Excerpted from “Double Bind: Women on Ambition” edited by Robin Romm. Copyright © 2017 by Robin Romm. With permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.
My 2-year-old announces that he wants to tell me a secret. The secret, “Bonky bonky,” is loud and wet. But as we enter the door of the family day care where he spends three days each week, his grasp tightens and his smile evaporates. He attempts to merge his body with mine.
Even as I feel the tug toward him, I am eager to disconnect and begin the non-mother part of my day. I’m either a modern woman admirably committed to my career at all costs, or a failing mother who regularly sheds her maternal responsibilities in favor of her own, self-interested objectives.
Perhaps I’m both.
On the morning of this particular Tuesday drop-off, I’m headed to the university hospital where I’ve conducted my research for the better part of the past decade. My gig as a clinical psychologist and research faculty requires a fundamentally different set of skills than those of mother: stoicism in the face of a relentless criticism (also known as the peer review process), the ability to sustain high-level reasoning through complex arguments, and a persistent focus on pursuing the next achievement. I’m not close to a perfect ten on any of these traits to begin with, but magnifying my shortcomings is the fact that I spend much of the traditional workweek mothering my 2-and 5-year-old boys. I rely on the drive to sharpen the softer edges of maternal me.
I tune in to my mental to-do list as I head in to my office. I set up my laptop and get to work on a scientific manuscript. I’m in a satisfying groove when I realize I’m late for a meeting. I email an early draft to my colleagues.
After a quick update from the research assistant, I’m off to a team meeting in my colleague Linda’s office. Linda is something of a rock star in the world of addictions research. She is impressively successful in the currencies of the academic trade: securing large grants, publishing in top-tier journals, and knowing the top academic dogs. I am the first one to get to the meeting, so we have a few minutes to chat.
“I read what you sent,” she tells me. (How in the world did she have time?) “Why do you think this paper is taking you so long to complete?” She gazes at me quietly, steadily, as she leans back in her swivel chair.
I force myself to respond. “I know. I just need to get it done.” I try to put together a collegial smile, which she kindly returns.
As an eager college student, I became spellbound by the power of scientific research to understand human behavior. The ability to quantitatively capture abstract phenomena like mood and relationship functioning, and to apply that quantitative knowledge in a way that informed treatment, seemed like a superhero power accessible to the learned; I wanted to be that kind of powerful. Throughout my twenties, I industriously checked off tasks from the traditional to-do list of young academics. Despite a few anxieties and predictable blips in my progress, I was on track to become the kind of academic psychologist that I admired—a successful one.
I had no qualms about having a family while I pursued my career. I knew lots of colleagues who did it, and while I knew there would be challenges, I felt confident that I would rise to them.
Then I had my first baby. To my surprise, I discovered that the idea of being apart from my child for the full workweek felt intolerable. It wasn’t an issue of quality of childcare or of any other structural, policy, or even marital constraint. It was my own internal psychological and spiritual dilemma: it pained me to be away from his tiny body full of baby smells and sounds. I was familiar with the body of research suggesting that babies are not negatively impacted in the domains of social, cognitive, or emotional development simply because they have parents who work.
So it didn’t feel logical to feel so torn up about not being able to snuggle that baby all day long.
I hadn’t seen it coming. Among my peers in academia, I knew only of the brilliant women and men who managed to become loving, devoted parents while sustaining commitment to productive careers. I had assumed I would be in that camp and had planned accordingly. I had no idea how to respond to the intense feelings that were throwing a wrench in my well-laid plans.
The gut wrenching toggling back and forth over what to do lasted about a year. I spent much of that time engaged in a tiresome inner dialogue about my core identity and values and asking myself, what should I do? Was it more meaningful to pursue excellence and make civic contributions, or to be devoted to raising one’s children? And then there were the practical questions: What would we have to give up as a family, and what I would give up in independence, if I relinquished my income? Would my years of professional training be a waste if I backed out of my career?
I’m a psychologist, so naturally I worked to gain insight and resolve my internal dilemma. But as I sat with all of these thoughts and feelings, it became clear that there was no obvious answer. Instead, I detected a series of complicated choices, each accompanied by unavoidable costs.
Ultimately, I renegotiated my position to allow a much shorter workweek. I reduced my private therapy hours and shifted those hours to minimize the disruption to my family’s schedule. I curbed my ambition and got off the tried and true academic path and onto an uncharted path, which lead to . . . I wasn’t really sure where.
At about 2 p.m., my workday is done. My older son’s pickup is in an hour, and it takes about that long to get to him. I head to my car.
After 10 seconds of trying to unwind and relax, my mind drifts. I’m hungry. How am I going to get this stupid paper done this week? Maybe a doughnut will make me feel better. I should have enough time to hit EZ-off doughnut shop now that the traffic is moving.
By the time I pull into the preschool parking lot, I’ve downed a chocolate-frosted doughnut and a diet coke. I quickly put the car in park and race in. Three o’clock on the nose.
I chose this school partly because it has an optional extended day. Today, as often happens on my workdays, my kid is the last one to be picked up. Seeing me in the doorway of his cheerfully decorated classroom, my son bounds toward me.
“C’mon sweets,” I say. “Let’s go to the park and swing until it’s time to pick up your little brother.”
As we head to the playground across from the school, we see his friend and his mother at the swing set. “Jason!” my son squeals. Without another word, they begin a game of tag. I watch the two boys with Jason’s mom, who has become my friend during their year in preschool.
Belinda, with her blonde hair and blue eyes, looks like the traditional 1950s images of the stay-at-home-mother. We sit together on the swings talking about our kids and what we are having for dinner, and it occurs to me that in this moment I’ve automatically morphed back into my mother self.
I imagine that Belinda has overlooked the fact that I haven’t devoted myself fully to motherhood today until she chides me: “Yael, I could have picked up your little man today so you didn’t have to rush over!”
I feel a twinge of deficiency. For someone who wholly bought into the culture of excellence before kids, being part time everywhere and highly successful nowhere, has been an unexpected challenge.
“Oh, that’s ok,” I shrug. “I look forward to seeing him at the end of the day.”
As I hear myself say these words, I feel the meaning resonate in my chest. I got to wear both hats today. Perhaps I’m imperfect in each role, but in this moment, I can appreciate being blessed to take part in both.
Intense engagement in both the joys of motherhood and of professional life is a gift that only the truly privileged are able to access. And still I find myself wondering: If I worked full time, would I feel greater satisfaction? Or might I feel more fulfilled if I gave up on my professional life and wholly devoted myself to motherhood? Despite years of deliberating my best course, I have consistently chosen not to close the door on either world. They each matter too much to me.
But even as I may be less accomplished in either arena, I can cherish the exquisite blessing of having a fuller and richer life resulting from being so deeply invested in both.
And that, I believe, is pretty extraordinary.