Work Vs. Work
It came to me during a doctor’s visit: The reason for my anxiety over my decision to go back to work after the baby was born.
The question that had been on my mind lately was this: Am I working because I want to, or because I feel like I should? Financially, I don’t need to work outside the home. I had been convincing myself I go to work for two main reasons: one, for my sanity, and two, so I can feel like I’m contributing to our household. I don’t really think, though, that these two reasons cover it all.
The more specific answer to the question came tumbling out of me when my acupuncturist asked me how I was dealing with going back to work. After some meandering, I found it: I still feel poor, I said. Even though our family has enough money to live comfortably, I still feel poor. I hadn’t given that sentence- I still feel poor– more than a few seconds’ thought prior to that moment, but there it was, living right there on the edge of my tongue, just waiting for someone to ask me the right question so it could come falling out. It was a relief to answer it. It felt like my mouth was just tired of holding the answer in.
The words hung there in the air for a moment and I stared out the window of my acupuncturist’s office to regain my focus. I still felt poor. The sentence filled the room. I corrected myself: I feel poor. As in, currently, I feel poor. I feel poor like I did when I was growing up.
We weren’t the worst off, growing up. Not by far. We never went hungry. We always had a roof over our heads. But we went without a lot of things that other kids did because we never had a spare dime floating around.
As a kid, I learned to take good care of the things I had because I never knew when or if a replacement would come. This was not a bad lesson to learn, honestly, but it did raise the anxiety level in my already fragile heart. I worried. What if there wasn’t enough money for new sneakers? For more sandwich bread? For next near’s school uniforms? What then?
Poorness is hard to shake. When you live with it, you become it. It’s like a sickness that never leaves your system. You walk around afraid to delight in things because you never know when another bout of poorness might flare up in you. It colors your worldview, separating people, unfairly, into haves and have-nots. It makes you resentful towards those who have even a touch more than you do. It creates a certain self-loathing, as in: I must not have enough because I haven’t worked hard enough, because I am not smart enough, because I AM NOT ENOUGH. It didn’t occur to me back then that the world was set up so that some people will ALWAYS have more than enough. If I felt poor, it was somehow my fault, and not the fault of existing systems or legacies of privilege.
I realized at the doctor’s office, even with double incomes, and the ability to travel the world, and a few bucks in savings, I was still walking around like it was all going to evaporate. This poorness has been at my side for as long as I’ve been alive.
That I had this revelation during an (arguably optional) medical treatment, paid for by my husband’s insurance company, in the middle of the workday in one of the wealthiest cities in America, was not lost on me. But sometimes answers come in odd places and at odd times.
What caused this question that had been camping out in my head for so long to suddenly become more sharp and edgy? What had pushed the answer out of me? Well, many things, but most recently, my client, the one I thoroughly enjoy working for, was concerned I wasn’t putting in enough hours.
It was a gut punch. And true enough. I wasn’t putting in as many hours as the former bookkeeper. Getting my shit together, though, was proving to be VERY difficult with my kid. First there was finding good babysitting help. I hadn’t known where to even start looking for it. It took me a very long time of begging favors from friends before I figured out the whole “get a professional/ask for recommendations” thing. Then there was the routine of putting together the bag for the sitter: packing the diapers, the wipes, the wetbag, the frozen breastmilk, the bottle, the extra clothes… while trying to shower, and feed myself and my colicky kid. This, after not sleeping most of the night.
Then there was the fear that I was screwing my kid up irreparably by leaving her in such a frazzled state. Most of the time, I felt like I was flinging the diaper bag from a still-moving car in the general direction of the sitter’s front stoop after having shoved the carseat/kid jumble into her arms. I couldn’t seem to be on time for anything and nothing ever went according to plan. That is, if I had conceived of a plan at all. Most of the time I was so exhausted, I was just running on autopilot. And my autopilot was necessarily set to warp speed to overcorrect for all the untimely diaper blowouts and coffee spillages down my work clothes on the way.
On top of that, I was almost suffocated by the new mom fear that I was leaving my kid with a perfect stranger. The chorus of what if, what if, what if played itself over and over in front of my eyes. What if she broke her arm while I was away? What if she was snatched by a child predator? What if she choked to death on a piece of carrot? The chorus of what ifs was so deafening, it drowned out all of the other what ifs. What if she learned to be comfortable with other people while I was gone? What if she learned a new skill I couldn’t teach her? What if she was exposed to foreign languages and foods that helped broaden her experience and appreciation of the world? What if she listened to music I would never think of listening to? What if she got to see ten dogs and twenty kids on her walk and she was so, so pleased with her tiny world that day that she learned to clap her hands in joy?
Friends reminded me that plenty of children in America are left with some kind of childcare provider, and they all mostly turn out just fine. Furthermore, who was I to think that stuff wouldn’t happen while I was away? Wasn’t I the one who let my kid fall off the bed that one time while my back was turned? Wasn’t I the one in charge of her when she received that mysterious gash to the cheek? Kids get injured. They get scared. They recover. We all do. Discomfort is part of the human experience, my own included.
Even before my kid was born, I bragged that I would want to go back to work AS SOON AS PHYSICALLY possible, which, for me, meant six weeks. Six weeks. I had only stopped my post-partum bleeding at that point. My body was still a lumpy, recovering bag of hormones, and I was ready to stick it in an office chair for eight hours a day. What was I thinking?
I’ll tell you what I was thinking: I was thinking I was not cut out to be a stay at home mom. I thought I wouldn’t want to abandon my “established career”. That I thought we’d be much better off with my very part-time salary. Turns out I was wrong. I wanted to be around my baby more than I anticipated. I cried at work during that first week back because I was so overwhelmed with guilt over leaving her with a sitter and the daunting task of just picking up where I’d left off. Nothing was the same. Nothing. I thought I was just going to be the same ol’ me, doing my same ol’ job, just with a baby.
I was so, so wrong.
And I have been treading water ever since.
So when my client came to me and nervously told me that she thought the job required more hours than I was willing to put in (or physically could, given my kid, the babysitting situation, etc.) I went right to anger. Anger that what I had to give wasn’t enough. Anger over thinking I could pull this off, this half in, half out, minimal effort, part time babysitting, part time working thing. I thought: well, now I have to quit and my client has to find a new bookkeeper because I can’t give her what she wants. I’m not cut out to be a stay at home mom, and now I’m not cut out to be a part time working mom either. I must not be smart enough. I must not be hard-working enough. I must not be organized enough. And I am poor, so I don’t have a choice. I must go to work.
That anger gave way to guilt. Why guilt? That seems to be my default emotion these days. When things fall short (as they often do with parenting), I go right to blaming myself. Why couldn’t I just pull myself together? Why couldn’t I be the one of millions of other women who return to the workforce and just carry on, their kids with babysitters or daycare centers? How is it that single moms were doing this, but here I was not able to hack it with a loving, well-paid, willing-to-help partner? How were moms out there- moms I know personally– with cancer diagnoses and/or sick partners making it work? Why couldn’t I, with a healthy baby, a healthy husband, and a healthy income, make this work?
Why this crushing guilt over what should be a pretty easy decision: either put in more hours or happily walk away and be grateful for the experience?
Put another way: Why couldn’t I just appreciate what I had, for chrissakes?
It was the mom comparison thing again.
My mom was an expert salvager, scrimper, and saver. We weren’t wearing playclothes made out of the drapes or anything, but we were wearing hand-me-downs from the neighbor kids and having our cups of (pricey to us) orange juice rationed. I know what government cheese tastes like. A constant refrain to our begging for the latest toys or novelty snack was, “Money doesn’t grow on trees, you know”.
We lived paycheck to paycheck. Lots of families around us did. We went on only one family vacation in my whole life. We drank Kool-Aid, ate plenty of nitrate-stuffed meat, and never took a swim class, a clarinet lesson, went to camp, or wore name brand clothing. We shopped at discount stores, we played in the backyard most of the time, and we watched plenty of TV.
So it’s not really a surprise that, as an adult, I am vastly uncomfortable with having money. It’s a foreign concept to me. I know this sounds weird, but I don’t know how to spend it. Mr. Burdy is a software engineer at a startup, which means, at least in Seattle, that you can actually hear the cha-ching of a cash register when you say those words, “Software Engineer” aloud. Still, compared to the salaries of others working for large corporations in this city, he doesn’t make that much. It’s staggering to think of it. Two years into this marriage (and sixteen years into our relationship) I am still getting my head around the idea of a shared income.
There is this image of my mom seared into my head. It’s of her balancing a checkbook and being frustrated that things weren’t adding up. It’s one of literally millions of images of moms that flit past my eyes all day. If it’s not my mom, it’s another mom, someone who has to make a choice between food and medicine, or a pair of shoes and a tank of gas. My heart swells with empathy for these moms. I can’t stomach the thought of my not having to work even a part time job while there are moms out there who have to work three just to make ends meet.
THIS, this right here, this guilt over having so much while others have so little- THIS is what gets my butt out of bed, and the diaper bag packed and flung, and my child packed into a carseat. This is a shitty way to be motivated: by guilt.
There is something else, too. There is fear. Fear that we won’t have enough one day. Fear that Burdy will get killed in a car accident and that we’ll have nothing. Fear that I’ll get brain cancer and that treatment will bankrupt us. My whole life, I’ve been operating with Plan B on in the background. Plan A looks great, and feels pretty good. But just in case of… you know… I’ve got a piggy bank ready to smash and a box of MREs in the basement. This dual existence- this straddling the here and now and the catastrophic future- this robs me of enjoying what I have. It’s what all the great philosophers and healers have been talking about for millennia. It’s Ram Das’s imperative. Be present in your life, or you will not enjoy living.
Also? My imagination is fierce. Maybe what I hear about is moms having to make these dire decisions, and maybe there are loads of them out there, but it’s not every single mom. There are others with the means to actually give money away, and maybe those moms are helping those other moms. Maybe, at the end of the day, everyone does what they can. Maybe I underestimate everyone’s resilience, just like I underestimate my kid’s ability to fall off a bed and recover. It’s a delicate thing, a very fine line between remaining empathetic to those in need, and not constantly labeling them “in need”. It serves no one to divide the world into have and have not, “in need”, and “doing okay”. Aren’t we all a little of both at all times?
So I don’t “need” to work to make our household stay financially solvent. What I need is a way to keep my head active and engaged with adult activity. What I need is to get out of the house and away from the endless repetitive tasks of mothering a young child. Somehow, I have equated this need with the mandate to make money.
After all, I’m able bodied, I’m willing, and I already have a skillset that makes me employable. Shouldn’t I be working?
Should. That’s a dangerous word, that one. It’s been at the front of my marching orders my whole life. I should be a homeowner by now. I should have a marriage that looks like this, a family that looks like that. I should work as hard and as long as I can. I should have more money saved up. I should be published. I should have a few more things checked off the to do list by now. It’s a strange thing to be willingly guided by such a dangerous word for thirty some odd years.
Want. Now there’s a word that doesn’t come up for me much.
When you grow up poor, the concept of “wanting” becomes twisted. There is so much you want, and so much you don’t get. The want becomes a constant, an unattainable, this dream you paste into your head without a plan to reach for it. The constant want squanders all your energy and you stop making plans. Dreaming becomes a full time job. And when you’re not dreaming, you’re surviving. You do what you need to do to survive. You do what you should.
It’s my job now to look beyond the should and get to the want. And banishing the guilt for having wants in the first place. When I think of all those other parents out there, dealing with shoestring budgets, and layoffs, and illnesses and all the rest, I have to really work at setting aside the thoughts that sound like I should be a little more able to make this part time work thing happen.
The truth is that nothing good comes of guilt. Nothing. I’m going to promise myself that I’m going to be motivated by passion, and not by fear (thank you, sister of mine, for reminding me of this). If not for me, then for my tiny kiddo. This kiddo who, I swear, can sense the tension in my body when I’m frantically packing up a diaper bag, or tossing and turning the night before work. She knows. And I have the power, right here and now, to stop this endless cycle of doing things because we should. I have the responsibility to teach her that wants are just as important as the shoulds in life.
This is my job now. Not bookkeeping.
This is the work I am meant to do: to teach my kid that her passion should override her fear. And she, in turn, will teach others. And on and on and on until that guilt just dissolves into nothingness.