Blog #17: Reprieve

One isn’t born with courage. One develops it by doing small courageous things—in the way that if one sets out to pick up a 100-pound bag of rice, one would be advised to start with a five-pound bag, then ten pounds, then twenty pounds, and so forth, until one builds up enough muscle to lift the 100-pound bag. It’s the same way with courage. You do small courageous things that require some mental and spiritual exertion. 

-Maya Angelou

A Monday night in May, I received an email from a colleague: it criticized my choice to utilize a Leave of Absence in order to be at home full time as a parent. I had a nine year old, a seven year old, and a newborn. I relished this time – to parent fully, without distraction – and I had begun to describe my experience in a blog. My days at home felt important. I wanted to illustrate them with details and to explore ways I might continue to feel connected to my family beyond my years off.

I was forty – five when I gave birth to my third baby. Staying at home to care for my children at this age was one of the riskiest ventures I’d ever undertaken. Would the college welcome me back after two years? Would I be able to return with sharp enough skills and a keen enough mind? Fortunately, my fears of losing professional value were not bigger than my desire to be at home, and miraculously, both my department chair and college president approved my request for an extended leave.

At first, my colleagues seemed in favor of the agreement. Who wants a mom with tiny kids on board? The breast pump, the “sick kid” absences, the tired eyes – many professionals would rather skip the whole package. The college was facing a budget deficit, and extending my leave helped our department defray impending layoffs. Yet nine months later, one colleague – who claimed to speak for many others – voiced a different point of view: I was playing with babies at home (“and blogging about it”) while others were fighting for their survival. My leave was allowing me to take up a job position while others could be vying for it. I needed to make a choice: was I a full time worker or a full time mom? I could not be both.

I could not be both.

This email felt worse than a punch to the gut, which one can recover from, because it revealed an ugly conflict that my leave had obscured, but which will clearly haunt me all my life: to be an attentive, present parent eclipses one’s ability to be a valued and respected worker. To provide for one’s children compromises one’s ability to nurture one’s children.

Women, it seems, still must choose: do you want to be a parent, or do you want to be a professional?

I work in education. One can never give enough to one’s students. I used to work in a runaway home for teens, and even after two eight-hour shifts back to back, I still never felt that I’d “finished” my work. A yawning need reigned over me no matter what I did. At the college where I work now, students are often less desperate, but the need for attention and assistance is always present and always intense.

The situation with one’s own children at home is no different. Building character is hard, ongoing work. It begins with those subtle kicks within one’s womb and continues long past infanthood, the toddler era and even grammar school: our children always need us parents. Sometimes they need us to challenge them to strive to their highest potential; other times they need a hug and forgiveness. Discipline, education, comfort, communication – there’s no end to what our children need from us.

My point is that the demands of work and home are both intense and can be all-consuming. In the past, trying to do both has left me feeling like a failure in both camps. I thought taking a leave of absence was a solution, allowing me time to focus on my children during a critical period of their lives. My colleague’s email barked otherwise. She reminded me all over again that no matter when I returned, I’d be re-entering an impossible situation, reaping scorn from colleagues and laments from family.

“Come back, or give your job to someone who actually wants to do it,” asserts my colleague.

The thought of giving up my job is terrifying. I adore my job as a professor. Teaching and writing have always defined my identity. My first job occurred when I was fifteen and began tutoring a seventh grade girl. She had peroxide-white hair, a dozen piercings, and wore a lot of black leather. I don’t remember the short story we revised together, but I do remember feeling a pull to connect with her and to listen closely to her words. Writing is healing, and I felt its medicine working for both of us, in a sweet and synchronistic way. When our session ended and she asked if she could come back, I knew I’d discovered what I wanted to do with my life. Scientists in labs as well as sociologists in classrooms have proven that loving attention is as vital to any growing child as vitamins and oxygen. My life purpose, I knew from that moment, was to give this attention to as many children and young adults as I could, through teaching and writing.

Twenty years later, I became a mom.

Federal law dictates that government employees receive six weeks of paid maternity leave and another six weeks unpaid. After that, employees need to return to work full time, and their three-month old babies go to a childcare facility for eight hours a day (or nine, given travel time). As a mom who dropped off her first infant for six to eight hours of daycare five days a week, I can testify, this system is barbaric. Drew was a few weeks older than the typical three months when I returned to work, and both he and I suffered horribly. The ache inside me was larger than any pain I’d ever endured – it dwarfed labor! My son, too, was not thriving. He was underweight, didn’t talk much, had a gazillion food allergies – and he just wasn’t happy.

For working parents and their children, time apart is excruciating, but time together is also often compromised. Consider what happens at 5 or 6 PM, once the parent has retrieved her child. Dinner, bills, the telephone, dishes in the sink from breakfast, the need to discuss tomorrow’s schedule with one’s partner – so much STUFF needs doing, and again, who is looking at the child? Where is that time for creating and enjoying the loving bonds that so many scientists have proven is vital for health and well-being? Do no politicians care enough to pay attention to these studies? Moms on welfare are vilified in politics and in the media, and moms taking leave from work – well, we seem vilified, as well.

So one fails as a mom, or one fails as a worker. One either abandons her colleagues and clients, or she abandons her own children.

I’ll never forget a colleague from my past named Robin, who worked with me in the teenage runaway home. We were on lunch break with the kids, sitting on a cool cement sidewalk behind the school. It was summer, and the air was hot and humid. Everyone felt lazy and felt no need to hurry back to the classroom. “Why don’t you have kids?” one of the students asked Robin. She was a beautiful forty year old, long and lean with hip-length red hair and blue eyes. I turned to listen to her because I had also wondered.

“I didn’t want to have kids just to drop them off at daycare, and I knew I’d always have to work. I never felt I had a choice.”

I can still feel how my stomach lurched at her words. I was twenty-three and knew I wanted kids, and her words made me want to scream, That is so totally unfair! Robin was adored by our students (and they didn’t adore much!). She seemed like she would have been a fun and loving mom. And she never would be.

“Are you coming back?” My colleague has challenged me. She wants me “out” of the college so someone more worthy can be “in.” She argues that I have “ambivalence about returning to higher education full-time,” and yes, I am guilty of that. I worry about how I will manage it, teaching four courses a semester while also serving on committees, responding to emergencies, and being a good team player – all while mothering my three children. Daylight hours of time with my children will go from 100% to less than 50% (and in my area of work, that means an F!). How will I adjust to once again being absent from so much of their lives? Currently, I volunteer in their classrooms weekly and am helping to pilot a project for gifted students in their school. Much more importantly, I’m spending gobs of time with them. Our time together has been utterly wondrous: watching my children grow and engaging with them in this growth feels as magical as sensing their bodies form within me during pregnancy. I am witnessing life’s creation, right here, right now.

What is my choice?

As much as I know that being at home is absolutely right for now, I also know that with motherhood (and just about everything else) what’s “right” changes over time. Moms grow up as much as children do. When our babies first emerge from our bodies, all we can do is hold onto them with a desperate primal love. As the years stretch out, however, the cord that holds us so closely together begins to stretch out, too. Our children learn to balance on their own two legs and take a step forward…and soon after that, they start to run…and we learn at the same time to let go of their warm soft bodies and watch them move away (and leap! and soar!) all on their own.

The key factor here is time. We can’t rush the processes of parenthood. The legally mandated six weeks for stay-at-home parenting is about one percent of what is needed – biologically, intellectually, and emotionally. I am proud to work for a college that understands and honors a more humane timeline – and utterly grateful. Any colleagues who are not aware of my appreciation for the gift that Vermont Tech has granted me have not talked with me directly, for I discuss it constantly. My wish is that what the college has allowed for my family can stand as a model for other institutions and businesses. As my journey as mom and writing professor continues to evolve, I will continue blogging about my experience, scattering notes like birdseed for other moms to find, follow, and digest (and yes, to vomit up if necessary; effluvia is always part of the conversation of motherhood). We are all so different, but we share the common qualities of loving our children unconditionally and striving to let their unique radiance shine. May we be allowed the time we need to do our jobs well.



2 thoughts on “Blog #17: Reprieve

  1. Shame on us for denying working mothers and fathers something as essential to human health as parental leave. Most European countries recognize this basic need with laws that protect both parents allowing them up to four years, with partial pay, in the Czech Republic. From the Guardian: “[In Europe] new mothers mostly get between 14 and 22 weeks, and new fathers between two days (Greece) and three months (Italy), of paid leave. Many countries allow both parents to share as long as two (France) or even three years (Spain) of unpaid leave. Some are more generous: Germany allows new parents to take up to 14 months of parental leave on 65% of their salary; Luxembourg allows two six-month periods to be taken by either parent, paid at around €1,800 a month; the Czech Republic offers up to four years of parental leave, paid at between €600 and €400 a month, to “either or both” parents – although only one of them receives the benefit.” Thank you, Sarah, for personalizing what is truly a national disgrace.

  2. Sarah, The idea that a woman cannot have a professional career and children is over. Your negative colleague voices a rather self-serving envious tone. Yet she has served to bring you to articulating a huge problem in our culture. The lack of good quality federally funded child-care for working mothers amounts to a betrayal by the prevailing culture on all women and children.
    Your story illustrates this problem well.
    A child benefits hugely from seeing a mother and/or father working and succeeding in the “marketplace.” This works as a bridge for the child from home and school to the world of “work.”
    Women like you who are thoughtfully working hard to balance this world of work and home and men who are also doing this are creating a rich new way of raising children. It would be easier with free child-care, of course, but your creative balancing of this task is vital to the betterment of all our children. And writing about this issue benefits all women.

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