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:
* 1. Character traits don't disappear when you stop working. For example, if you are a nervous working mother, you'll be a nervous stay-at-home mother. I'm not. But I'm also not a patient mother. And I didn't become one after being home for three months.
I should work on that, for sure; but I can no longer blame my lack of patience on my working life. Goodbye convenient excuse. But at the same time, farewell sepia-tinted image of a stay-at-home me helping with math homework without losing it.
* 2. Along the same lines, the things that bug you when you work, bug you when you're home. Don't particularly like that your 11-year-old has begun rolling his eyes when you try to explain something? Think it's somehow less annoying because you're around more? Think again.
I also didn't enjoy my 6-year-old pitching balls in the house when I was home any more than I did when I worked. True, I had more time to discuss with him his pro baseball plans, as well as the negative consequences of playing ball indoors. But when the latter went unheeded (which it generally did), I didn't smile sympathetically.
I lectured my boys about the same things all summer that I had all last year -- and will all this year -- and sometimes I got really mad, and sometimes I didn't. Not much different from the mother I was pre-sabbatical.
* 3. You don't get a stress-free life because you're home full-time -- even if you're lucky enough to be home with help and your salary.
There will be frustrating, disappointing, harried or otherwise gray days. How you would handle that if you were home is pretty much the way you handle it when you work: Sometimes, despite having had the worst day ever, you stun yourself with your stellar mothering performance; other times, for no reason at all, you stink. That didn't change much when I was home.
There's no question that working full-time creates pretty constant stress, but my sense is that life fills up the vacuum you leave for it. And that most stress is relative. Thus, fewer balls in the air will each weigh more. I haven't met that many people who describe their lives as incredibly easy -- have you?
* 4. You still say "hurry up, hurry up" incessantly when you're home. I thought I could use my oases of time to have my kids start getting ready earlier -- that we'd all be calmer and arrive everywhere with plenty of time to spare.
But my two older ones can tell time, and they know it's not urgent until there are three minutes left and they can't find their shoes. And my youngest is finely attuned to the changes in intensity of mood and tone of voice: When the right pitch is reached, and only then, is it time to get going.
It doesn't help that I am someone who sees the hour between the time I'm starting to get them ready and the time we need to leave as an opportunity to squeeze in a few things -- fold the laundry, run out and prune a few bushes or plant those mums. The thing is, I had more time, but I was still who I was.
* 5. Finally, my kids are who they are. Our fantasies of perfect mothering implicitly involve so-called "perfect" kids. But your loving presence isn't going to change your boisterous son who can't sit at the table into someone else's angelic one who can.
My kids didn't jump on each other less because I was home this summer, and there were just as many toothpaste fights and supposedly innocent sports injuries ("I swear I didn't throw it at him on purpose") as when I was toiling at the office all day.
Despite morning bike rides for warm doughnuts, lunches and museums, several cookie-baking afternoons, and my face at the door each afternoon after camp or school, they started October with the same warts they had in June.
I learned other truths as well. I learned that I love to sit around with them at breakfast rather than rush to get all of us out the door, and that it's a nice feeling to actually plan for meet-the-teacher night or picture day instead of remembering those things halfway through the workday and frantically calling my husband on his cell phone to figure out how, what and who.
But most of all, I found that career or no career, I would like more time with my kids, an ever-expanding universe of time, in which the years, and hours, would move more slowly, giving us the space to cherish each moment.
But no one needs to tell any mother that.