Keeping Up With the Herd

Making the surprising choice to forgo maternity leave and return directly to work. That is, to become a wildebeest.

Back in the nineties when I worked at Microsoft there was a vice president in charge of my division, who I’ll call “J.” Even though she never cracked a smile or ate lunch with us non-management types, I was somewhat in awe of J. We were both in our thirties, but while she had quickly ascended to within elbow-rubbing distance of Bill Gates, I slaved away in a windowless office trying to produce websites for people who still used dial-up connections to get on the internet.

Then J got pregnant.

As she strolled the hallways on her way to some presumably important meeting wearing absurdly expensive suits I watched her growing belly with growing interest. I privately aspired to being a working mother just like J, but being as I was still a newlywed, I was in no great rush.

During a meeting on a Thursday morning J’s water broke and she was rapidly whisked off to the hospital.

Five days later she was back at her desk.

“She’s like a freakin’ wildebeest,” I may have uttered a tad too loudly, because my officemate turned around and asked me why I’d just referred to our boss’s boss as an ungulate.

Wildebeests, I explained after tossing a handful of Skittles in my mouth, are migratory. They’re constantly on the move in search of food and water. Nothing stops them; not even giving birth. Mere minutes after a wildebeest drops her calf, it’s up on its legs, keeping up with the herd, because if either of them were to fall behind, chances are they’d get eaten by a lion.

“So, you know; it’s like she dropped her calf and just kept going.”

“Ah. I get it. That’s funny,” she remarked before going back to her keyboard.

Sure it was funny, but I just didn’t get why J chose to hire a nanny instead of hanging out at home with her newborn. Granted, the US has about the worst policy on the planet when it comes to maternity leave: in fact, the US, along with that well-known democratic society, Papua New Guinea, are the only two countries that aren’t legally obliged to offer paid time off for new mothers. But hello? This was Microsoft, not Wal-Mart.

When I ran into J pumping her milk in the women’s bathroom I felt really sad for her. I’m never going to be like J, I said to myself as I peed, the hum of the breast pump mingling with the whoosh of flushing toilets. Unless my financial situation was dire, I would never put work above my baby.

Five years later I ate my words; gobbled them up and swallowed. I was six months pregnant when my agent sold my first book to a hotshot editor in New York City. Not taking any chances, I waited until the contract was signed before divulging my impending motherhood.
“That’s lovely news, Lisa,” the editor cooed into the phone on a rainy November afternoon. “When are you due?”

“February.”

“Okay; no problem. I’ll be sure to get the edits to you before the baby comes.”

I thanked her for being so gracious and generous, then hung up, patted my belly, and waited for her emails to start rolling in.

Loy was born February 23. On March 1, just as I was just beginning to glow with maternal bliss, I finally received my manuscript, shot-through with red marker. The attached note said: “As you can see there is a substantial amount of work to do before the book goes to print. I hope to have the rewrite back from you as soon as possible.”

Since my husband worked full time I suddenly had to make a choice: I could ask the publisher if they wouldn’t mind delaying the release of the book so I could bond with my baby; or I could hire a nanny to take care of her, and GO BACK TO WORK.

I went back to work.

Every morning after I breastfed Loy I handed her over to Melissa, a sweet-smelling twenty-year-old woman whose father was the pastor of the Baptist Church down the street. Then I’d edit until Loy’s cries made my breasts leak, whereupon I’d hit SAVE and wander upstairs to sit in my rocker and nurse her. Fifteen minutes later, I’d put my sleeping infant in another woman’s arms and head back to my office.
For eight hours a day, five days a week I didn’t read to my baby or cuddle her. I didn’t change her diapers or sing her songs. Instead, I worked.

I didn’t need to work because of money. I chose to forgo maternity leave and let someone else watch my baby because, well, because I wanted to be a writer; not a full-time stay-at-home mother.
I’d become a wildebeest.

Just like J, who I had judged so harshly all those years ago. It shouldn’t have mattered that she reappeared so soon because she was afraid of losing her place in Microsoft’s power queue, or because she missed wearing stylish clothing, or simply because she loved her job.

To be sure: a lot of new mothers don’t have a choice in the matter: nearly one-quarter of American women are forced to return to work—some as soon as two weeks after giving birth—almost always for financial reasons.

Instead of hurling insults behind J’s back I should have celebrated the fact that she had a choice. I should have high-fived her when I passed her in the hall, congratulating her for having both the means and the tenacity to travel down the trail of her choosing.

I should have told her how lucky she was that she got to do what she wanted to do.

3 Things I Learned by Transitioning from SAHM to Working Mom

Recently I’ve made the monumental shift from stay at home mom to full time career lady. My first kid was born nine years ago, and while I worked for a small boutique in the years after his birth, I left the job and never went back after having my second. For the last three years, I’ve been knee deep in library story hours, music times, and wiping things. Wiping so.many.things.

A little over a year ago, I needed an outlet. Something that required me to use my brain for something other than making snacks and reading Good Night Moon over and over again. Like tens of thousands of women before me, I started a blog. But I made a promise to myself and anyone that would be so gracious as to take time reading, I wasn’t going to subject anyone to another crafty, recipe laden aren’t-kids-just-the-most-magical-creatures-fake-fest. I set out to be honest. Often, life with kids is awesome. Occasionally it blows chunks. (Literally.)

For a few hours each week, I would sneak off to a coffee shop and hunker down to peck out 600-1000 words on something that had me thinking. I harassed my friends to read it and they were kind enough to share it with theirs. The universe conspired to parlay those efforts into what you are reading right now.

These are a few things I’ve come to realize in this change.

1. I truly enjoy being around adults.

I feel incredibly fortunate to have spent the first years of my youngest’s life at her beck and call. Yet as much as I made a concerted effort to get out of the house and socialize both of us, I’d still find myself engaging everyone from cashiers to the mailman in inane conversation just because they spoke actual words. On more than a few occasions, I accusingly asked my husband if he washed his hands upon exiting the bathroom. When you’re with kids all day, it comes with the territory.

Personally, I love kiddos. Even ones that aren’t mine. They are startlingly honest, delightfully irreverent, and often easy to please. Plus, they’ll clear their schedule at the drop of a hat for an ice cream date. (Adults could really stand to learn a few things.) However, they’re terrible at discussing the intricacies of Breaking Bad, they sneeze directly into your mouth, and some days they rapidly fire questions that would make Albert Einstein feel like taking a nap in traffic.

Spending large stretches of the day creating something with intelligent, forward thinking people who don’t wear diapers (so far as I know, though this is totally unconfirmed) is fantastic.

2. Absence makes the heart grow fonder.

Allegedly, that phrase was penned around 1839 by Thomas Haynes Bayly, but that’s a really strange name for a working mom. I’m going to have to credit Tina Fey instead, as that suits my needs better.

In any event, I am going to go on record and say that there’s no better feeling than a small person who thinks you’re cooler than Gwen Stefani (spoiler alert, children who may need glasses:this is not possible) launches like a flying squirrel into your arms before you can even take off your coat. That never happens when you’re nose to nose day in and day out.

3. I’m a better parent when I feel more financially secure.

There’s no debating that raising kids is expensive. There’s also no doubt that worrying about paying your bills can permeate every moment of your day. At its worst, it boils over and you cry because your kid spilled an entire carton of milk all over the counter when you have $7 dollars left in your account until next week. (I acknowledge that this is in no way the worst for some families. I am only speaking from my own experience.) On the better days, it’s just the way you hold your breath as you wait between punching in your pin and being handed your receipt at the grocery store.

Our needs are few. But knowing they can be met quiets that voice that can yell louder than two kids banging pots and pans while tap dancing.