I never knew guilt like this before.
My five-month-old is smiling, giggling, and gaining weight nicely. He turns over, he makes funny sounds, he flirts unabashedly with anyone who catches his eye. He’s still breastfeeding but starting to get a taste of solids – like avocado, banana and pumpkin – according to the latest recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
And yet, when I walk out that door to go to work – which currently involves editing a magazine and teaching two college courses – I feel momentarily like the lowest form of female life on earth. I am doing exactly what I once found distasteful when I heard of it being done by other women. I waited this long to have a child, so badly wanting that quintessential female experience of being a mother, only to deposit him with another woman for the day while I go off and do something else?
To be fair to myself, it’s only about 25 hours a week that we have help. She’s a lovely, 26-year-old woman with childcare experience, a master’s degree, and a sweet disposition. Eli seems perfectly happy when he’s with her. What could be better?
Well, his own mother, 24/7. We have been led to believe that what a baby really wants, naturally, is his mommy. Someone else may be a pleasant substitute, but he’d clearly be better off with me. At the same time, we’ve also been led to believe that we, as accomplished women, should not be exiting stage left from our careers when the baby shows up. To do so would be to erase all the wondrous gains of the feminist movement. All that we’ve fought for, straight into the trash like so many dirty diapers. Which also make me feel guilty, because we’re not doing cloth diapers. (But only a little bit guilty, because hey, I accepted my husband’s request to let the neighborhood friends and their kids traipse through our apartment several times a week to dump their organic trash in our very own compost pile in the garden.)
No one has bought me a ticket to this guilt trip. It’s a largely self-starting, self-sustaining journey. It’s fueled by a genuine love of time spent with my baby and a deep ambivalence when I walk out that door.
ON MY COFFEE TABLE is a recent book called Mommy Wars: Stay-at-Home and Career Moms Face Off on Their Choices, Their Lives, Their Families. Borrowed from a fellow primigravida’s bookshelf, it has reminded me that in this agonizing attempt to balance motherhood and the mega-career, at least I’m in good and plentiful company.
One thing about the book that didn’t make me feel like just one the girls was the two silhouettes on the cover. One is a typical mommy, wearing flats and pushing a mod stroller, and the other a putative career woman, wearing stiletto heels and a skirt, pulling along her overnighter for a business trip. As a journalist who’s primarily worked as a field reporter, that latter look never quite fit me. I suppose that a journalist wearing hiking boots and a bulky flak jacket – a silhouette that would fit more women in my particular corner of the profession – wouldn’t be half as sexy.
Therein lies a subject that’s been nagging me – and some of the readers of this blog, according to your e-mails: the coverage of the attack on my colleague, Lara Logan, in Cairo on February 11th. I don’t know Logan personally, but we’re the same age and have covered many of the same stories over the past decade. The description of her assault horrified me. As news of the attack spread, many of the reports made note of Logan being the mother of two young children. I’m not the first pundit to posit that there was something in the coverage in some corners which almost suggested – outrageously – that she had it coming to her: she was too sexy for Tahrir Square. There was also a slight undertone of well, what is a woman with two kids at home doing, running around with the revolutionaries? Were she a man, I’m not so sure the media would take such an abiding interest in the welfare of the reporter’s children. (Near the end of this clip, Logan speaks about the fact that she does worry about the terrible possibility of her children growing up without their mom.)
I MORPHED INTO a different kind of journalist in part because I knew I didn’t want to choose between being on the big story and reading my child a little story before bed.
But whatever we choose to do, we all feel a little bit compromised. Too much career success, and motherhood suffers. All babyland all the time, and we fear we will become boring – and bored. Moreover, many of our households depend on our income, which is far more significant in our generation than it was in our mothers’. We primigravida mothers, who are starting motherhood in our late 30s and early 40s, have worked too hard to get here – and often have too much to lose if we stop working altogether.
I told my husband about this nagging guilt. Empathetic to the female gender as he is, he looked at me like I was strange. He doesn’t experience a similar feeling when he walks out the door to see a client. Apparently men aren’t wired in quite the same way. Why am I not surprised?