Ten years ago, when I was pregnant with my oldest child, I accepted a job that started just four weeks after my due date. This turned out to be a great decision for my growing family, but I had to make choices in parenting that were colored by the day-to-day demands of my work life.
In many ways, these choices were similar to the ones that my mother had to make 30 years earlier when she was a working mom with three kids. But given how parenting trends have shifted noticeably over the years, there are some key differences.
When my mom started having kids in the 1970s, she had no shame about her reliance on Minute Rice and Kraft dinners. She was also thrilled that by the time she had her third child, disposable diapers were accessible. But now, it seems like these types of shortcuts are rejected by many of today’s moms, particularly those who consider themselves progressive.
There are a lot of reasons for this. For one thing, people now are having fewer children, and sociologists posit that as a result, they’re investing more into the kids they have. Plus, our culture is putting more value on individualism, which tells us that it’s a parent’s duty to curate a unique childhood experience for their kids. Combine that with the fact that in many circles, things like baby wearing, co-sleeping, extended nursing, and homemade, organic food are held up as the gold standard for child-rearing. The pressure of those expectations can be crushing.
Such messages can be tough on all moms, but for those who work outside the home, the stakes are different, because fully immersive parenting can limit your ability to advance professionally or to dedicate yourself to a job — especially when many companies don’t offer paid maternity leave. For me, that meant figuring out which aspects of modern child-rearing are not only appealing to me, but are even possible.
Breastfeeding, for example, is a complicated issue for a lot of new moms with jobs who get the message that “breast is best” yet typically have little to no maternity leave. A year of breastfeeding is what the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends, and it was also my own nursing goal when I first started having kids. But it was never a goal I met.
Six months of using a hand pump in the girls’ bathroom at the school where I teach was enough for me the first time around. Four months was all I could manage for the second. And with my third, three months of dashing down to a basement supply closet turned “pumping room” was almost more than I could take. (While employers legally have to provide a place to pump, there’s no requirement to make that space pleasant.) But the main reason my pumping was short-lived was because it’s not the same as nursing. It requires supplies and feels awkward to me. Plus, it takes time — something that became increasingly hard to find.
I was raised with the idea that a job isn’t just a job, but rather a part of one’s identity. In addition to my work with middle and high school students, I also teach a college class one night a week, write, and run the occasional workshop. I see this as time well spent. But it is time, and it may mean that I’m more likely to leave a crumpled dollar bill under someone’s pillow than I am to create an elaborate tooth fairy experience. It means that I’m happy to feed my kids leftover spaghetti and meatballs for breakfast if that’s what they want rather than crafting from-scratch pancakes in the shape of farm animals. And it means that when I host a sleepover, I am not scouring Pinterest for ways to jazz things up.
But that doesn’t mean I never put thought into my kids’ care. My baby is currently using a glass bottle, since I try to avoid plastics when I can, and I try not to feed my older kids artificial sweeteners or low-fat foods, due to the link to later health problems. And we have rules about screen time and homework. But these are things that I’ve realized that I care about and can manage with my schedule.
How I choose to spend my time isn’t more valid than how other people choose to spend theirs. I’ve just realized that if I want to have a full professional life and a full family life, I can’t worry about how others view my parenting choices. So far, it seems to be working.
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