One of the worst Mom Moments of my life happened on a sunny April morning, eight and a half years ago. Starbucks in hand, I was pushing my son in his stroller while out running errands when I ran into another mom I knew through mutual friends.
We had babies around the same age and started chatting about feeding schedules, the great pacifier debate… newborn mom stuff.
“Are you going back to work soon?” I asked her, knowing that my own unpaid maternity leave was ending in just a few days.
“Oh no,” she replied. “I couldn’t go back to work. This is a really wanted baby. I would never give up this time with her.”
My world stopped for a second. Blood rushed to my head. She had a wanted baby that warranted stay-at-home mom status. Did this mean my son was not as wanted? Did this mean something was broken in me that I was heading back to work after 11 short weeks? Why was I suddenly jealous? And heartbroken?
We said a quick goodbye and I tried to forget the conversation and the feeling.
A few days later, I went back to work.
But this same situation played out for me time and again. I worked in an office that saw a lot of meetings and visitors. Seeing me back and no longer pregnant, people would regale me with tales of their own wives who “just couldn’t stand the idea of leaving our baby at a day care!”
Or new grandmas whose daughters “took the hit on their income because they didn’t want to miss a minute!”
Or younger women who asked, “Ohmygod! How could you stand to leave that baby and go back to work?”
I found myself defending my decision out loud: we needed the second income to cover student loans, I wanted to give it a try, I thought working made me a great mom – all the while ignoring the screaming voice in my head that reminded me again and again how much I missed my son and how scared I was that we hadn’t done the right thing.
The truth was, I hadn’t even really considered staying home. We might have squeaked by on one income but I already taken unpaid leave to have our son (my employer, a small nonprofit, did not have to offer FMLA or any paid leave). I loved working, too, so it seemed like the natural thing to do to go back. It really never even struck me that I might want to stay home until our son was in my arms for the first time.
A recent study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development showed that the US is one of 41 developed nations that does not require paid leave for new parents. Of the other 40 nations that offer paid leave – including Japan, Norway, the UK, and Australia – the least amount any nation offers is two months. Check out this chart to see how we stack up.* And then think about what this says about motherhood and about the value we place on family. It’s kind of bumming me out. Big time.
Today, my kids are in school all day while I work. The fact that I stayed in the workforce has helped our family on many fronts. But I still wonder if I might have done better by myself and by our son if I had stayed home those first few years. I’ll never get those days back. I’ll never know if I missed a first word or first step at day care. I’ll never know if I made the best choice.
But I do know one thing. If a new mom asks me what I did about work after I became a mom I will only say this: I loved my son. He was – and is – wanted. And I always did the best I could.
And that is exactly what any mom would do.
PS Check out my collage above. The first pic was a month after I went back to work; the second was a few weeks ago. I am pretty sure he looks like a happy, well-adjusted kid in both, right?
*Cool bar chart reprinted from the Pew Research Center.