The Same Mom, On the Job or Off

By Lynn R. Charytan
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, November 14, 2005

Recently, I had the chance to explore a question that has eaten at me (and so many working moms I know) for years: What kind of mother would I be if I didn't work outside the home? Would I be calmer, less apt to yell or say "hurry up" morning, noon and night? Would I be more patient and understanding if I no longer had to juggle the stress and time pressure of a full-time office job and could instead concentrate fully on mothering my three very active boys? Would I handle the suddenly remembered homework at 9 p.m. more gracefully if I were not facing two hours of my own work once -- if -- the kids ever went to sleep? Would I handle sibling fights with greater empathy if I hadn't already had to engage in office politics earlier in the day?

Would I, in short, be better? Or -- at least -- different?

After working full time as an attorney for the 11 years since my first son was born, I was the grateful and somewhat incredulous recipient of a three-month paid sabbatical earlier this year.

It was the ideal opportunity to test my "what if" motherhood fantasies. Because the leave was paid, I could keep my babysitter, so I had help with the more tedious jobs (carpooling, carpooling, carpooling and laundry). I had no special angst about my future career path because my leave was temporary, my return to work certain.

I timed the sabbatical so that I'd have two lazy summer months, giving me the chance to spend relaxed time with the kids and then see what "back to school" and homework could be like when I wasn't overseeing them over my cell phone during the commute home. And I established no goals for myself -- no Great American novel plans or piano lessons -- other than to be with my kids.

Which is what I did.

It was a delicious three months. And when they were over, I not only had spent wonderful time with my children and husband. I also had left one guilt-inducing fantasy behind in the dust, making my step just a little lighter when I returned to work.

Specifically -- I could no longer bemoan the perfect mothering, and the calm and organized household, that my kids would certainly have if only I were home with them. Because as I discovered, when I was home, I was more or less the mother that I am -- not much better, not much worse. And our household was, more or less, the household it's always been.

I'm not suggesting life wasn't different, or great, or staking out any position on whether my kids, my marriage, or I would be better -- or worse -- off if I were home all the time. That's a theoretical question that this two-income household doesn't have the luxury to answer.

But I am suggesting that there is a lot of room between the mythical home that working mothers often imagine their kids would have if only mom stayed home -- and the real thing. Simply put, if I were home, the mother my kids would have around is me, not some magically improved version of me. Somehow, that feels a little better.

The mist cleared to reveal several truths that should have been, but were not, self-evident:

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