Thursday, June 18, 2009


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.


  1. This post itself makes me happy. I love that you're aware of the advantages you have, and that you've used them to engineer a life that's satisfying. Too often I feel that the blog world is awash in discontent — I don't begrudge anyone their story, but it's really nice to read one not only where the writer is happy, but where I get the sense that the happiness is coming from something firm instead of fleeting.

  2. I've been thinking about this post for days. Most of my experience with motherhood and women scientists comes from academia, where it can be a different ballgame - often there's no money (if you're a student/post-doc), crap insurance, no leave policy, no HR department, you're terribly far from family (I heard a story of a women who left her infant with her parents in China), and the job isn't 9-5 (my husband as a master's student in engineering occasionally had experiments where he had to go in and titrate things every 6 hours for a week - and his main work is computer programming!) When I was in academia proper I was an archaeologist, and the two-career-two-location issue and the possibly 10 weeks overseas every summer issue were one of the daunting things about work-life balance even before we had kids (I left academia at 28, so children were a looming issue timewise but not an active plan at that point) - and archaeology is not even a science!

    That said, I do know women who've done academic science and parenthood and happily - I was on a panel for women in science at my old job with a powerhouse woman whose husband traveled for work 50% of the time, making her a frequent single parent and PhD student in a bench science. Her saving grace was his work made big bucks, so they could hire help. Another couple I know had twins as new post-docs! They must have had family financial support for the day care (our kid was in the same place, and it was $$), and have since left academia for a private research institute which is more life-friendly.

    I have two single, childless women friends who work in the pharmaceutical industry, and both of their jobs would be practically impossible with motherhood - one manages clinical trials and travels constantly, and the other is often at work until midnight every night for a couple of weeks when a big push is on. Yikes! One doesn't plan to have children, but the other would like to, some day, but knows her career path will have to change for that to happen.

  3. @Flea- I certainly didn't mean to imply that all women in science have a good experience mixing science and motherhood. I was more musing about why mine has been good when other people haven't been so lucky. I hope that came across in the post.

    I really wonder how much of my happiness level comes down to money. This makes me sad and angry, and I have a lot more to think about before I can post anything coherent on that.

    I probably had an unusual grad school experience- but I had better health insurance then than I have ever had since. And my health care providers were right next to the building I worked in, instead of across town!

    I've wondered if I should add "timing of reproduction" into the things I got lucky with- the fact that I COULD time it, and the fact that the timing I happened to choose seems to have worked out well for me. However, I have friends who swear by their decisions to have kids in grad school or as post-docs, due to the flexible hours. I think a lot of that experience comes down to what sort of advisor you have, though. That, to me, is the real scary thing about having kids in grad school or during a postdoc- you're so much at the mercy of one other person, and you have so much invested in making that relationship work.

    I also know women who travel a lot or have odd schedules and somehow make motherhood work. I personally chose to change jobs rather than have any sort of significant amount of business travel- but I wasn't that attached to my old job and wanted to change for other reasons. One of the things I'm musing on for a follow up post is how creative Hubby and I have been in finding solutions to some of the problems that have come up with the work/parenting juggle- and how I'm just now learning to trust in that problem-solving creativity. I don't think all problems can be solved with a little creativity, but I know that when I was looking ahead to mixing career and parenthood, I didn't anticipate how good Hubby and I would be at finding solutions we could both be happy with for the problems that have come up.

    Anyway, I have a lot more to think about before I dare post any sort of advice for women looking to mix science and motherhood. But I did want to say that it CAN be done and you might even find yourself happy if you do it- that was a message I almost never heard when I was in grad school.

    And for the record, I totally consider archaeology a science!

  4. I love this post. Pretty much what you said is true for me, except I'm in a different type of career. Still, my career area can be tough, depending on companies and projects. I used to travel a ton for business, work long and late hours if needed, and had some pretty stressful projects that left me completely exhausted. When I returned from maternity leave, I purposefully agreed to go to a project that wasn't run at a killer pace. The beauty of my company (which is constantly rated very highly in Working Mother's magazine) is that they promote work/life balance as very important and work with you to meet your needs. Throw in an awesome head honcho boss who is also a family man, and I know I've had it lucky.

    As for being happy as a WOHM, I think the biggest thing for me was really being in tune with myself and not letting outside pressures make me second guess myself. I would not be happy as a SAHM, or even a WAHM. I need to get out of the house. I need to interact face-to-face with other adults, especially in a problem-solving/analyst capacity. I am not happy staying at home all day with my kid(s) for days in a row, outside of 2-3 months of maternity leave. With the Pumpkin, I actually wanted to go back to work early, but had scheduled a week at the beach during my last week, so I toughed it out. I just know what is right for me, and therefore for my family. I'm a better mom when I'm happily working outside the home.

    I wish that everyone could realize what works best for them, could actually have the choice to do what works best for them, and not to second guess or question themselves due to outside influences. Every person is different and it should be fine to do what works best for yourself.

  5. Great post, Cloud, so true about the caveats you've outlined. I really think the mummy wars is about fighting over scraps, it is used as a distraction to keep us from being more unified as mothers.

  6. I think the choices aspect is important. I would love to be a SAHM but I honestly do not have that choice - I keep meaning to blog about it, but I'm embarrassed. When you've made a choice you're happy with, whether it's to work or not or stay at home or not, it's a lot easier to be happy. The closest I had to being able to make a choice was being a WAHM for 2 years. Then the economy tanked and I had to get a "real job" and put the Babby in daycare. Not a choice for me, no matter how many sanctimonious bloggers out there seem to believe that you can stay home if you really want to no matter what. So I'm less than happy, but I also know I have the best possible WOHM situation for me and for that I am grateful.

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