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The Mommy Detour

February 17, 2011 | by Rachel Barmatz

Resolving the tension between career ambitions and maternal obligations.

It's 7:30 am and I can hear Esther Rosa's sweet cry from the next room. "Coming bubah (doll)," I call to her. I think of my diligent husband who has already been hard at work for a half hour, brokering deals and writing up contracts. Now my day is starting too. It begins with singing modeh ani to the beautiful baby with the disheveled, curly hair, smiling up at me from her crib.

A few short years ago, I would have imagined these mornings very differently. I would hit the alarm clock, step into a swanky pants suit, grab the paper, and chug down a few cups of coffee before heading out to the office by way of the gym. This routine would complement the step by step life plan... being first in my high school class: check. Graduating from an Ivy League University: check. Nabbing an ultra-successful career (complete with status, prestige, and possibly a fancy doctorate in the works): On hold?

Like the forlorn leftover items on a wedding registry, this last and most crucial element of the plan was unfulfilled. Somehow, God had guided me through some unforeseen turns that sort of threw a wrench in my designs. At 19, I never would have suspected that post-college I would be studying in seminary instead of graduate school, or marrying at 22 or mothering at 23.

Still much to my own amazement at times, instead of networking, negotiating, and hobnobbing like other people my age in the professional world, most of my time today is spent cooking, cleaning, writing for pleasure, and coordinating play-dates for Esther. It sounds idyllic... and it is, except for those pestering standards of success I mentally engineered since childhood.

Around my more accomplished friends, I often feel a struggle to legitimize my choice to stay home and not devalue myself for it.

Around my more accomplished friends, I often feel a struggle to legitimize my choice to stay home and not devalue myself for it. By half-heartedly chatting about my remote plans for graduate school, I try to allay their fears that I am fated to squander my potential.

When running into an old acquaintance the other day, she ogled my baby and asked in wonderment, "So what do you DO all day?" As I sheepishly told her that I go to mommy-and-me classes, take walks in the park, and build towers with blocks for Esther to triumphantly demolish, she politely nodded. The fact that she is a corporate lawyer didn't help matters. The societal hierarchy dictates that she is inherently superior to me, and I couldn't help but believe it for that brief moment. I'm just as smart, just as capable as her, so why can't I have it all then?

But "having it all" I've noticed, offers a superficial kind of glamour. Plenty of my friends are young wives, mothers, and simultaneously, in school or work full-time, which by and large exacts quite a toll. They combine the work of three women with Herculean efforts. Many work out of sheer financial necessity, which reminds me how grateful I am to my husband and God that I have the choice to stay at home in the first place.

Others manage with extensive support from parents, both physical and financial. Without any family nearby to watch Esther, I can't imagine handing her over to the daycare and being away for the bulk of her waking hours. Who else would nurture her like me? Who else would appreciate the nuances of her moods and precious attempts at communicating? No one – only me!

But when I resolve to stay home, the side of me left over from my overachieving past-life objects to the sabotage on career. "These are the critical years," my friend said to me recently, inadvertently adding fuel to the fire, "22 to 27, that's when you have to get busy building your resume, making yourself marketable."

Of course, she meant "you" in a general way as a pep talk for herself, not directed at me personally. Still, after I got off the phone with her, I kind of wanted to vomit. Are my future career prospects really doomed to fall by the wayside just because I'm taking time to build my family instead of building a resume?

I permit myself to prioritize the joy and sense of meaning I feel, teaching and caring for my daughter.

In order to settle the dynamic tension between career ambitions and maternal obligations, I strike a compromise. It's true, I do feel an urge to work and to hone my repertoire of professional skills, but I will hold myself back from jumping into anything unless it's part-time and it semi-rivals the satisfaction of reading board books to Esther. I just couldn't reconcile giving 100% of myself to a career right now if it meant that my husband and daughter got 99%. Ever so slowly, I am learning how to be proud of that conviction.

It's very difficult to tease out, what do I really want to accomplish for my own sense of purpose and what do external standards impose upon me? Unfortunately, the concerns of others often get so tangled up with my own, sometimes I don't even recognize the source of my doubts. If only I could extract my own mind from the environment it's been stewing in for over two decades, and somehow pinpoint what I really want!

I can't deny that nagging, existential pull to make my mark on the world. But in this revised life plan, I'm determined to make sure that it comes from within me and that I will satisfy it on my own terms. In the meantime, I permit myself to prioritize the joy and sense of meaning I feel, teaching and caring for my daughter. My career has yet to enjoy its heyday; but it can wait just a bit longer.

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