Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Mommy Track

Work and Motherhood should be synonymous, but for some odd reason they are not.  When talking about outside paid employment, motherhood is viewed as sort of a detour on the road to career advancement - a maternity leave during which you bond with your baby then promptly enroll them in daycare and mother them on nights and weekends.  Well that is the way it used to be thought of anyway.

It's so rare to find a stay at home mom these days.  They are going extinct at a rapid rate.  Society tells us that we simply cannot afford to care for our children "full-time" and besides women are independent and career oriented and should want to reach for the brass ring with the same zeal as our husbands.  But what happens when you trade in the brass ring, for dare I say it, a teething ring?

When I was pregnant with my daughter I expected to return to work full-time and enroll her in daycare, as most moms now do.  I was totally fine as long as I operated under the assumption that I simply had no other choice in the matter.  I was fine with my assumption oh until about three days after my daughter was born.  I called my grandmother to tell her the good news and she asked me if I was going to return to work. When I said yes, she asked me, "but why you wanted that baby so much?"  That is one of the few moments I can point to in my life and say see this is where it all changed.  She wasn't saying it to be mean or criticize my choice, she simply saw choices that I did not.

She was an immigrant to this country from war-torn Germany.  She raised three kids alone for the better part of their childhood.  She worked damn hard on farms, in factories, and for wages that may have made my first job after college look like I had made it to "the good life."  Work was life for my grandmother.  Motherhood was life too and the two things were not in fact separate ideas.  I did a paper for college about her work history and in every answer to my questions about work, she infused paid work with family work.  Without knowing it, she was saying that for women, the realm of work is not one thing, paid employment or work in the home, it's both simultaneously.

So after crying for weeks about a question I hadn't expected to shake me to my core, I started thinking about what would really make me happy.  I talked with my husband, then my mom, then finally my boss.  I did something up until this very moment in my life I found so very daunting, I asked for what I needed to make me happy.  I wanted to work part-time so I could spend time with my child and still contribute financially to my household.  I arranged with my boss to turn my full-time job into a job-share so that I could work part-time.  My mom agreed to watch my child (and later my two children) while I was at work.  And as a happy consequence I made a great friend in the co-worker and mother who was able to work the other part of my job. 

I was lucky that it worked out.  I have been happy and now all my stitching of my ideal life is starting to slowly unravel one stitch at a time.  All the knots that hold together my work/motherhood life are coming undone. 

My job is undergoing a major transition and there is a possibility I could be laid off.  My mother broke her foot and is in the hospital and afterwards will need months of rehabilitation and help herself.  It's like I'm back to that very moment when my grandmother questioned what I was going to do about work and motherhood.  The difference is, she recently passed away and she can not ask, so I guess I have to ask myself again - What's it going to take to make me happy?

I look for jobs online that require me to work full-time.  I think of how much more we would struggle if I stayed at home.  I look at my children and think of what it took to bring them into this world.  I know now, thanks to my grandmother, that I do in fact have choices, but she never said they would be easy ones to make.  I can think of just one thing that would make me happy.  Just one.  Again it hinges on the cooperation of others, it hinges on timing, it hinges on a future that I can not see or touch in this moment in time and like anyone else would be, I'm scared.  So I cling to today.  I take help when it is offered and say thank you instead of struggling in silence.  I try to think of getting through today and tomorrow and try not to assume anything more about the future than that. 

There is an old saying that if you have a job or a career and choose any other path besides full-time employment or choose to leave at the end of the day instead of living for your job, you are in fact on the "mommy track."  It's a term that was meant to put down women who choose to stand up and say that my family is just as important as my job.  I even had a professor in college who tried to discourage me when I told him I didn't plan to go on to grad school by saying, "What are you going to do then, stay home and have babies?" 

I was in my early twenties and didn't have a voice then.  But I do now.  I'm proud to be on the "mommy track."  Not everyone gets the privilege to be a mother.  But I will be blessed the rest of my life.  So while others are pushing their career up the track of success one piece of paper and project at a time, I take the track that meanders, that takes the short hill instead of the mountain.  I enjoy the view of my life as it sprawls out before me.  I know how this goes; this track is just a different segment of the same roller coaster. The difference is, I fill my car with my family and my hopes for them, not just myself.  It goes slower because there is more to pull.  It takes the hill over the mountain because what is an exhilarating rush of adrenaline to some, to others is just a rush of fear.  I don't know what's going to happen next any more than the next person, but I know one thing that perhaps others may not.  I choose to define success on my terms and I know I have more power than even I realize.  I can only hope that other women know that too.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

You're Hot Then You're Cold

I'm not sure Katie Perry had a toddler in mind when she sang "You're Hot Then You're Cold.  You're Yes then You're No" but it most certainly fits Toddlerhood to a T.  Some days I catch small glimpses of the sweet baby girl I remember.  When she looks deep into my eyes and says, "Mommy you have Hannahs in your eyes."   When the I love yous and hugs come without provocation or the desire to help mommy with household chores because she wants to be like me, those are the moments I try to hold onto when the screaming, demanding, frustrating little DIVA emerges ready to push her baby brother, tattle on whatever parent yelled at her to stop throwing things in the house for the thousandth time, or stomp her feet to prove her stubborness.

I can't help but look at her during these tantrums and think "Who Are You?"  She bursts into tears the second she hears "no" and it's hard to hold onto my resolve when she's crying  repeating "I'm sorry mommy" from the timeout spot, but when it gets tough I try to remember that she doesn't really have the verbal skills to explain what she thinks or feels all the time.  She doesn't really know why she breaks a rule and when I ask her if she knows why she was in timeout she only reiterates that "mommy put me in time out."  As someone who prides herself on her passion for words, I can only imagine how frustrating that must be.

So Who are you little Hannah?  You are EXACTLY my daughter that's who.  I know to some I may look like I run hot and cold too.  My emotions red and raw on my sleeve at times, even I can't find the words when I need them the most.  I think the hardest part of toddlerhood is not knowing whether its discipline or understanding they need at any given moment.  During the same day I find myself on the verge of a very real tantrum of my own because every small request of my 3 year old is met with the resistance of an army.  Then later that day I find myself snuggling with her, smelling her hair and praying that it is my love she will remember, not this nagging, complaining mom I am twisted into sometimes. 

I have no idea if I'm in for more of the same when my son hits this age, but I will probably be better at weathering the storm by then.  I feel a little sorry for her.  Because she came first, she has all the trial and error of my new parenting skills bestowed upon her.  I'm hoping that one day I will wake up at the end of this phase of her life when the sweet rainbow disposition I feel in love with in babyhood is the only remaining proof of these stormy terrible 3s.  As long as I don't sleep too long and end up in the teen years, where I'm sure we'll be revisiting "the hot and the cold the yes and the no."

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Keeper of Childhood

Many things come to mind when I think about my childhood, but there is one person that actually holds all these memories in the pockets of her gardening frock - my grandmother.  While searching through my old writing samples from college one thing became evident to me - my granmother and her house hold the key to my childhood.  Perhaps because it was the only lock that never EVER changed.

I remember nearly all the details of my grandmother's house, including the secret hiding spot in the yard.  My grandmother's face, her thick German accent, her ever present love is what created "childhood" for me.  Her life was hard, but she was soft and kind.  She survived World War II in Germany with no food, no permanent home and a toddler and an infant and she did it alone.  I cannot imagine surviving in the face of these daunting obstacles.  Her strenghth is astounding to me.

Last week, I came face to face with the end of my childhood.  I flew down to South Carolina to say goodbye to my dying grandmother.  It's hard to look at what life has left her with, stripped of her autonomy, mobility, and her health, but then I looked closer.  When she was awake, she was alert and funny and brave.  She was not lost; childhood was not lost.  I spoke to her yesterday and she seems to be rallying.  Her voice sounded full of life again.  She tells me not to be sad or fearful of death because there is just no sense in getting upset about the natural progression of life.  I truly don't think she has a single regret about her life.  It's really not hard to admire someone like that.

The person who gave me the freedom to love and hope, dream and also fail - that is my grandmother.  That is my childhood wrapped in that warm and somewhat shy smile.  I'm not sure at any moment whether there will be a next time to say goodbye, but now I will try to hold onto her wisdom when the time comes.  I will not lose her just as my childhood cannot be lost because it existed.   I am the person I am because of her.  I will always be hiding in the fort in the front yard, watching her weed her garden, drinking deep the smells of her kitchen.  I will always remain a version of my past the same way I, as her granddaughter, will live as the continuation of her life.  I am damn priviledged to carry her blood in my veins.

So here's to grandparents, who hold childhood in constant freeze frame and remind us that while life keeps ushering us forward, it is truly a gift to remember where we all started.