Dear Chana Joffe-Walt,
Ira Glass was right. You did pick the very worst person to ask, but not for the reason he cites. In the March 25 episode of This American Life, “It’ll Make Sense When You’re Older,” you decided to talk to someone further down the path about the nagging question you have as a thirty-something woman: Would you regret the things you chose to do or not do when your kids were grown and your parents were no longer around? It’s a good question.
The problem is that you asked someone further down your career path, and this isn’t a career question. This is a mommy question (as evidenced by the story told in connection with the question about your babysitter helping your 4-year-old son write a note asking you not to leave again). A fifty-something man who doesn’t have kids will not be able to answer it. Actually, a fifty-something man who does have kids probably won’t give you the most satisfying answer either. This, I think, is a question to pose to an older sister (which I did).
Actually, I asked all three of my sisters and my mom. And their friends. And mine. And my older brother and brother-in-law for good measure. As I suspected, this wasn’t a question the guys agonized over. The women were almost all sympathetic, more so the older they were. They all juggled the demands of family, work, and community in different ways, but it was always a feat of logistics with varying levels of regret (yes, even those who said they have no regrets unconsciously qualified that at one point or another).
The overwhelming message was that we need to recognize that we are all just doing our best, but the difference between the thirty-something struggle and fifty-something hindsight is illustrated in the contrast between the woman whose phone number I should include with this letter and the woman who made me hyperventilate about working (and I’m a single mom with no choice but to work).
Going into this, I thought the generational divide would be a defining factor, that women in my mother’s era would be less sympathetic to the struggles of a working mom simply because that was a less accepted practice in their generation. Granted, my sample was limited in general and especially limited in the younger moms demographic, but I was still surprised. Maybe I shouldn’t have been. I’ve read enough of those “Dear mom who …” blog posts to know how hard on each other young moms can be. Perhaps it is hard to muster up sympathy for other people’s choices while in the thick of choosing for yourself (with all of the self-questioning and defensiveness that is native to difficult decisions without a clear-cut answer).
I remember being a new mom at the age of 29 and finding that every decision I made (from diapers to feeding to napping) was opposed and supported with equal vehemence. There was no middle ground in these discussions and the stakes were ridiculously high, but everyone talked as if the choices were no-brainers (reacting to opposing viewpoints as if you had said “Actually, I’d like to look more closely into the merits of dangling my infant over the side of the balcony”). So perhaps I should not have been surprised that the younger mom examined your question from the viewpoint of the choices she had made for herself (to be a full time stay-at-home mom) while the woman with grown kids examined the question from a more emotionally pragmatic point of view.
For example, the younger mom questioned the reasons for working (financial need? personal fulfillment?) while the older mom didn’t spend nearly as much time on the decision-making process (other than to note that people should make the best choice they can make with the information they have and then not spend any time on regret). Her response to the whole idea was, instead, “Mommy guilt? I just don’t buy into it. I just don’t. Throw it out the window.”
That’s the struggle, though. As ardent as people are about the maps they have created, motherhood is still uncharted territory, and as my younger sister tells me, any path you take contains the opportunity for regret. I’m regularly given a pass by people who advocate strongly for being a stay-at-home mom because I am my little family’s sole breadwinner, but their fierce advocacy can sometimes make me hyperventilate. This is not just because I would love to quit my full-time job and mourn the circumstances that make that impossible. It’s also because some arguments make you feel like any time you spend away from your role as a mother is stealing from your child, and even if I wasn’t the sole breadwinner for my family I wouldn’t want to quit my writing career (which also takes me away from my kids regularly).
Both choices, though, (not quitting my full-time job and not quitting writing) are solid choices that make me a better mother — the one by keeping me (and them) physically alive and the other by keeping me (and them) emotionally and intellectually alive. And yet I still question my choices on a regular basis.
After telling me to throw the mommy guilt out the window, the older mom told me to point out the advantages of going to work: “Sell it to the kids like you’re a used car salesman! And sell it to yourself too!” But you’re not selling yourself a used car. You’re selling yourself on the idea that you make good choices, that you can look at all of the pieces and fit them together (even when it doesn’t look exactly like your neighbor’s puzzle). That’s something we recognize about ourselves in so many other arenas, but for some reason it’s harder to recognize in this arena.
In my community, I wonder if that’s because of the strong cultural and religious leanings towards a specific lifestyle choice and the fact that the public perception doesn’t match reality. Being a great stay-at-home mom does not mean you don’t ever do anything that takes you away from your kids. Working outside of the home does not mean you are always (or even mostly) not there for your kids (in fact, there are so many versions of “working outside of the home” now that applying assumptions about availability as a block is somewhat meaningless).
So I’m not sure that anyone who is not you could truly answer your question. The simplicity of the question belies the complexity of the answer. I keep coming back to the sentiment that every single mom over fifty expressed: Make the best choices you can and then cut yourself some slack. Trust yourself. And recognize that this will all make more sense when you’re older.
Also, all of the moms would like to encourage babysitters not to facilitate notes that amplify mommy guilt. Not cool, Babysitter. Not cool.