From Chicken Soup for the Working Mom's Soul

The Choice

It was exactly like everyone said it would be. The birth of my son, Benjamin, was the most exhilarating, wonderful joy I have ever experienced. I wouldn’t even let him spend a night in the hospital nursery; I couldn’t bear for us to be apart.

Faced with the typical new-mom challenges of sleepless nights, endless laundry, the slow deflating of my body (it was as if someone had pumped me full of air—I had been a huge, pregnant woman), I was tired and cranky during those first few months. And though most days I looked like I had walked through a wind tunnel and emerged with spit-up on my tattered T-shirt, I was in awe over the immense love I felt for my son.

Amid the insanity of learning to care for an infant, I was also trying to stay on top of my two businesses. Business owners don’t get maternity leave, but I knew that when I made the decision to say good-bye to corporate America and follow my dreams.

My first business was a bookstore I opened in Sacramento, California. Once that was running smoothly with a staff to handle daily operations, I launched BusinessInfo, a directory of resources for entrepreneurs. I also published two books and wrote dozens of articles for magazines—all in a span of three years. I was working twelve-hour days and loving every minute of it.

Then we decided to have a baby. When friends warned that having a baby changes everything, I replied smugly, “It doesn’t have to if I don’t let it.” I assumed that I could just prop Ben up on my desk and keep working. He would be my sidekick, making my workday even more enjoyable. Today I can only laugh at my naïveté.

It took awhile to realize my dilemma. Like all infants, Ben slept for the majority of the first couple of months. I thought I had the perfect plan and gave thanks to my decision to work for myself. I certainly couldn’t prop him up on my desk in a cubicle in corporate America.

I was able to get some work done during the day and planned to stay up late to catch up on the rest. But there was a glitch in my plan—by the end of the day I was a zombie. With an average of four hours of sleep per night— and we’re not talking about consecutive hours—I could barely spell my name by 6:00 PM.

Soon, the time between Ben’s naps began to extend. I felt torn between wanting to spend quality time with my son and finding time to tackle the mounting stack of work awaiting me in my home office.

That’s when I realized I had to make a choice.

As much as I hated to admit it, I was not superwoman. I had to either give up my businesses or get some child care.

In the midst of the decision-making process, I joined a mom’s group and noticed that many of the women had screen names like “Madison’s Mommy” and “Mom-to-Maya.” I was proud to be Ben’s mommy, but I was also Stephanie, a wife, a writer, and a businesswoman. The fact that I didn’t want to be exclusively identified as “Ben’s Mommy” left me wondering if I was missing some sort of mommy gene. To make matters worse, many of the moms who didn’t work left me feeling guilty about the fact that I still did.

I loved my son more than anything on this earth, but I also derived a lot of satisfaction from working. Sure, as a mom I worked hard, harder than I had ever worked before, but the days were bleeding into one another, and I was losing my sense of self.

The guilt was overwhelming. What kind of mother doesn’t want to spend every waking moment with her child? Was I a horrible person? Did I even deserve to have this gift in my life? I had several working mom friends who would give their right arms to stay home with their children. But I wanted to have my cake and eat it, too. I wanted to spend time with my son and also have adult conversations.

At the same time, I was wrestling with another dilemma. “I can’t stand the thought of leaving him with a stranger,” I confessed to my husband through loud sobs. “I had no idea I would feel this way.”

“You need to make a choice,” he told me. “I will support whatever you decide to do, but it’s up to you.”

With trepidation, I began interviewing day-care providers, but nobody seemed right. I wondered if I was somehow sabotaging myself and if anyone would ever be good enough to care for Ben.

Finally, my husband had had enough. Ben was almost five months old, and I could barely keep it together. The mounting pressure of neglected work on top of the demands of daily life was turning me into a raving maniac, and it was my husband who suffered my wrath. I had incredible patience all day with my fussy baby, but I bottled up the frustration and smacked my husband with it the minute he returned home from work. I also realized that I was subconsciously blaming him because I wanted him to fix it for me.

Then one day I interviewed yet another day-care provider, and to my surprise, I actually liked her. She interacted so well with the children that I wanted to take notes—I could learn from her! I called the licensing department and checked her references; twelve years in business and nothing but good news.

“I want to keep working,” I finally told my husband. “I don’t think I’m cut out to be a stay-at-home mom.” The words hung in the air like toxic smoke.

“I never thought you were,” he replied.

“What does that mean?” My guilt turned to anger.

“You love working; you have since the day I met you. I know you love Ben, but you deserve to have both if that’s what makes you happy.” I knew he would find a way to fix it. That was exactly what I needed to hear.

In the end, I decided to put Ben in part-time day care, about thirty hours per week. It was a good compromise, allowing me the satisfaction of a productive workday, while still providing us plenty of time together.

Of course, the first day I dropped Ben off at day care was traumatic. The two- and three-year-olds gathered around us gleefully and chanted, “Ben’s here. Ben’s here!” Ben’s face lit up; he loved looking at all those little people. He barely noticed when I began to make my way toward the door. I told myself it was good for him, too. He would enjoy the stimulation. It was for just a few hours.

As I reached for the door, the day-care provider called out, “Don’t worry, he’ll be just fine.” Tears erupted from a place deep inside of me, and I looked up at her slowly, embarrassed by my lack of control. In that moment I realized that it wasn’t lack of control that brought me to tears, it was the love of a mother. Ben’s mommy.

“I know,” I said. “And I will be fine, too.”

Stephanie Chandler

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