I started my first job as a parent the day after my daughter’s first birthday.
During my first month back to work in a professional career as a mother of two, I found myself in a hotel room in Sugarland, TX, staring at an untouched desk covered in phone chargers, Imaginext toys, dirty socks and a sound machine. I was at a regional conference for Keep Texas Beautiful.
My husband packed up the kids that morning and took them to the Houston Zoo. My son was a fresh four year old. My daughter’s first birthday was the day before the conference.
When we first arrived at the hotel, my son was well behaved. People looked at him with nostalgia for their own children and at me with nostalgia for their young motherhood. My daughter rested happily in the infant carrier on my chest. My son gently poured himself a glass of water from the fancy water station in the lobby. I was a proud, working mom with my kids in tow.
Later that evening, people stepped aside as my son screamed and threw himself to the floor in the same hotel lobby. My frustrated husband carried him onto the elevator over his shoulder. It’s ok, I thought. We’re at a hotel. We don’t know these people. I won’t see them again.
Although, I did wonder if I might sit next to them in a session the next day. Surely they have kids, or know people with kids. Surely they know that one uncontrollable fit doesn’t mean we’re bad parents?
I have a pack n’ play in my office, a sound machine, and a night light. I have, many times, sat outside my office door, working on my lap top, while my daughter napped. Sometimes, I “wear” her to meetings, standing and bouncing until she falls asleep in the infant carrier while my son watches cartoons on his iPad in the corner and rubs cookie crumbs into the floor.
I feel like I can manage parenthood and I feel like I can manage a career, but in the moments when they collide, I’m not so sure.
My heart broke the first time I had to leave my son for work. My whole family was at home, cooking breakfast on a Saturday morning. I was walking out the door. I was sure it broke his heart, too. The next time I worked on a Saturday, I took my son with me. I oversaw a large group of volunteers, planting trees and flowers for hours. He took his little toy shovel and dug holes in the dirt. I felt guilty that I couldn’t sit with him and dig holes, too.
I feel like I can manage parenthood and I feel like I can manage a career, but in the moments when they collide, I am not so sure of myself. I don’t feel like a great mom, bringing my daughter to a meeting during nap time. I don’t feel professional, bringing my kids to a meeting at all.
Three things happened that changed my point of view.
My son thanked me.
We were in the car, leaving the SFA Homecoming bonfire, and he said, “Thank you for taking me to do such cool things, like planting trees and going to the bonfire. Thank you, thank you, thank you!”
My son asked questions about my job.
He watched the movie Wall-E with his dad, in which the Earth is trashed and a robot lives on Earth to organize the waste. He asked why there was so much trash. He and my husband talked about how mom teaches people to recycle and plant trees and pick up their trash so the world wouldn’t look like it does in the movie.
My son bragged about my career.
I overheard him bragging about me to his friend during a play date. He said, “My mom works. She keeps Nacogdoches beautiful.” (I very literally do: I work for a nonprofit called Keep Nacogdoches Beautiful.)
It took months for me to realize that, by working, I’m not letting him down at all. Instead, I’m showing him that working can be fun, women can have meaningful careers, and parents can work and still be present in their children’s lives.
I was quick to feel guilty about going back to work, even to a part-time job with flexible hours that I love and enjoy. When I realized that my son was proud of me, I realized it was okay for me to be proud of myself.