Tuesday, October 23, 2012

2029 or bust

Sometimes, I get myself caught in some pretty unhelpful thinking. I will fantasize, "Oh, when the dude is three (or four, or five...), life will be easier..." or "When little miss turns one (or two, or goes to preschool, etc) life will be easier." And though it's true, life with young kids has slowly gotten easier in some ways this past year, there are always new challenges around the corner. Adventures in parenting (c.f., Elizabeth Shue, “Adventures in Babysitting”), as my husband likes to say.

Yesterday, I met with a senior faculty member whom I would call a life mentor.  Her kids are in their 20s, and she has a full, mature, and still growing career. We were talking about the differences between mothering and fathering, and the ever-present challenges of parenting. She said to me, "you know, my daughter is 24, but I still wonder to myself, ‘should I have breastfed Zoe longer than I did?’” We laughed, but I got her point: you do the best you can as a mother, and yet there may always be lingering questions about if you did the "right" thing, even decades later.

I understand when Michelle Obama commented recently that her most important role is “Mom-in-Chief.” At the same time, I know that for me personally, maintaining my career identity, though not always easily done, has been a bit of an oasis of sanity in a sea of poopy diapers. It has been reassuring to know for instance, like yesterday when my son melted down over a pretzel after preschool, I can put him down for his nap, change into my work clothes, say bye to our nanny, go into to my office, and focus on my own thing for a while.  To see a project published, to teach students, to present my research findings, to care for patients: it’s been a satisfying parallel to watching my kids grow these past few years.

But when push comes to shove, family trumps work, every time. I’ll cancel that day at work at the drop of a hat if the kids need me.  I've kept a part-time, flexible schedule on purpose.  Still, it's not perfect. I recently received some anonymous feedback from trainees I’ve worked with: one commented that I wasn’t available enough because I work part-time.  The irony: I hand out my personal cell phone number to those I work with and ask them to call me anytime, no question too small.  If I cancel a meeting, I make it up, either in person or on the phone.  And incidentally, if the person giving this feedback is who I think it might be, it’s even more ironic: they shared with me recently they are trying to start a family, and we actually talked for a while about “balancing” work and family (balancing? Try juggling...swords and fire sticks), dealing with that messy imperfection that we call life.   

I found myself sighing and thinking, "well, one day you may understand."  And it is indeed a larger life perspective I've come to, realizing that there are tough choices we each have to make for ourselves, every single day.  And ultimately, that person will have to find their own path, just as I've endeavored to find mine. Recently, I have come to the realization that I want to be involved in a particular way for my kids as they grow up.  It's not simply a matter of working less now and going back full-time when they are older and in elementary school. I’d like to be there for school drop-off and pick-ups, at their after-school activities, and on their school trips.  By not committing myself full-time to my career, I am choosing a very different path than I did as a young woman in my 20s.  I imagine that by the time the kids are in school, I'll work 9-3 most days, which would still put me in the "part-time" category.

Part-time, however, does not mean part-commitment, to either my kids or to my work.  Maybe someday I’ll go back to those 8-6 hours I kept before the dude was born, maybe after we send little miss off to college...so what will that be, 2029?  But there's that illogical thinking rearing its head again. There’s  no use in planning that far ahead.  Life has its unexpected twists and turns, and these days I am more realistic, content to navigate life as it unfolds in front of me, one day at time.

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