Years ago, my college roommate, a stay-at-home mom, came to town for a visit. A mutual friend took her to a White House Christmas party.
She was almost panicked as she dressed for the event.
“What if someone asks what I do for a living?” she asked me.
As it turned out, no one did.
“Everyone was too stuck on themselves to ask me anything about myself,” she explained later, relieved.
I couldn’t understand why she cared what a bunch of strangers thought about her being a stay-at-home parent. I thought she should be at peace with her decision and not worry about others’ opinions. But that was easy for me to say back then — I was a working mom and couldn’t relate.
I’m not so naive now. Last year, I became a full-time stay-at-home parent by choice and am now intimately familiar with the fears my friend had.
It wasn’t always this way.
I came to Washington with big career ambitions. I wanted — and, for a time, I had — a fast-paced life and the chance to work with uber-talented people on the biggest stages.
During President Barack Obama’s first term, I worked for Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.). I stood with my colleagues outside the Senate floor when my boss cast one of the deciding 60 votes for the Affordable Care Act. I parlayed that into a job with Madeleine Albright. It was a dream come true, working for the country’s first female secretary of state. The job itself was like something out of a fantasy. One week we were in Mongolia with a nonprofit touring their democracy programs, the next in Prague celebrating Vaclav Havel’s birthday, and the following few days would be spent on the campaign trail in America’s heartland.
It was incredible, but I was exhausted. I never saw my husband. I started to dread the next trip rather than feel giddy for what lay ahead. And deep down, there was something bigger lingering: I wanted to start a family.
I started searching for an organization where I could achieve what so many working parents were telling me was nearly impossible to find: balance. Months later, I was sitting in an interview with the chief executive of a nonprofit fighting global hunger and I heard him say the magic words, “Family comes first here. Always.”
I’d found the kind of place that could support me one day being both a parent and a leader. I built my own team, was a part of senior management and reported directly to the chief executive. After my first daughter was born, the only thing that seemed to give way was sleep. Other than that, I felt like I was managing just fine.
After the birth of my second daughter, 23 months later, my balancing act vanished. My husband took on a new job that required regular travel, so more of the day-to-day parenting responsibilities fell to me. I managed okay with one child, but two felt unsustainable.
I was often the one getting the kids ready and off to school by myself, lunches packed, the house cleaned, food prepared for the next day. I scheduled and took them to doctors’ appointments. When they got sick at day care, I was typically the one who stayed home with them.
Between hauling the kids in and out of the cars, schlepping their lunch bags, nap mats and the double stroller, there was the daily 100-yard dash to the Metro. I’d sweat through my clothes before I arrived at the office.
Despite my best efforts, I was barely on time to my first meeting of the day, any day of the week. And even though I had the ability to leave work at 4 p.m., I rarely did. There was too much to do. I found myself racing to pick the kids up by 6.
Every evening, I was stressed, half listening and half reading my work emails. The kids were upset that I wasn’t focused on them, and I was frustrated that no one would give me just five minutes to myself.
I snapped at my kids and my husband.
I’d climb into bed, exhausted, and start making the list: I didn’t clean the dishes. All I have is apples for lunch tomorrow. How am I going to finish that memo? I forgot to buy the girls new shoes.
My husband stepped in when he was home and was fully engaged. We worked as a team in the mornings before drop off, and he did his best to come home for dinner and put the girls to bed. But I was beginning to see that most of our interactions with the kids involved just the logistics of their lives. I accepted that this was just how it was going to be. When they got older, it would be easier, I’d tell myself.
My mom quit work when my sister and I were virtually the same age as my kids are now. She says it was the best decision she ever made. I wanted to believe that I could feel the same way if I were to make the same choice, but I wasn’t so sure I would.
Even though I knew most of my friends were going through the same thing, I kept the true extent of my feelings to myself. I could easily trade dozens of texts every day with them, joking about how insane toddlers are or how exhausting parenting is. But I couldn’t reveal the truth — that I was profoundly unhappy. To do so felt tantamount to admitting failure.
For months, I debated an array of so-called solutions. I thought about asking for fewer work hours and accepting a pay cut. I thought about being bold and asking for a sabbatical. I considered looking for another job or, at least, part-time work.
In the end, I didn’t pursue any of it. I quit.
It’s been six months since I quit my job. For the most part, I’m much happier, and so are my kids.
My daughters are no longer items on my list to juggle. We have afternoon play dates, walks in the neighborhood and free, unplanned time together.
My husband and I figured out how to make it work with less money (thanks, in part, to fewer child-care expenses), and he also thinks we’ve got our equilibrium back.
With the time away from work, I’ve realized a few humbling lessons.
Careers are marathons, not sprints. Whether you step out of the workforce for a period of time — something I had the privilege to do — or you stick with it until you retire, the challenge is to keep our skills fresh. I have a few friends who have worked for the same organization all of their careers, but that continuity hasn’t meant their experiences are stale. They’ve taken on new — sometimes more senior, other times totally different — roles during their tenures. A stay-at-home mom friend who once worked full time in event management is busier than ever serving on a board, teaching Pilates and raising money for a local nonprofit, all while caring for her kids.
We’ve heard it before: You can have it all but not at the same time. Albright says this all the time and she’s right. If you want to be a good parent and have a fulfilling career, it’s possible, but one is usually given precedence at different times.
If we stop thinking it’s possible to do both at the same speed and with the same focus, maybe we’d stop being so disappointed in ourselves. This doesn’t mean you have to quit work to be good at parenting or that you can’t have kids if you want to succeed at your job. It means that your drive and focus on one or the other will ebb and flow, and that’s not a bad thing.
This brings me to the most important lesson I wished I’d known when I first had kids: There’s no such thing as balance, only priorities of the moment. The parents I know who seem most content, and the most high-functioning, are those who have their priorities figured out. They focus on two, maybe three, things (i.e. family, job, health), and let the rest of the chips fall where they may. It’s those of us who seek the great job, quality time with our kids, a full social calendar, fitness and travel who are inevitably disappointed.
And now that we’re back on steady footing, I’m finding my way in that marathon. I’ve started a small consulting business with a former colleague and fellow parent. We have a few clients; we’re getting things off the ground. And I can breathe.
I’m confident that if I asked Albright for advice on how to view this new period in my life, she’d tell me what she’s told countless women over the years:
“We need to understand milestones in our lives come in chapters.”
And she’d be right.
Erin Cochran is the mother of two and partner/co-founder at Iced Coffee, Please, a storytelling and visual design firm based in Washington. In an earlier life, she was the vice president of communications at World Food Program USA and for former secretary of state Madeleine Albright.