One Mother, Preparing for Take-Off

By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 10, 2007

My first workplace column, in 1998, was about how single people got stuck at the office more often than those with kids and how they could defend their time. Now, my final column before I go on maternity leave for six months is about how parents decide whether to work and how they handle it after a child is born.

When I wrote a piece for the Outlook section about my own questions on the matter, I knew to brace myself for an onslaught of e-mails.

After receiving at least 100 notes from working moms, working dads, stay-at-home moms and dads, and other people with very definite opinions, I've felt touched, supported, angst-ridden and even a bit stung.

Several dads were quick to accuse me of ignoring my husband's thoughts, needs and desires when it came to raising children.

"Bottom line: PARENTS face these choices, not just women. It is the height of gender self-centered behavior to diminish the man's parenting role and issues during this time (and quite non-feminist if I do say so)," wrote Jeff Miller, a father of two and a stay-at-home dad.

As I told Miller, that wasn't my intent at all. The personal piece was a look into my thoughts as I prepared for leave -- not to mention a reflection on motherhood, as it was published on Mother's Day and all. I ended up having a good exchange with Miller, who can't wait for the day when stay-at-home dads aren't ostracized on the playground. Take note, moms.

Some held back less.

"I read your column 'What to Expect' to see if you are any different than any other work-obsessed mothers I've known. You are not. Your story is all about YOU. Not a mention of your child and his/her needs," wrote Kevin Lamarque, a 43-year-old Falls Church father of two children. "You will go back to work soon after giving birth, then spend the next 10 years justifying to your friends and colleagues how 'day care' is the best thing for your child. You will spend weekends trying to do 'special' things out of guilt to make up to your child the time you did not spend with him/her."

But as Valerie Young, advocacy coordinator with the National Association of Mothers' Centers, told me: "Every other person's opinion is irrelevant. Interesting, maybe, but irrelevant."

Peggy Sand, 45, is a Silver Spring mother of two. "The best advice I ever got about balancing work and family was from a mom who had decided to stay home. She said, 'You just need to do whatever you need to do to not be bitter.' This will change depending on the age of your child and the type of job and also assumes that the bills will get paid regardless of your choice," wrote Sand, who works in housing and community development.

If a parent decides to stay home, beware -- that's all about work, too, said Lisa Scott, 52. The mother of a 15-year-old and 17-year-old said staying home with a child, which she chose to do, is "astoundingly difficult."

However, "only when you can put yourself out of the equation will you be able to make the choice that is genuinely right for your family," she wrote. "Back to work? Not back to work? Believe me, either way you'll suffer. Every mother does."

Like many parents, Lisa Ashton, 50, said she didn't really see a choice. She is a physician's assistant and had just landed her first job at Suburban Hospital when she became pregnant. If she left for any time, she would have had to relearn the new technology and techniques, she said. She also feared being replaced.

"If I could have worked at home and done my job via computer or Internet during those years, I think I would have opted for that. My only vexation has been that whatever women choose, there always seems to be SOMEONE, either male or female, who thinks they are taking the wrong path," wrote Ashton, mother to a 21- and 19-year-old and resident of Ashton, Md. "I always felt that one does what is necessary."

Others pointed out that they didn't give up their career, even if they stopped working for a time. "I do not consider myself to be without a career. My career is social work. I have years of work experience and a master's degree, I continue to belong to professional organizations and subscribe to publications, and I expect to return to a job in social work at some point. What my life is 'without' right now is a job," wrote Megan Tracy Benson, a 28-year-old mother of a 9-month-old.

No matter the decision, "what our children need most is happy, fulfilled moms," she wrote.

The theme running through many of the e-mails was that it's possible to leave and come back to work.

"When my kids were young, I left my job at the Securities and Exchange Commission because it was becoming difficult for me to continue supervising a busy office of attorneys and still find enough time and energy at the end of the day for my 'other' job," wrote Diane Blizzard, 52, of Chevy Chase. "After seven years of working part time as an in-house counsel, a year as an independent consultant, and almost five years as a stay-at-home mom, I am returning to legal work full time. This is at the urging of my children, now 15 and 18, who think I need more to do."

She experienced the trade-offs of working and raising children from different perspectives, she said. "There is no best way. . . . Just trust yourself, be brave enough to make a change when you think it needs to be made, and remind yourself that life is long and opportunities are out there."

Roxanne Evans, 55, is a mother of four grown sons. "I still ponder my own personal return, particularly with my fourth son," she wrote. "Because I was a pro at motherhood by then and because my career as a reporter was taking off . . . I returned to my job -- albeit via computer -- after only a two-week break. I physically went back to work after six weeks." She spent the least time after delivery with her fourth son.

"I gradually stopped agonizing over my quick return by the time he got his degree in electrical engineering and got married," said Evans, who works in the communications department of the Austin Independent School District. And, she said, she prepared him to be a husband to a hard-working physician.

The e-mails made me realize that no decision is right or wrong. Parents make decisions they think are best for their families at a particular time. Some don't have as many choices as others, but they still have to consider how to create a world that includes work and family. Families can try new things and learn what works and what doesn't.

Thank you all for the great thoughts and conversations. I plan to be talking online Tuesday and then return to chats on in August.

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