Monday, September 28, 2009

The Mommy Track - Theme and Variations

I started working early. Already in high school I was a hostess in a Chinese restaurant 4-5 hours each weekend night. Then I worked every summer -- a common thing to do for many an American teen -- in cafes, or for a kids' summer arts' festival, or at a book publisher's. I worked all through university, in the cafeteria (I already liked to cook, and made mean pancakes and french toast, though my special order eggs needed some work); and in clothing shops in town. And then, once on my own, I worked pretty much nonstop. In the beginning temping in various secretarial positions, then as the assistant director of a photography gallery, then in Japan at the University Presidents' conference, and onwards to France.

For a good ten years I was single, living with a boyfriend or not, and working full time. I had more or less interesting jobs, and gave lots of energy and time to them. It was pleasant, stimulating, and led to many discoveries and of course, many learning experiences.

Then I had kids. I continued working very long hours as that's simply what you do, right? I sent my kids to day care, or to nannies, hired au pairs, and juggled. I did this for ten years, more or less. All this time I was busy with my businesses, building them, caring for clients, working on the web site, working on the recipes, paying for renovations, learning new routes, hikes, going to conferences. All that one must do to make a business successful. I loved it. It was stimulating, fun, challenging, and used me to the utmost.

But where did my kids fit in? Those little beasties I would often have removed from my sight from 7AM to 7PM? I had an epiphany one day. And, though I felt quite constrained by circumstances, and told myself over and over again that I didn't want to leave destruction in my wake, I ended up by doing just that. I left my marriage and with it, pretty much the two businesses I'd co-created and built. The momentum of the divorce, or setting up home in a new house, of simply coping has carried me far.

For not quite two years now I've worked only sporadically, and whenever possible from home (translations). And now, I feel that urge to go back to work on a more regular schedule, if I can. I miss the rhythm, the consistency of working through a pile of papers and coping on all the phone calls that are waiting, teaching the hours that are scheduled, plugging through a certain number of pages of translation.

I miss this, but I am also reveling in being available to my boys. I treasure my Friday afternoon with Jonas when we have time, just the two of us, to explore our island on bicycle. I have the time to bake bread, the time to get the house in order, the time to help Leo with his home-work. I have the time for chats, cuddles and being there. And yes, it feels extraordinarily precious.

Why is it that the Mommy Track is so punitive to women? Why is it that taking the time to raise our children while they're little is something that will cost you in the long run on your social security and retirement benefits? Why does society not reward you for doing your utmost to raise healthy and emotionally stable, considerate adults? Doesn't everyone prosper from such a task well-done?

Granted, I simply haven't found the right balance. I will fully admit this. Teachers work the hours their kids are in school, and are then able to be with them on vacations, weekends, etc., However, I couldn't live on a teacher's salary in France (minimum wage under the best of circumstances, less than that --1100E/mo--for a Waldorf teacher) and pay for my house, food, car, etc., A teacher's salary is meant to be but a portion of a household's income, not the whole thing.

In France, there is a 3/4 option -- work 4 days a week, rather than 5. But, there again, it is an option for half of a couple, but not a solution for a single mother unless she has other sources of income.

My friend Martine is now, for the first time in 16 years, free to give her full time and energy to a new job. Her sixteen year-old son has chosen to live with his father, her boyfriend is in the South. She is now at a new posting in Nantes, in Brittany. She passed a difficult exam and took the job that was available to her. Now, in a new world, a new apartment, with new colleagues, she is living a vibrant and stimulating new experience. For the first time in ever so long, she is not split in two (or three).

I listen to her on the phone and I get wistful. How I wish I could concentrate on one task and do it well! I miss that energy of arriving in a new town, settling into a new job, meeting, discovering, setting up new rhythms and possibilities. Perhaps I did that overly often? In Princeton, in Seattle, in Kobe, Japan, in Paris, in Arles...

More than anything, I miss the clarity of purpose that giving your all to a job brings. Must I wait till Jonas is 15 before I'll again have this? Of course I'll be working throughout, but, working while divided in my heart? distracted? Begging help from friends to get my kids home from school, leaving them instructions for getting dinner on the table (not such a bad thing this last, I do believe in encouraging lots of autonomy)...

Ah well. I'm just freely associating here. I'm coping, and I'll continue to do so, and yes, my kids will be ok. My mother worked full time and more from my early teen years onward. I handled my own dinners, getting up every morning and getting to school on my own by bike down the Boston Post Road no matter the weather. We had time together in the evenings.

But somehow, in this day and age, I'm not sure I see my boys biking to school through the abundance of traffic and the dark winter mornings that we have here. I'm not sure I see them up and out the door without a nudge from me. Though this may simply be a mother's worrying on my part. However, no one else in this particular society permits their teens to bike such long distances, particularly not in bad weather nor in the dark. Encouraging full independence and autonomy is rather out of fashion. So at the same time as I must work more to keep afloat, I live in a society that expects parents to protect their children far longer.

Yes, I do feel in a bind. I keep working to stretch the twine wrapped around my thoughts, but I've yet to completely untangle the knots.


nathalie in avignon said...

Madeleine, another brilliant post of yours. What an intricate subject.

I fully agree with you that the job of raising healthy and emotionally stable, considerate adults should be rewarded by society in one way or another. I think it's one of the most valuable things we can do on this planet.

Madeleine Vedel said...

Thank you Nathalie. I'm glad you liked the post. I don't know about brilliant, but it's a subject that has been dear to my heart for a long time. I too will go back to working more hours and juggling again, but I don't in any way regret these past couple of years scraping by financially, but being there to better raise and teach my boys. Take care!