings free to write.
2002 – I move back to Canada with my kids, but arrive in the city where their dad has moved where I again have no paid job and no place to live.
2002 – Despite being out of the paid workforce for 6 years, I have kept in touch with paid work contacts, and have volunteer work in my arsenal. The Job Gods shine down on me, and I secure a full time, well paying government contract. My kids are now in kindergarten and grade 3. They go to pre and after-school daycare in their school.
2003 – Marriage #2. I am pregnant with Kid #3, take an early maternity leave, but still plan to return to my full-time job. During that time, I decide to pursue more freelance writing, mostly in the world of food. I also start up a food blog. I get regular writing gigs with a food magazine.
Kid #3 is born, and surprise, he has Down syndrome! The time after his diagnosis is a blur of grief, looking after a newborn who won’t eat, attending tons of medical and therapy appointments, tending to his four young siblings, generally freaking out and having to make a decision about my job. I decide not to return full-time to the paid position.
2003 – 2012 – Over the next 11 years, I start up a mom’s group for moms who have babies with Down syndrome. I co-found and coordinate a formal peer support program with our local support society for 9 years. I present to health professionals about the value of peer support. I start becoming involved with the patient and family centred care movement – first as a volunteer on a Family Advisory Committee and then in a paid, part-time/contract/work at home position as a Family Centred Care Consultant. I volunteer a lot when Kid #3 starts school. I am on the Board of our support society. I go to Down syndrome conferences, and present at international conferences about peer support. I continue to write for food magazines, and then move into health writing. I get a paid gig writing proactive health stories for our health authority. I have other writing clients on the side. I start writing and presenting more about patient centred care, and even travel to Australia for a speaking gig.
All this is a jumble of paid and unpaid work. I never make a full time wage, and have the good fortune to have a financially and emotionally supportive husband. We engage all sorts of pieced together, part-time childcare for Kid #3 – university students, older siblings, moms from his school, & a part-time twice weekly nanny. Somehow it all works.
2012-present – My freelance writing business blossoms into a network of 13 communication folks. I go to school to get a post-grad Professional Communication Management certificate. I’ve never had an office all these years – working instead in my kitchen, in coffee shops, and now in an office in my home. Kid #1 has long graduated high school. Kid #2 has just graduated, and is working in her gap year. Kid #3 is now 11, and heading into Grade 6. We take the majority of the summer off to be with him and fill in with summer camps and babysitters in between. Every year I have summer work/childcare anxiety, and every year it has somehow works out.
2014 – My nest is emptying out and my identity is currently a work in progress.
Writing this Mom Resume has been an interesting exercise. If you had asked me before about working and being a mom, I would have said, well, I’ve mostly been at home with my kids, and I did some freelancing on the side. But you can see that my journey has been more complex and twisty than that. I bet yours has too.
Lisen’s first child is the same age as my second child – they both have graduated from high school. As she reflects with her ‘not-so-new-mother’ friends who have children of the same age, she realizes that there they have all taken unique paths in their previous 18 years of motherhood.
You can be a mother and still rise to the top of your industry, and you can take time out to focus on family and still migrate back into rewarding, paid work.
I challenge you to sit down and write out your Mom Resume since you had children. I bet you will be both impressed and surprised at your inventory of work. And no matter what work you’ve done paid/unpaid, you have also raised the next generation of human beings – and that’s a pretty significant job, don’t you think?