My 9-year-old daughter has been engaging in psychological warfare since I returned to work.
For eight years, I freelanced from home. I never missed a class holiday party, I volunteered at school functions and chaperoned her class trip to the zoo. But our family needed more financial stability, so when there was an opening with my former employer, I went back full-time.
My daughter has never forgiven me.
I’m constantly peppered with comments such as “I remember how it used to be, when you could come on trips with me.” Or, “Remember that time you were going to lead a craft at my class Valentine’s Day party, but then Daddy had to do it, because you started work that day?” Or, “Meghan’s mom came to class today to run a math game. I wish you could do that.”
I’ve offered a lot of apologies. I’ve apologized for missing Healthy Heart day. I’ve apologized for not being able to volunteer for Math Lab. I’ve apologized with explanations: Sometimes two working parents are necessary to support a family. I’ve tried just giving hugs and nodding along. “Yes, it’s hard when Mommy isn’t here. I’m sorry.”
But recently I got tired of saying sorry. And I started to wonder if all this apologizing was doing her a disservice.
Of course, there are the financial realities of the world, from which I can’t always shield her. I’m not the only working mom in her class, and we’re not the only family that needs a dual income to make ends meet. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2016, 70.5 percent of women with children under age 18 worked or were looking for work. Plus, we’ve been fortunate in that her father, who owns his own business and has a more flexible schedule, has been able to do many of the things Mommy used to do — allowing our daughter and 5-year-old son to spend more time with Daddy and providing a positive example of all the roles men can fill. I can’t help thinking that my son, who was younger when I returned to work and seemed to struggle less with the transition, especially benefits from seeing his father manage many household tasks in addition to his work.
But something else has been bothering me about all these apologies. Yes, I went back to work full-time largely for financial reasons. But I enjoy my work, too. It’s fulfilling. I spent four years of college preparing for my career and then 10 years building it before going freelance after my daughter was born. I don’t want her to think having a career is something to apologize for. I don’t want her to feel that she’s doing wrong by her family if, when she has children, she wants to keep working in her chosen profession. What message does it send when I’m constantly saying I’m sorry for having a career?
The last time we visited my 96-year-old grandmother before she died, she showed me her “brag book.” It was a collection of cards, photographs and letters related to her career. She went to work as an archivist in 1961 and eventually became a manager, which was somewhat uncommon for women at the time. Although she was initially nervous to go to work, my grandfather was unemployed, and her family needed the income. Whether she was conscious of it or not at the time, she had been somewhat unfulfilled at home. She grew to love and identify with her job. Her proudest stories revolved around her job: the positive reviews from her boss, retirement parties she planned for co-workers, the time she refused to cross a picket line during a union strike — and, mostly, the general sentiment around the office that Evelyn Pearlman was indispensable.
When I gave the eulogy at my grandmother’s funeral, I focused on how much she loved her work, how passionate she was about it, how inspirational it was to me and other women in our family. As I spoke, I looked at my mom and my aunt and uncle — my grandmother’s children — and I knew it wasn’t always easy on them as kids. My aunt helped raise her younger siblings. My mom referred to herself as “the original latchkey kid.” But despite the all-too-familiar work/life challenges, their family was close and filled with love. My grandmother’s shelves were filled with photo albums of her family — birthday parties, special moments, trips they took together. And sandwiched between those family albums was that brag book, which brought tears to her eyes as she turned its yellowing pages, reliving those testaments to her professional accomplishments: something that was hers alone.
And so, recently I sat my daughter down, and instead of apologizing, I decided to lay a little truth on her. “I’m sad that I can’t see you as much as I’d like or be there for every class party.” My daughter was quiet, waiting for her chance to commiserate. “But there’s something you should understand,” I continued. “I like my work. I enjoy what I do.”
My daughter nodded.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” I asked her.
“An actress or a lawyer.”
“Well, imagine that you work your way from small to starring roles. Or you work your way through law school and finally get the big cases that allow you to defend people in need. And then you have children. You may choose to stay home with them. And if you do, that’s a wonderful choice. But you may also choose to keep acting or practicing law, and there’s nothing wrong with that choice, either. It’s not easy, but your life can be as full as you want it to be.”
My daughter was quiet, and then we snuggled on the couch and went on to talk about some recess drama. But I’ve reached a turning point. Instead of apologizing for my career, I plan to involve her more in it, by talking to her more about what I do and what’s challenging and rewarding about it. I’m the primary female role model in her life, and when I hide how much I “secretly” enjoy what I do, I hide from her how rewarding working can be for a woman — even for a mother.
One day, should she choose to work after having children, her own daughter may lay some guilt trips on her. And I’ll show her my own “brag books” (the ones I’ve written or edited), and hopefully it will remind her that there’s satisfaction to be gained in this crazy attempt to find balance in life. If that doesn’t cheer her up, I’ll hug her and give her milk and cookies. Because work or no work, I’ll always be her mother.
Meredith Hale is an editor, published author, and mother of two. Her work has been featured on HuffPost, The Washington Post, Scary Mommy, the Good Men Project and more. Her new book, “American Mom: A Celebration of Motherhood in Pop Culture,” is available in stores and online. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook and the Mommy A to Z blog.