I've been thinking a lot lately about why I'm happy. Or more specifically, why I'm happy with my life when so many other people I know don't seem to be. We're all above the income level at which research indicates money stops to be a primary reason for unhappiness- at about $50,000/year, apparently, you're as happy as you'll be at $1 million/year. Once you get past the point where you're no longer worrying about how you're going to pay for the necessities and can afford a few niceties, more money doesn't make you happier. Or at least that's what the research I remember reading says- unfortunately, I can't dig up the article right now, it has been buried in Google under a bunch of articles about more recent research showing that giving money away makes you happy. (Interestingly, I also found some articles about research showing that a feeling of financial insecurity can make you unhappy regardless of your income level... there's definitely more to think about there).
And then an uproar broke out in the momosphere about whether or not work-at-home moms have it easier than work-outside-the-home moms, with a little bit of "hey, being a stay-at-home mom is no piece of cake, either." (You can see some of the posts on this topic here and here.) My opinion on this is that what works for one woman and her family may be an utter disaster for another woman and her family and that all of these momming options have their pluses and minuses. The trick is to figure out which one has the right combinatin of pluses and minuses for YOU and then ignore the rest of the world as it tells you that your choice is either irretrievably damaging your child(ren) or undermining the cause of women's equality. I'd say that parenthood in general is no cake walk, but I think of my single and/or childless friends (and my own pre-child life), and I have to ammend that to say that life is no cake walk. Everyone has problems, and there is no way to live your life and guarantee that it will be problem-free.
As I was reading the comments on the various blog posts in the latest round of the WAHM vs WOHM vs SAHM argument, I was struck by how many mothers sound genuinely miserable and even bitter about their lives. Sure, there was a lot of venting and some oneupmanship, but there was also a lot of genuine pain. I'd read what the WOHMs wrote and think that their lives didn't sound that different from mine. So why am I happy when they clearly are not?
It also made me think back to graduate school, and the ongoing discussions about why there aren't more women in science. One of the reasons often put forward is that it is so difficult to comine a career in science with motherhood. In graduate school, I believed that reason, and in fact was spooked by it. I seriously considered changing careers or deciding not to have kids. Now that I am in fact combining a career in science with motherhood, I have to say, it is nowhere near as bad as I thought it would be. It is not perfect, and there are certainly changes in policy and attitudes that would make it easier, but Hubby and I are managing just fine. However, I know that there are women who would read that last sentance and wonder what planet I live on. Why is there such a difference?
I've pondered on this for awhile. I don't think I have the answers, but I have some ideas. Here are the five main reasons I think I'm content when so many others are not:
1. I had genuine choices
I actually could have chosen to be a SAHM or a WAHM. We did not buy our house until Pumpkin was about 4 months old. Before we bought the house, our finances would have allowed me to be a SAHM (or Hubby to be a SAHD). It was abundantly clear to me by the time we bought the house that I was not meant to be a SAHM. I have never felt so incompetent at a job in my life. I have to assume I would have gotten better at it, but even now, an entire day alone with Pumpkin leaves me utterly exhausted and with a nagging feeling that I am not doing enough fun and enriching activities with her. I have nothing but respect for SAHMs, but it is not a job that plays to my strengths, to say the least.
The job I went back to would have allowed me to work from home. I chose to go into the office. I was never able to get much done when I was trying to work and care for the baby at the same time. I just don't multitask that well, I guess. And given Pumpkin's poor sleep habits, if I did manage to get her to nap without my constant help (as opposed to with me holding her, bouncing her in her bouncy chair, or pushing her in her stroller) and there was a bed RIGHT THERE, I was going to sleep in it, not do work. Therefore, the only way I could have worked from home was to send Pumpkin to day care. Once I did that, I didn't see much advantage to working from home, and I liked how it was easier to define work time and home time if I went to the office.
So for me, being a WOHM is the right decision, and I have the experiences to make me really confident in that decision. Actually, of all the decisions that made me a WOHM, the one I made with the least information was the decision to be a mom. I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I chose to stop taking those pills! But I wouldn't change that decision for anything. I love being a mom.
2. I have money
My job pays well enough that I can afford excellent day care. Once I got over the initial weirdness of leaving Pumpkin with strangers, I've never had reason to worry about how she spends her day. She is absolutely thriving at day care. And the workers there aren't strangers anymore. Not all working moms get to have this peace of mind, which I think is a sad statement on our society.
I also have enough money to pay a housecleaning service and to pay for other little conveniences that make the working parent juggle a little bit easier. Believe me, I know what a big difference this makes- it took me ages to convince Hubby to get the cleaners, and I am still amazed at what a difference having them makes.
3. I have an equal partner at home
Hubby and I have always split the household chores fairly evenly, and he is a fully involved parent. He does chores because they need to be done, not because he is "helping". He takes care of Pumpkin as much as I do. It is just a given that he will sometimes stay home with Pumpkin when she is sick. Best of all- he thinks that it is obvious that this is how it should be. We still manage to squabble over the division of household labor, but those squabbles start from an assumption that we should both be doing our equal share. I can't imagine being a working mother without a partner like this.
4. We have a great extended support network.
My mom (who is retired) will fly over to provide back up day care if Pumpkin is sick. This is wonderful, because it helps us have some actual vacation days as opposed to nothing but sick days. My parents also come over to give us a chance to catch up on our to do list and to give us weekends away. My sister lives in town, and will babysit for us and also just come over and help entertain Pumpkin if we're needing it. We have a wonderful group of friends who will watch Pumpkin for us, too. And on top of all that- most of the teachers at Pumpkin's day care will babysit. Pumpkin has had some teachers that she really loves. It is wonderful to walk out the door for a night out leaving her with someone she is so happy to be with.
5. I've been very lucky with my jobs/bosses
I got what I asked for in terms of my maternity leave and part time arrangement on my return. No one ever questioned the time I spent pumping. Although one of my younger coworkers teases me about how he could set his watch by the time I get up and leave for the day, he is just joking. No one who matters has ever questioned my dedication to my work. I have received two excellent performance reviews and raises since becoming a working mother. I don't think this is because I am some sort of superwoman- I have certainly had my share of fuzzy, sleep-deprived days. I manage to continue meeting expectations at work, and I have had bosses who have been reasonable in setting those expectations and have not been looking for examples of how I've dropped the ball since becoming a mother.
When I think back to the stories I heard in grad school about how hard it would be to combine career and motherhood, I now think that most of the problems that were raised were really plain old-fashioned sexism masquerading as something less offensive. I have certainly run into sexism in my career, but I have been lucky in that the most egregious instances happened earlier in my career, before I had a family that could be used as an excuse to attack me. I fervently hope my good fortune continues on this front.
None of this is to say that my life is perfect, or that I don't think there are some policies in the U.S. that desperately need changing. I'd like to write another post about that, but it will have to wait for another time. I'd also like to write a post about what I'd tell the "grad school me" who was so freaked out about how hard it would be to combine my chosen career and motherhood. I know that "it will all work out" would not have comforted me back then, and I'd like to write more about the decisions I made and some of the things I do that have helped make it all work out. That will also have to wait for another time. If I get around to writing those posts, I'll come back and put links to them here.
Update: I did finally write one post with my thoughts about how I keep my work week to roughly 40 hours.