On Being A Full-Time Working Mom, And Leaving My Heart At Home

Despite having the freedom to concentrate on my job, even prioritize and relish it, my concentration diffuses all throughout the day. A part of me has been left at home.

The end of December is a sweet, liminal time for most academics—the fall semester grades have been posted, the incessant flow of desperate student emails has been stoppered by an automatic reply, and the urgency of spring semester can be kept at bay for a couple more weeks. I’m currently in upstate New York, visiting my mother, relaxing into family time. My daughter, Benna, occasionally surprises me in the bathroom with a delighted “Mama!” as I try to take a shower or a shit by myself. As the full-time working parent in the house, I’ve been gone quite a lot leading up to winter break, so we’re reconnecting. After weeks at the office reading student papers, wrapping up not gifts but committee work, my presence at home is practically a novelty.

But there’s no doubt about who has been picking up the slack in my absence. My husband, Jason, hasn’t pooped without audience for god-knows-how-long, and even now, with a second pair of hands around to help, he’s working overtime while our child—hopped up on holiday sugar, stalking my mother’s poor, resigned cat, and sleeping, well, let’s just say inconsistently—demands that he feed her oatmeal, he change her diaper, he take her outside in the unseasonably warm weather to hunt elusive rocks. All day long, a steady stream of “Daddy! Daddy! Dad-dy!” can be heard coming from the frowning mouth of our daughter, ever poised to ball her fists and hit the floor for a tantrum should he choose to ignore her.

If I were a less sensitive person, I’d lean on the wisdom of more experienced parents, who remind me of the “seasons and stages” of a child’s life, and their cyclical preferences for Mom or Dad. During my daughter’s infancy, when I was the one at home on maternity leave, it was to me she clung, quite literally tucked in my arms or suctioned to my breasts, wary and resistant of being handed off to her dad so I could occasionally shovel food into my mouth. Back then, in those hour-less days of nursing and dozing and crying and nursing, I was, as Sarah Manguso writes in Ongoingness, “the background against which the baby lives.” Benna and I passed months together as an inseparable, indistinguishable entity, my body forever cocooning hers, a Boppy pillow encircling us in a soft, protective boundary.

Oh, how long ago that seems now. On Christmas Day, I watched Jason sitting on the floor of my mother’s living room with Benna, teaching her through patient repetition how to effectively drink her milk from an adult cup. He slowly guided the lip of the glass into her mouth so she could sip and swallow without dripping or spraying the milk down the front of her snowflake jammies. Each time she successfully took a drink, she looked up at her Grammy and me, and smiled widely, full of pride. I thought of all the new skills Benna is ferociously working on: utensil mastery and potty training, coloring and counting to 20, taking turns and identifying feelings.

I help where I can, but let’s face it: Between the intensity of these new developmental leaps, and my increased responsibilities as I work toward tenure at my university, I often find myself in the wings of family life, watching my husband perform at center stage.

I could easily write 20 pages on my gratitude for Jason’s parenting. Even in an age of unprecedented involvement by fathers, he shines. He’s particularly good with a toddler, building the Duplo block towers for her to instantly dismantle, teaching her wrist the muscle memory of holding the spoon flat and functional, scrolling through episodes of Sesame Street to find the exact scene where Grover takes a bath. I’d do all of these things if I had to, but I wouldn’t do them as happily, or probably as well.

The majority of mothers I know are, as my mothers’ group calls them, the default parent—the parent automatically in charge of the minutia of raising small people, of building the Lego castles, and eating the Play-Doh spaghetti, of tracking the temperature as it creeps above 100, and comforting the congested, feverish baby who won’t sleep. Plenty of these mothers also work.

This is not my life. These days, Jason is the default parent in the house. While he good-naturedly diapers both Benna and her stuffed teddy bear (at her request), I am generally free to focus on the career that keeps us financially afloat, which means my New Year’s resolutions can be about finishing my book, updating my rubrics, and designing a new literature course for my department.

Before I had a child—even when I was pregnant with Benna, slowly falling in love with her from the inside—I had a picture of parenthood in my mind that wasn’t terribly different from the one I’m living. No child should, I thought, in the grand scheme of heteronormative households, displace the professional ambitions of her mother. No mother should automatically parent her child more than her child’s father. I fully expected Jason would take an equitable (or in our case, because of my work, even greater) share of the parenting. What I didn’t expect is how difficult it would be to let him.

Recently, a colleague in the advising office of my university discovered that both of my spring semester courses were accidentally scheduled for the same time and days of the week. My colleague made a joke: “Didn’t you know we hired you because you seemed like a person who could be in two places at once?”

It was a nod to the “do more with less” circumstances of today’s workplace, but the joke resonated with me for a different reason. Despite having the freedom to concentrate on my job, even prioritize and relish it, my concentration diffuses all throughout the day. A part of me has been left at home.

My students have grown accustomed to my mentioning Benna during class, and if they come to office hours, it’s likely they’re going to see the latest photo or video Jason has sent me that day. At least once a day when I’m gone, I’ll send him a text that says, “Picture?” and he obliges, pinging me back a snapshot of whatever he and Benna are up to. It’s not that I don’t trust his parenting—on the contrary, because he spends the most time alone with Benna, I default to his judgment when it comes to following the routines they’ve established together. I just need to see my child’s face before I can go on with whatever falls next on my to-do list.

We’ve long been having the conversation about how women—and really, parents—can’t have it all. I knew going into this that my government didn’t provide enough support. I knew we’d never have enough childcare so that both Jason and I could pursue our writing and teaching equally. I knew we’d always be negotiating who got more time to do those things, and I knew that the financial necessity of my job would make me the clear winner of that particular lottery. But as with so many accomplishments—publication, promotion, etc.—arriving is often anticlimactic, or tempered by whatever it has cost to arrive. And it always costs something.

I’ve always been what my own mother calls a “hopeless romantic,” so I should have seen coming the ultimate love story of my life. I see now why so many parenting articles advise women to prioritize their love for their partners, and why plenty of women rail against that advice: When I play my worst-case scenario games, I feel deeply sad and anxious at the thought of losing Jason, but downright tormented at the thought of losing Benna. I’m not saying I wouldn’t survive, that I couldn’t go on—for myself and for others I love, I would—but I agree with writer Cheryl Strayed about the uncomfortable, undemocratic truth that some losses are just plain worse than others because some love is just plain bigger.

There’s a 10-minute walk from my train stop to our apartment in Boston. Each day, often at rush hour, I squeeze myself into the car that will stop closest to the stairs at the station. Then, I start home. As I walk down the southwest corridor path in Jamaica Plain, a little mantra sounds in my head, and sometimes, I even let my lips move to say the words I’ve been thinking on and off all day: my daughter, my daughter, my daughter.

Amy Monticello is an assistant professor at Suffolk University. Her work has appeared in many literary journals, and at Salon, The Rumpus, and The Nervous Breakdown. She currently lives in Boston, MA with her husband and daughter. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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