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Are you my motherhood?

Working—and not working—with baby taught me that I could not have it all, and that I didn’t want it all, either.

Illustration by Matt Mignanelli

I am a stay-at-home mom, which is a role I stumbled into while shrinking away from the alternative. Working is something I know a lot of moms do. What I don’t know is whether I can risk doing it, if I can ever trust myself to try it again.

At six months pregnant with my firstborn, I was hired as a freelance copyeditor for The Atlantic, my dream publication (if not my dream job, then definitely the only way I was ever going to get my foot in the door). Quoted verbiage from an actual email I wrote to The Atlantic: “As for time off with the baby, don’t worry—give me a week and I can have everything under control!”

Then, giddy with the shadow dance of my self-delusions, I applied to edit a 500-page book, something I had never done before. I was awarded the book job, which is like saying I was awarded something terrible, like trying to give birth to a 10-pound baby while racing to finalize edits on a book from the hospital bed.

I finished the book, then spent the months after my son was born doing all the usual exhausting newborn stuff, while also wading through a slush of low-paying freelance gigs. Then I called it. Mostly, I called it. I hung on to a few jobs that expected small, infrequent amounts of work, but had to part ways with The Atlantic. Still, as miserable as I was walking away from that publication, it made me more miserable to feel like my computer screen’s power over me was greater than that of my baby, who I could hear playing with the sitter in the kitchen. My son was only separated from me by a staircase, but he felt much further away. Worse still, I was the one who had installed the barricade between us.

I had loved our sitter, till I started hating our sitter. “Who does she think she is,” I thought, stewing over my desk, “enjoying her job?” I began thinking of her as horning in on what should have been my time with my son. He was never going to be 4 months old again. I was entitled to the whole month. I was greedy for it, and I was taking it back.

I did get it back—along with my husband, but somebody had to keep working, so mostly just me. I got back all the baby squeals, and the first bites of puree. I got back tummy time, and the crying that comes with it. I got all the crying that comes with baby’s first ear infection, and his second, and his third/fourth (that was a double). My son got a lot of ear infections—a constant string of them, actually, for four-and-a-half years. I got all of the urgent care runs, every last one of his teeth, and all of the week he spiked a fever of 104.

I got all of the tedium, whose heaviness, for a new mother with some geography between her and her family, cannot be overstated. I whined to my husband and couldn’t stand my own whining. I tried not to, but always mentally noted what time he left for work, and if it was earlier than his usual time, and when he came home, and if it was later. I noted those times with precision.

I missed the sitter. I longed for my time spent in front of the computer, and lunged for my phone at the sound of any new email or text.

Then a job came up and, to my own surprise, I didn’t take it. It was bad timing: Coming off a week of sleep regression, plus yet another round of antibiotics, any more responsibility seemed like too much more. But then it happened a second time. More than passing me by, it felt as though the jobs were passing me through, like shudders, or the wave of a strong memory. It hurt, but not as much as I thought it would. It was all right to stand back, to watch my scales tip more and more heavily toward home life. An exact balance wasn’t the right one for us, after all.

What I took from my time as a working mother came with me when I started staying full time, as it were, at home. I learned this: There is no perfect equation. You cannot have it all. You must choose to be in one place, any given moment, and here’s another thing I still have to remind myself: I had to do that before I had kids, too. Every mother is scrambling for purchase in her own work-life balance, but more than that, it’s not just moms, everyone is—if we’re lucky enough to possess both sides of the coin.

This post was originally published in our August 2019 issue. For more family stories, subscribe to our weekly newsletter.

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