I’ll never forget a discussion I had with my then live-in boyfriend, now husband, about six or seven years ago about kids and career.
“I’ll have no problem putting my kids in daycare so I can work,” I said flippantly. “My career is super important to me.”
My career, at that point, was on the rise, exciting and by my own design. After getting laid off from my magazine job in the recession, I’d built up my own freelance business and then moved to Australia for a year-long adventure that turned into more than three. I was writing for outlets like AOL, CNN, Travel+Leisure and AskMen, with some magazine work sprinkled in between. I hustled and worked longer hours than I had at my last full-time job. But my days were busy and interesting, especially as I got into travel writing and blogging as an expat on the other side of the world.
Fast-forward to September 2014. My son Finn was four-and-a-half-months-old and I was starting a new job, begrudgingly. After I’d burnt out from full-time freelance at age 30, I’d taken a content marketing role while still in Sydney. I’d stayed with the company for a year after moving to New York City, working Australian hours remotely—I’d gotten pregnant six weeks after moving and didn’t want to look for jobs while hiding a pregnancy, especially given that in New York most jobs want you there a year before giving you maternity leave. But I couldn’t keep my 5pm to 1am schedule with a new baby, so into the New York job market I went. I toured daycares and signed Finn up for an in-home one a few blocks away.
Then came my first day of work and Finn’s first day of daycare.
To say I had been distraught about putting my still tiny baby—who’d had a hospital stay right after birth due to dehydration and jaundice, who was only in the fifth percentile for weight, who I’d spent every waking moment with since mid-April—was the understatement of the year. On a family trip to the Finger Lakes, then the Poconos, I’d started becoming emotionally unhinged. The day before my start date, which, fittingly, was Labor Day, I’d rushed down to a girlfriend’s apartment in Harlem to have a glass of wine and a cigarette to calm my nerves. The only other emotion competing with the nervousness was sadness. Wouldn’t you know, this career-driven thirty-something actually liked being home all day with her baby.
The next morning was the hottest day on record for that year. My husband strapped Finn into his carrier and we walked the sweaty five blocks to the daycare. Upon arriving, we noticed two things: the air conditioning wasn’t working and the place wreaked of paint fumes. I started panicking.
“We can’t leave him here,” I said to Brendan.
We decided Brendan would work from home with Finn so I could at least start my first day at my new job. I went in and sat through the onboarding trainings in a haze. I hadn’t slept the night before and I felt clammy and nauseous from the exhaustion, stress and weather. By the time I got home that night, I knew what I had to do: quit and stay home with my baby. And the next day, I tried to do just that. I called up my boss, who worked out of Cambridge, Massachusetts but was on his was to Manhattan for my onboarding, and said I couldn’t leave my child.
“Okay,” he said tentatively. “But there has to be a way to work around this. It will take me months to find someone like you for this role.”
What followed was a several-weeks odyssey during which my boss finagled a part-time work-from-home scenario for me with the condition that I had to be a contractual employee for that time. If I felt comfortable enough by December, I’d come back on full-time and go to the office each day. While that was being worked out, I found a nanny. It was an expense we had not budgeted for, but I needed it for my sanity. I needed to know someone was giving my son one-on-one attention and love when his father and I couldn’t. I realize I am so fortunate to have been able to have had the means to make that decision. Many mothers in America do what they have to do–leave their children before they want to, at daycare.
(And guess what? When my son was 13 months, I turned around and enrolled him in the very daycare I had pulled him out of nine months earlier.)
This is a story I haven’t told often because for a long time it embarrassed me. The woman who had hustled her whole career, who’d survived as a journalist and then a freelance writer in another country and started a third career in her third decade of life couldn’t initially hack it as a working mom in New York City. I knew my coworkers, many of whom did not have kids, just didn’t get it and probably thought me weak or emotionally wrecked. And, let’s be honest, I was. This post isn’t meant to be a diatribe about US maternity leave policy, but to expect women to return to work when their babies are still so vulnerable and their own emotional and physical states are nowhere near back to normal is the definition of insanity, not my inability to deal with those requirements.
And guess what? What I myself would have considered career suicide back when I was young and childless and cocky and naïve has been fantastic for my working life. I’m still with my company, three years, three promotions, two direct reports and a second child later. To be honest, I struggled with the same misgivings about returning to work after my daughter was born last April. I had both of my kids home with me over the summer, and despite the stress of juggling an infant and a toddler, I loved it. The simplicity, the loving focus on domestic tasks like cooking and bathing my kids, the fun adventures on the bus to Riverside Park or the Children’s Museum of Manhattan or to the Jersey Shore with my mom.
My husband and I went through the scenarios of me opting out, of returning to freelance, of leaving the city. In the end, we went with what made the most sense, financially and also to allow my son to stay in his awesome bilingual preschool that he loves, which was for me to go back to work. I worked more flexibility into my schedule and leave the office most days at 4:30 and work from home at least once every two weeks (this was meant to be weekly until some team changes made it necessary for me to take on more projects for the time-being).
And the difference this time with Baby #2 is that I’ve gotten far enough in my career that I don’t get nervous about telling my boss I’m leaving at 3pm on Halloween to take my kids trick-or-treating. Because today, three years after that time I tried to quit a new job on the second day because I didn’t want to leave my first baby with strangers, I’ve proven to myself and to those around me that I can do it. I can be both good at what I do professionally and enjoy my time as a mom.
And so can you. It’s worth the work.