She followed me out to the garage, my second shadow.
I walked fast, frantic, loading up the car for the next day’s trip to Dallas. No matter how quickly I moved my seven-year-old stayed only steps behind. By some miracle, I stopped moving long enough to look at her. That’s when I saw the pools collecting beneath her big round eyes.
“What’s up, little girl? Everything okay?”
The pools spilled.
This wasn’t her typical drama-making cry fest. This was the real deal. But I didn’t know the “why.” Until she gathered words enough to tell me the truth.
“I’m going to miss you when you go,” she whimpered. Then came the shaking shoulders and a full-out sob.
For the love of all mother-guilt, now I understood. It’s not that she’s unaccustomed to my occasional work-related trips. Travel has always been a small part of my calling. Not often, and not for long. But a handful of times every year, I’m gone for two or three days.
But we’d just come off a long stretch of days where we’d spent lots of time together. Playing games. Reading books. Going out for ice cream. Watching movies. And as she watched me hustle to fill a suitcase, she knew playtime was coming to an end. For now.
I held her as she cried, allowed her sadness to soak me through. As I did, the all-too-familiar questions twisted my insides:
What am I doing? Does a good mom work while raising her kids?
Maybe I should quit my job.
What if all this book-writing and public speaking is ruining their childhood?
Will they grow up to be bank robbers and murderers and horrible husbands and fathers and wretched wives and mothers because I put them in daycare?
Will I grow up to be a bank robber and murderer if I don’t?!?!
Good heavens, the safety of the universes hinges on me! Somebody tell me—what should I do?!?!
These are my questions, the ones I wrestle to death in my sweaty little palms every week. Sometimes every day. Right now, as I exit a long two-year stretch of health challenges, I wrestle with the angst even more. So much is at stake, and at times it feels as if this big weight rests on too-small me. I desperately want to do the right thing, but I don’t always know what “right” is.
I don’t have any black-and-white answers yet, nor do I have a fail-proof plan or formula to resolve the constant tension between our callings—to both our families and our work. But after nearly two decades of mothering, I have come to a few simple conclusions about this nagging conundrum:
- Motherhood isn’t one-size-fits-all. In my two decades of parenting, I’ve been a full-time stay-at-home mom, a forty-hour-a-week corporate-cubicle-working mom, a part-time piano-teaching mom, and an entrepreneurial home-office mom. Different seasons required different types of mothering. Different children required different types of mothering. I enjoyed each season, and learned lessons in each new adventure. And I can honestly say my children (and I) both struggled and succeeded during EVERY season. No one approach held the golden ticket to the perfect family. ASK YOURSELF: What’s truly driving my decision? Guilt? A desire for perfect children? A drive to be the perfect mom? A desperation for significance? A need for prove my worth? None of these are worthy motivations.
- Mothering must change according to the needs of the family. Notice that I said the needs of the “family” and not just the needs of the “children.” I know this will go against our child-centric culture, but we aren’t doing our children any favors my making them the constant center of the universe. Yes, they matter. Yes, they are priority. And yes, they deserve our tender and thoughtful investment. But our sons and daughters do not sit on thrones. They are members of a bigger family. Troy and I constantly assess the needs of our family. Sometimes, we need to pay our bills. That requires work. Other times, we need to pull back, spend more time at home. For us, that’s the beauty of self-employment. We adjust as needed. ASK YOURSELF: What are our family’s 3 greatest needs right now, in order of importance? How can we best meet them, as a team?
- A mom’s calling or career doesn’t wound a child. But a mom who doesn’t know how to manage it might. It usually isn’t the job itself that interferes with parenting or family time. It’s an individual’s inability to shut it down. To be honest, this is my biggest struggle. I can be “present but not present” too easily, my mind distracted with the hundreds of to-dos still to be done. But that has been true during my stay-at-home years as much as my working years. The problem isn’t my calling, it’s my priorities and ability to manage them. The aim is to honor one without dishonoring the other. ASK YOURSELF: Am I making the most of my current at-home moments with my loved ones? Working less doesn’t automatically mean being present more.
- The mothering journey allows for changes in direction. Read that again. Go ahead, it’s okay. Do you understand what this means? You can make a course correction. Yep, you sure can. I’ve had seasons when I traveled far too much. It only took a couple months to recognize a need for change. I cut back, said “no” more than I said “yes.” Other times, I knew I’d become near co-dependent with my children. They needed space to grow and thrive in their independence, as did I. So I reconnected with the Lover of my Soul, rediscovered His unique calling on my life. ASK YOURSELF: What isn’t working right now? Do we need a course correction?
How have YOU navigated the tension between career, calling and family?
This is excellent Michele and I could not agree more when it comes to catering to kids and making them the center of the universe. I also totally relate to being “present” but not “present”. I am going to link to this post in my next post. It goes right along with my next topic.
Coming from the other side of this time of life…(three children, now all adults and on their own), I remember this tension. I didn’t work at all while raising the first two. I couldn’t…I was suffering serious emotional problems at the time. Do you think my unhappiness didn’t affect them? I thank God they are both wonderful, loving people. Then, when my third was four-years-old, I was forced into single motherhood and daycare became his world during my forty hour workweeks. I was careful about where that daycare was, and the people involved in his care, but when we were together? Boy…did we have fun! We both still talk of the memories of that time. And I couldn’t be more proud of the man he has become. I’ve met adults who had stay-at-home moms and adults whose parents both worked…and I think research also backs this up (much to the chagrin of a lot of people). It’s not how much time you spend with your kids, it’s the quality of the time that matters most. Great post, Michele. And I think of you as one of the best moms ever.
This is one of my favorite soap box topics because I see the stress we as a culture put on ourselves. I even have issues with the many ‘labels’ we give ourselves. I’m a ‘working mom’ as if those who are not employed are “not working”. Or I’m a ‘full-time mom’ as if you stop being a mom when you’re at the office. Or a “stay at home” mom, as if they don’t go to the park, or the library or swimming lessons with their littles, or the homeschooling co-op.
I have also struggled with mommy guilt when I’m away at a conference and enjoying a beautiful hotel room to myself knowing that my kids are eating mac and cheese for every meal. Or when my son was in preschool and said “Can you work really fast today so you can get me before lunch? I don’t want to be in the mean teacher’s room this afternoon”.
My career has changed over the years and I’ve had the opportunity to work part-time from home, full-time at an office and a combination of both. My children have been with me full time, with a sitter, at a daycare center and a before/after school program. As exhausting as it is sometimes, I see beautiful, smart, happy children. They know we love them and they also know that our universe does not revolve around them. It’s a work in progress, but we’re making some good choices. Our life is far from perfect, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
I’ve been a working mom since my 2 boys were born and they are now 17 and 20. I was thankful I was able to take 3 years off when my youngest was born. I felt so much guilt when I desired to go back to work at his ripe age of 3. Instead of going back into teaching I chose real estate thinking I’d set my own schedule. Instead my boys grew up with me on the phone in the car, putting deals together while camping in a tent (not kidding), working weekends and nights and begging me to not take my phone on our trip to Disney. Through it all I struggled with the balancing act but knew it was good for me and my personality to have a career. I agree that being “present” and interested in your child’s life is not just about being around them. It was very hard at times (done poorly many times) to shut down work and join the family mentally. But my boys will tell you I rarely missed a sporting event (and they were in a lot). I may have come late or left a little early but I always cheered them on in sports, school, or just becoming young men. My husband and I made a lot of mistakes along the way but just remained tightly connected as a married couple, were as consistent as possible in our discipline and rotines, pointed them to their Heavenly Father, and prayed prayed prayed. They are in God’s care and I’ve just been entrusted to love them and raise them up!
Good heavens, I love this. In the faith community, we need to have more discussions like this. When my eldest was born close to 14 years ago, my mom passed on some bleak wisdom “When you’re at home, you’ll want to be at work. When you’re at work, you’ll want to be at home.” While it was semi-depressing as I held my newborn close I am SO glad she spoke truth. I would have felt like an alien or that I was a dysfunctional mother when those feelings crept in close. I too have been a full-time SAHM, a grad student mom, a Teaching Assistant mom, a part time church staff mom (which HA there is no such things as part time church staff), and then a WAHM who writes/speaks. I’ve embraced each season with its difficulties and beauty but can still find myself questioning my choices. Motherhood requires humble warriors.
Thank you Michelle for sharing your wisdom about work life balance. I couldn’t agree more with your assessment. I just wanted to add something that I have had difficulty learning as I balanced a career with motherhood. We are no good to our families if we don’t take care of ourselves. This, for some moms, means validating the importance of our own self fulfillment. I worked as a Director of Administration for national and international law firms for 27 years. This involved long work days including commuting to downtown Los Angeles from suburbia an hour away. It meant short business trips every quarter, at times weekly turnaround trips to San Francisco when I managed an office there as well. Due to illness when I first adopted my daughter, now 14, I was able to stay home with her until she was 13 months old. I quickly learned I was not fit to be a stay at home mom. I missed adult conversation and stimulation. I was not happy and I was surprised because I had always hoped I could afford to stay home with her and now I realized I didn’t want to. I had to deal with the disapproval of the stay at home moms at the PTA as I turned down being as involved in the classroom as they could be, but I never missed the important plays, Mothers Day teas, etc.
Now, my daughter is 14 and again, due to MS, I have retired to permanent disability and have been a stay at home mom for about 6 months now. I realize the beauty in God’s plan as I see that she needs me more in her life now as a teenager than she did as a toddler.
All this to say, it is ok to for moms to be selfish because our happiness sets the tone for the household. Of course, you are correct in stating the key is handling the career appropriately and turning it off at home, but I think we teach our children more about life and it’s realities and teach them the skills to balance it all, by being true to ourselves. In being selfish or true to ourselves, I feel we are giving them our best.
This is so helpful Michele! It is very difficult to balance being a working mom and spending time with my son. I have trouble turning off work as well. Thanks for writing this insightful article.
This type of second-guessing your calling, worth, and priorities also occurs within a marriage. I guess it’s true of any significant relationship in which togetherness is necessary. It’s always a tension and a balancing act. Thanks, Michele, for a steady hand to hold while walking the tightrope.
I find it inspiring that you do so much Michelle. I pray that we mom’s all find the right calibration, and the ability to readjust it, for the changing terrains and adventures of our life.