As I've been reading the wonderful comments on my last two posts (and they really are wonderful, every single one of them- I'm lucky to have such thoughtful commenters), I've been trying to better pin down my thoughts on the issues we've been discussing: what careers are "better" for mothers, how unfair it is that we rarely worry about what careers are good for fathers, the differences between difficulties inherent in the work and difficulties that are artificially created by the culture of the field or the company involved.... I want to write a thoughtful, well-organized post about all of this, but I can't do it yet. My thoughts just are that organized, I guess.
But I still wanted to get a few more ideas out there, before I move on to other topics for awhile.
The first is the thought, which I am sure is not novel, that motherhood is a lot like the Choose Your Own Adventure books I loved as a kid. You make choices along the way, and they shape the choices that you are presented with down the road a bit, and it is not always easy to predict the ultimate outcome from any one choice. But also (because these were books written for kids), the alternate outcomes were rarely bad- just different.
I see four sets of choices around motherhood. As I've written before, I don't think there is an easy way to be a mother- I think that no matter how you do it, you get an adventure.
1. You could choose to leave the workforce when you have kids and never really go back, or at least not go back until the kids are grown. I don't really have a lot to say about this path, because it is so far removed from my experience. I think I have one friend who has gone this path, and we see each other so infrequently that I wouldn't presume to comment based on that one example. But I want to make sure to acknowledge this option, because the women who choose this path do make valuable contributions to the community- they are often the classroom volunteers, soccer coaches, and the den mothers, for instance. Just because our society hasn't figured out how to place an economic value on the work that they do, we should not ignore it or belittle it.
2. You could choose to leave the workforce for a shorter period, maybe five years or so, staying out until your youngest kids is two, or starts kindergarten, or whatnot. I do know several people who have done this, although it is rare in my particular line of work.
3. You could choose to stay in the workforce full time, just taking your maternity leaves. Obviously, this is the path I took, and it is also the path that most of my friends have taken.
4. You could choose to stay in the workforce, but go to part time work. I know two people who have done this, and they were doing a job share with each other. I think it is hard to set this option up, but if you can get it, it can be pretty awesome... unless you find yourself permanently on a "mommy track", I suppose.
I'm sure I'm missing something, but my main point is that there are different ways to do motherhood, and each has its pluses and minuses. In my view, the trick to being happy is to be happy with the path you took. The problem is, of course, that it is not always obvious ahead of time which path will make you happy. Also, sometimes you get forced down a path due to financial considerations, and you would actually prefer to be on another path, or you really want to leave the workforce for awhile, but the career you love isn't very accepting of that. And of course, you may think you can switch paths- going back to fulltime work after a stint of part time work, and find that it is harder than you'd like to make that switch. And a whole host of other things can go not quite according to plan.
So its a high tension Choose Your Own Adventure, I guess.
The second thing that I've been thinking about is the difference between things that are hard for working parents that are inherent in the work required by a job (the difficulty with leaving for a mid-day doctor's appointment if you are a teacher, for instance) and things that are hard due solely because of the arbitrary way in which the culture of that job has evolved (the late-shifted hours of some computer programming jobs, for instance, or the difficulty of re-entering science after a break of a few years).
If I ran the universe, the only difficulties would be those inherent in the work, and we'd actually try as a society to minimize those. But I suppose that is obvious. And I don't run the world.
Finally, at the risk of calling privilege on myself... I have been thinking about how invisible mothers working in service industry jobs are in these discussions. People will tell me that I must have a hard time balancing my career and my family, and the truth of the matter is that it isn't all that hard for me. Sure, there are challenging times, and times when I sit and want to cry out of frustration or exhaustion and think that surely there has to be an easier way. But those times are infrequent, and for the most part, my life isn't that hard. It is pretty darn good, actually. But when I try to imagine making it all work with a service industry job, my mind boggles. Those are the working mothers who have it the hardest, I think, and I don't see my society doing much at all to help them. I don't actually see many viable solutions to this problem, either.
And on that depressing note, I'm going to go watch some TV with my husband. Thanks for the interesting discussion everyone. Keep the comments coming!