A few weeks ago, my kids’ babysitter was out sick with a cold, so I went to pick up my two sons from school. The kids all hustled out, adorable and chatty, and my 5-year-old spotted me, running over for an enormous, surprised hug. “Mommy! What are you doing here?” he asked. One of his pre-K friends witnessed the scene, looked me up and down, and said, “Are you Sandy’s mommy? Does he have two mommies?” Her mother kindly explained that I was Sandy’s mommy, and that the woman she always sees Sandy with is, in fact, his babysitter. The girl raised her eyebrows at me dubiously, and I could feel my face get hot with shame. My sweet son, sensing something was amiss, grabbed my hand and gave it a squeeze.
Later that night, trying to relax after my boys had gone to sleep, my mind kept going back to that moment. I’m generally good at avoiding mom guilt, at knowing that I’m doing my best, and not comparing myself to others who may have different life circumstances. My boys are healthy, thriving little guys, and while no one is a perfect parent, I think my husband and I do just fine. But for some reason, that comment (from a child!) particularly stung. My own mom, who didn’t work until my siblings and I were older, was always the first car in line to pick us from school. I can viscerally remember the comfort of seeing her there, idling in her 1980s station wagon, waiting to hear about my day. Am I not giving that same comfort to my sons, I wondered, my eyes stinging with tears at the idea.
I work full time; on top of that, for the past couple of years, I’ve been writing novels, carving out minutes for them in the mornings, in the evenings, whenever I can. I wanted a creative outlet to counter my increasingly managerial job, so I figured I’d give fiction a go. I’m ambitious; I like to achieve! I like being a mom too, but sometimes my presence as a parent feels like it’s in tension with my professional goals. When my boys come home from school, they give me a kiss hello and then go play quietly in another room. They know Mommy is working. After I’m done with Zooms, I sit in front of a Word document, thinking about plot twists and inhabiting characters’ deceitful minds while the sitter feeds and bathes my children. When they need something, they call for her, not me. She’s the one who schedules their playdates and takes them for ice cream on a hot afternoon. She knows all the moms at pickup.
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Mostly, I feel fine with this arrangement, empowered and satisfied with my division of time. I don’t want to schedule playdates—I’d rather be at my computer writing. But occasionally, I’m struck with doubt that I’m not doing the right things. I worry I’m not there for them enough. That I should be the one towel-drying their tiny bodies after a bath instead of paying someone else to do it.
Mom guilt, as we know, is mostly self-imposed; no one’s knocking on my door and telling me I should work less and be with my kids more. But on the flip side, people do love to criticize mothers for every which way they approach parenthood. I’ve fallen into the trap myself, seeing uber-successful women on Instagram, and thinking snidely, “Yeah, but the kids are probably always with the nanny.” (Of course, my kids were probably with their nanny at that very moment.) We still live in a society that rewards men for going the professional extra mile, for leaving their families at home to earn money, for trying to climb the ladder at any personal cost. But when a woman does the same, especially if she has children, the side-eyes begin. The pointed interrogations of how they “find the time.” My husband, like most men I know, doesn’t suffer from this second-guessing. His job is his job, full stop. He travels more for work more than I do, which he does with a grimace but without guilt. I wish I could feel so free.
When I first started working on a book, my sons would periodically stop at my computer and ask what I was doing. I told them the truth—that I was trying to write a novel. At that point, I didn’t know if my draft was going to be anything at all. But kids remember everything, and tell people everything, so when anyone asked what their mommy did, they’d say: “She’s an author.” The pride in their little voices was enough to compel me to go on, to finish it so they could be right.
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I spoke to my mom in the wake of my school-pickup shame, about what it was like for her when we were young and told her how much it meant to me that she was there for me every day. “The boys know you’re there for them, Emma. Don’t be ridiculous,” she said, shaking her head. “Don’t give yourself a hard time. Think of what you’ve accomplished while also being a great mom.” I will try to remember this wisdom the next time I have a wobble, when I think I’m screwing it all up by devoting so much time to my work.
More important, perhaps, I will try to hold a few recent moments in my mind. At last pre-K parent-conference when his teacher congratulated me on my upcoming release. “How did you know?” I asked. “Oh, Sandy talks about it all the time,” she said. “He’s so excited about it!” It filled me with happiness and reminded me that mom guilt is often misplaced. The thing you believe might be messing up your children is possibly doing the opposite: setting an example and inspiring them. The other day, my older son said to me, “Mommy, I want to write a book like you.” Then he asked me to staple some blank pages together and help him with it. I was done with work for the day, and so I did.
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