The battle between two competing desires—the desire to achieve and the desire to engage with loved ones—rages within many working parents. But on my recent maternity leave, I hoped I might get a reprieve. After all, I’m not just a mommy (a few times over), I’m also a credentialed psychologist specializing in the treatment of new parents.
Yep, I naively expected my third maternity leave would be smooth, psychologically and otherwise. Yet my reality turned out just like that of every ambitious parent in love with their delightful young children: I’m spit-stained, dog-tired, and faced with a barrage of conflicted thoughts and feelings about who I am as a mother and professional.
Certainly there are some new parents who unambiguously can’t wait to return to work and others who struggle with limited maternity leaves. But a sizable portion of us often experience the confusion of having both sets of thoughts and feelings at the same time. On the one hand, we are intoxicated by our children and the thought of parting ways with them creates anxiety and sadness; on the other hand, we miss the part of ourselves that operates independently and determinedly in the larger world.
Here’s a typical sequence: things start off just fine for ambitious professionals turned infatuated parents. The first days of newborn deliciousness and the adrenaline of having given birth yield a few weeks of immersion, with feelings of deep contentedness and rapture for your tiny offspring.
The intensity of that bond then contributes to a surprising panic about returning to work. Thoughts emerge, like how can I leave this helpless small person in someone else’s care when I want to be providing that care? A sort of desperation sets in as you start considering chucking the professional life you worked hard to build to be home with your children
But then a new anxiety surfaces: the anxiety of not having gotten anything done that day. Feeding the baby, doing the laundry, making family meals, and doing drop offs and pick-ups don’t feel productive or energizing if you spent years training to do something else with your brain and body. As Simone de Beauvoir famously wrote, “few tasks are more like the torture of Sisyphus than housework.” And even if you don’t feel quite that melodramatic, focusing exclusively on childcare certainly can leave your brain or your creative instinct feeling a tad sluggish.
So you find yourself with an excess of ambitious energy that has no obvious outlet. Plus, you start feeling guilty about your expensive latte habit fortified by your recent lack of sleep. And then there’s the college tuition now looming 18 years down the road.
You start railing on outside, societal forces that haven’t made way for a yearlong maternity leave—your employer, the policymakers, the lean in crowd with all of its great expectations, and your spouse who kindly reminds you that income comes in handy with the new human you have jointly produced. You wish you lived in Scandinavia, or maybe Canada.
But despite all of those external factors, you also recognize the dilemma is, in part, a psychological and spiritual one that exists in your mind and heart. You want to clone yourself. You long to fulfill your professional pursuits even while you crave to be home cuddling your spewing cherub.
You find yourself wishing you were a different sort of person. Perhaps less ambitious. Or else, less determined to be so deeply immersed in care taking. But no amount of rationalizing can make either of these things so. And it’s hard to envision a change to the landscape of your life that would make the conflict evaporate. As political scientist Elizabeth Corey writes, “I know from personal experience that this conflict in the soul does not go away, no matter how pleasant and accommodating our colleagues may be, or how flexible our schedules.”
Damned conflict of the soul.
If no amount of policy, workplace, or marital adjustments can eliminate this dilemma, it might be useful to consider an alternative approach. One that embraces these two drives instead of allowing them to continue to wage war.
In that respect, acceptance-based approaches have a lot to offer ambitious workers who are also loving parents. For example, we can learn to mindfully step back and appreciate both sides of our souls for the gifts they bring. After all, even our old friend Sigmund Freud believed that “love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness.”
Of course, how we engage in our parenting and professional lives is an unsolvable riddle of sorts. If we lean into work, we lean away from our family. If we lean into family, we lean away from ambitious pursuits and things many of us appreciate like financial security. And if we skirt a line down the middle we may find ourselves feeling like we now fall short everywhere.
Somehow, though, acknowledging and even appreciating the complexity—and the impossibility—of finding a perfect balance can be a relief. Even on maternity leave, it really is ok to experience the tension between your desire to be out in the world accomplishing things even as you melt in the moments of newborn sweetness.
So if you find yourself feeling intensely conflicted during your maternity leave, know that you are in good company. That inner conflict simply tells you that you value taking part in multiple roles, and that these roles make your life experiences that much more complete. Perhaps that realization can comfort you as you determine how you’ll balance your ambition, love, and of course, the latte requirement that promises to last until the blessed day you finally sleep like a normal person.