I would be lying if I didn’t admit that just a tad of this series about working and motherhood was born out of my desire to get Ellie to write this post. She and her husband Charlie started as my older brother’s friends, but became some of the people that James and I enjoy and respect most. They have dealt with more difficulties than most young families our age, and done it all with a grace and humor that I can only hope I would have in similar circumstances. Plus, Henry and Ellie’s youngest Moss share the distinction of almost ruining my brother’s wedding, since both babies arrived early almost preventing me from coming and causing Charlie to drive all night following the reception to make it to the hospital in time for Ellie to deliver. It was the quintessential new-mom-just-back-to-work breakdown. One of my coworkers had been Skype-fighting with me about a policy we disagreed on. After she had pointedly disregarded my counter points and bulldozed over my perspective, she followed up with some trite nicety about how “we’re all on the same team.” At the same moment, a warm and thoughtful colleague approached my desk and asked me about my adjustment back to work. With that slight opening of an emotional door, I broke down into a mess of ugly sobbing. Aghast, she attempted to comfort me with an empathetic, “Oh, I remember how hard the adjustment back is…don’t worry; I understand.”
But, in spite of the calm and soothing spirit she meant to bring, I felt an underlying anger at the reality of my situation and how it made me feel isolated from well-intentioned offerings of empathy. On that day, not only was I grappling with being a new mom back in the office, but my brother was beginning to exhibit the symptoms of schizophrenia, and I was continuing to provide daily care to my mother, who has early-onset Alzheimer’s.
Fast forward to the present – I’m mom to Asher (2 ½) and Moss (11 months), caregiver to my own mother and brother, wife to my husband, and full-time employee at an international relief and development non-profit. I’ve been balancing the demands from these roles for years, and right before my second child arrived, I was approached by a senior manager for an exciting new position that required ‘slightly more’ travel and a switch back from part-time to full-time work. I took the job.
I’ve been vocal to my supervisors about what I’ve needed to be both effective in the office and resilient in the face of family challenges. For a period after my first son was born and my brother became ill, that meant shifting down to part-time work. Initially my supervisor was skeptical, so I had to advocate for myself and demonstrate my ability to be effective at my job in a part time role. And I had to clearly convey that I would be a better employee if I was positioned to care for my family, maintain a sustainable balance, and remain involved in the project I’d been overseeing.
When I was approached for the new job, I had to push my supervisor to allow me to maintain a flexible work schedule, in which I work early for an hour from home each morning before my boys rise and take off many Fridays to fit in all of our various doctor’s appointments. Pressing for this schedule allowed me to continue affording our superhuman, wonderful caregiver, Selena, who watches my two boys and my mother while my partner and I work. Additionally, it enables me to attend to the seemingly endless caregiving tasks – scheduling volunteer activities and get-togethers with friends for Mom, attending frequent doctor’s visits when she was in a clinical trial, plus doctor’s appointments and social services appointments for my brother.Additionally, because of the magnitude of my caregiving demands, at each week’s end, I often feel as though I am underperforming. My husband, Charlie, and I often talk about how even when we have a week where we really crush it at parenting or at work, we are still inevitably failing to give our best care to my mom or brother. Many of our days are sharp contrasts of failure and success. In one moment, we’re missing an appointment or miscommunicating with our family caregiver, but in the next moment, we’re given relief –self-care that we can provide to ourselves, or the generous act of understanding and forgiveness from a friend or acquaintance.
I face daily challenges which include regularly re-calibrating work-life balance, continuing to seek support and time needed for critical self-care, and the knowledge of the missed moments with family when I’m away at the office. But I feel confident in my choice to work hard to keep working. My mom is adventurous and fearless – she spent her career mentoring middle-school youth, and in our free time growing up, we’d trek out on a familiar local hike or load up in the camp in a national park. As a teenager I was jealous of the independence she asserted by maintaining her career, and questioned why she invested in mentoring other youth alongside raising her own children.
But now I understand the value in her commitment to sustaining an independent and important vocation, and how she planted seeds of individuality and opportunity in mine and my brother’s life through her example. Following in her footsteps has given me an opportunity to teach my boys about the energy and excitement I derive from my work. When I travel for work and meet people from across the globe who are committed to working alongside and on behalf of vulnerable children, I try to bring my boys with me or share lessons I have learned. During the week of the 2016 election, I took pride in planning a workshop for over ten of my colleagues from around the world and brought my five-month old with me to Connecticut and DC for the two weeks of training. My son got to meet my coworkers from Myanmar, Indonesia, the Philippines, DRC, Malawi, Mali, and Zambia. Plus, I got to spend my work-evenings having invaluable one-on-one travel time with him. I’ve also been able to build an amazing partnership with my husband. The internet abounds with articles highlighting that among working couples, women still perform the greater share of domestic work. However, because of the character of my husband and nature and scale of our demands, Charlie has come alongside me in every facet of maintaining and managing our home. He takes my brother to doctor’s appointments, spoils the boys with dinners of sloppy joes and jambalaya when I travel, and dances with me in the kitchen or gives my mom a huge up-in-the-air bear hug when we’re at our wit’s end.
And lastly, I’ve developed a level of vulnerability and empathy that I never knew before. Years ago I wrote about the vulnerability of our caregiving experience, prior to the arrival of either of our boys. I’ve had to maintain openness when I engage in conversations at work that allude to my family situation, or with strangers with whom I decide to delve a bit deeper to provide an honest reply to “how are you?” And this has pushed me to expose parts of myself I would have otherwise kept private.Additionally, when a friend or coworker expresses frustration about flexible work arrangements, I strive to acknowledge that there may be an unknown personal circumstance that justifies the needed accommodation. The conversation often leads us to consider questions such as – why do we sometimes perceive that working from home will result in a coworker being less productive? Why are men or women instantly disqualified from growth opportunities or seen as uncommitted to their career if they need to step back into a part time role for a season?
While I will never forget the breakdown at my desk, I cling to that memory and the sentiments I felt in that moment to build a foundation of empathy for other parents and caregivers. It’s the groundwork for the advice I give to new mothers, and to those trying to balance work and caregiving. I always try to remember there could be unseen dynamics within each of our stories.So I always seek to listen more, to ask more questions, and to give grace and encouragement to friends who are in the thick of hard choices. I advocate for other coworkers and friends if they push for a flexible work schedule or decide to shift to part-time work or be at home to better care for their families and themselves. I consider myself a relentless advocate for women in the workplace – and that means being vocal about using technology to allow us to have flexible work schedules, and to raise the need for leave policies to allow for both men and women to take time for caregiving responsibilities.
The threads of my story have been understanding and compassion, and they have bound me to an amazing community of parents and families – whose stories, and trenches, may differ from my own. But all of them are important and unique, built on our universal desires to find meaning from our chosen vocation while also being our best selves and caregivers to our children, our parents, and our friends.