by Jennifer Quigley-Harris
“Just wanted to let you all know that I am heading to the hospital, so please forward all messages to my manager. See you again in eight weeks!”
After nearly a decade of dedication to my job, I had a company car, an expense account, flexible hours, and a great health plan. A fleet of managers supported my every move, and I went to corporate meetings in tropical places.
I envisioned myself as the modern mother—cell phone and briefcase in one hand, burp cloth and diaper bag in the other. I could do it all. I was energetic, educated and organized.
Eight weeks. For the nine-and-a-half months leading up to delivery day, eight weeks seemed like a generous amount of time off. I told myself that after eight weeks, I would be ready to go back to work. I would need to work. I wasn’t the sort of person who could spend all day with a baby. It would drive me insane. I never even liked to baby-sit as a teenager. Work was going to be the thing that kept me a good mom, a fun mom, a mom who came home every day, took off her heels and stockings and helped the kids finger-paint. A mom who carried photos of her smiling family in her briefcase and proudly showed them to all her clients, especially the ones who didn’t ask.
I was going to be the same as I was before, but better, because I now would have children to enrich my days and nights and add colorful stories to my sales conversations. A working mom. What every independent female strives to be. What our mothers and grandmothers fought for and promised we could have if we wanted.
Once my son pushed his way into my world, I didn’t want anything but him. He was a silent newborn for the first few hours after his grand entrance. He looked at his dad, he looked at the small crowd in the birthing room, and he looked at me. Almost thoughtfully, like he knew all of us and was just having a hard time trying to remember our names.
“Hey, bugaboo,” I whispered. “You’re here. I’m so glad to meet you.” The rest of the world faded away for me that evening, and I only knew him. I suppose every new mother spends the first month or two getting adjusted. I know I spent those first few weeks just staring at him. I couldn’t believe how much he was a part of me. That he had come out of me. That my body had survived such an amazing event. And yet here he was, with my eyes, his dad’s hands, and a drooling little mouth and chin that were all his own. Reaching for me, stretching out towards me, curling up next to me when we all lay in bed at night.
I struggled through the first few weeks of breastfeeding, sleepless days and nights, and the wonder of my body returning to its old self. And I watched my son constantly. As the weeks passed, I felt like I needed to memorize all his movements, every facial contortion, every noise he made. This small boy made the center of me ache when I smelled the top of his head.
For the first month, I was terrified to take him out in public. I wiped his hands and face down frantically one afternoon after a woman in the grocery store touched him when she commented on how darling he was. I checked and rechecked the belt on his car seat before we went anywhere. I stayed away from the beach, the ice cream shop, the airconditioned halls of the mall that first summer, places I knew there would be other kids who might cough on him, throw a Frisbee at his head, or drop a hot French fry on his lap.
Yet deep inside, I could hear this small voice telling me it was okay. He’d be fine. I’d have to start to pull back. I’d have to start to think about finding some day care for him soon. Only a few weeks of maternity leave left. I needed to untangle myself from this tight knot he and I had become so that I could start to be just me again. Me the way I was before. Me the way I planned it. Super Working Mom.
I managed to put off finding a fulltime babysitter for the first six months. His dad and I altered schedules, swapped work hours with one another and stayed up later than we should have each evening catching up on business we had neglected during the day. One day, I could fake it no more. It was the start of my high selling season, and I needed to be in the car, visiting clients, and producing tangible sales. And my husband’s new business needed his full attention.
We hired a student from the local college who quickly fell in love with my son. And my baby adored her. I started to increase my hours away from the house slowly, leaving each morning half hoping, half dreading that he would put up a bigger fuss than normal—a crying, screaming fit that would surely necessitate me staying home from work that day with him, no matter what kind of hassle it might cause me professionally.
As each week passed, his small cries of resistance at me handing him over to someone else became smaller and smaller, until one day, near his first birthday, he didn’t even look up while I got ready to leave. He was playing with his babysitter’s nose, trying to see if the high-pitched noise she made every time he grabbed it was indeed caused by him. He repeated the squeeze seven or eight times as I was gathering my materials and briefcase together. And then when I kissed him, he squeezed her nose one more time and giggled delightedly as her nasal voice rang out, “Say bye-bye to your Mom!”
I was out the door and in the car before the tears started. It wasn’t like I hadn’t cried before when I left him during the week. It wasn’t like this was the first time I drove almost all the way to the highway on-ramp with tears blurring my vision. Most days I had to redo my eye make-up in the car before going into an appointment. But that day was different. I did my job that day, as I had been doing it for years—efficiently, smoothly and effortlessly. But that was the first day I realized that something in me had changed. I could lose the pregnancy weight and put back on the same clothes I had worn before, and I could smile and laugh with my colleagues at meetings as I had done before, and I could continue to increase sales numbers, but I couldn’t bring myself to care about it anymore.
As the months passed, every successful call I made felt flat to me. Every award and accolade I won from my colleagues and managers felt thin to me. And every time Monday came, I was finding it harder and harder to leave my son. I had gone from the woman who wanted to have it all—meaningful career, professional success, personal financial satisfaction and a large, beaming family to share it all with—to a woman who wanted just one thing: to spend all day, every day, with her baby.
On the day I gave my resignation, my manager seemed surprised. “But you’re doing great,” she said. I didn’t feel great. I felt mostly guilty. Guilty about the time I was spending away from my son and guilty about the time I was spending daydreaming about him while I was supposed to be working.
Up until the moment I quit my job, I agonized about what my female friends in the working world would say when they heard about my decision. I worried about our household income as a one-salary family. I wondered if I was throwing away hours of professional education, years of seniority and a position on a corporate ladder that I had worked hard to achieve. But when I picked up the phone to say I was giving up on the juggling act because I was worn out from doing it all, something very different came out of my mouth. “I’d like to be a full-time mom,” I said. The positive energy in that statement flowed from me. It was what I really wanted.
The decision to be a full-time mother taught me one of the most important things I’ve learned about being a parent. I couldn’t predict how my child was going to alter my day, my week and my lifestyle. But in learning to adapt to the various changes that parenthood brought, I was forced to be honest with myself. I had to figure out what was most important to me as a parent, as a person and as a member of a family. I realized that the motherhood I imagined before my son arrived was fundamentally different from the motherhood I actually wanted once he was born. And as soon as I admitted that to myself, the rest was easy. I said goodbye to the old vision I had of myself as a mother and started to become the mother I wanted to be.
© Jennifer Quigley-Harris
This article was published in the March 2004 issue of FAHN's journal, Welcome Home.